SEUNG-IL CHUNG, Where Are You, 2014, mirror, wood, set of three: 82 × 200 × 173 cm, 147 × 180 × 156 cm, 287 × 156 × 135 cm. Courtesy Jang-Hwal Lim. 

When The Future Ended

Hite Collection
Korea, South

If art is a reflection of life, an exhibition that may have passed through the general consciousness as simply “a show of emerging artists” proved a little too prescient. Two months into “When The Future Ended,” at the Hite Collection in Seoul, the South Korean ferry Sewol carrying 476 passengers—mostly high-school students on a field trip—capsized. Nearly 300 people died, becoming South Korea’s worst civilian maritime disaster in 20 years. 

The title, “When the Future Ended,” was taken from the book Precarious Rhapsody (2009), by the Italian media-theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi. According to the book, the year 1977 marked the advent of personal computers and the growing gap between capitalism and labor. Thirty-seven years later, information technology has accelerated the economy of Korea, yet the struggles of the middle class remain largely the same. In the Hite Collection exhibition, works by 11 artists from the Millenial generation, or the “Peter Pan generation” (referred to in Korean as “’88-saedae,” “Sampojok” and “Yitaebaek”), centered around the idea that the precarious world of 1977, as seen through the eyes of Bifo, is not so different to what Korea is today. 

SYLBEE KIM, Song for M, 2013, found objects, dimensions variable. Courtesy Jang-Hwal Lim. 

The works in the exhibition told stories of this generation’s personal experiences with the earning and employment gap that resulted from the global financial crisis of 2008, and their anxieties toward committing to the traditional rites of passage into adulthood. In the context of this recent economic disaster, the artists’ perceived lack of vision, sense of abandonment and feelings of despair did not seem like the over indulgence of a particular social group. In fact, they seemed too relevant at a time when the nation was forced to reflect upon their economic, governmental and judicial structure that had propelled its accelerated growth, but had also built up misplaced values and priorities that ultimately led to the Sewol Ferry disaster.

The exhibition was installed across two floors. In the larger gallery downstairs, Seung-il Chung’s installation of pyramidal mirrors in different shapes and angles encircled a permanent installation by Do Ho Suh. While Suh’s Cause & Effect (2007) loomed over the exhibition, Chung’s Where Are You (2014) reflected fragments of the space around it. The irony of this emerging artists’ exhibition having to work around a large-scale work by one of Korea’s best-known artists was hard to ignore. Nearby, Song for M (2013), an installation by Sylbee Kim, comprised of found objects and a single-channel video, expressed the conflict between ethics and her pursuit for self-recognition.

JUNGAH LEEYANG, (top) 300/20 Project, Casting Seoul, 2011–12, cement, dimensions variable; (bottom) 300/20 Housing Information Map, 2011, print on paper, 84 × 55 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

If Kim’s work is a visualization of an abstract notion, Jungah LeeYang’s “300/20 Project,” which was also shown on the downstairs floor, is a startling articulation of the material challenges faced by the artist’s generation. The project is based on LeeYang’s personal experience of searching for housing in Seoul. With a budget of 200,000 KRW (approximately USD 200) a month and security deposit of 3,000,000 KRW (approximately USD 3,000), an online apartment finder matched her with 0.6% of the 9,935 rentals listed in Seoul, located in 33 of the city’s 467 neighborhoods. 300/20 Project, Casting Seoul (2011–12) consists of cement casts of these 33 neighborhoods that LeeYang could afford to live in. For seven apartments located in the neighborhoods that she could not afford, she marked off an area of the floor of each place that her budget would have allowed her. These areas were presented as C-prints, hung side by side, with the largest being 73 × 73 cm. In the most simplest terms, LeeYang externalizes the constraints endured by a large portion of the population.

Another standout was Byung-su Lee’s project, “Chasing Hope in Seoul” (2010–11), which documents his search for “hope.” One hundred and two snapshots of day-care centers, churches, apartment complexes and laundromats were placed side-by-side in the gallery upstairs. Upon closer inspection, viewers can see that the name of each of the photographed stores and buildings use the word “hope” in some shape or form. Placed at the far end of this piece, entitled 102 Pictures of Hope (2010), was the video Hope 2010 Seoul Summer (2010) playing on a tiny antiquated GPS device. In it, we see Lee entering the word “hope” in this same GPS device and biking to each of the 102 locations that showed up as search results. Though hope is a universal concept, the pervasiveness of the word in the naming of the most common enterprises was unexpected. The footage of Lee earnestly searching for the destinations, as he wipes away perspiration and dodges passing cars, brought to mind the image of a food deliverer, shattering the romanticism of “hope” with the sobering reality of the artist’s efforts.

More than ever, contemporary art seems to be an abstract notion with no immediate function or set boundaries—its purpose determined as much by the observer as it is by its creator. Yet it is this ambiguity that allows art to permeate our most intimate thoughts and take root in the most subtle ways. As the Sewol Ferry disaster unfolded on live television, the nation of Korea was united by grief and dismay over the causes, which were too innumerable to list. And though I had all been ambivalent to the Millenial generation’s woes, I realized this was not an isolated incident and found myself revisiting the exhibition, recognizing the relevance of their sentiments and concerns. 

BYUNGSU LEE, “Chasing Hope in Seoul”, 2010–11, digital pigment print, set of 20: 62.5 × 50 cm each. Courtesy the artist. 

Jayoon Choi is ArtAsiaPacific’s South Korea desk editor and founder of Dodooba, an online platform dedicated to promoting Korean contemporary art.