There’s a little bit of Jeollanamdo in the KCC at the moment. Although the exhibition is co-organised by the Asia Cultural Center in Gwangju, and by the Gwangju Museum of Art, the subject matter of the exhibition strays outside of the city limits into Damyang, Hwasun and further afield.
The first work to engage you as you enter the exhibition is the one that probably means the most to me: a simplified scale model of the Soswaewon, one of the most well-known Joseon dynasty scholar’s gardens, which is situated in Damyang-gun and which has featured in two of my recent trips to Korea. The work, assembled from sections made of blue-green celadon clay, strips the garden to its bare essentials, recreating its topography (necessarily excluding the waterfall and stream that is one of the garden’s most significant features) and its two main pavilions. The artist, Jeong Jeongju, who was born in Gwangju, explains that the garden was a regular destination for him as a child, and for him the central pavilion, the Gwangpunggak (Refreshing Breeze Pavilion), being open to nature in all four directions, signifies “open communication with others as the architecture is a metaphor of my inner self”. The upper pavilion, the Jewoldang (Clear Moon Hall), is where the Soswaewon’s creator, Yang San-bo (1503-1557) would stay and study, while the Gwangpunggak is where he would entertain his guests. In Jeong Jeongju’s reworking of the garden, tiny CCTV cameras are installed throughout the landscape, and footage is projected onto a screen behind the installation, often catching the viewer in the frame.
The other work in the exhibition which encourages interaction is Park Sanghwa’s Mudeung Fantasia – Virtual Garden of Cogitation (2019) – a video installation that projects calming footage of traditional landscapes onto layers of organza curtain between which you are encouraged to walk. The landscapes recall Mudeungsan, the mountainous national park that includes parts of Damyang-gun, Hwasun-gun and the eastern part of Gwangju City.Pacing between the layers of fabric you can totally immerse yourself in the projection of Hanok architecture, pine forest and gently swirling lights like shooting stars, giving you that sort of sense of stillness that you feel when you lie on your back looking up at the heavens.
In the long passageway that leads along the window facing Northumberland Avenue is Son Bongchae’s multi-panel LED piece entitled Migrants. This is another pleasingly peaceful work, its muted monochrome greys depicting a traditional Kumgang-style mountain landscape. And then you notice something unsettling: clumps of pine trees floating in the air, uprooted and drifting like clouds. The work was inspired by a scene when the artist saw some pine trees being dug up and transported in the back of a truck, presumably to be replanted in another garden miles away. He wondered whether the trees would survive, and drew parallels with the forced migration of people uprooted from their homes to search for work elsewhere.
Sehee Sarah Bark’s Vanished Landscape (2013) also muses on migration, focusing on the practice of the burning of the possessions of someone who has died, or when moving house, of burning the stuff that can’t be taken to the new place. The sacrifice of the old possessions is made in the hope of receiving something new and better in the future.
In a darkened space in the furthest corner of the KCC is a futuristic installation that is a collaboration between three artists: Earl Park, Sara Kim and Jeongsik Bae. Three concentric laser triangles expand and contract as the lasers and mirrors slowly move back and forth along converging rails. The installation is an impressive engineering achievement in its own right, but also encourages more profound thoughts as the laser light is reflected 360 degrees, returning to its point of origin. “Each of the triangles appears and disappears according to the brightness of the laser, which might be read as a metaphor of creation and extinction of existence. The moment a triangle radiating its existence in an intense red line disappears suddenly, in this contrast between its presence and its void, the emptiness of existence becomes conspicuous, … [and can] remind us of the relativity and interdependence of being and non-being”.
Kihyun Jung takes inspiration from the unusual property of water, which unlike other liquids does not become progressively denser as it gets colder. Instead, water is at its densest at 4 degrees C, and becomes less dense below that temperature. The work is a call for a more ecologically responsible approach to economic development, though the connection between the anomaly point of the title and the subject of the video, which is a projection of tranquil forest landscapes onto an Earth-shaped globe made of wool and hair, is not entirely clear.
Finally, returning to the other works installed in the initial exhibition space – alongside the Soswaewon. Jeonglok Lee’s distinctive photographs appear regularly in London galleries and art fairs, and it’s nice to see them in a different context. His fantasy pieces are created as dusk turns to night, by multiple exposures of instantaneous flashes which illuminate a tiny butterfly. The resulting images have hundreds of butterflies arranged across the evening landscape like so much fairy dust.
The exhibition celebrates Gwangju as a UNESCO Creative City of Media Arts (a status that it shares with a York in the North of England) and is the latest in a series of international exhibitions in which the city introduces the arts of its region to an international audience. Hopefully it will encourage Londoners to visit the GMA, the ACC and other attractions in Gwangju on their next trip to Korea.