LEE BUL, installation view of Diluvium (2012/2016) and Majestic Splendor (2016) for the exhibition “Connect 1: Still Acts" at Art Sonje Center, Seoul, 2016. Courtesy Art Sonje Center. 

Connect 1: Still Acts

Art Sonje Center
Korea, South

Art Sonje Center’s first exhibition after a nine-month renovation, “Connect 1: Still Acts,” looks back at three female artists crucial to the institution’s history since its opening in 1995: Lee Bul, Chung Seoyoung and Sora Kim. Each has a floor of their own, where they are re-presenting past works, or variations on them, that had been shown at Art Sonje during the period 1998 to 2004. An opportunity to revisit—or to see for the first time—artworks from a period that is not quite “historical” yet, nor even fully in the past, “Still Acts” utilizes a variety of tactics of re-presentation and display to put the past back in play.

LEE BUL, Cyborg W1-W4, 1998, cast silicone, polyurethane filling and paint pigment, dimensions variable. Courtesy Studio Lee Bul. 

On level three is Lee Bul, who was the first artist to have a solo exhibition at Art Sonje, in 1998, and had occupied the same space just four years ago in 2012 with an undulating landscape of sloping plywood floors in “The Studio” portion of her mini-retrospective. This time around, the metal support structures of the previous installation, entitled Diluvium (2012), have been stripped of the plywood and placed on a floor covered in a patchwork of white cardboard fruit boxes. Suspended from the ceiling nearby are Lee’s partly dismembered white sculptures, Cyborg W1–W4 (1998). A couple of them are encased in pods of transparent plastic sheeting, which was also used to cocoon her wall-installation Majestic Splendor (1997), comprising 98 pouches of raw fish, each adorned with hand-sewn, beaded tiaras, representing the neglected role of female laborers in the Korean handicrafts industry. The latter has not been exhibited since 1997, when it was removed from display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, because the putrefaction proved to be too pungent. Going further back in Lee’s career, the walls of Art Sonje contain much earlier works from her membership in the artist collective MUSEUM, formed with Beom Kho, Sen Chung, Masato Nakamura and Seth Franklin Sydner. These pieces include a pair of paintings by Nak-Beom Kho, depicting closely cropped, chiseled male faces of mannequins, and black-and-white photographs of Nakamura’s sculptural works such as Car Cover (1991), which show two forms that each resemble the shape of a car—one rounded and the other square-edged. Lee’s sound work White Noise (2000), which extracts scenes from films so that they sound like ambient chatter, and Amateurs (1999), a video of adolescent girls in school uniforms in a forest, underscore Lee’s more radical feminism that paved the way for her interest in the spectacular forms of futuristic modernist utopianism that have underpinned her installations since 2007. 

Installation view of NAK-BEOM KHO‘s Mannequin paintings from 1993 with LEE BUL’s installation Diluvium (2012/2016) for “Connect 1: Still Acts” at Art Sonje Center, Seoul, 2016. Courtesy Art Sonje Center.

CHUNG SEOYOUNG, Flower, 1999, Styrofoam, wood and house paint, 210 × 300 × 250 cm. Courtesy Art Sonje Center, Seoul. 

The second floor of Art Sonje contains four sculptural pieces, three of which have been installed in the exact same position as they were in a 2000 exhibition of Chung Seoyung, whose works hover in in-betweens. Lookout (1999), for instance, resembles a military outpost, or a forest-fire warden’s station, with a wooden ladder leading up to a platform, like a bunk-bed for an adolescent child half the average size. Architecture in form, but sculptural in scale (being 2.1 meters in total height), it is a model for nothing specific that nevertheless still looks like a model. Similarly, Flower (1999) is a kind of wry sculptural paradox: four white Styrofoam blocks with absurdly chunky proportions, with one leaning against a white plinth in what barely recalls that cliché embodiment of beauty and frailty. Gatehouse (2000), an altar-sized plywood depiction of a guard-house, with a round light bulb on its surface, refers more explicitly to a reference running through all of the works: the replacement of many traditional materials in Korean life with industrial ones—plywood and linoleum for wood and paper flooring—as unloveliness becomes form. A final work, I Don’t Know About the Ear (2016), resembling the ear of a goblin and pinned to the wall, is the relic of the performance work The Adventure of Mr. Kim and Mr. Lee (two of the most common surnames in Korea) (2010–12), in which a live performer wearing a prosthetic ear stood motionless like a sculpture and, like the artificial body part itself, straddled the line between states of being object and prop, human and mythical. 

