Gallery Satori | March 5 – April 11, 2010
As seen through a Western lens, the “problem” with contemporary Korean art is its lack of an easily defined national aesthetic. It doesn’t exhibit visual shorthand comparable to Chinese art, which has a common foundation in the Cultural Revolution, or Japanese art, which is famous for manga and anime. In part, this is because internationally-based Korean artists don’t want to be pigeonholed into a narrow framework based on national identity. Particularly when looking at a younger generation born mostly in the 70s, however, it is both impossible and undesirable to divorce the work from its cultural context: that of globalization intersecting with a very particular domestic traditionalism.
Seoul-based artist Si Yeon Kim places everyday objects into symbolic arrangements so that they become personally poignant melodramas with heavy cultural connotations. In her current exhibition at Gallery Satori, one black and white print from the “Barricade” series (2008) pictures an eggshell, paperclip, burnt match, and bobby pin standing upright on a windowsill. Photographed from the inside, these objects look as if they are both playfully and ominously guarding access to a bright exterior. In another image from that series, a razor blade, broken eggshell, air-filled paper bag, and one of the artist’s signature white spikes are lined up under a bed. Kim clearly spells out the unspeakable in a traditional Korean home: abortion, self-mutilation and, more generally, suffocation and the impulse toward escape.
As a whole, the photographs quite clearly communicate a desire to, well, communicate. Because of the underlying, culturally specific sense conveyed—silence within the home and maintenance of strictly structured outward appearances—the artist’s all too clichéd still lifes are forgivable. The onion on the cutting board and the spilled salt mean tears and bad luck—sure, we get it, and we’re supposed to. The comments aren’t cryptic because they’re intended to be straightforward replacements for verbal communication. They express a specific anger born of living with the expectations of traditional domestic roles. Yet they’re photographed with an overwhelmingly clean, pretty, almost calming aesthetic: the images are mostly white, with soft shadows and an absence of chaos. Every object looks to be in its correct place; Korean culture’s rigidity in terms of outward presentation is embraced in the look of the pieces if not the content.
It’s quite understandable for artists to want to evade national stereotyping. Lee Bul, for instance, one of the most internationally recognized contemporary Korean artists, chose not to be included in the Korean art survey exhibition, Your Bright Future, at LACMA earlier this year. It was the first major attempt to define themes in contemporary Korean art, but his work continues to resist easy categorization by nationality. Looking at Korean identity as it relates to a recently globalized world, however, provides a wider and more productive view. It’s that tension itself that Kim responds to the most: a home only looks like a jail when the one trapped inside can see the world beyond the bars.
PATRICIA MILDER is an art and performance writer based in Brooklyn. She was a former Managing Art Editor at the Brooklyn Rail.