Exhibition visit: Park Seungmo — Absence, at HADA Contemporary

Maybe at LKL we’ve been over-focussing on Korean Literature this past week, so this weekend I paid a belated visit to HADA Contemporary to catch their exhibition of Park Seungmo’s latest work. I managed to miss his show last year, and it was Shin Eunjeong who reviewed his 2012 solo show for this site, so it’s a while since I’ve seen his work.

I’m very glad I made the effort, even though it has set back my efforts writing up the Book Fair, and delayed my post on the superb Chun Kwang-young exhibition at Bernard Jacobson which finishes before Easter.

The site-specific installation in the main gallery space plays numerous visual tricks on you, but on a deeper level is suffused with Buddhist thought.

Park Seungmo: Buddha is not gold (2014)
Park Seungmo: Buddha is Not Gold (2014). Aluminium Wire, Fibreglass, Lifecasting and paint, 42 x 49 x 93 cm (x2)

The very obvious Buddhist reference is the reproduction of the famous Silla dynasty gilt-bronze Pensive Boddhisattva (Korea’s National Treasure #83): the statue is placed in front of a mirror and sits next to its reflection, both slightly more golden than the original that usually lives in the National Museum of Korea. Leaning against the mirror is a paint-roller, which is dripping golden paint down the surface of the glass in sufficient quantities for it to form a puddle on the floor. The installation is entitled Buddha is Not Gold, a quiet protest about the golden Buddha statues to be found in most temples which serve as objects of veneration, when some Buddhists might argue that enlightenment is achieved more through meditation and inward reflection.

108 연기
The two figures of 108 연기 face each other through the mirror – but there’s no reflection of you, the observer

Of course, there is not a floor-to-ceiling mirror in the gallery at all. The works are laid out perfectly symmetrically in the room, and a wooden frame is placed around where the “mirror” is meant to be, but like Alice you can step straight through the looking glass. The unsettling thing about the installation is that, although your eyes tell you that there is a mirror across the centre of the room in which everything on your side of the room has its reflection, there is no reflection of you, the viewer.

Two human figures wrapped in red and green wires face each other across the room, through the looking glass, each figure covered with 108 illuminated light bulbs. A buddhist scholar will need to help elucidate what is going on here, but meditating in front of a mirror is a known Buddhist meditation practice (compare, for example, Nam June Paik’s TV Buddha), and another form of prayer is the performance of the 108 bows.

Never (2014)
Buddha is Not Gold (foreground); Never (2014). Neon signs and steel, 111 x 204 x 9 cm each.

As you step through the invisible looking-glass you can appreciate the mirror image neon signs which proclaim the “cyclical nature of the universe and our life”1 – though the reflection of the message in fact proclaims the opposite, inserting the word “never”.

For someone not versed in Buddhism, the installation is tantalising. It appears to be laden, indeed overburdened, with symbolic meaning, but that meaning is beyond your comprehension. Perhaps struggling for something more earthly and less mysterious, you proceed through the looking glass in to the smaller exhibition space at the back of the gallery, where your eyes are teased in an equally illusory, but less numinous, way.

Another Wall 527 (left) and Another Wall 320 (2014)
Another Wall 527 (left) and Another Wall 320 (2014). Stainless Steel mesh 166 x 89 x 1 cm and 106 x 108 x 1 cm

Two wire mesh sculptures, each just a centimetre thin, look as if they are casting a shadow against the wall; but as you change your viewing position it becomes clear that the shadow is itself part of the sculpture.

Altogether an entertaining, enjoyable and stimulating exhibition, though ultimately one that will mean more to someone immersed in Buddhist doctrine. The exhibition, which is highly recommended, lasts until 27 April.

Some more photographs are in the gallery below. The main exhibition space is pretty much impossible to capture well: the neon signs cast off a red glow which distorts the colour of the other works. In real life, your eyes compensate for this. In the images embedded between the above paragraphs, I’ve tried to compensate for the colour bias, at the cost of making the source of the light look greenish. In all the other photographs in the gallery below, I have left the images as they appear on my camera’s memory card – hence the red colouring is more pronounced. The reality is somewhere in between.

  1. Quote borrowed from the exhibition’s press release. []

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