In “Animalia,” 48-year-old South Korean artist Kim Beom conjures a nonsensical world of blimp-clouds, rocks that can be taught to fly or write poetry, and ships lamenting that there is no sea. Striking a charming tone with works that are at once absurd and incisively analytical, Kim employs elements of surprise and the uncanny, a tactic reminiscent of Dada and Surrealism, to question both the natural order of living things and the possible animism, or spiritual life, of objects.
The show opened with Horse Riding Horse (After Eadweard Muybridge) (2008), an animated video based on the pioneering motion studies of the 19th-century English photographer. Kim replaces Muybridge’s jockey with a smaller horse sitting upright in the saddle, playfully tweaking the photographic study. Similarly, in the video Spectacle (2010), he inverts the central narrative from the heart-quickening and often sadistic school of nature documentary that shows predators giving chase to prey. In Kim’s spliced and re-edited segment of found footage, the antelope is chasing a cheetah. “I have always had misgivings about the cruel injustice that exists between animals or human beings,” Kim stated in a 2010 interview. Through these simple, yet ingenious, and humorous role reversals, the artist relays his uncertainties about the imbalance in nature’s hierarchy and the societal laws of man.
Drawings and blueprints of imaginary structures and monuments gave further context to the artist’s concerns. Most notable was the blueprint for School of Inversion (2009), in which a typical school building is turned topsy-turvy, with chairs, desks and basketball hoops emerging from both floor and ceiling. The upturned school hints at Kim’s sentiment about the wonkiness and flaws of education systems: why is it through instruction that one is indoctrinated and subsumed under societal principles and norms?
Kim was born and raised in South Korea but received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York, making him familiar with both the more conformist system of education in Asia, as well as the critical thinking and creativity venerated in Western schooling. This particular school that he has envisioned, turned upside-down and mixed all around, necessarily requires reorganization.
The suite of drawings and blueprints led to the main gallery, which Kim turned into an actualized classroom via four separate installations, all part of his “Educated Objects” series (2010). The loosely linked works’ bizarre and unlikely tutorial and classroom scenarios mock and deride the structure and ideology behind educational systems. For the largest work, Objects Being Taught They Are Nothing But Tools (2010), the artist carefully placed household items—such as a knife, teapot, vase and tabletop fan—in tiny, handcrafted wooden chairs. The objects are assembled in front of a prerecorded, televised lecture in which the teacher’s head is cut off and his voice dubbed over to a quickened pace. In a squeaky voice, the orator emphatically and gravely iterates the utility of “students” and, therefore, the futility of attempting to become anything more. Tools do not go to the hospital to see doctors, the voice points out, as humans do. They are instead serviced and fixed, or simply replaced. So it goes for the student.
In A Rock That Learned the Poetry of Jung Jiyong (2010), a video shows a professor lecturing to a rock, for 212 minutes, about the modern South Korean poet. The teacher draws complex charts and graphs on a dry-erase board, asks rhetorical questions and pauses every once in a while, as if waiting for the stone’s response. To the left of the video monitor, the rock from the video rests on a table, inviting viewers to wonder if the epic lesson has changed the sedimentary mass in any way. A Rock That Was Taught It Was a Bird (2010) and A Ship That Was Taught There Is No Sea (2010) follow a similar logic, or lack thereof. As the anthropomorphized items sit forlornly on the chairs and tables, one cannot help but mentally insert a human student or worker into their seats. Are current educational systems ensuring that students reach their full potential? How do we even know what potential is?
Such questions of dogma and philosophy seem secondary, however, as viewers may more likely ponder whether the ship will survive its depressing lesson, or if the rock will ever ascend to the sky. Kim displaces the rarely questioned social framework and ordering of objects, animals and humans so persuasively that he not only invites viewers to contemplate the existence of animism, but instills a spiritual life in these objects, at least for the run of the gallery presentation.