Wild Korea


Korea, South

Based in Seoul, 43-year-old artist Gimhongsok is known internationally through his frequent participation in high-profile international biennials like Gwangju, Venice, Taipei, Valencia and Tirana. Yet, due to the range of his practice encompassing sculpture, installation, video and performance works expressing deadpan satirical humor, both his working process and personal style remain enigmatic, earning him “mysterious genius” standing at home. While some works of art scream out their agendas and others wait quietly to be discovered, Gimhongsok’s works often eagerly announce their own spectacular presence through the incorporation of the artist’s graffiti-like wall texts, only to lure viewers into a labyrinthine journey towards ever-elusive meaning. ArtAsiaPacific spoke with Gimhongsok seeking demystification.

ARTASIAPACIFIC: Given the breadth of media you work with, is there any piece that best represents your style?

GIMHONGSOK: Although it is common for contemporary artists to utilize diverse media, many still express a signature style. In this light, I could be accused of doing something completely arbitrary or nonsensical, because neither my methodology nor the images I create represent stylization, which I expressly resist. Perhaps I want my works to be recognized by word of mouth. As such, it is agonizing for me to pick a representative work. We live in an age when images and texts reproduced in catalogs have a stronger presence than actual works. An artistic intention or device is safer on paper, and specific contextual backgrounds have more force when disseminated in print.

AAP: One of your recurring themes seems to relate to modes of communication in different societies. What inspires that?

G: World history written in Korean, foreign literature in Korean translation, television drama series made in the West and foreign language texts all inspire me. I am afraid to travel to foreign countries, and I am especially reluctant to find new things. This is simply my personal characteristic, it doesn’t reflect any broader agenda.

So I am used to experiencing the world secondhand. Interpreted texts always interest me as I find possibilities in them of creating something new through reinterpretation. This may be parasitic, yet because I am not dependent upon any subject, nor do I alter the subject, I often believe tat I am on a perfect journey.

AAP: What is your working process?

G: With most works I begin by choosing a word or set of words. These sometimes come from the exhibition theme, but mostly from television, which I watch whenever I can. The real pleasure for me is to watch TV when I’m totally relaxed—it is a one-sided and egocentric relationship. I do not rely on TV for information nor does it console me. It operates by electricity and I simply lie in front of it.

But sometimes I think about TV producers’ intentions. This is when I start associating various words, selecting haphazardly from those that come to mind. I ignore the word’s dictionary definition, give it new meaning and combine it with chosen objects. These build up fictional narratives that resemble history, fairytales or slogans. Then I apply my narratives to reality. I teach fictive history to young students or I intentionally misinterpret other artists’ works.

These fictions are essentially lies which I manipulate into believable truths. They are presented as photographs, preserved as moving images or transferred into video works. I always provide them with false texts about their origins. Some examples include Mao Met Nixon (2004), a fictional archiving system in which the summit conference between Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon is analyzed by scientists and the CIA; or The Seoul Massacre (2004), in which a group of modern dancers are asked to lie still for two hours and play dead; and Neighbor’s Wife (2005), for which I photographed images of famous artists’ works reproduced in catalogs.

These examples suggest three different issues. First is the relationship between my lie and the audience; secondly, the monetary transaction with the performer; and thirdly, plagiarism.

AAP: How do people respond to your work?

G: My works challenge ethical conventions and audience reactions are generally split between antagonism and acceptance. They play upon politically charged or sensational contexts to create uncomfortable situations: for example, 6 Way Talks (2005) featured foreign workers residing n Korea singing—in their native languages—the national anthems of the six countries represented in the Six-Way Talks over North Korea’s nuclear capability; Pickets (2004) proposed fundraising for sexually abused girls in the US by selling the panties of young women; and Literal reality (2004) consisted of curses written in Vietnamese inside museum in Korea and the US.

AAP: What about the works you presented at the Gwangju Biennale in 2006?

G: The Gwangju installation comprised three videos, three photographs, two paintings, two objects and a performance. Everything except the performance was placed in one room, which was brightly lit with bulbs totaling 3,000 watts, quite different from the conventional white cube. All the works were created prior to Gwangju, and none were made especially for the occasion. But they were all displayed in a single space to create a new story; the association was realized through texts written on the wall and the floor. It was an experiment to re-read works of art by re-categorizing hem. Other artists’ works could also be transformed in this way by changing their environments and altering their intents.

In The Talk (2004), one of three video works on translation and communication, a hired actor playing a foreign worker describes his legal rights to an interpreter and myself in a non-existing language. The English subtitles, unrelated to the story, relate the success story of an Indonesian worker in Korea.

Another video, Ich bin ein Berliner (2006), started form the Korean translation of John F. Kennedy’s famous speech delivered at the Berlin Wall in 1963. I trained a Korean elementary school student to do the speech and videotaped him. All the video works were performed by people other than myself, undermining the seriousness of themes such as human rights, ideology and ethics. Personally, I think that contractual relationships based on money are a bigger issue than these serious themes. This is what makes audiences uncomfortable.

The conflict between artwork and audience inspired me to do a performance where a person wearing a costume maintains a certain pose following my instructions. However, for The Brementown Musicians (2006) at Gwangju, I did not hire a performer but rather placed a mannequin inside an animal costume. The text describing the work claimed that I had paid a Spanish worker to wear the suit and hold the same posture for a certain length of time. Both the existence of the performer and the financial transaction existed merely as text. The realization that the “man” in the animal costume is actually a mannequin relieves potential moral anxiety.

This piece mixed formal motifs from Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s Love Lasts Forever (1999), a sculptural piece composed of the stacked skeletons of a donkey, dog, cat and rooster, and Mexico-based artist Santiago Sierra’s practice of hiring workers to perform tasks. Another piece appropriated textual work by the Danish art group Superflex, and here was a photograph of a Luc Tuymans’ painting. All the works addressed the possibilities of communication with others, in this case the others being the West. Texts written on the wall and floor related to the art works but were also independently viable, suggesting the linguistic limitations to communication.

AAP: Your video The Wild Korea (2005) is a fictional, documentary-style narrative about a Korea torn apart by guns and factionalism. Can you describe its conception and production?

G: The US is the most influential country in the formation of modern South Korea. From the 1960s to the early 1980s, US Army broadcasts of American radio and television programs were for many Korean people their only contact with foreign culture. The Western movies I watched seemed more like science fiction and fantasy than an aspect of a nation’s history. I still find the possession of guns and the idea of one-on-one duels very attractive. Good and evil are clearly decided in one cathartic moment.

Korea was one of the centers of the Cold War following the Korean War in 1953. The opposition structure changed in 1960 when a military man Park Chung Hee, staged a coup d’etat and turned the situation into a confrontation between monarchy and democracy. That continued until 1986; I attended college in the 1980s when students declared their political positions through strikes and demonstrations. There was no grey area; it was easier to fight, curse and even switch ideologies rather than to understand the opposition. The Wild Korea is not only about Korea. It is about the contradictions of binary thinking in the West and its influence in the East.

AAP: How do you respond to assertions that your works are difficult to understand?

G: I am certain that my concepts are not indecipherable. My personality might cause difficulties in communicating with others. Another reason is that I don’t have a single visual style. Audiences have to “read” my works to understand them. I subordinate the medium to the role of a tool and my works take widely varying forms. Ultimately, it might be hard to understand many different types of art as opposed to a single work.