NAM JUNE PAIK, Global Groove, 1973, video, 28 min 30 sec. Installation view at Korean Cultural Centre, London, 2008. Photo by Robert Chadwick. Courtesy Korean Cultural Centre, London.

“Good Morning, Mr. Nam June Paik!”

Korean Cultural Centre UK
UK Korea, South

The inaugural exhibition at London’s new Korean Cultural Centre (KCC), “Good Morning, Mr. Nam June Paik!” presented works by 24 contemporary Korean artists. One of Korea’s most famous contemporary artists, Nam June Paik (1932-2006) is regarded as the founder of video art. The title is a wink to a piece he made to air on January 1, 1984, Good Morning, Mr. Orwell (1984), which celebrated the idea that Orwell’s dystopian future had not come to pass. Viewed by 25 million people internationally, it is recognized as the first live satellite installation work. Three of Paik’s video works were on view in this exhibition, which looked to his humor and optimistic spirit for inspiration.

Curator and critic Jiyoon Lee played a key role in the KCC’s opening, from curating the exhibition to convincing the museum’s directors to commission subversive artist Choi Jeong-hwa to overhaul the interiors. Choi’s design, which merged humorous artworks with permanent design fixtures, was the highlight of the exhibition. Mixing splashes of vivid color with slated, dark wood that links the block chairs to the reception and main walls, Choi lured viewers into a contemporary space with recognizable pieces such as his signature, mass-produced plastic flowers used to form a series of linked chandeliers.

Although the space was dominated by Choi’s eccentric design, many works vied for attention. A veneer of respectability and aesthetic elegance belied the subversive practices of the artists. The strong brushwork and layered paint of the hideous horse in Eemyun Kang’s Back of a Horse (2007) complemented Choi’s black walls, while depicting a transformational moment between forms. Jiwon Kim’s large canvas, Mendrami (2007), represents the remarkably beautiful wilderness created by Korea’s demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the North from the South. Ironically, this area is one of the most unspoiled stretches of land on the Korean peninsula and a sanctuary for wildlife. This theme also appears in Atta Kim’s The Western Front (2003), an eight-hour exposure of the DMZ depicting an almost idyllic landscape except for the barbed wire fencing that frames the bottom of the image.

Besides drawing on this theme of conflict in Korea, curator Lee is particularly interested in feminist issues such as the pressures on Korean women to adhere to standards of Western beauty. Debbie Han’s Walking Three Graces (2007) represents the iconic neoclassical sculpture of three Grecian women as Korean. Unfortunately this work hung in a corner of the gallery, a cramped arrangement that Joonsung Bae’s lenticular print, The Costume Painter’s Kiss AP2/2 (2007), also suffered from. Viewers lacked sufficient space to move and see how the image, when viewed from different angles, changes from a kissing couple to naked woman.

Ultimately, many of the works, which ranged in quality, struggled to compete with Choi’s dramatic interiors. Perhaps owing to the original intent of the exhibition, which was to be devoted to Paik alone, the established and seminal works by this master dominated.