New Old Korea

Kim So Ra is why I live in Korea.

I discovered her this past Saturday night, after a new friend made a vague invitation to a janggu concert. It was a bitterly cold night, and the concert was in an underdeveloped, industrial section of Seoul called Yeongdeungpo, where the main street is still lined with small machine shops and artificial limb wholesalers. It reminded me of winter excursions to the Lower East Side twenty years ago to see experimental theater productions tucked in between old bra shops. I connected with some friends of friends at a chicken restaurant with an outdoor fire rotisserie and stacks of wood, and then we headed off, eventually finding our way to the Mullae Art Factory Box Theater, a stylish bit of postmodern concrete architecture hidden down an unpromising side street.

I wasn’t expecting much. The theater was small, the audience probably fewer than fifty people, and the theme of the show, “A Sign of Rain,” complete with accompanying video projections, seemed like it might turn into the kind of embarrassing conceit that masks mediocre playing.

But the art scene in Seoul, I’ve discovered, delights more often than it disappoints. Kim So Ra, it turns out, is not only a janggu virtuoso, but also a subtle explorer of world percussion, which she integrated into her playing in startling ways, incorporating everything from pouring water to Tibetan singing bowls (only the xylophone piece fell flat). Her fellow musicians — percussionist Hyeon Seung-hun, O No-eul on piri, Im Ji-hye on gayageum — created a rich, complex range of sounds that put me in mind of the Steve Reich performance I saw at BAM in 2015.

Visual music

Traditional janggu performance is inseparable from the excitement of watching the drummer swing the stick from one side of the hourglass drum to the other, and samulnori music comes fully alive as dance, with colorful costumes and long spinning streamers attached to elaborate hats. Kim So Ra augmented that visual tradition with video projections. At times it felt a little Pink Floyd laser show or nineties screen saver, but at their best, the videos helped to focus our attention on particular details in the music, or brought out themes and feelings, as when the screen behind the stage became a dancing watercolor ink painting, creating a kind of willed synesthesia.

Similarly compelling was a burst of modern dance from Kim Jeong-un, whose expressive face and joyous movement brought the theater to life even before she began spinning plates (which is apparently an old Korean art form that predates Ed Sullivan by some years).

The cleverest effect was a projection onto a white-painted janggu, timed to the rhythm so that drum hits became splashes of water and bursts of color. What could have been a gimmick turned out to be powerful and moving, in no small part because of the general tendency in Korean art to take craft seriously.

More than fusion

That all of this is happening in Seoul, right now at this moment in history, is a big part of why I’m here. Other than Japan, there’s nowhere else in Asia where artists are bringing together traditional and global ideas not as fusion — a flaccid affair that usually means old instruments and shitty synthesizers — but as serious postmodern art.

And right now, I think Korea’s more vibrant than Japan, or at least a lot newer and fresher at this particular game. It’s only in the past few years that young Koreans have started venturing out into the world, but they’ve gone in droves to the art and fashion institutes in the US, and what they’ve brought back with them is starting to take root. Fashion, music, art: Seoul feels like it’s on the cusp of something. Artists like Kim So Ra are why I’m here now, ready to wander off into weird neighborhoods in the freezing cold to see what’s happening.

The Lure of Asia

The American Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Asian Peoples, inaugurated in 1980, opens with a diorama of a Samarkand market stall, undated, over which is the tag line “The Lure of Asia.” One couldn’t ask for a more perfect example of the kind of Orientalism Edward Said took to task four years earlier. There’s the othering — Asia is only a lure to non-Asians; for actual Asians, it’s just home — and the presentation of authentic Asianness as an undated premodernity. You see the same thing over and over throughout the exhibition, like the bier that’s presented as part of a Chinese marriage, with no notion that Chinese marriages in 1980 might be any different from whatever they were in the static eternal traditional past.

