Enormous Eyes
Forbidden Fruit in Mumbai
  Curated by Ligyung
Hyungmin Moon Ligyunug
Jeon Joonho Sea Hyun Lee
Kira Kim Lee Yongbaek
  3 - 11  December,  2010


Enormous Eyes –
6 Leading Figures of Korean Contemporary Art

The exhibition of six Korean artists that I am now viewing in India is the symbolic figures launching a fleet of new artists in Korean contemporary art. I use this description most importantly because these artists are a warning to Western-centrism, and have long been separated from it. However, they don’t follow logic or issues of post-colonialism. They are evaluated as a symbol of Korea’s contemporary art because they all catch the peculiar mood of various spots of Korean society and build an inevitable narrative of sensibility made from a clash of circumstances. Here, narrative is not the long-winded account of a simple story but a story of inevitability that completes an inner structure.

Secondly, these are artists whose art coincides with their own lives. Such an art – on which the artist stakes his or her life – is one that is most difficult and weary, but great. This is particularly more so in the trait of Korean society’s toadying toward the West. Keywords that can summarize the nation of Korea are the US’s sphere of influence and the development of a dictatorship. Korea’s military dictatorship under the protection of the US dominated all other powers; as the foundation of its existence, the military authority propagated the strong pretext of developing economies or returning their economic power in the level of Western nations to Korean people. A clash with power that pursues freedom, human rights, and morality also can be regarded as the history of Korea. The history of the two powers has not yet ended, but is ongoing. The mission and holy will of Korea is peaceful reunification between the South and North, and the accomplishment of harmonic life between generations and regions. Since this mission has not yet been completed, all absurdities and evil flower endlessly appear. For this reason, the series, ‘The Angel Soldiers’ by Lee Yongbaek and ‘Between Reds’ by Lee Seahyun cannot help but be symbols of Korea’s current art - I will describe this later. The following is my explanation regarding the avant-garde spirit of these six artists. Korea’s avant-garde spirit, that of these six artists in particular, is more peculiar and bolder than that of the West. As everyone knows, the avant-garde of the West is a position-centralized spirit that seeks an exit from past values and existing powers and occupies its own position. Its idea contains a revolutionary aspect that happens within historic contexts, the art world, and artistic locations. On the contrary, the avant-garde spirit of these six artists does not deal with the context and range of Korean art but with the history of Korea and the subject of attacking and overthrow. To be more precise, it copes with the subject of overcoming. As another important point, it is quite meaningful and profound that they do not pursue a violent overthrow, but rather adopt a peaceful gesture that suggests the reconsideration of values. For example, in ‘The Angel Soldiers’ by Lee Yongbaek, the soldiers who hold flowers instead of guns are a peaceful gesture beyond a simple tautology, and is a suggestion for our awareness of change that warns and surpasses beautiful fakery and camouflage, and even sentimentalism. ‘Between Reds’ by Lee Seahyun is not a simple red landscape. There is a peculiar landscape in Korea, called the DMZ. Born in the 1960s, he experienced the hope and despair of Korea’s pro-democracy movement, and has personal memories of a painful scar caused by the division between the two Koreas, which is carved deep into his heart. To him, the DMZ is love and hatred toward his homeland and the source of his pure artistic will. The beautiful and sad landscape that he looked at through an infrared telescope is the start of his red landscape. Furthermore, it is an homage toward landscape painting that has developed within the bitter history of the Korean peninsula for thousands of years, and is a declaration of the separation from the dominance of Greek and Roman cultures that are the center of Western culture and the core of ill-balanced, biased concepts - that is, perspective drawing. At the same time, his red landscape is a message to our society in which he claims a new, alternative, and harmonic life from our point of view.

However, since the 1990s, Korea’s society has faced an extreme polarization. A strange phenomenon has happened in which one class possesses wealth and the other does not. Accordingly, the spiritual values or pursuit of personality have been thrown away, and a morbid syndrome in which people put their all possessions onto only economic values has been expanding. As the goal of Korean society lies in the accumulation of wealth rather than loyalty and duty, Korean society has become a giant mental asylum. At this time, the warriors who fight again these trends in Korea are Moon Hyungmin, Jeon Joonho, Ligyung, and Kim Kira.