The ground floor contains Sora Kim’s “Library Project” (2004), comprising functional shelves awaiting books donated by the audience. The last time the project was shown, the final tally of donations numbered 1,106 books—some of which were used as the basis for performances. This time, there were around 100 at the exhibition’s opening, situated on otherwise empty white shelves standing in the gallery. Daily performances based on passages in the books—including a performer drawing in water on the walls and tabletop surfaces, in Book of Liquid Pages (2016)—are held with the intent of activating the space; but, curiously, they seem to have almost the opposite effect, signaling the inability to create the time, place and effects of Kim’s original project. Maybe there have been too many library projects since 2004, or too little time has elapsed to see this work anew. Then again, perhaps Kim knew that the work’s un-romanticized presentation also anticipated this failure and inability. Sometimes the most recent past feels the most outdated. 

CHUNG SEOYOUNG, Lookout, 1999, wood and glass, 210 × 120 × 88 cm. Courtesy Art Sonje Center, Seoul. 

“There are many ways to historicize the past,” writes curator Sunjung Kim in her introductory essay, which is an under- and over-statement at the same time, but is befitting for an art space that has accrued a real institutional legacy (yet few objects), and remains committed to the present. Looking through the span of catalogues in the basement—next to a new wall painting by Soon-young Kwon imagining Christmas celebrations for the victims of the 2014 Sewol ferry accident—and at Sen Chung’s abstractions that use elementary forms, displayed alongside photocopied newspaper clippings about Art Sonje’s past shows (Lee Bul herself was plainly recognizable), it seemed that the institution’s momentum is still directed toward the future, even when it pauses to reconsider its past.

The sense of time has clearly changed in the art world. Once the race was to establish new spaces to show the newest art—especially at times and in places when it had no visibility. Now that contemporary art has been largely co-opted by major museums to boast their attendance numbers (the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, next door to Art Sonje, is a prime example), to attract private financing and to redress their previous political oversights, and given the rapidity of turnover in a saturated marketplace, there’s been a tendency away from this consumer-oriented model at independently run spaces. How then to show critical, new art without effacing the recent past? Art Sonje’s institutional desire to keep alive, but not historicize its past is mirrored outside, where Jun Yang has renovated a hanok (a traditional Korean house) into a café and bookshop, freeing up their respective spaces on the art center’s ground floor for the exhibitions. As Yang explained, the hanok was built in the 1990s and “is a re-interpretation of something traditional—thus a copy of sorts. The fact that it is a ‘fake’ hanok makes it more interesting to me than if it would have been a real, century-old hanok.” This makes intuitive sense in a city where most of the historical palaces and sites were rebuilt in the late 20th century, following their destruction under Japanese occupation (1910–45). But the case is slightly different with contemporary art—which is premised in large part on a post-historical, post-teleological worldview that should, by its own definition, defy historicization. By re-presenting, and re-circulating three past shows, in three very different ways, Art Sonje rescues them from that determination, for now. Or at least until we all start talking about “post-contemporary art.” 

“Connect 1: Still Acts” is on view at Art Sonje Center, Seoul, until November 20, 2016.

Sora Kim, Library, 2016, 96 donated books. Installation view for “Connect 1: Still Acts” at Art Sonje Center, Seoul, 2016. Courtesy Art Sonje Center.

HG Masters is editor at large of ArtAsiaPacific. 

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