Four talented young Korean artists. Two cities at the heart of the global contemporary art scene. One dazzling art exhibition that brings them all together. On Wednesday, October 24, the Korean Cultural Service NY, in collaboration with the Korean Cultural Center in Berlin, hosted an opening reception for the New York-Berlin Exchange Exhibition at Gallery Korea. Titled “The Body in Languages,” the special art exhibit features the works of Ankabuta and Hyoun-Jung Sung from Berlin and Miru Kim and Sun You, who are based in New York. All four artists are young stars in the contemporary Korean art scene who are noted for pushing the envelope on the limits of artistic expression and creativity. On the exhibition’s opening night, dozens of art enthusiasts and curious visitors strolled through the gallery space, often pausing to contemplate the pieces before them and to pose questions to the artists, who generally seemed happy to talk about their work.
Dozens of visitors attended the NY-Berlin Exchange Exhibition's opening night. (Photo by Regina Kim)
Directly over the entrance to the gallery, about 2,000 black acrylic ants are plastered to the ceiling and the adjacent wall. The very sight of this sprawling ant colony seemed to incite horror among many of the visitors that night, including myself. But upon hearing a detailed explanation from the artist, Ankabuta (whose real name is Song-ie Seuk), my initial reaction of shock and disgust turned into a feeling of fascination and introspection.
“My installation varies depending on the exhibition space,” said Ankabuta in Korean. “This time, as I was taking the New York subway, I noticed the dark train tracks and rats crawling over them, and thought that was fun to see. As I was watching this, images started coming together in my mind. The ants can represent people, or even rats. Notice the places where I marked subway stations like ‘14th Street’ or ‘59th Street’—I tried to give some hints. And that’s why I titled this, ‘The Life of New York City.’”
Ameisen (The Life of New York City), 2012 (Photo by Regina Kim)
When asked why she chose the name “Ankabuta,” she replied in Korean, “Ankabuta is the Arabic term for a female spider. And in Germany, if you say, ‘Spinnst du?’ (from the German verb spinnen), it can be like asking a spider if it’s spinning a web, but it can also mean ‘Are you crazy?’ I thought it sounded like a fun name and figured I had nothing to lose, so I used it when I began my early works and have been using it ever since. People seem to think it’s a cool name, and besides, you need a little bit of craziness to do art in the first place, so I thought it was appropriate.”
Ankabuta’s other works on display at the exhibit include a miniature latex model of her own head (complete with her own real hair!), a video clip of her creating a labyrinth-like pattern in the snow using her feet, and a series of beautifully drawn sketches titled “Made in Germany.” The first drawing in the series particularly stands out, as it depicts an elderly, stately gentleman. “It’s a portrait of a German politician I saw in the newspaper one day,” explained Ankabuta. “I drew him because I thought he looked very typically German. My professors liked the drawing, so I began thinking about other quintessentially German things that I could draw. So my second drawing in the series was that of a German shepherd. And finally, I decided to draw a potato, since many Germans like to eat potatoes.”
Artist Ankabuta posing in front of "Made in Germany" with
the latex model of her head in her hand (Photo by Regina Kim)
To the left of Ankabuta’s work, in a corner alcove of the gallery, stands a gigantic, brightly-colored, cow-shaped sculpture, the creation of Berlin-based artist Hyoun-Jung Sung. From a distance, the “Monster Cow,” as it is titled, looks somewhat like a harmless, oversized piñata that has lost its string. However, a close-up view of the lumpy creature reveals numerous images of a person’s derriere…and then some.
“I took pictures of my own naked body and then manipulated the photos using my computer,” said Hyoun-Jung Sung in Korean. “I thought it might be fun to reveal my body for everyone to see, and then to watch their reactions.” A patchwork of feathers, cell phone accessories, and pieces of fabric containing lewd images, the cow would certainly come across as a beautiful monstrosity to many observers.
Artist Hyoun-Jung Sung in front of her "Monster Cow" (Photo by Regina Kim)
Hanging on a wall diagonally opposite from the cow is a colorful, flower-shaped clock. From afar, the images that cover the sculpture appear to be innocent depictions of flowers or fruit—interspersed with some abstract designs—but upon closer inspection, many visitors were surprised to find that they were actually representations of male and female genital organs. “I’ve drawn various sex positions,” the artist said frankly.
Sexual images aside, one obvious similarity between the two sculptures is that both are brightly-colored and immediately stand out against the gallery’s white walls. Another similarity, though less noticeable, is that both of her works on display contain an owl figurine. “The owl is actually the main subject of my artwork,” explained Sung in Korean. “There is one owl in each of my pieces. For example, the owl is hung from a necklace in ‘Monster Cow,’ and in ‘Clock for Fun Sex,’ the owl is a clock. The owl is detachable and can be placed elsewhere in the pieces to vary the angle of its gaze. I’ve installed an owl in every piece because it appears to be silently watching people’s reactions to my work.”
Clock for Fun Sex (2011) (Photo by Regina Kim)
Sung noted Hieronymus Bosch, a Dutch painter known for his religious paintings, to be one of her influences. “He hid an owl in most of his works,” she explained. “Interpreted religiously, the owl can represent God who watches us, which also implies that our impure actions are being watched too. I studied the works of Bosch and thought it would be fun to have the owl theme in my works as well.
“People have become more open about sexuality, but there is still a tendency to be secretive about it at times,” continued Sung. “In an effort to make people feel more open about sexuality, the owl acts as a figure who watches them in my place.”
Sung said she started out as a jewelry artist, but then realized that there were limits to expressing herself solely through jewelry art. “I had an interest in the fine arts too, so I decided to combine the two art forms, and that’s how I came to know about Bosch and started to use the owl in my art.”