Moon Hyungmin created ‘General MacArthur in Sugar,’ that is, a sweet Toadyism to the US made from Sugar, which contains his wish that Toadyism to the US will be corroded and that Korea’s own independent perception and history will be born. And his painting of statistic analysis looks seemingly similar with minimalist painting, but it is a sarcastic landscape in which he views an aspect of the nature of media conquering Korea and the world through the prism of statistics.

Kim Kira is a critical epic against the mammon, spectacular society of Korea that comes to be sharpened due to isolation and the conflict of polarization. His works symbolize blindness, greed, arrogance, envy, impetuosity, and so on. Jeon Joonho also offers an opportunity to develop self-consciousness that loses its power before mammonism. The message that he throws toward sins such as material blindness, toadyism, and biased thinking system is the universal truth, ‘Memento Mori’. In this way, the language of Ligyung is also similar. This artist, who is famous as an installation artist, turns on the lights of a squid boat in the show hall and suggests the loophole of our perception through a space-specific change technique that utilizes the incompleteness of our space awareness. This artist emphasizes that the blindness of human perception is like a huge seawall, and is a dead end that can never be broken even with a hammer; however, it is a subject that one day will be and can be cured through a switch of perception.

Currently, Korea is the only divided nation in the world and is still under sharp tension. There are not many things that we can do within this tragic valley. However, the visions for our lives that the six artists suggest can be summarized as follows.

1)    1)  A subtraction of everything that claims only future-biased values while discoloring current values.

2)    2)  The creation of a place fit to live in, rather than the pursuit of a more enhanced place.

3)    3)  Replacing morals as a tool by morals as a principle.

4)    4)  Behaviors that we endlessly practice, and that are consistent with each other, that is, the everlasting faith and loyalty

5)    5)  Making an agreed blindness a fool, that is, approving those whose have developed a desire to understand meaning.

 6)   6)  Deleting one by one everything that has made humankind miserable through history, such as torture, martyrdom, and violent politics, that is, never breaking an egg to make an omelette of politics again.

The small principles of these six artists are small, but are great resources that can develop Korea as a better nation. To remember them, I will now explain each artist by listing their works. 

Lee Yong-baek is acclaimed for his original media installations. Until recently, media art in Korea, as well as other installation arts were, at best, a mere imitation of Western styles—with clever modifications, but without a deeper understanding of their contents. On the contrary, Lee has endeavored to develop a new Korean style. Based on his knowledge and intuition on media art that he acquired while studying in Germany, he incorporates Korean—or, more broadly, Asian—lifestyles and values in his work, which is characterized by the distortion of established symbolism and violation of conceptual stereotypes.

One of Lee’s exhibits, “Pieta,” adopts the iconography of the Virgin Mary in the form of a hermaphrodite cyborg and its mold. In this work, agents in virtual space violate the sanctity of religion, revealing the reality of today’s world in which actors of virtual reality replace humans even in sacred rituals and symbolism. As an expressing of our contemporary society, fraught with distrust, material pursuits and self-centeredness, “Pieta” alludes to the reality of Korea, and of Asia in general, by overturning symbolism and distorting an accepted meaning system. This original approach is a novelty in Korean art. 

Kim Kira is more active, satirical, challenging and profound. He refers to his work as “Super Mega Factory,” but the term is a departure from Andy Warhol’s Factory, as a venue of artistic reproduction and accumulation, nor is it a repetition of the artistic evangelism, or the concept of ubiquitous art, as reflected in Joseph Beuys’ statement, “Everyone is an artist.” Kim’s Super Mega Factory represents his active attempt to consume all the fragmented artistic concepts by melting them in a furnace which is the artist himself.

Kim Kira’s creative consumption can be summarized into four methods: First, he infiltrates himself into the context of Western art history; second, he places his art against the backdrop of mythology, of heroes and Pax Americana; third, he attacks invisible forces expounded in The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord; and fourth, he lands a critical blow to the followers of ancient Greek and Roman aesthetics who entertain secret fantasies of Orientalism (In fact, with its feminine, emotional, anti-rational and mysterious metaphors, the term Orientalism itself is an insult to Asian people.). Kim’s work, which destroys the superfluous Western concepts in the furnace of his Mega Factory, is not a display of a blind resistance to the West. Rather, it is the product of his existential progressivism deeply ingrained in his mind. It is a profound compound of his New Leftist vision and meditative Buddhist ideas, which leads him to liken all the systems of power and status, as well as capital and the spectacle, to a “mirage palace.” 