For all its flaws, though, the Hall of Asian Peoples was at least an attempt to make Asian culture, traditions, and artifacts legible to an audience unfamiliar with them. It belongs to a different era of ethnography — one corner describes “man’s rise to civilization,” as if it were unidirectional and didn’t involve women — but it’s not irresponsible. The collection is presented carefully, thoughtfully, with great attention to detail and a genuine attempt to respect the cultures presented.

The same, alas, can’t be said for China: Through the Looking Glass, the Costume Institute show at the Metropolitan Museum. The exhibition begins with a wall text that name-checks Edward Said in order to cast aside any serious reckoning with Orientalism as a field of power relations, choosing instead to see Asia as a source of inspiration and creativity for Western artists through the ages. All well and good, except that the show then colonizes the entirety of the Met’s Chinese art galleries, literally casting them in its own light, and making the objects and history of the actual China almost impossible to see. If it’s a show about Orientalism in action, it delivers.

At the Met, the Chinese galleries begin with the monumental, breathtaking 14th-century Buddha of Medicine Bhaishajyaguru, which, at 25 feet by 50 feet, gives a sense of the grandeur of Chinese tradition. Except that now you can’t see it, because of forest of glass bamboo poles is in the way, a work meant to reflect, I suppose, the repeating film clip we see of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The takeover continues, as the long hallway of early Chinese art is dimmed, lit in weird colors, and overtaken by an unnecessary wash of vaguely Asianish synth washes for no discernible reason. The Astor Court, normally an elegant refuge, is turned into a sordid nightclub, the rear wall lit red, the floor covered in black plastic meant to look like lacquer, the usual hush overtaken by kung fu movie sounds. The weird, bad lighting throughout — meant, I imagine, to preserve the clothing — destroys any opportunity to engage with the Met’s substantial Chinese art collection on its own terms. The exhibition even wanders down into the Egyptian wing, as if to say a little hello to Edward Said’s corner of the world. And you can’t escape the noise of this behemoth, even when you sneak off into the Chinese decorative arts, or the Korean collection, or the Gandharan Buddhist sculptures. Like any colonizing force, it’s insidious.

The exhibition tries to be clever, juxtaposing dresses and historical pieces. Sometimes it works, and other times it’s just facile. It might have been kind of hip if it had been put in the Costume Institute, or in its own special exhibition area. Instead, it’s just unnerving and weird: you look for your favorite pieces, like the Han Dynasty dancer, and they’re gone, only then you find them in some dim Plexiglas vitrine next to a dress with a dreadful Asiatic kitsch hat thrown on top for no good reason.

It is, I think, the first show I’ve ever seen at the Metropolitan Museum that actually pissed me off. I wanted to go look at the Chinese art, and it was buried. Fashion has a nasty habit of borrowing and burying, and also a nasty habit of turning Asia into raw material, whether it’s silk, ideas, or labor. That the Met gave it free rein to do so in its Chinese galleries is a disappointment.

Technology, time, and memory

If you haven’t seen it yet, go spend some time walking up the Guggenheim ramp for the masterful show On Kawara–Silence. Kawara is a strange artist whose work makes sense only cumulatively — I had previously seen a few of his famous date paintings at Dia:Beacon and been unmoved — and the Guggenheim’s widening gyre is pretty much the perfect venue for experiencing the blank yet personal way Kawara documented the passage of time.

His most famous work is the date paintings: meticulously rendered, unfailingly bland paintings of the date, in whatever language and format was used wherever he was the day he painted it. But each painting also has a box that the artist created for it, lined with some not-quite-random snippet of that day’s newspaper, also from wherever he was. Kawara also sent scads of postcards stamped with “TODAY I GOT UP AT” and with a handwritten time, and then later he began sending telegrams that said simply, “I AM STILL ALIVE.” He also kept binders with lists of the people he met each day — you can play a fun little game of spot-the-conceptual-artist — and also binders of maps of where he walked each day, carefully traced out in pen.

