In the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, within walking distance of New York City’s only Ikea, there is an area of nondescript buildings near a stretch of low-income housing projects. One of these premises houses the studio of Michael Joo, who greeted me at the door, on a day this past July, happy to see that I had found the address. He said that many visitors have trouble finding him, and subsequently end up wandering into the projects. Walking past an impressive collection of motorbikes parked at the entrance—they are more for tinkering than riding, Joo noted—he led me into his vast studio space. There were several smaller rooms that included a workshop, storage areas, an office and kitchen, as well as an open space where various sculptures and objects from ongoing and recent projects were laid out on tables and the floor.
On one side of the open space, a number of clear riot shields were leaning against the length of a wall. They are part of a sculpture series from Joo’s recent solo show, “Exit from the House of Being,” which took place at London’s Blain | Southern Gallery in April. The exhibition featured a new series of works that explore the notion of spatial territory in relation to natural and social boundaries. Included in the display was Untitled (Santiago, 7.9.11 – v1.0) (2012), consisting of six riot shields made from mirrored, borosilicate glass. The smooth concave objects were splattered with paint in various pastel colors, which mimics damage inflicted on riot shields from real-life protesters and which Joo had replicated based on images documenting the event noted in the work’s title—the mass Chilean student riots in 2011. As explained in the exhibition’s press release, the shield, an apparatus associated with sociopolitical unrest and its suppression by security forces, simultaneously represents a sheltered and protective space behind its curved surface, as well as an impenetrable, offensive barrier with its hard, convex exterior—creating a work that embraces two different points of opposition.
Since the beginning of his career in the early 1990s, the 46-year-old artist has been devising artwork that employs a distinctively bold sculptural language to explore his personal notions of identity, nature and the body. He first gained international attention when his work was shown in the 1995 exhibition “Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away,” held at London’s Serpentine Gallery, and curated by his longtime friend Damien Hirst. Since then, Joo has represented South Korea at the 2001 Venice Biennale, and has taken part in many other large-scale international exhibitions, including the Whitney Biennial in 2000 and the 2006 Gwangju Biennale. In the 1990s, however, before such professional success, Joo spent time in New York’s East Village, where he established a camaraderie with a diverse group of artists that, in addition to Hirst, included Mark Dion, Ashley Bickerton, Matthew Barney, Michael Rees and Katy Schimert. “We grew up as a ‘cancer generation,’ where it”—the boogeyman—“changed from polio to cancer, shifting significance from the ‘outside’ to the ‘inside,’ the general becoming increasingly specific,” Joo observed. “Since science influences modes of thought and can be interpreted as having a ‘zeitgeist’ affect in the culture at large, I think that some of the things that affected us were similar.”
Elaborating on the concept of “Exit from the House of Being,” Joo said that he was “interested in the modern conception of space as being a different way of looking at our identities.” This included examining the social space “between groups and individuals, and how it affects one’s identities”; how physical space is defined in contemporary culture and how particular spaces manifest contextual details. Such notions are explored in the sculptural series “Expanded Access” (2012). These pieces consist of stanchions and velvety “ropes” made from mirrored borosilicate glass, which actually gives the sculptures a reflective surface. Joo configures the stanchions differently in various pieces to suggest, metaphorically, certain kinds of societal relationships (which are implied in the title). In Commerce (2012), four vertical stanchions of varying heights stand on the ground, interconnected by three crisscrossing ropes, while a separate rope links one of the poles to the wall. For Alliance (2012), two stanchions “stand” horizontally on the wall, with one rope connecting the two poles and another linking one of the poles to the wall. Though the function of barricades is to restrict access—a boundary that determines whether a person is “in” or “out,” physically and thus also socially—Joo’s ropes simultaneously make viewers part of the installation, by reflecting the viewer on their glassy surface. By positioning the stanchions not only on the floor but also on the gallery’s wall and ceiling, Joo further plays with the notion of how borders of land and architecture are established, and how territory is marked and claimed.
