In previous years, the Venice Biennale has featured a number of Korea-related shows as collateral events scattered around the islands, giving a dedicated visitor the opportunity to walk through the backstreets and explore the vaporetto network while enjoying new artworks.
In 2013 most of the Korean artists were gathered together in one place, in an exhibition specially curated from the collection of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, a place which is on LKL’s must-visit list every on every Korea trip.
The title of the exhibition – Who is Alice? – echoed the theme of the exhibition curated by Jiyoon Lee at Asia House in 2006, and indeed had some of the same artists – Kim Beom, Jung Yeondoo – along with others who have been seen fairly regularly in the UK: Yang Haegue, Choe Uram, Lee Hyungkoo, Lee Dong-wook and more.
The hallway as you enter is dominated by the threatening presence of Choe Uram’s steampunk lamps, swinging at random as if propelled by some infernal energy. As one lamp camp to rest, another would start to move, and thus the vista was constantly changing. It was an unsettling, otherworldly introduction to the exhibition, the work set alongside similarly unsettling drawings by Park Young-geun of timepieces which resembled disembodied eyeballs embedded in a machine, a tangle of wires or nerves adding confusion to the image.
Turning left, you came to a room which continued the unnerving mood: two large pictures of skeletons engaged in Bacchanalian revelries. These were Kim Doo-jin’s X-Ray versions of The Youth of Bacchus by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. The pair of paintings provided a suitable ante-room to the display of Lee Hyungkoo’s skeletal Bugs Bunny entitled Lepus Animatus 2005-6, running as if in a blind panic.
After this unsettling start to the exhibition, it was a relief to enter a room containing video work by Kim Beom, which lightened the tone with their zany humour. His Untitled (News) (2002) presents stories which are trivial or nonsense dressed up in the familiar sober tone of a serious news programme. But the work which caught the attention was Horns, Canine Tooths and Shells (1997) a hilarious instructional video on how to turn ordinary household objects into lethal weapons. Turn the minute hand of your kitchen wall clock into a poisoned dart. Blind your opponent by forcing a wide-brimmed hat over his head before dealing a death-blow. Use an ordinary table as a shield to hide behind – you can drill a hole in its surface so that you can spy on your assailant, though you might want so screw some bullet-proof glass to cover that hole in case he tries to stab you through it. The delivery style – like his Painting Yellow Scream – was in dead-pan, along the lines of a dull DIY video. It was a work of which the Monty Python team would have been proud.
Continuing around the exhibition, the next room contained Haegue Yang’s installations paired with Lee Myoung-ho‘s tree photographs which are designed to ask the question “What is Art?”. In Lee’s work the tree itself is presented as a giant unframed work of art, as a huge canvas is stretched behind it. The two artists went together surprisingly well, with Yang’s somewhat threatening sculptures taking on an organic feeling – you could almost think of them as colourful shrubs.
Into the room drifted the sound of slightly sinister fairground music. Its origin was revealed as you continued into the next room – a merry-go-round by Choe Uram, which started off at a normal pace before accelerating to a nightmarish whirlwind – the music keeping time – before exhausting itself and coming to rest.
It was paired with two bleak photographs by Park Hong-chun: ultra-long exposure shots of fairgrounds in which the crowds become a dark blur, so that the scene takes on an eerie emptiness.
Further down the corridor highly detailed photographs of a young woman’s face by Oh Hein-kuhn (famous in popular culture for his portrait of Lee Young-ae for Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance) are paired with the grotesque miniatures by Lee Dong-wook. Oh’s work explores how Korean teenagers are trying to establish their identity by using makeup: their faces look strangely neutral and unbearably melancholy.
Lee’s deformed homunculi are the stuff of nightmares: tiny characters confined in half-open food containers, looking as if they have been condemned to eternal torment.
A double-headed sculpture by Gwon Osang in the next room was paired by two videos by Jeon Young-doo. Jeon deals with the dreams of ordinary people in his Bewitched series – the video of which was not working when we visited. His other work, Documentary Nostalgia, at 85 minutes in length, was not something we had time to enjoy to the full. The work plays with the concept of documentary film-making, questioning how much is staged in the process: the film is composed of six mini-documentaries shot in a single take. Each component part is staged and acted one after the other, and the single take also records the scenery change between each section. In the playful questioning of the way we create and consume factual material the work anticipates his Hanging Garden (2009).
In the next room was the exhibition’s signature work – the work which adorned all the publicity materials and posters: Choi Xooang’s chandelier in the form of a pair of giant wings, whose feathers are made up of severed human hands. An eye-catching and darkly surreal sculpture which managed to be both beautiful and gruesome.
Surrounding this were works by Kim Jung-wook in ink and colour on hanji: portraits of whose subjects have huge, dark empty eyes and distorted features; damaged individual whom you don’t know whether to pity or fear.
The final room contained an architectural model by Koh Myung-keun built of plastic film: ghostly, dreamlike and, like so many other works in the exhibition, rather disturbing. The exhibition title asked the question “Who is Alice?”. The answer provided by most of the works was not the plucky little girl inhabiting a nonsense world of mad hatters and Cheshire cats, but of someone suffering dark trauma.
All works are in the collection of the National Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art.