“Besides, I like seeing people’s reactions to my artwork,” she said.
In the opposite right-hand corner of the gallery, multicolored racks, ropes, and chains dangle from the ceiling in puzzling and precarious fashion. These are the creations of New York-based installation and mixed media artist Sun You, whose works demonstrate a skillful and highly creative use of color, space, shapes, and materials. While many of her pieces may appear to be deceivingly simple and randomly assembled from a distance, a closer observation reveals a high level of detail and complexity reflective of an experienced artist.
Sun You has already proven herself in the art world with her previous installation series, in which she used thread, vinyl, and Mylar to create colorful plastic sheets that were either suspended from the ceiling or hung on walls. Some of her pieces that were hung from the ceiling gave the illusion of beautiful abstract paintings floating in the air.
For her current series on display at Gallery Korea, Sun You has used a combination of fashion accessories, industrial materials, and house-cleaning objects to create abstract installations that are, in her own words, both “playful and seductive” and that “lean, hang or balance each other in an antic and precarious tension.”
Artist Sun You and her colorful installations (Photo by Regina Kim)
At the exhibition’s opening reception, Sun You explained in further detail the thought process behind her current installation series. “These are an extension of my ongoing investigations into playful abstraction,” she said. “I’m interested in materials that are concerned with the formalism of plastic arts, urbanity, and femininity. I use fashion items, like belts and earrings, but also industrial items like the kind you can buy at Home Depot. I did a 6-month residency in Germany, and one of the benefits coming out of that residency was that I started using cleaning objects, like plastic gloves and drying racks.”
Like Ankabuta, Sun You decided to make use of the ceiling in the Korean Cultural Service’s gallery (perhaps a sign that great artists think alike?). “As you notice, many of my installations have a linear structure, which means that it’s almost like a blend between drawings and sculptures,” Sun You said. “When I walked in, I noticed the ceiling the most. So I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to work with the ceiling.’ Because if I tried to avoid the ceiling, that would become a conflict, and I didn’t want that. I wanted something to include the great aspect of this space so that my installation would become more space-sensitive. So I decided to hang things, and this was actually my first time doing [my current series] like this. Because usually I make things thinking that they’re going to be free-standing structures in a corner. But when I saw the ceiling, I thought immediately that I would have to make use of it.”
Most of Sun You’s works are untitled, leaving viewers to form their own opinions and conclusions, however simplistic or complex. In her artist’s statement in the exhibition’s accompanying catalog, Sun You points to a common theme found in her art, as she poetically writes, “In all of my work, I conflate fine art and fashion or decorative art in a fluid celebration of color, ornament and gesture.”
Sun You's untitled works leave viewers to form their own interpretations. (Photo by Regina Kim)
The most well-known of the artists featured in the exhibition, Miru Kim became famous throughout the art world beginning in 2008 with her “Naked City Spleen” series, a collection of haunting photographs of the artist posing nude in abandoned urban places such as subway stations, tunnels, sewers, and factories. In 2010 she followed up on her success with her photo and video series titled “The Pig That Therefore I Am,” which served as a beautifully intricate and philosophical exploration of skin as a “merging point” between “the inner body and the world,” as well as a study of the striking similarities between pigs and humans. Her official website, www.mirukim.com, includes a very profound and in-depth artist’s statement on the series that is worth reading.
Her powerful self-portraits always feature her in the nude to show humans in their natural state. “I use my body to make a sensory connection with the audience,” said Miru Kim, who almost always snaps the photos herself using a tripod and a timer. The result is that the image viewers see of her feels more universal, free of “man-made specificities or cultural references,” as Heng-Gil Han, the curator of the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning in New York, puts it.
Artist Miru Kim in front of one of her photographs, "Wadi Rum #1" (Photo by Regina Kim)
The artist’s current project on display at Gallery Korea is, in her own words, “still a work in progress.” Tentatively titled “The Camel Project,” the series of photographs and video footage explores the relationship between camels and their environment, as well as the relationship of human beings to camels and the desert environment. In her artist’s statement submitted for the exhibition, Miru Kim asks, “Why did camels go into the desert?” She surmises that camels came to live in the desert—a harsh and forbidding place—“because they wanted to be in peace.” Then human beings arrived in the desert and “tame[d] these desert creatures in order to expand our frontiers,” she continues in her statement. “But maybe the camels were the ones that chose us as their companions, to increase their population and longevity. Perhaps they also wished that we would learn how to be at peace in the deserted lands.”
Gallery visitors got a sneak peek at Miru Kim's current project (Photo by Regina Kim)
Her willingness to ponder such questions has taken her on a journey to deserts around the world, including Wadi Rum in Jordan, the Sahara in Algeria and Mali, Thar in India, and the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, where she has been photographing herself amongst camels in various desert landscapes. In an effort to study nomadic life—a simple lifestyle that has preserved man’s harmonious relationship with animals—Miru Kim has also videotaped herself living amongst desert nomads. A video footage of her eating, sleeping, and traveling with the nomads (all the while clothed in nomadic garments) is on display at the exhibit. The artist sees her full immersion into the daily lifestyle of the nomads as a sort of performance art in itself. “Art and life become inseparable at this point,” she said.
Korean Cultural Service NY Director Woo Sung Lee posing with
the artists and the exhibition's curators (Photo by Regina Kim)
The exhibit will be on display at the Korean Cultural Service NY’s Gallery Korea until November 30, 2012. Admission is free.
For more information about the artists and their previous work, please check out their websites below: