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Installation view of JEON BYEONG SAM’s “Fold & Unfold,” at The Columns Gallery, Singapore, 2021. All images courtesy The Columns Gallery.

“Fold & Unfold” the Universe With Jeon Byeong Sam

The Columns Gallery
Singapore Korea, South

The title of South Korean artist Jeon Byeong Sam’s first solo exhibition at The Columns Gallery in Singapore takes surprising inspiration from scientist David Bohm’s writings on quantum physics. Bohm imagined the universe as an infinite sea of space and energy, out of which matter could be enfolded and unfolded together in a “flowing, undivided wholeness. Every part of the universe is related to every other part but in different degrees.”

“Fold & Unfold” began with the formal element of the line. The majority of the artworks were created by stacking folded colored photographs together, displaying the multitudinous colored lines of their exposed edges. Walking into the white cube space, one was confronted by a video, installations, and photographic prints that are almost all composed of vibrant, technicolor lines of varying widths. They resemble barcodes dyed with shocking pigments, or a glitch flickering across a TV screen. Some of these colorful bands have even been manipulated into an array of aesthetically pleasing, if bland, stock patterns, like an ocean wave or a flower blossom.

JEON BYEONG SAM, Chinese, Japanese & Korean Bills, 2021, 1000 half folded photographs stacked, 35 × 136 cm.

Yet, the wall captions of these eerily similar artworks ran the gamut of explaining them as anything from a socio-political commentary on capitalist consumption, to an esoteric rumination on time. Jeon’s diptych Wave (2021), for instance, intended to allude to the sea trade economy between the East and West. Hundreds of folded photographic prints of currency notes from various national economies around the globe are meticulously stacked and molded into two wavy forms. One is invited to trace the curved, ridged lines of the prints, and to make out the distinctive reds and purples of the Chinese renminbi or the green of the US dollar. But any attempt to discern the face of Mao Zedong or Benjamin Franklin from this gradated mass of colors is futile. Abstracted and freed from the rules of representation, the colored line becomes the common denominator in Jeon’s artworks, linking together their disparate, and sometimes chaotic, range of subject matter. It begins to speak of Bohm’s theory of an interconnected universe.

In keeping with the exhibition’s quantum physics theme, the wondrous images of distorted lines and cosmos-like swirls may be said to resemble hypothetical wormholes: intergalactic portals into alternate realities. London Tower Bridge (2019) intimates this fantastical idea. The exhibition’s press release describes Jeon’s artistic practice as a process-based one: strategic processes of appropriation and rearrangement to large quantities of data, both digital and physical, are employed to interrogate his belief that things only gain visibility through disappearance. Accordingly, there is an iconoclastic irreverence to the way Jeon has digitally stripped apart and repurposed an image of London’s Tower Bridge into a looped digital video boldly projected at the gallery’s entrance. Saturated bands of indigo, bronze, and cream dissolve across the screen in place of the original Tower Bridge, giving the impression of the national landmark having collapsed in on itself, and with it, the line between fiction and reality.

JEON BYEONG SAM, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, 2020, digital print on aluminum, 150 × 150 cm.

JEON BYEONG SAM, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, 2020, digital print on aluminum, 150 × 150 cm.

But the exhibition’s ambitious vision to assert the wholeness of this folding and unfolding universe fell flat in the face of its overly simplistic curatorial strategies. Repetitious images of these colored stripes started to become interchangeable from each other once their wall captions were ignored. Possibly the only series to provide a much-needed break from this was Unfold (2020), an intriguing diptych compiling data sequentially from books. One part, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, processes text from Yuval Noah Harari’s bestseller of the same name into a strange cross between a digital archive and a planet emitting golden flares of light. Chunks of text on the vast continuum of human history become strung together without a clear beginning or end in perhaps the exhibition’s most ingenious evocation of the “flowing, undivided wholeness” of Bohm’s enfolding and unfolding universe across time and space.

Jeon Byeong Sam’s “Fold & Unfold” was on view at The Columns Gallery, Singapore, from July 1 to August 27, 2021.

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