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[an Essay for the Open Studio]

Exiled Prophet, A Constructed World

Kim Hee-young (manager of Seoul Art Space_Geumcheon)

Once They Were Prophets

‘Modern age’ refers to the period of time when all forms of cultural constructs – such as art, science, law, etc. – were believed to come from a kind of deductive reasoning in one way or another. Modern science existed to explain the principle of the world, and art was elucidation of the most fundamental, aesthetic elements of the chaotic world nature. Within such context, artists served a ‘prophetic function’ to find a way to move beyond the confused recognition of human senses and reveal the reality of objects.

‘The contemporary’, however, starts from an assumption that cultural constructs are not based on reality but results of contingency. Science then comes to exist merely for the good of ‘utility’.

While science is still indispensable with its use in the lives of the contemporary world, art has become useless: It has lost its prophetic function since art that is not based on reality possesses no inherent content. Art becomes alive only when we find meaning in it. When it happens, artists are on the side not of prophets to reality but of creators of the new world.

Now in 2013

Free from the pressure of being useful, art, without any use, ironically had to stand by itself as an economic agent within the market in the real world. Artists now become ‘one-man companies’. They put much effort in preparing for the role of entrepreneur and building professional knowledge for the job. Some artists in this residency program are ‘artists business owners’ with registered certificates. They now have a hope to meet with entrepreneurs as ‘business partners’ who have the same right with them. For example, artists who applied for Davinci Idea are working together with sportswear brands and trying to collaborate with a telecom company. The program, now reaching its fourth year, aims to incubate innovative ideas that can become actual products. In the mean time, Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture introduced a new budget for supporting artist co-ops for the year 2013.

Despite Everything, Artistic Stance Cannot be Sacrificed

It is a very rare occasion to see artistic excellence to be achieved through state support. Among the few cases are the salon exhibitions organized by the Académie de peinture et sculpture in the 17thcentury France and mural projects supported by the NEA in the 1960 sin the USA. Currently, Korea holds the highest number of art school students per 1 million people. There are discussions about securing social insurance for artists and providing studios with low rental prices.

At present, around one hundred national and private art studios and residencies are in operation throughout Korea. The number of artists supported by Seoul Art Space is around one hundred. Among them, Seoul Art Space Geumcheon supports around thirty ‘selected’ artists. The support does not aim to produce any artistic achievement. Rather, it is an effort by the state to provide ‘welfare for artists’. Fulfilling something, as it always has been so, is a job for artists.

Now, ‘the role of a powerful and unique artist’ is confronted with the changed situation. The role was once achieved in the modern era by abandoning the prophetic function of art. However, it is at the opposite end of a field of art constituted through activities within civil society such as community art, the current idea that ‘everyone is an artist’, and an attitude of artists learning to be ‘entrepreneurs’. Such a dichotomy is also observed in Seoul Art Space Geumcheon where there is a coexistence of a group of artists that are absorbed in their aesthetic achievement and other artists that are ‘recognized as potential business partners by those who work in the market’. Is the ‘artistic stance’ going through a transformation? Is the notion of ‘creative artist’ becoming a thing of the past? I’d like to invite you to the opening of Exiled Prophet, Constructed World on the 23rd of May to witness the artistic stance that is not sacrificed despite all the changes and differences.

[an Essay for the exhibition]

For the jettisoned and the scattered

_Liz Park (curator)

“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that
he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are
or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”

_ Italo Calvino, InvisibleCities

A city is a convergence point for many such travelers who bring with them fragmented narratives of their pasts. Their stories are broken because their journeys often demand that their relations, belongings, habits, and feelings are jettisoned en route for their survival and well-being. Yet, these scattered fragments become embedded in the experience of their new city, their destination. In a place like Seoul where more than 10 million souls buzz about in an approximately 600km2 area, intense proximities as well as impossible distances among these individuals define their shared geography. Whether they call themselves inhabitants or are just passing through, they move about, and in their movement, they trace the edges of the city.

In today’s hyper globalized world, where the logic of capital directs the flow of traffic, this moving mass of people cannot be understood as a homogeneous group. They are complexly identified and classed. Their ability to negotiate the city and how much they are able to bring with them often correlate to their position in the socio-economic strata. This exhibition presents varied stories of navigating this city, as told by seven artists and collectives whose experience of moving in and out, and within the city of Seoul has left trenchant marks in their work. Each artist deals with different aspects of the urban experience, but they collectively share the weight of the aggressively modernizing capital of South Korea. Here, the project of modernity is incomplete and has left many dead ends as well as unforeseen twists and turns. The city’s rapid construction and constant redevelopment are physical manifestations of the circulation of people, goods, and capital. They render a distinct cityscape – one lined with high-rise apartments that have sprouted up amid shorter buildings in various architectural styles from times past. The ubiquity of these apartment buildings in Seoul has come to symbolize the recent rise of the middle class in Korea.