Another part of the Blain | Southern exhibition was the “Man Made Monstrous” series (2012), which comprises pastel-blue, polyurethane resin castings of a mold of real-life elk antlers. The smooth, shiny antlers look as though they are frozen—with hardened drip shapes hanging like icicles from the bottom of the sculpture. Yet, at the same time, they also have a molten, fluid aspect, which looks as if they might drip down the gallery walls, though they in fact hang motionless. For Joo, the hunting-trophy-like antlers represent a merging of both an indoor and outdoor space—a product of the wild that has literally become cast into a domestic territory. Through these new works in “Exit from the House of Being,” Joo challenges the ways in which one might conventionally quantify, experience or categorize the surrounding environment and corresponding spatial relationships.
According to Joo, his interest in the environment, and in nature, began at an early age. He was born in Ithaca, New York, in 1966, to parents who had both recently immigrated from South Korea to pursue graduate studies at Cornell University. Joo and his family lived within a small academic community—friends and colleagues of his parents, who were both scientists—and he spent his formative years in New York state and Minnesota. In our conversation in July, Joo commented that he grew up “half in the lab and half on the ranch,” and would spend time in the woods alone. This also reflects the influence of his late father, who had studied animal breeding and was a cattleman. But at the same time, Joo recalls “growing up around culture” and being interested in the arts, as he was always sculpting things and making dioramas as a child.
After entering Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Joo initially studied biology. “I loved being there and I loved the knowledge, but I was not such a good student,” he said. Meanwhile, his attempts to enroll in art classes were repeatedly rebuffed, which led him to practice art on the side, on his own, for the first years of college. After two years, unsatisfied with his studies, he took up an opportunity to do research work for a company specializing in seed science outside of Vienna. Thus, Joo lived in Austria for a year, where he often spent an extended amount of time at the Secession exhibition hall. “It was an eye-opening experience,” said Joo. “Seeing Hermann Nitsch alongside Gustav Klimt—it was incredible to me that these two artists could coexist, and have a dialogue, within the same space. The radical performance art and action painting of Nitsch somehow connected to the much more established and staid art of Klimt. I think that those kinds of collisions and combinations can only be found in art, where contradictions are not only accepted but also desired and sought after. There is a willingness to engage in dialogue and take these contrasts and, instead of finding a way to make them fit, let them engage and see what becomes of the results.” Influenced by his artistic encounters in Vienna, Joo transferred to Washington University in St. Louis. Graduating with a BFA in 1989, he continued his studies at the Yale School of Art, where he received his MFA in sculpture in 1991.
The following year, Joo had his first solo exhibition, “The Artifice of Expenditure,” at Nordanstad-Skarstedt Gallery in New York. There, he showed The Saltiness of Greatness (1992), a standout sculptural project for which he used cubes of compressed salt to build an installation reminiscent of a three-dimensional bar-graph. Four bars of varying heights, made from stacked salt-lick blocks, stood before a steel scaffolding structure, atop of which sat four white vats with spigots pointing to corresponding towers of salt. The individual towers stood for iconic Asian figures: Mongolian conqueror Genghis Khan, Tokyo Rose (the name given by Allied forces to the English-speaking female broadcasters of Japanese propaganda during World War II), martial-arts star Bruce Lee and Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. The weight and density of each tower of salt blocks represented an estimate of how much caloric energy each person consumed during his or her reign of influence. The vats contained synthetic sweat that Joo created in collaboration with endocrinologists from Yale, with each vat dripping the artificial liquid onto its corresponding tower, gradually eroding the salt blocks over the course of the exhibition. Joo describes The Saltiness of Greatness as resulting from a sense of anxiety about his background as a scientist. “Having studied science, there was a frustration of potentially fulfilling a stereotype, and having to live down what I couldn’t control,” the artist explained, adding that the project was, in essence, an arch-commentary on this idea. “I wanted to use a very authoritative language—a language of mathematics, science, observation and data—to try to play with the notion of stereotyping,” said Joo. While exploring the “role” of a scientist-turned-artist, Saltiness was also a study of the Asian stereotype, scientifically breaking down the relevance of historic Asian icons known in Western popular culture.
