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Nikki S. Lee

Best Contemporary Korean Artists

Or, how Confucian values, K-pop, military service and cosmetic surgery crazes make for really great art

“The future is now." – Nam June Paik

If South Korea isn't embedded somewhere in your mind, then you haven't been paying attention to the history-making headliners lately. With a relationship best described as ambivalent in relation to their Northern countrymen, welcome to the most wired, rapidly modernized (aka westernized) OECD country on the planet - and the top ten contemporary artists that represent it, heavyweights and newcomers alike, often educated in London or New York. Fusing cutting-edge technology and popular trends, their projects inevitably reflect the disruptive yet celebratory, self-contradictory clashes and divided psyche of a Korean cocktail of Psy and K-pop, ancient Confucian values, obligatory military service, and the latest cosmetic surgery crazes.

Nikki S. Lee

Starring in her own snapshot Projects (1997-2001) and Parts (2002-2005series, Lee has posed and performed with every American subculture and ethnic group imaginable: from punks, Latinos, lesbians, hip hop musicians, skateboarders and drag queens to yuppies, schoolgirls, and swing dancers. Soon after moving to New York in 1994 to study fashion photography, her first exhibition made her an overnight success. In her pseudo-documentary A.K.A Nikki S. Lee, which premiered at MOMA New York in 2006, she portrayed two distinct personalities, a reserved academic and an outgoing socialite; both artificial versions of herself. Combining multimedia performance and narrative fiction, Lee is less interested in creating beautiful images than recording the fluidity of group and individual identity---all its interactions and permutations, with vernacular edge.

Do-Ho Suh

Always on the go between Seoul, London, and New York, its no wonder that Suh obsessively sculpts private and public spaces that negotiate longing, cultural displacement, and a search for a home. Whether installing his transparent Staircase-III on the ceiling of the Tate Modern or a portable fabric version of his childhood house, for Suh, life is all about “moving through a series of spaces.” His love-hate relationship with uniforms (High School Uni-form, 1997), after an education of imposed conformity, also explores clothing as “the smallest, most intimate space that one person can carry.” Suh defies conventional notions of scale and site-specificity, as with his glistening juggernaut suit of armor Some/one (2003)--composed of 3,000 dogtags--whose mirrored interior makes it unclear where you end and the collective space begins. Ironically, his homages to public monuments, like Floor (1997-2000)--where one is forced to trample the anonymous masses holding up an oppressive, despairing weight--seem more reminiscent of Kim Jong Un’s regime.

JeongMee Yoon

Yoon’s ongoing The Pink and Blue Project (started 2005) show us how color-coded our own adult lives are, through the dictated gender guidelines of popular children’s toys, like Barbie and Hello Kitty. Initiated by her five–year-old daughters obsession with the color pink, Yoon photodocuments little girls and boys in their bedrooms, gleefully or exhaustedly surrounded by a carefully-arranged hoard of respectively pink and blue belongings. Training girls in an unconscious yet pervasive, culturally manipulated expression of “femininity, ” the project proves the pink-and-blue phenomenon universal regardless of the children’s cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Apparently, as girls grow older, their taste for pink changes; Yoon continues to document this shift. Stay tuned.

Hong Sung Chul

In Hong’s String Mirror series, faceless body parts and intertwined hands reach out to you---a visual representation of what ties humans together from the earliest stage of life, the umbilical cord. Printed-on elastic strings, strung on several staggered rows, provide delicately varied spatial depths. Incomplete without your dynamic interaction and movement around them, the strings interlace to reveal a final three-dimensional image. Through mesmerizing use of media and modern technology, Hong attempts to unveil the virtual object through distorted and fragmented imagery, resulting in a process of stunning visual realization. Many of the figures make noise, the aural resonance replicating the vibrations of the strings. Hong attributes his prompt to active participation (in antithesis to the usual stand-offish gallery) to his community-based Korean heritage. His strings are ties of support or loneliness: your choice.

Byoung Ho Kim

You’d be forgiven for mistaking one of Kim’s stunning minimal audio-sculptural installations for top-end lighting fixtures from Bang and Olufson: treading a razor-thin line between art, design object, and machine, they seem too cruelly precise and highly-engineered to be wrought by mere mortal hands. Yet Kim insists that all his creations are fuelled by that all too human emotion, desire--with the assumption that ”mankind is in continuous pursuit of new desires.” His Three Hundred Silent Pollens (2009) is a bundle of elongated aluminum trumpets, arching toward the viewer, as if trying to pick up passing voices and rewarding our rapt attention with the discovery of hidden, surrounding messages. With no pretext towards utilitarian use, ” his sleek sound sculptures integrate piezo disks and arduino technology in a circuit designed by the artist himself. The result is the emission of shortwave electrical sounds---also changed by the sculpture’s forms--that is pure music to our ears.

Nam June Paik

Even by swinging 60s standards, Paik’s early music-multimedia performances a la Cage were so out-there, they got him arrested for indecency when his cellist Charlotte Moorman performed topless in his Opera Sextronique. Two years later, Paik was back with TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969), and Moorman in a bespoke bra with small TV screens covering her breasts.

