Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand
Lay it where Childhood's dreams are twined
In Memory's mystic band,
Like pilgrim's wither'd wreath of flowers
Pluck'd in a far-off land.
Venice, the ethereal city of water, is a dreamland most everybody yearns to visit at least once in their lifetime. It boasts a singular architectural magnificence few other cities in the world can quite emulate: buildings look charmingly antiquated as if the city has been spared the spell of gloss and glitz modernity; the sight of the gondolas skating along the narrow canals is exotic, almost otherworldly, and one can't help but keep looking until a sweet languorous daze falls.
To art professionals, Venice is also cherished for its prestigious Biennale di Venezia, inaugurated in 1895, that holds pride of place among its kind with its longest history and most distinguished tradition. In preparation for this colossal art event - the art world's equivalent of the Olympics, one might say - each participating country's art sector wages little short of an all-out war to profess and impress upon the world of its sterling originality. Notwithstanding recurring spats over some intractable issues - retaining a distinctive position among the numerous and ever-proliferating biennales of similar magnitude and prestige; avoiding tired hackneyed themes; the perennial confusion and controversy stirred over who gets to grace the national pavilions - despite all these strains and challenges, the Venice Biennale has stoutly maintained its reputation as the authority par excellence in surveying and steering the direction of the global art scene.
The second Asian country to have a permanent national pavilion established, in 1996, Korea has been participating in both the Venice Art Biennale, in odd years, and the Venice Biennale of Architecture, in even years. This year is proving to be particularly significant for Korea in that in addition to showcasing at its national pavilion in the Giardini (the Gardens) - the official venue for the biennale - the country is also presenting a special exhibition of contemporary art at Lightbox Space as one of the biennale's designated collateral events.
The contemporary Korean art scene has been witnessing an unusually rich and abundant crop of artists: batches of brilliant budding artists emerge from the country's top-ranking art schools year after year; more-seasoned artists based in major cities throughout Europe and the United States ever progress toward the prime of their careers; then also there are the widely venerated, firmly established masters who, for all that hard-won prestige and esteem accorded them, never for a moment slacken their artistic endeavors.
The National Museum of Contemporary Art, founded in 1969, is Korea's representative art institution now with a grand Seoul branch - National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul - scheduled to open in November this year. Who Is Alice? a special exhibition inspired by arguably the most beloved fantasy fable in all literary history - Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland - showcases selected works from the museum-s permanent collection of over 7,000 items both of domestic and international provenance. The show will feature 15 Korean artists whose imagination submits to no boundaries of space and time and all but seamlessly weaves the real and the surreal, the factual and the fantastical.
Lightbox Space, the venue for the show built in the 14th century, is located on Strada Nuova near the landmark Rialto Bridge. Take a stroll down the warren of alleyways taking in all that beauty and elegance abounding and - not too unlike Alice falling down the rabbit hole chasing after that odd rabbit sporting an odd vest and pocket watch - one might similarly stumble on a gateway into a mysterious world where reality and imagination blend and merge and become all but inseparable. Comprised of 10 small rooms closely adjoining one another and each with a unique story to tell, Lightbox Space serves as an excellent setting for this finely curated phantasmagoria of contemporary Korean art.
A flight of antique stairs later, you will receive a welcome in the form of U-Ram Choe's Pendulum of Secret- a web of light bulbs studding the ceiling. Emanating a curious glow, those mechanic life forms seem to have sprouted on their own, out of nowhere, like a scattering of plants stealthily tucked into a patch of penumbra. They mark the entry into the strange world about to unfold in which boundaries of time and space would seem in constant flux.
The following images The Time by Young-Geun Park - a pair of large clocks each rendered on a black and a white canvas - express the fundamental dualities governing the universe - yin and yang, space and time, light and shadow - and the surreal nature of time which all too often defies and collapses our compartmentalized perception of past, present and future.