These “calculations” were a result of Joo’s rigorous research, which involved poring through numerous historical and scientific references. In the case of Genghis Khan, for instance, Joo studied the diet of the Mongols during the period of his empire, the details of his numerous war campaigns, as well as the tales of his legendary sexual exploits, to estimate the number of calories that he might have consumed in his lifetime. Though Joo admits that his research data is ultimately speculative, he theorized that Genghis Khan consumed the most calories, and created his tower to be the tallest among the four salt structures.
Salt is also a significant element of Salt Transfer Cycle (1994), a three-part video documenting a series of performances that took place in New York’s Chinatown, the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, and the northern mountains of South Korea, near the Korean demilitarized zone. Each segment shows the artist undergoing a different feat of endurance—though Joo himself prefers to see them as unplanned “challenges” that he encountered during the course of the performance. For the first part, a naked Joo swims in a glass case filled with 2,000 pounds of monosodium glutamate (MSG), a massive pit of dry, white powder, at his then-studio in Chinatown. As he sweeps his arms repeatedly through the powder, the MSG chafes his skin and he is seen bleeding from tiny cuts all over his body. (Only later did he learn that he is, in fact, allergic to the food additive). No matter how hard he struggles, he is only able to swim in place within the tank. In the second part, he is seen crawling along the vast desert salt flats and licking the ground (with his tongue bleeding from the sharpness of the crystals), and then walking and running across the desert, becoming caked in the white salt. In the final part, Joo sits on the grass in the mountains of South Korea, where he is eventually approached by wild elk that lick off a layer of salt covering his body.
Salt Transfer Cycle is, in a sense, a play on the stages of evolution, through which the artist gradually moves from swimming to crawling to walking and, finally, to running. It is also a representation of the cycle of energy. The MSG in the first part represents synthetic energy, which in the second part is used to walk and run across the salt flats. The salt that sticks to the body is then returned to nature, being consumed by elk in the third part, thus completing the transference of energy from humans back to nature.
In addition to salt, another recurring motif in Joo’s work is animals. The elk, which appeared in Salt Transfer Cycle, is also the subject of several editions of “Improved Rack” (1999– ), a series of wall-mounted, real-life antlers that have been sectioned into pieces and held together by stainless-steel rods. Playing on the traditional presentation of hunters’ trophies, the rods provide interruptions to the natural, asymmetrical shape of the antlers, giving a more aesthetically balanced and human-made look to the sculptures. “I don’t think of them as having overt symbolism, but my choices of specific animals all have a significance for me,” said Joo. The elk, in particular, holds a transcultural relevance for him. Joo explained that in Western culture the elk—and more specifically, the stag—is a symbol of virility and strength, and in Eastern culture the animal (particularly its antlers) is part of homeopathic traditions and medicines associated with fertility, longevity and vitality. But more than the elk itself, its horn is a particular point of interest for Joo: “I see the elk as kind of a vehicle for the antlers, and as a factory that manufactures them—maybe we wouldn’t call them ‘products,’ but it is something that the elk makes.” The antlers are shed every year, after which the elk “makes” them again; and in that regard, Joo considers them to be organic “readymades” that are found in nature.
The zebra is another beast that is often featured in Joo’s work, including Stripped (Instinctual) (2005), an anatomically correct, musculature sculpture of the animal. Here, the epoxy sculpture has a white, striped pattern—made as a quarter-inch relief—across its muscled body. It is often mistakenly read by viewers to be the white stripes of the zebra, when, in fact, the pattern represents the removal, or inhibition, of the animal’s black pigmentation. In focusing on this common misunderstanding of the zebra’s stripes, Stripped addresses the issue of perception and more broadly explores the cultural and societal biases that lead to varied assumptions about others’ identity. With the zebra, Joo said he is also interested in the binary motif—black and white, negative and positive space, inside and outside, foreign and familiar—which he has also explored in works such as Stubbs (Absorbed) (2009), where he sculpted a zebra based on an 18th-century painting of the animal by George Stubbs, and Doppelganger (Pink Rocinante) (2009), a pink-colored bronze cast of a mold of Stubbs.