Archive fever

I was surprised at how touching I found Kawara’s life project. The work is blank, impersonal, which creates a space for projection of our own thoughts. What must it have been like to be a Japanese-born artist traveling so often to so many places, writing postcards and dropping them in the mail each day, making paintings in hotel rooms, getting up at strange hours? And what obsessive drive led to the cataloguing of so many details so consistently for so long?

Kawara is as pure an example as you can find of Derrida’s Archive Fever, a passion for recording as a bulwark against inevitable death. Most artists are fighting a battle against mortality, but few make it so explicit (I AM STILL ALIVE, over and over, is a key part of the oeuvre of a dead man).

The poignancy of the obsolete

Part of what fascinates, though, is the extent to which technology has rendered every single one of Kawara’s obsessions obsolete. It’s hard to imagine the effort Kawara must have gone to just to get copies of maps of all the cities he was in, much less to recall and trace out his routes each day, all of which could now be handled by a smartphone and a couple of apps. Who he met each day? A few smartphone snapshots and tags would cover it. Postcards and telegrams are, of course, obsolete as well: you just tweet your location or post it on Facebook, and everyone knows you’re still alive and where you are. Various technologies can tell you what time you got up each day and can even post that information to your friends. Pasting newspapers into boxes? Who reads newspapers anymore?

If an artist today were to take on Kawara’s projects using the artist’s toolkit, it would be an exercise in willful anachronism, as much as if Kawara had chosen to mix his own mineral pigments or carve his own typescript from wood.

Archive fever vs. curation cancer

Kawara lived in an era of archive fever. The urge to catalog and archive is an enlightenment project, but it reached a sinister fever pitch in the 20th century, with the explosion of vast, mechanized government archives, often in the service of unspeakable evil. Kawara’s idiosyncratic personal archive is a kind of individual refutation of the vast state archives that had come to rule the world he lived in. State information was at once domineering and inaccessible. If you wanted to remember your own life, you had to do it yourself.

But today artists have to face a very different circumstance. Big data has made vast reams of information instantly available, manipulable. You can find anything about anything. You can listen to every album ever. No, this isn’t strictly true, but it is true that we’re buried under information. The problem is no longer access but overwhelm.

And so we move from the urge to archive to the urge to curate. How many metastasizing exercises in curation can you think of, off the top of your head? A couple of my favorites are Engrish.com and Terrible real estate agent photographs. Porn, which you used to have to seek out in illicit locations, is now, on Tumblr, turned into a system of likes, repost loops, managed subscription lists and infinite scroll.

Showing the world

In Kawara’s time, the artist’s task was to render legible and comprehensible the machine world, and you can see it in the work of artists like Dan Flavin, Richard Serra, Carl Andre, Andy Warhol. Their work enabled us to see newly and with greater insight the era of mass media, mass production and state archiving, in the way that the Dutch masters gave the burghers of the emergent Netherlands a way of understanding themselves and their place in the world.

Today the world artists have to reflect upon is the world of big data. What will this mean for art? We don’t know yet, but I expect it will involve something cleverer than embroidered Facebook posts (though I give Kathy Halper credit for taking on digitalization and feminism in her work). The conceptualists of an earlier era found ways to humanize and render into art the world in which they lived; a new generation of conceptualists will do the same for the radically changed mental landscape in which we find ourselves.

The Choco Pie-ization of North Korea

Fans of Park Chan-wook, or of his classic thriller Joint Security Area, may remember the scene in which a North Korean soldier spits out a Choco Pie to declare his loyalty to his home country: rather than flee south, where he can get all the Choco Pies he wants, the soldier insists that he will wait until North Korea can produce the best Choco Pies in the world.
Choco Pies have long been a symbol of South Korean modernization: cheap, tasty, popular, utterly manufactured, completely divorced from any preexisting Korean tradition. Now South-Korean born artist (and Columbia alum) Jin Joo Chae has an exhibition at Julie Meneret Contemporary Art on the Lower East Side entitled The Choco Pie-ization of North Korea. Chae highlights the significance of the lowly Choco Pie in North Korea, where a single pie can fetch as much ast $10 on the black market in a country where the average monthly wage is $150.
I’m happy to see South Korean artists finding new ways to acknowledge and engage with North Korea. In this case, Chae focuses our attention on the marketization of North Korea, which often goes unnoticed beneath the news stories about Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman and nuclear weapons. I definitely plan to check out the show, and I hope you can too.  

