London Art Fair can usually be relied upon to show a range of Korean contemporary artists for a number of galleries. This year we’re sure we must have missed some of the artists showing as we didn’t have time to do a trawl of the whole exhibition. Instead we focused on the galleries we knew in advance were going to be majoring on Korean artists: Hanmi and Union. And I’d like to thank Kwon Soonhak, showing at Union Gallery, for escorting me through the turnstiles using his VIP ticket after a fortuitous meeting at the entrance.
It was nice to see Kwon’s commission for Iskai Art’s A Soldier’s Tale exhibition again. Somehow, seen in a different, more compact, context, it revealed more than it did at Asia House last year. Maybe it was because, in the crush of bodies attending the preview evening of the London Art Fair, you were forced up closer to the work rather than looking at it from across the large empty room at Asia House.
Even up close, you couldn’t believe that this was a photograph (strictly, hundreds of close-up photographs stitched together into an almost life-size tapestry of prints). You could almost feel the brush texture of the oil paintings on the war veteran’s sitting room wall. You believed you could get your fingers behind the electric socket and prize it out of the plaster. You tried to be careful lest you brushed the camel figurine off its two-dimensional shelf. David Kamsler’s sitting room wall is a museum piece in itself, a memorial of a life lived to the full and of a period of British and world history: from slightly tacky souvenirs of Lady Di, through a signed photograph of Gen Colin Powell, a thank-you medal presented to Korean War veterans by the Little Angels dancing troupe, to more personal, family mementoes. You enjoyed the cluttered feel of the thing, and maybe wanted to spend some time in a much-used armchair and get to know Kamsler’s life a bit better.
Next to Kwon’s work was a large painting by Chae Sung-Pil. Based in Paris, Chae uses organic matter such as soil from different parts of the world to create abstract pieces which are often painted against a silver background. The work on show in Union Gallery’s stand almost looked as if it was painted on an aluminium sheet, and hinted at a landscape of mountains and forest. His less abstract works (a selection can be found on the website of Opera Gallery) evoke childhood memories of home in Korea.
The third of Union Gallery’s Korean-born artists was Yu Jin-young. We have admired her work before at Union Teesdale Street, in which her Family in Disguise ensemble was atmospherically displayed in a darkened room with opulent wallpaper. I was somewhat nervous at the prospect of seeing her ghost-like human figures displayed in the characterless atmosphere of the Islington Business Design Centre. But even displayed against a stark white wall they had just as much emotional impact.
The dark eyes seemingly welling up with tears; the feet with bright spotted socks shyly turned in towards each other, as if the child is shrinking from the viewer. The puppies and accessories seem to give the children an air of prosperity, but nevertheless remind us that relative affluence cannot protect you from an unbearable melancholy.
Upstairs in the Project Space, it was Hanmi Gallery’s third appearance at London Art Fair, and on each occasion they have provided a stimulating exhibition. This year they were featuring Korean artists Yun Sung-feel and Park June-bum.
Yun’s installations are ones which always intrigue and enchant a viewer. One arachnophobic visitor was concerned that the iron filings in one of the works looked from a distance like very hairy spiders, but nevertheless she was drawn in to look more closely. The piece is originally eggshell-white, but progressively gets discoloured by the iron filings as they are dragged around the interior of the cone by magnets which are activated by a proximity sensor.
The other installation, which involved tiny amounts of ferrofluid oozing around the peak of a cone like tiny alien bugs, was equally disturbing.
On the adjacent wall were the hands of God – or at least the hands of video artist Park June-bum – building Songdo International Business District from scratch. Alongside some still images of the real Songdo in various stages of completion, a video showed Park constructing a near identical landscape out of cut-out pieces of paper glued to a two-dimensional background sheet. The real Songdo, built on reclaimed land near Incheon airport, is a huge 10-year development project, the largest private sector development in history. It is also designed to be sustainable and environmentally efficient. In Park’s paper cut-out version the huge effort of manpower and finance in creating this new green city is reduced to child’s play. And maybe Park’s work is a commentary that Songdo will be as perishable and short-lived as a toy.
In a video work nearby, projected downwards onto the carpet, once again giant hands are at work. Again, human creations are reduced to playthings as the giant hands push cars around as if they are toys; and pedestrians are shepherded around as if they are insects to be swatted away. Both works gave some perspective on the vanity of human endeavour.