Lee Seahyun is the initiator and leader of the DAZ movement. Coined from the military term DMZ (demilitarized zone), DAZ stands for “de-artized” zone. Lee interprets such terms as modernism, postmodernism, pluralistic art and altermodern as a sign that Western paradigms are afflicted with serious ailments. Even familiar terms like modernism and postmodernism are, in fact, indefinable, but exist as a vague set of ideas and concepts. DAZ tries to break away from the obscure discourses and concepts of the West to develop original forms of art. A de-artized zone, or a zone free of art in a conventional sense of the word, serves this purpose.

Lee Seahyun paints the mountains and rivers of Korea in red. The law of perspective, one of the most important achievements of the ancient Greek and Roman artistic tradition, is ignored in his paintings. In addition, he does not describe the landscape as viewed in reality but as imagined in a dream, as the 15th-century Korean painter An Gyeon did in his masterpiece, “Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land.” His technique is also traced back to the tradition of the 18th-century Korean painter Jeong Seon, who employed three different viewpoints in a single landscape painting. The red Lee uses in his landscapes expresses the unresolved sorrows from Korea’s early-modern history. It echoes the collective memory of Korea’s recent past, when the beautiful land was soaked in blood, shed by its people as they engaged in massacre, caught up in hatred and ideological conflicts. This historic tragedy, marked by its dreamlike cruelty, did not arise from within the country, but from the clash of ideologies imposed upon them by the outside world. The innocent people were sacrificed for the interest of small groups of people who share political ideas and privilege. Lee Seahyun’s paintings are a requiem for the perished souls, and its poetics of healing soothes the pains inflicted by the sad history of suffering. 

Jeon Joonho is willing to attempt to make people who are ruled by today’s media realize the truth. Western images and values have inundated mass media, eroding our minds. We simply look at the unfinished war in a casual manner. How can we be indifferent to our existence? How can we maintain a dry and dull attitude? This artist has chosen North Korean defectors, wars between siblings growing up in different societies, media such as the New York Times conquering the world, the specter of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, Nike, the Super Bowl, and so on as subjects, and has suggested to us that we must catch concrete historical truths to know the exact time and place of where we are.

Due to globalism, as the independence of a nation hands down its justification to mutual reliance and nationalism, the value of contemporary man is evaluated by his capital and competence. As an alternative to globalism, in a social condition in which ethical values and the base of esthetic life are shaken, Jeon Joonho presents an avant-garde spirit and the importance of the expansion of realization through art. 

Li Gyung is considered a representative figure in the art world of Korea and belongs to a group of leading figures. She belongs in such a distinguished group because she esthetically sublimates ethics on nature and the absurdity of our society. The major premise of her art is “Seeing is Believing? Or Believing is Seeing?” She talks about how believing what is seen is imperfect. For example, she covered a sculpture in the shape of a man with real and artificial ivy. A viewer who sees the work first does not know what is under the ivy. The flow of time itself is a truth that shows everything. Everything in the world changes, but the only unchangeable truth is that time flows. Li Gyung works under the dialectics of change and constancy. Everyone can know that the object is covered with ivy. Time flows. Real ivy withers. That is, it changes. Fake ivy does not change. As the real ivy dies, the truth that a man is under it is revealed. One nature of contemporary society is that real and fake things are vaguely divided. Ceaselessly revealing nature is the mission of Li Gyung who lives today as an artist. 

Moon Hyungmin touches on the varying nature of a ‘spectacular society.’ The most powerful media may include the New York Times, Financial Times, Vogue, Playboy, and so on. This artist actually scanned the New York Times with a scanner and made it into a text file. Then, he selected the words used most in the text, and rated them from 1 to 10 according to their frequency. In first place was Obama, the second money, the third Bernanke, the fourth politics, the sixth Microsoft, and so on. He painted them onto a canvas in order, contrasting the colors of the words. His work is visualizing the words used most in our brains, and is an attempt to symbolize and abstracize our ‘spectacular society.’ His painting is a material journey that moves the general concept of people on the outside world into the canvas. A viewer who witnesses the process ends up taking part in the attempt to create a spectacle on himself/herself in the simple position of a spectator. 

Lee Jinmyung, Critic


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