Eve Kwak’s Mountain in the back, river up front, a series of sculptural installations involving concrete blocks in various precarious arrangements, alludes to the fragmented as well as fragile nature of these buildings as living spaces. In three different arrangements with the subtitles Even If it breaks, Sustainment, and Up right, Kwak’s work perhaps forecasts the eventual demise of this built environment. The viewers tower over the small building blocks that make up the work, and from this position, they are granted perspective–something that is sorely needed not only in urban planning, but also as an aid to understanding how individual units are part of a larger community. As a visitor to Korea, Monica Gallab provides a very different perspective on a similar subject, translating her impressions of the city into an animated video Two Apartment Buildings. In this work, delicate line drawings of the high-rises appear and disappear ad infinitum against a white back ground. The buildings look as though they have long legs that are still growing, and their ghostly flickering speaks to the experience of being in the city where these tall structures intermittently feel like they surround and dwarf the inhabitants.

Jungju An’s four channel video installation Turn Turn Turn-Breaking to Bits offers a more explicit rendering of the city in transformation. It depicts a building that is slowly eaten away by heavy machinery until it collapses in a spectacular finale. An’s work appears allegorical, perhaps suggesting that a structure can withstand only a finite number of blows before it falls apart completely. This collapse is but a painful anticipation of new construction projects waiting at the helm. While An’s work focuses on a single building, Jeamin Cha’s Fog and Smoke, presented as an installation and a video for this exhibition, is more encompassing. Also revealing the destructive side of urban development, Cha takes as her subject Songdo, a new city built near Incheon on land reclaimed from the sea. Erected with the intention of being an international business district, its land is now both ecologically and financially unstable as construction has slowed following the global financial crisis in 2008. In Cha’s video, a man dressed in black tap dances throughout this largely un-populated city as if to test and mock the city’s foundation.

Changhoon Lee’s Lost the Way–Sea, Forest, Desert, a series of blue, green and brown monochrome paintings in the size and shape of large road signs, is a subtle comment on the disorientation that can be experienced in a city of overlapping interests and histories. Rather than providing clear directions, Lee’s signs obfuscate, set the viewers adrift, and leave them to find their own way. The power of this piecelies in the commonly shared experience of being lost as an individual in a city that keeps on moving. Within this complex urban matrix, KKHH(KangJiyun+JangGunhee) collect overheard and secretly recorded conversations from various Seoulites for their work Short Stories. They select pithy statements from these recordings, turn them into concrete castings, and install them discreetly in public spaces for a chance encounter with passers by. For the exhibition, they have selected two sentences to display in the gallery, one that appears as though it has emerged from the floor, and another as though it has protruded from the wall. “Yes, just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it never happened.” “Nevertheless, I thought that this might have been a good thing.” Bereft of their context, these sentences sound comforting and sympathetic as though they’re seeking to connect with the urban dwellers who numbly pass each other on a daily basis.

The city is a multitude of such micro- and personal gestures, and Mixrice (Cho Jieun + Yang Chulmo) tunes into stories less heard in Seoul. Mixrice is committed to working with marginalized migrant labourers from other Asian countries, and engage in various collaborations from hosting a festival for the residents of Maseok, an area with a large concentration of migrants, to facilitating the making of video diaries of the workers. For a series of photographs titled Something that I can’t leave behind, they interview and tap into the migrants’ memories of the things they could not bring with them to their new residence. For instance, they made a photograph of a mango tree – something that the interviewee had to sorrowfully leave behind at home – by tying a couple of mangoes together and slinging them over a tree branch. This is a humorous but consoling gesture for someone who misses mango trees in a country where no such trees grow. For this exhibition, they created new photographs based on a conversation they had with the exhibition curator’s parents who, in the early 1990s moved from Seoul to find new life in Canada. Rather than understanding the new photographs as a simple reversal of their previous work based on the fact that the interviewees are emigrants from Korea, it seems more prudent to pay heed to Mixrice’s statement:

Many people have similar experiences when they migrate.
This [current situation for migrant labourers in the country] was probably
not unlike what the early Korean emigrants experienced. We think that within
these similar experiences, there is always an individual. This individual is
fragile, full of experiences and memories. This fragile individual encounters
both humorous and challenging situations as well as being pained and happy.

Whether it is stories of migrants, or renderings of the apartment buildings that line Seoul’s horizon, the exhibited works allude to the constant negotiations between people, and the space and time of Seoul’s urban geography. This exhibition zooms in and out: from Kwak’s miniaturized concrete jungle to Gallab’s tall, sprouting apartments; from An’s building in destruction to Cha’s depiction of a city built on the destruction of a pre-existing environment. The exhibition also conveys feelings of loss and discovery: Lee’s monochrome signs take away directives but also leave the viewers with the freedom to chart their own way; KKHH collect words thrown out casually in a conversation, but re-present them to be found again; and Mixrice attempts to recover fading memories of places traversed. Collectively, the works reveal the experience of being in a city that is constantly getting built, levelled, rebuilt and re-levelled, a city that is home for some and cannot possibly be home for others, a city full of contradictions.