Futurist (coining the term information superhighway” in 1974) and patron saint of the YouTube generation, Paik is woefully less known in this country than in America and Germany. He co-invented one of the first video synths, was one of the first artists — possibly the first, period — to use a portable video recorder, and grasped the implications of mass communication immediately: “Our weapon is in media times much stronger than a painter’s brush.” His frantic, dissonant, multi-screen installations like the disorienting Megatron/Matrix (1995) articulate the mind-boggling state of living in a media-saturated world, bombarding us with Babylon-on-speed imagery. Or take The more the better (1988), a giant tower made entirely of 1003 monitors for the Olympic Games being held at Seoul. In the age of the internet, this confusion has only increased: Paik’s video collages now seem like prophecy. His tweaked televisions channel-flip from avant-garde performances to folk rituals to kitschy dance numbers, all of it made MTV-ready with hallucogenically bright color changes, distortions, and painterly postproduction.  

Also ahead of its time was Paik’s cross-cultural aesthetic---Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii (1997) is a stunning example, offering up his commentary about an American culture obsessed with bright shiny things.

Nam June Paik: Global Visionary is on view until August 11th 2013 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in Washington D.C.


Gwon Osang

Besides his crowd-pleasing Keane album cover and Fendi and Nike collaborations, Osang Gwon’s alluringly hyperreal, photo-sculptures—especially from his Deodorant Type Series—are deceptively easy to fall in love with. Pasting together digital photos of family members, chainsaw-touting warriors, and celebrities like Daul Kim, Gwan singlehandedly revamps a traditional medium with light, hybrid bodies of work. Inspired just as much by Diesel advertisements and music videos as Bernini, Gwon’s life-size figures meld reality and representation with a queer life-like quality of their own. Whether crouching, slouching, or lying in a fallen position---the effect is a bit awkward, haunting, and meditative. In ironic contrast to the airbrushed ideals of contemporary advertising, Gwon prefers to leave his finished life-sized objects “a bit off”---which only serves to make them more familiar, and perfect.

Hein-Kuhn Oh

For Oh, faces are social landscape and commentary. The individuals in his documentary-ish photographs are neither conventionally beautiful nor extraordinary. Letting the surface speak for itself, their faces expose ambivalent anxieties and the instabilities of their identity in relation to their belonging to particular social groups. Oh reveals common prejudices and stereotypes inherent to Korean society through his portrayal of high school girls, and middle-aged women as in Cosmetic Girls (2005-2009), Girl’s Act (2001-2004), and Ajumma (1997). Oh isn’t necessarily interested in capturing the inner nature of the sitter, but an accurate recording of the moment, reproducing every textured detail and wrinkle of his sitter’s skin.  Bored after ten years of only photographing women, Oh turned to taking portraits of military men. Perhaps due to the fact that military service is still obligatory for all Korean males, Oh chose not to portray today’s soldiers in a group, but as individuals struggling in a state between civilian and duty’s anonymous roles, an ambiguous situation of Middlemen (2010-2011).

Je Baak

What do Obama, Zizek, and the Dalai Lama have in common? Je Baak—or rather, his video art loop of these authority figures in His Silence (2010), whose endlessly elided, warped speech and gestural patterns make you feel like you’re trapped in some trippy, postmodern samsara-like hell. No surprise then, that Ja Baak’s multimedia artwork centres on his spiritual practice of Zen Buddhism. The object or subject of attention is constantly shifted, sometimes deleted, to prompt the viewer to experience familiar scenes from decontextualized perspectives---like his amusement park rides free-floating across LCD monitors in The structure of (2010). Baak: “I’m suggesting a different point of view: to be fully aware of a situation by removing the thing that obsesses us. ”Transforming the serious into the comical and the spectacular into the empty, he forces you into introspection and using your ‘inward eye’ to attain enlightenment.

Je Baak’s work is on show at Hada Contemporary in London until July 28, 2013.


Lee Yong Baek

Lee uses various media technologies in the hopes of communicating a universal language, often subverting feted Western imagery to delve into Korean political-historical issues of love and death. For example, Lee’s Pieta (2008) reconfigures a recognizable front-page posture of military conflict and traditional religious representation of the highest level of sorrow and pain. Except his Maria, included in his Corea Pavilion for Venice Biennale 2011, is just a shell, holding the figure cast from her: in essence, holding her own dead self. Provoking re-evaluation and self-meditation, as in Lee’s interactive Broken Mirror (2011), the viewer’s reflection is shot, as their selfsurroundings, and time explodes and shatters like a bomb. No less harrowing, another video piece exuding dormant menace is Lee’s Angel Soldier (2011). What at first appears a cheerfully-hued flower tableau turns out to be a group of guerrilla soldiers camouflaged in flower-patterned uniforms. The hundred performers melt and move almost imperceptibly against the florid background; except for the contrast of their cruelly thin, black rifle barrels pointed in various directions. The boundaries of virtual and real space collapse, destroying any saccharine preconceptions about flower metaphors. Uninterested in one over-arching style, the vitality of Lee’s works originate in spontaneity and his total engagement with the now.