After travelling to Singapore this June for ‘Awakenings: Art in Society 1960s–1990s’, I received an invitation in October to the equally spectacular ‘The Square: Art and Society in Korea 1900–2019’, at Seoul’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA). This was my first encounter with an art scene perhaps unfamiliar for many readers in Australia, but remarkable in depth and diversity.
A highlight of my stay was the MMCA’s exhibition of works shortlisted for the 8th Korea Artist Prize (on view until 1 March 2020), awarded on 28 November to Jewyo Rhii. Although little known outside Korea, this is one of the most prestigious honours an artist in that country can attain. Rhii was chosen ahead of the three other finalists selected in March – all women at the height of their careers with international reputations for interrogating artistic, social and cultural issues of global significance.
Love Your Depot (2019), Rhii’s prize-winning installation, offers a solution to the precarious working conditions she has endured throughout her career, travelling constantly in search of opportunity while entrusting her work to storage facilities that can’t guarantee security or consistency. Despite the endemic scale of this issue, it often remains hidden behind gallery walls with other under-acknowledged aspects of the industry, from marketing and sales to conservation and disposal. Rhii exposes these ‘afterlives’ of the work of art in a cavernous ‘laboratory’ that can serve as a storage space, public forum or broadcasting studio, adapting to suit participating artists. Shelves and stacks filled with paintings and sculpture are the most engaging aspect of the installation, calling to mind the trend for ‘open storage’ sweeping South Korea’s arts sector and used to great effect at the MMCA branch in Cheongju, and the nearby National Palace Museum.
The other finalists adopt a more eclectic perspective on social issues. Birdsong entices viewers to enter Young In Hong’s To Paint the Portrait of a Bird (2019): a caged passage between two austere chambers, on the walls of which birds projected in silhouette tower over bare, twisted branches. Embroidered textiles arranged to resemble a Confucian ancestral shrine introduce a note of domesticity – rather than a family patriarch, however, the central hanging is adorned with yet more birds, perched on the limbs of a stunted tree, as if seeking solidarity in their shared confinement.
A comparable reclamation of patriarchal space is enacted by Hyesoo Park, whose project unfolds like a social experiment. The first stage of her work involved the distribution of a survey built around the question, ‘Who is your “we”?’, to which almost all participants responded ‘family’, even while naming friends and lovers as their most trusted companions. Park cites this contradiction as evidence for her guiding hypothesis: that traditional family bonds are declining in South Korea but have been artificially prolonged as a state mechanism for social control. Like Young, she exposes inequalities and stereotypes masked by Confucian emphasis on ‘family harmony’, noting the pressure felt by women to marry and have children. Her Perfect Family proposes a market-driven solution, questioning whether domestic bliss can be sold as a package deal.
Ayoung Kim has chosen, like Rhii, to focus on the hidden social crises produced by constant motion and precarity, though her attention to their impact on human relationships suggests closer parallels with Park’s work. For Tricksters’ Plot (2019), Kim has added further conceptual complexity to her Porosity Valley video project, first shown at the 2017 Melbourne Festival. Shocked by the detention of those seeking asylum in Australia, she draws a comparison with the prejudice faced by Yemeni refugees on Jeju Island, south of the Korean Peninsula. Her disorienting digital installation cites a range of sources to complicate the stereotype of refugees as a threat to the status quo by highlighting their social invisibility and essential humanity.
Rhii, Young, Park and Kim take very different approaches to their chosen subjects, testing the boundaries of artistic practice, but are united by their desire for broader relevance beyond the museum and their attention to some of the most pressing issues of our time.
Alex Burchmore, Seoul