Through the Looking Glass: Korean Contemporary Art

Artvehicle 5/Review

23rd November 2006 — 3rd March 2007

A British tabloid newspaper recently used the Kim Jong-il puppet from Team America on its front cover to report North Korea's nuclear bomb test. This suggests a general ignorance about the situation in Korea in this country, something this exhibition addresses as part of Think Korea 2006. A beautiful Georgian building on an imposing street off Portland Place, Asia House is an unusual venue for contemporary art. Asia House was founded to 'promote appreciation and understanding of Asian countries ... and to foster closer communication between the peoples of Asia and Europe'. Many of the works in this exhibition were created specifically in response to this location. The artists take over the entire building, subverting the grandiose architecture that hails from the heyday of Orientalism.

The exhibition's themes of absurdity and whimsy carry political resonance. Things are not what they seem. The pink flowers in Jiwon Kim's painting turn out to be the Mendrami flowers that flourish in the four kilometre demilitarised zone which separates North and South Korea. The viewpoint is very low and camouflage walls loom in the background. Obliquely it asks us to reflect on the scar the ideological division of the Korea has left on its people and culture. The smell of soap infuses the exhibition. It emanates from Meekyoung Shin's delicate sculptures. Crouching Aphrodite seems to be a Greek statue in marble, but is in fact the figure of the artist herself, sculpted in soap. Shin also presents soap copies of Ming and Qing Chinese vases, these priceless objects are rendered in a cheap, impermanent material. She is fascinated by cultural translation between both East and West, and between neighbouring Eastern countries. She asks the viewer to consider the implications of the way standards of aesthetic beauty vary through time and place. In the toilets the visitor is invited to use her golden Buddha statute as soap when washing their hands. One of its feet is slightly rubbed away, the result of these semi-devotional acts.

Beom Kim has cut and pasted footage from the Korean Evening News so the newsreaders are dispensing banal advice to comb your hair, eat regular meals and get a good night's sleep. The piece passes comment on the nanny state and the mass media's inoculation of its audience, who now lack any critical framework with which to view world events. Kyuchul Ahn has created a domestic structure from abandoned doors. These obsolete pieces of wood form the walls and roof of a house but are robbed of their intended use and cannot be opened. Korea's rapid modernisation, a cycle of building, demolition and rebuilding, means that recent history is quickly erased, and these doors are all that remains of the 60s and 70s.

On the surface Korea appears very Westernised, but the influence of its Eastern neighbours is as crucial, culturally and historically. Yongjin Kim has created a machine that projects formations of water droplets onto the wall in beautiful patterns that constantly reconfigure themselves. Like a microscopic view of cellular activity or an abstract expressionist painting, but inspired by Buddhist monks practicing calligraphy with water. Yong-Baek Lee presents a coffee-table-height glass box, into which heads of Buddha and Jesus Christ, taken from works of art, are projected alternately. One third of Koreans are Buddhists and another third are Christian, so these two figures meet on an equal footing. The serene round face of Buddha contrasts with the twisted expression of Christ in agony on the cross wearing a crown of thorns, but eventually they start to merge into one.

Jeong-Hwa Choi's quintessentially Eastern lotus flowers, rendered in elegant monochrome sit slowly inflating and deflating, as if breathing, on a rooftop behind Asia House. Choi has also made a long chandelier out of green plastic baskets to hang down the spiral staircase. His work humorously reflects on the hybridisation of Western and Eastern forms in Korean popular culture that is so alien to Europeans. Sora Kim has reorganised Asia House's library, taking the books off the shelves and piling them up with the spines to the wall, so they become abstract white rectangular objects, used sculpturally. We can't read the books' titles; Kim has stripped them of their meanings, which she felt reflected a British, potentially colonial, perspective on Asia. The chairs, mirror and screens have been rearranged in what seems a most un-feng shui manner, mirror facing the window that looks out onto the lotus flowers, vaguely sinister against London's chimney-ed skyline. The visitor is issued with an i-pod shuffle containing Kim's abstract sound poem as part of the installation.

Yeondoo Jung displays children's drawings with large photographs in which he has recreated the scene in 3-D, using handmade props and costumes and strictly no Photoshop. The results are oddly beguiling; imagine if the world really looked like this! But they also accentuate the impossibility of the images and celebrate that they exist purely on the level of fantasy in the ingenuous imaginations of children. Their drawings are filled with lurid colours, a vertiginous sense of scale, no perspective, strange abstract elements and idiosyncratic narratives. Jung's process of rebuilding the pictures in 'real life' literalises the children's sketches that we are able to read visually, despite their technical errors. Snow White lying on a bed, becomes a girl standing on a ladder in a very long dress in an archway. The attempt to communicate confronts the conventions of representation. The kids' drawings mix and match culture references and many share a Disney aesthetic. For Jung the creation of the tableaux to photograph is a performative and collaborative act.


Asia House
63 New Cavendish Street
London W1G 7LP

Monday-Friday, 9am-7pm

Saturday, 10am-6pm

Through the Looking Glass: Korean Contemporary Art —  Jeong-Hwa Choi  No Lotus at Asia House 2006  Waterproof material, ventilator,
            motor and controller  © Artist Photographer: Gautier Deblonde

Jeong-Hwa Choi
No Lotus at Asia House 2006
Waterproof material, ventilator, motor and controller
© Artist Photographer: Gautier Deblonde