BAHC YISO, Venice Biennale, 2003, wood, basins, water, tiles, pebbles, concrete, 161 × 290 × 230 cm. Courtesy Korean Culture & Arts Foundation, Seoul. 

JEWYO RHII, Eight Stars in Big Dipper Plan, 2005, production still of mixed-media installation at the Korea Pavilion, 51st Venice Biennale, 2005. Courtesy the artist.

Bahc Yiso & Jewyo Rhii

Korea, South

“Weak” has a prominent presence in Jewyo Rhii’s lexicon. Not only are constructions by this Seoul-based artist often physically and structurally weak, but they are also intended to offer advice and comfort to her and, at times, others. In 1998 and 1999, when Rhii was just beginning to gain recognition as an artist, she was making modest sculptures in various forms out of cheap materials such as plastic containers, cardboard, aluminum foil and duct tape. These works serve as DIY contraptions for warming cold bodies and humidifying dry skin—art turned into utterly homespun, quirky remedies.

In formal terms, Rhii’s structures also address the classical concerns of balance, but hers are always on the verge of collapsing. Rhii’s contribution to the Korea Pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale was comprised of a rickety metal chair, plastic crates, an empty paint can, pieces of foamcore, drywall and wood, which she formed into a precarious scaffolding that also could be seen as a shelter, an anti-monument or a feisty, polemical defiance of the wholeness of traditional sculpture.

Rhii’s pseudo-ineptly crafted objects find parallels in the work of Bahc Yiso (1957-2004), who was a friend of Rhii’s. Bahc continues to be an important inspiration for a whole generation of young Korean artists. He spent most of the 1980s in New York and upon returning to Korea in 1995, established himself as an important critical voice, introducing and adapting the discourses of multiculturalism and postmodernism to the Korean art world. Bahc fashioned Gwangmyeong Shopping Center (2003)—“Gwangmyeong” meaning “bright light” and named for a mall in Seoul—from several plywood boards roughly put together in an open box, sitting atop a group of industrial-strength lights that blind viewers.

Rhii’s work draws from Bahc’s choice of materials and in his employment of a highly personal, even private stance vis-à-vis the world. The refusal of completion and denial of transcendence shared by the works of Bahc and Rhii constitute an important stylistic and intellectual strand in Korean contemporary art. Both artists deftly and unpretentiously combine personalized poetry with a hawk-eyed analysis of the society in which they are rooted.