Keeping It Real

Keeping It Real

Korean art is comprised of many different influences, motifs, and mediums, which is what the exhibit “Keeping it Real. Korean Artists in the Age of Multi-Media Representation” at the CU Art Museum really conveyed to me.Contemporary Korean artists use their art to engage in and combine many subjects including politics, capitalism, globalization, oppression, and revolution, and this sort of diversity in subject leads to an incredible diversity in media.  At the exhibit in the CU Art Museum alone, I saw installation pieces, sculpture, video art, sound art, and collage, all with a variety of influences and references to other art movements from all over the world. Perhaps the diversity in subject and media are a product of the globalization and the kind of mass “cultural sharing” that has been happening across the globe since the 1980s, or maybe it is just a factor of the rich history and incredible range of traditions and cultures that make up modern day Korean society.

Many scholars and viewers seek to put art under labels and categories, but Korean art seems to be especially hard to define.  As Lynn Zelevansky states in her article “Contemporary Art in Korea”, “Korean Contemporary Art does not have the exact defining features that other Asian art does, such as the ‘cynical realism and political pop’ of Chinese contemporary art or the ‘manga and animated visual culture’ that defines contemporary Japanese art” (“Korean Art”, pg. 29). When conducting a study of art from a specific country or region, it is very easy to want to pick out defining cultural characteristics that appear in the art.  Looking at an exhibit of Korean art, and thinking about writing a paper on it, I immediately started searching for those pieces of the art work that showed me what is “korean” about the art.  What exactly about the art defines Korean identity, or, goes beyond just Korean identity and reaches more general concepts of human identity?  As a Western viewer, I am basically trained to want to assign some kind of “foreignness” or “otherness” to art that is produced by non-Western artists, but in the “Keeping it Real” exhibit, I saw a range of artists that made me think that this concept of assigning a stereotype to their art is outdated for analyzing contemporary art.

One of the pieces that really piqued my interest was the series of videos called the “CRASH” series by the artist Kiwoun Shin, specifically “Reality Test Part 2” (2010).  The piece is an HD video in super slow motion that shows a man holding a drink, and then a toy car flies into the picture from the left and crashes into the glass.  Most of the video shows the aftermath of the crash and the broken glass and liquid very slowly flying through the air.  I was drawn to this piece because of its drama and suspense that the viewer experiences while watching it, but also because of the little knowledge I had about Korean art going into the exhibit was based on video art.  The only Korean artist I was familiar with is Nam June Paik, whose work focuses primarily on video art.  I did some research on the legacy of using video as a medium in contemporary Korean art, and found that the root of of it began in the early 1970s with the “post-modern explosion” that led to Korean artists first forays into video, photography, and performance art (Younga, pg. 269). Nam June Paik’s video pieces are well known around the world and paved the way for many other video artists in Korea, but the video art I saw at “Keeping it Real” was very different then the works I have seen by Paik.  Joan Kee talks about these differences in her article “The Image Significant: Identity in Contemporary Korean Video Art,” when she says “Instead of embracing Paik’s use of the video monitor as a stationary sculptural object, younger Korean artists have expanded upon the notion of antipodality–that feeling of being neither here nor there. The images that many contemporary Korean video artists employ refer specifically to Korean culture or history, yet they also introduce broader topics, most importantly the issue of identity” (Kee, pg. 1).  After reading a little bit about Kiwoun Shin’s video art work, this quote seems to apply very well to “Reality Test Part 2.”  The piece is about the drunk driving problem in Korea, more specifically all of Shin’s friends that have died in drunk driving accidents (hence the cars crashing into glasses of alcohol), but all of the visuals and parts of the video are incredibly universal and easy to recognize to anyone, including those that are not Korean or are not aware of the drunk driving situation in Korea.  As Joan Kee says, “Although this problem of meaning confronts all artists using cultural or national images or allusions, these artists argue that the imagery they use is simple enough to be universal” (Kee, pg. 1).

Another piece that caught my eye, perhaps because of the dramatic presentation, was Hyungkoo Lee’s  “Flelix Catus Animatus and Mus Animatus” (2006).  Lee made two animal skeletons that look completely realistic at first glance, but upon closer inspection I noticed that the skeletons are a little off, and are in fact a semi-scientific representation of the skeletons of well known cartoon characters of the cat and mouse Tom and Jerry.  The piece is very interesting, as it uses extremely technical and precise skills to create a very realistic sculpture, but has a very pop cartoony subject underlying the whole piece.  I noticed this same quality about a few of the works in the exhibit, and when I read into it, I found a few sources that discussed this very quality n Korean art and possible reasons behind it. In his book “Modern and Contemporary Art in Korea,” Youngna Kim cited late industrialization as a cause of this kind of interest in the more “low” art themes in contemporary art.  Youngna, in his discussion of early contemporary Korean art, stated “Symptoms of late industrialization – such as consumer society, an increase in the role of mass media, and the dissolution of the boundary between high and low culture – were appearing here and there” (Youngna, pg. 67), and I can see this blending very apparently in “Flelix Catus Animatus and Mus Animatus.”  Lee’s work also messes with perceptions, as in fantasy and reality, and turns fictitious characters or ideas into something tangible, making people’s imaginations of those characters literally “come alive.”  Although they appear like a museum exhibit, his sculptures are not quite scientific, but neither are they completely uninformed anatomically, which is one of the aspects that makes the piece so interesting and really adds to Lee’s blending of fantasy and reality.

My overall impression from the “Keeping it Real” exhibit is that contemporary art is not something that can be easily defined by finding a few common characteristics, and contemporary Korean art especially is an incredibly varied and wide ranging area that cannot be labeled and fit into easy categories. Because of this extreme variation in media and subject these two pieces, along with rest of the work in the exhibit, have very little in common at first glance.  However, after looking deeper into the two artists, and then more closely examining contemporary Korean art as a whole, I can see an underlying theme that applies to both works.  Both Kiwoun Shin and Hyungkoo Lee, and many of the other artists in the exhibit, play a lot with the issue of “reality” in their art.  When you look at “Flelix Catus Animatus and Mus Animatus,” you are immediately taken aback by its museum-like qualities and presentation, and find yourself looking to closer to see if the skeletons are, in fact, real.

What about these two pieces, and the rest if the exhibit, is essentially “Korean?” Korea is a country and society that has been influenced and colonized by many different cultures throughout its history, and its art is most definitely a product of this diversity.  There may be visible influences from Japan, China, America, and many other cultures, but Korean contemporary art has developed into a form of its own that does not have the same labels and dependence on a set art tradition.  Korean identity is at the same time an amalgamation of many influences and traditions, and a completely new, unique, and modern personality that I really saw come through in the “Keeping it Real” exhibit.  Although there may be a few themes or motifs that I can see repeated in the art I saw, aspects of contemporary art that are essentially “Korean” are not easy to find, and the main thing I took out of the exhibit was how silly it is that we strive to put contemporary art into little easy to define boxes, when it is such a huge and varied field that is more diverse than any other time in art history.

One Response

  1. I really enjoyed reading your paper, specifically your descriptions of the work. I also liked your interpretations and found them quite insightful. You provide good background information on the artists and the context of their work. Reading your paper I felt gave me good understanding of the exhibition and what it was meant to convey. There is such a wide variety of contemporary art that it is almost impossible to give it definitive characteristics. CRASH sounds like a really interesting piece and your enthusiasm for it is clear while reading your description.

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