A portrait of a woman with a lush cascade of hair greets you. Done in ink by Jung-Wook Kim, the woman looms from darkness, exuding an inscrutable aura, something that suggests repose but also induces awe; the unfathomable black holes that are her eyes seem to contain so many stories at once; and her gracefully positioned hands recall the image of the Virgin Mary.
Myung-Keun Koh's Dreams of Building is a mixed media work depicting a grand antique mansion in New York. Koh takes photographs of various buildings in the world, develops them on clear film sheets and with those plastic prints reconstructs the buildings. The resulting models look as beguiling as 3-D holograms. Thus combining elements of photography, sculpture and architecture to a mesmerizing effect, Koh's work stimulates active viewer imagination.
Hae-Gue Yang's Female Natives is a collection of six light-stands glowing with countless pebble-sized bulbs. Only, they are made up of some unlikely motley objects - artificial flowers, knitting yarns, ropes, dried mushrooms and else. Like the many strange residents inhabiting Alice's Wonderland, Yang's creatures are also proud aboriginals of some far-off land where we the foreign visitors are rendered simultaneously disoriented and spellbound.
Although the trees in Myoung-Ho Lee's works look like manipulated images, looking a tad surreal, they are in fact real trees photographed around the neighborhood parks and woods. The surreal impression stems not from some sort of digital tempering but from the strategic placement of a white cloth behind the trees and an adept use of lighting. Such deliberate scene-setting functions to separate the trees from their surroundings and to shine a spotlight on their individual beauty and uniqueness which all too often get swamped by the collective scenery. One might call to mind a certain line from a famous Korean poem: "When I called him by his name, he came to me and became a flower." Lee's photographs are a brilliant visualization of that verse.
You see images of ordinary people projected onto the walls. Look closer and you see that the humble film-projector operator has become a fighter pilot while the boy part-timing at a gas station is now a glamorous car racer. In these series of photographs appropriately titled Bewitched, Yeon-Doo Jung works Genie's magic, as it were, making come true in the snap of a shutter the lavish dreams of ordinary people living ordinary lives. Though it is a transformation as fleeting as it is dazzling, the photographed subjects - varying widely in age and nationality - will likely remember this magical experience for life.
O-Sang Gwon's A Statement of 420 Pieces of Twins is a sculpture in the form of a double-headed man. Gwon took hundreds of photographs of the subject and, with the developed prints, molded a life-size model with an unfortunate extra head. The work seems to be a twin-portrait of the self, expressing the incessant conflicts raging in our heads, the never-ending battles of reason and feeling, joy and fury, curiosity and reservation.
Photographer Hein-Kuhn Oh is widely known for his work studying particular demographics in Korean society. For this show, he has trained his lens on teenage girls, hence the series Cosmetic Girl . The heavy make-up many Korean girls put on nowadays, Oh said, "stems from the complicated desire, on the one hand, to flaunt their female sexuality and, on the other, to conceal the anxiety welling from their as-yet shakily formed identity." The faces in the photographs which have been captured down to downy hair and tiniest blemishes express an intense curiosity for the unknown with an undertow of creeping dread that is indicative of an immature selfhood.
Dong-Wook Lee is famous for his hyperreal miniature figurines that demonstrate razor-sharp attention to detail and wild, wild imagination. So, Green Giant is a sculpture of the eponymous green giant bobbing in the all-too-familiar can of sweet corn; I Wished is a strapping superman popping out of the popular sausage-shaped Korean snack bearing the brand-name of chunhajangsa (superman); in Dolphin Safe a white whale is idly twirling around in a little tuna can. Much like the animated characters of Toy Story, Lee's figurines are full-blown denizens of their own peculiar little worlds that our human eyes seldom stop, or stoop, to register.
Who knew that human hands - severed at the wrist and with somewhat unnervingly plump fingers - could look so much like feathers? Xooang Choi's The Wing is a pair of giant wings composed of several dozens of such human hands grabbing, grappling, linking with one another, wryly playing on the myth of Icarus. A glowing myth of a lone hero is built on tragic sacrifices of multitudes; the shady and the messy are elided, only the glamorous and the facile find way into the remembered narrative; a grand ideal is realized through the blood of the masses, beautifully shed, perhaps brutally extracted. The Wing poignantly portrays that irony.
