by Douglas Messerli
Lynn Zelevansky, Christine Starkman, and Sun Jung Kim (curators) Your Bright Future: 12 Contemporary Artists from Korea / Los Angeles County Museum of Art
As a admirer of contemporary Korean literature (publisher of major Korean poet Ko Un) and given the large Korean population of my city, I wanted very much to love the new show of Korean artists at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, located across the street from my home and my nearby office. This show does indeed give some glimmers of excellent art.
While the show was located primarily in the Eli Broad wing of the museum, the entire Ahmanson Building across the plaza was festooned in ribbons of fabric in yellow, red, and blue, by Choi Jeong-Hwa, an artwork that, whipped up by the wind, snapped and seemingly waved out its title "Welcome," to the neighborhood even before the opening of the show. And as museum goers entered the plaza they were greeted by an equally festive and joyful piece also by Choi titled "Happy Happy," a work made up of hanging plastic tubs, bins, strainers, bowels, funnels, and pitchers, all purchased from the nearby 99-cent Only Store. The latter work, a celebration of consumerism, was particularly beautiful, lit up so that the colors glowed in the night.
The first piece of the show, Do Ho Suh's "Fallen Star 1/5" was a definite knock out, picturing a replica of his home in Seoul where the artist grew up that has crashed into the a Providence, Rhode Island apartment house where Suh lived in the early 1990s while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design. The apartment, split literary in half—apparently by the crash of the Korean home—is filled with miniature furniture, reading materials, clothing, kitchen utensils, etc. with which Suh surrounded himself, and as the viewer goes from window to window to peer into the home and its contents, he witnesses what Suh describes as an "exposure of his life." The collision of the two buildings, Shu argues, signifies less of a outright statement of cultural differences than it does a kind of Wizard of Oz-like tale about cultural change:
I was in the house, making my first fabric architectural piece. All of a
of a sudden, there was a tornado that took the building into the sky. I
didn't know where I was going, but then I saw the ocean and a bridge from
Seoul to New York, so I knew that the house was heading to the U.S.
I realized the house was going down soon, so I finished my fabric
piece to use it as a parachute. I got scared when I realized that the house
was slowing down and I couldn't see land. I decided to throw things away,
but there were so many things I was personally attached to. I made a list
of things I possessed and prioritized them. It gave me time to reflect on
entire life in that house. Then I crossed off things on the list. In the end, I
decided to throw out pretty much everything except what was essential to
When the building started to descend, I went up on the roof with the
parachute. The house started to come down and crash, but it had a semi-
soft landing. And that's how I feel. Culture shock didn't come as a shock
to me. It took a long time. (quoted from an interview with the artist and
Suzanne Muchnic of the Los Angeles Times)
Accordingly, Shu's work is personalized, and given its great attention to detail, we recognize these houses as being objects of great personal love and beauty. Yet one cannot ignore the fact that not only has Shu had to deal with a kind of "cultural shock," but his home country is itself a house broken in two. A companion piece, made of translucent resin, presents a more idealized version of the specific, a kind of glowing white quartered house, which could presumably be reunited in various forms by rearranging the four carts on which it stands.
Were that all the artists in this show were capable of this multi-complexity. At first, artist KIMsooja's video, "A Needle Woman," projecting images of streets in Patan (Nepal), Havana, Rio de Janeiro, N'Djanema (Chad), San'a (Yemen), and Jerusalem—in front of each of which the artist herself stands with her back to the viewer—is fascinating to watch as the various walkers in each of these locations move together and apart evidencing the differences of the way people interrelate and simply communicate in these very different cultures. But, in the end, since one cannot truly enter these landscapes, we realize that the various differences we have observed are, in fact, superficial. For the videos keep us at bay, and we can never know or understand what truly being in those locations means through the art.
Similarly, throughout the rest of the show the various objects, tapes, videos, and packing materials seem more to stand in for experience than actually create new meaning or participate in the world. Bahc Yiso's "Your Bright Future," for example, consists of 10 floodlights, tilting to the sky, surrounded by the electrical wiring necessary to keep the lights bright. The curators suggest that the work mimics a crowd standing before a charismatic leader, demanding a kind of obedience to the "great" or "dear" leader. But the bright future, given that Bahc lived in New York from 1982 to 1994, could be any false promise, including that of the American dream or desire for celebrity.
Gimhongsok's videos and large stuffed animals, including a Harvey-sized rabbit laid out on a pink sofa, "Bunny's Sofa," suggests yet another take on the crass commercialism of all things "cute," but in the end seems to lack the political bite it wants to suggest.
Haegue Yang, indeed, queries the whole question of even attempting to make art by presenting a room full of small and large wooden storage containers filled, we are told, by art he was unable to sell in various venues. Here the all-important question of the artist's ability to pay for the storage of what he creates comes painfully into play. But like so much else in this show, it is a conceptual piece that leaves one with little to hold onto. An essay on the subject might have been as elucidating as the vision of so many wrapped bundles. How I wanted to open those carefully packed cartons and encounter what lay within.
It is not the "conceptual" quality of this show's art, however, of which I am complaining, but the vagueness and, often, emptiness, of the concepts themselves. The bright future of happiness which the various artists seem both to desire and satirize is just that, a unresolved contradiction that transforms any possible enjoyment of the art into an empty promise.
Los Angeles, July 12, 2009
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (July 2009).