[more on japanese vs. korean coolness]

I was going to follow up on an earlier post about Korean vs. Japanese coolness, and wondering whether anyone in Korea would ever be doing something like this:

Yes, it’s awful. But it’s also cool in a way that I didn’t think Korean culture would quite grasp: the cool of the avant garde.
So I went fishing on the Interwebs to see if I could find an equivalent, and lo and behold, I discovered Balloon & Needle, a Korean artists collective that does things like this:

For some reason, this gives me hope.

[korean art at the met]

From the Metropolitan Museum of Art, coming next spring:

Korean Art under Confucian Kings, ca. 1400–1600
March 17, 2009–June 21, 2009
Arts of Korea Gallery, 2nd Floor

This international loan exhibition will present approximately 50 works of art that illustrate the height of artistic production under court and elite patronage during the first 200 years of the Choson dynasty (1392–1910), a time of extraordinary cultural achievements. The diverse yet cohesive group of secular and religious paintings, porcelain, sculpture, lacquer, and metalwork will highlight the aesthetics, conventions, and innovations of a Neo-Confucian elite and its artistic milieu. This will be the first in a series of special exhibitions at the Museum focusing on significant periods in Korean art history.

[gowanus + art = agast]

It’s once again coming to that wonderful time of year when the leaves fall into the toxic soup we know and love as the Gowanus Canal, and the artists in the neighborhood open their studios to share their fume-inspired creations. This is the Annual Gowanus Artists Studio Tour (AGAST), of which I am a devoted fan. The tour is actually a really cool opportunity not just to see lots of inspired and interesting art — everything from conceptual installations to marble sculpture to a stained-glass studio — but to get inside those weird, funky, fascinating old industrial buildings that dot the landscape. Plus, you will surely consume your fill of Goldfish, mini-KitKats and cheap
chardonnay.

The tour will be taking place from 1 to 6 on Saturday and Sunday, October 20 and 21. As usual, I’m going to try and visit as many of the galleries as I can. Hope to see you there!

[choices]

I have a lot of free time at work, and what with the upcoming move and the general stress of pulling my life apart, I haven’t been able to devote myself to one of my productive intellectual projects — studying Korean, reading East Asian history, attempting to write a novel, etc. Instead, other than trolling for jobs, I have been filling my days with video games.

I don’t consider myself a gamer — the only console system I ever owned was a Nintendo Entertainment System — but I have in fact devoted significant chunks of my life to video games, most prominent among them the Ultima series. I feel a certain amount of shame around my gaming, maybe because it feels uncomfortably compulsive, and also because it’s really not what one is supposed to be doing at work (although, to be fair to myself, I do work hard on everything I’m expected to, and have gone well above and beyond expectations generally).

Nevertheless, with a gaping afternoon of empty hours and a head full of emotional disaster, I have gratefully turned to Jay is Games, an excellent blog and website devoted to “casual gameplay” and the wonderful world of Flash-based gaming.

I’ve discovered that I’m partial to the point-and-click subgenre, whose games are forgiving of sudden pauses for work, don’t call upon too much hand-eye coordination, and give a sense of progress and completion. Favorites include the Hapland, Submachine and especially Samorost series, but I was particularly struck by the intriguing beauty of the Chinese game Choice. It won’t take you long, and it really is quite lovely. It helps me get through my day. Maybe it’ll help you get through yours.