An amusement park on the outskirts of a city that ought to bustle with crowds has gone completely desolate in Hong-Chun Park's To Alice. Using long exposure, Park has removed all human activities from the site, making the images feel foreign and disorienting like a scene lifted from one of those sci-fi/apocalypse movies where some inexplicable phenomenon befalls and wipes all humanity off the face of the earth.
Then there is U-Ram Choe's beautiful installation Merry-Go-Round spinning round and round in the dour silence of the exhibition space. Soon, however, the gentle rotation kicks into high gear and the machine starts a dizzying gyration accompanied by loud explosive sounds. Recall that queasy gut-hollowed feeling when many a summer ago you gasped awake from a nightmare, your pajama clammy with cold sweat.
Horns, fangs and shells are means of attack and defense for animals. Beom Kim's Horns, Canine Tooths and Shells presents a video manual of how to turn common home appliances into lethal weapons. A team of two soft-spoken men kindly instruct that such everyday objects as fans, clocks, chairs, even those innocuous little fruits, could be used to exact death or inflict fatal injuries. The actors' pointedly placid tone of voice and seriousness of attitude may well induce exasperated laughter, and yet, you might also find yourself vaguely wondering: Is that possible?
Room 9, 10
A gaggle of crystal skeletons are having a riot. Doo-Jin Kim's The Youth of Bacchus is a digitally repurposed version of the 19th-century Neoclassical painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau's work of the same title. Kim imported the masterpiece in its entirety and removed all features save the characters' skulls and skeletons, thereby literally stripping them down to the bones, ridding all possible criteria for categorization. So, now they have been made to transcend all the superficial standards of judgement and ideologies that we human beings love to create and impose on one another. Perhaps we should for a moment toss off all our constrictive notions of race, gender, the beautiful and the ugly, the sacred and the secular, and join those skeletons in their ecstatic celebration of Bacchus.
Hyeong-Ko Lee's Lepus Animatus looks like some very serious osteological model apt to be found in a natural history museum. In truth, however, the creature behind those bones is none other than Bugs Bunny, Hollywood's popular animated movie star. Drawing on theories and practices of biology, anatomology, archeology and other scientific disciplines, Lee has meticulously constructed the bones of that fictitious character. As such, it is an interesting reversal of the way archeologists ply their trade: excavate ancient remains of now-extinct but once-real species and try to surmise by studying those fossils their physical features and general habits. Now, which one feels more real to you? The genuine bones of the dinosaur you have never laid eyes on? Or the fake bones of Bugs Bunny you grew up watching every day?
Art is an act of exploring and conjuring. Straddling the thin sliver of space between reality and imagination, art is an act of looking beyond the hard crust of reality and getting at the juicy flesh of things numinous and ineffable. Artists, therefore, are embodiments of curiosity, who have their feet on the ground but heads in the cloud; who put a wedge to the tiniest crack in the fortress of reality armored to the hilt with reason and scientific objectivity; who keep pecking and prying until the crack gives and, voilà, finally comes asunder.
To be sure, imagination and reality don't always make easy bedfellows, the former mocking the insipidity of the latter, the latter scoffing at the futility of the former. Yet, neither can stand on its own; only by virtue of the other does each take on meaning - for imagination without reality is but an ethereal haze, reality without imagination a parched desert.
Daunted and dragged down by the dull drudgery of reality, we dream of escaping; our mind wanders every so often to some wonderful imagined world. Those fortunate and courageous souls who have managed to break away from life's everyday tedium and journeyed to this enchanting city of Venice can count on adventures, some sought, some serendipitous. Count in Who Is Alice? which will greet you with a hand coyly outstretched and, before you know it, will have whisked you away into its phantasmagoric depth of contemporary Korean art.
National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea
Introduction Ita. Artwork
Who is Alice?