Following his incorporation of real elk antlers and other natural objects into his sculptures, Joo expanded on the idea of “readymade” art by using existing cultural artifacts to create multimedia installations such as Bodhi Obfuscatus (Space Baby) (2005). Bodhi Obfuscatus’ most recent iteration was the one shown in Asia Society Hong Kong’s inaugural exhibition “Transforming Minds: Buddhism in Art,” in February this year, featuring a third-century-BCE Z Buddha statue belonging to the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection from the Asia Society Museum. The head of the Buddha statue is situated within a space-helmet-like structure, two feet in diameter and made up of an orb of 50 live surveillance cameras. Images of the Buddha’s face, captured by these cameras, are then displayed on ten television screens placed throughout the gallery, while 90 mirrors situated around the statue reflect images of the videos, as well as those of visitors walking around the installation.
First commissioned by the Asia Society Museum in New York in 2005, Bodhi Obfuscatus has been shown in other forms with different historic sculptures. In one such instance, for the 2006 Gwangju Biennale, a Maitreya Buddha sculpture was loaned from the Daewon temple in South Korea, where it was still in use as a religious monument, and was temporarily removed from its spot atop a mountain. Bodhi Obfuscatus aims to bring these cultural relics closer to contemporary viewers, and invites the audience to individually reconstruct and reinterpret the image of the Buddha’s face, as experienced in the present through the medium of multiple monitors and projections. Discussing the installation’s use of multimedia, Joo described “a continual process of disengagement from intimacy,” through technology, whereby the more advanced technology is the more users can forget about its presence. But Joo said that this sense of “disengagement” is not necessarily good or bad. Rather, it allows one to step back and see the world and surrounding communities as an infrastructure or a map—which may or may not lead to a further understanding of these entities.
When I visited Joo’s studio in July, he was working on a new installation that also incorporates cultural artifacts, a piece that is set to debut at the Gwangju Biennale in September. The beginnings of the project were laid out across his studio: a single, clear riot shield hung from the ceiling and sculptures of household and miscellaneous objects, in various stages of production, were sitting on several tables. Pulling out a mock-up illustration of the final installation, Joo explained that there will be many more of the riot shields, and together they will form the “tiles” of a wavy, roof structure like that found in traditional East-Asian architecture. The roof will be an arching curve of 108 shields, which is a reference to the number that is considered sacred in many Eastern religions and traditions, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism. According to Buddhist beliefs, 108 is said to be the total number of earthly desires possessed by man. They are believed to make one’s life simultaneously pleasurable and painful (based on the teaching that desire is the root of suffering), and seen as “defilements” that must be overcome to reach nirvana.
The shields will be hung from the ceiling, with a series of objects—cast and sculpted in oil clay—suspended below, each representing ideas of time, culture, geography, nature or technology. “They’re Freudian objects in a way, but also meant to connote a kind of individuality,” said Joo. “They are about encounters, intimacy and communication; and so there are cell phones, pistols, things that are discovered, or hunted and kept, extinct cranes, and things that are Asian—but obscurely Asian—like a flask from the Korean War or a traditional Korean backpack. I like the idea of rippling and overlapping narratives, formed unintentionally by the collective presence of the personal effects of different individuals from across time and space.” They are also objects that represent the pleasure and pain of life, and the 108 riot shields perhaps reflect the protective or harmful effect that human desire has on society. The riot shields can also be seen as a local reference, particularly to Gwangju, which in 1980 was the setting for the Democratization Movement—one of the most significant uprisings in modern Korean history. Combined with the sculptures of household, traditional and other cultural objects, Joo hopes to track a loose history of local identity and culture.
Later this year, and into the new year, Joo will undertake a Smithsonian Artist Residency Fellowship at the Smithsonian Art Museum in Washington, DC. In a recent email, Joo explained that he will be “shadowing experts [from the Smithsonian’s technology department] in digital imaging and exhibitions to research and learn without the pressure of having to produce anything.” He hopes to study the advanced 3D scanning and printing technologies that are available at the museum.
In this way, Joo continues to broaden the materials with which he works, creating projects that reiterate yet transform objects that exist in nature and in human culture. As hybrids of elements that are seemingly at odds—whether it is science and art, wilderness and domesticity, or energy and inertia—as well as being products of research, Joo’s pieces explore the nature of different peoples, places and objects. Because, for him, it is important that each entity has an unfixed identity; that it can be seen as a type of channel communicating the fluidity of society and culture.