Bringing life to the art party Jul 30 2013
National art museum, SBS attempt at Korean equivalent of Turner Award

The works of this year’s Korea Artist Prize candidates — Kong Sung-hun, Shin Mee-kyoung, Jo Hae-jun and Ham Yang-ah — are currently shown at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, and the winner among them will be announced in September.
Ham’s “Factory Basement”

Recognition is everything, especially for artists, with most of them spending much of their lives worrying people will never know who they are or identify their works.

And there is no better way to command public attention than a lavish, annual award with television exposure, or so they think.

The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) has been giving out “artist of the year” honors since 1995, mostly to the sound of crickets.

Shin’s “Translation Series”

MMCA has had its difficulties generating publicity. But last year, it pulled a coup when it persuaded national television channel SBS to jointly launch the Korea Artist Prize (KAP). The inaugural winners were the duo Moon Kyung-won and Jeon Joon-ho, acclaimed for their experimental works.

The template was obviously Britain’s Turner Award, broadcasted live by Channel 4 every year and credited for introducing iconic artists like Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor and Tracy Emin to the public. The award is meaningful enough that there seems to be heated debate every year over whether the winner was the right choice or not.

These are exactly the type of controversies the MMCA and SBS Foundation would love to generate. The old artist of the year winners had been awarded the right to hold solo exhibits at the museum. The involvement of SBS, however, ensures that the winners get to ride the media hype machine.

Kong’s “Stone Skipping”

For Moon and Jeon, SBS filmed and aired a documentary dedicated to their work, titled “Contemporary Art, Questioning its Boundary.”

SBS didn’t broadcast the award ceremony last year and isn’t planning to do so this year.

“Contemporary art cannot make money in broadcasting, not yet, because we can’t find the advertisers to pay for the spot,” said an official from the SBS Foundation. But that is exactly the problem KAP was created to adjust and live broadcasts are definitely the eventual goal.

MMCA and SBS picked four candidates for this year’s awards, all in their 40s. The works of Kong Sung-hun, Shin Mee-kyoung, Jo Hae-jun and Ham Yang-ah are currently shown at the MMCA and the winner among them will be announced in September.

Jo’s “Scenes of Between.”

For art lovers, the exhibition itself is enthralling. Kong’s paintings, Shin’s sculptures, Jo’s installations and Ham’s videos exemplify Korea’s contemporary art scene in its vibrant best.

There were complaints that last year’s KAP entries were too heavy on videos and installations. Apparently, the panel worked harder this time to broaden the scope.

In his series of paintings titled “Winter Journey,” Kong, 48, portrays winter scenery of nature and people in romantic bleakness: dreamy, snowy hills are surely not his thing.

Red is the dominating color of his self-portrait, where his expressions, intentionally placed lighting and the artificialness of duck and lotus-flower images combine to convey anxiety.

One can’t help wondering whether the cold, steely backbone that is consistent in Kong’s works has something to do with his experience of studying electronic engineering in college.

In the art world, Kong started out as a conceptual artist experimenting with different mediums before he began concentrating on painting in the late 1990s.

Shin’s main material is soap. All of the 46-year-old’s works at the museum, from replicas of famous Greek statues to colorful vases, displayed under the name of “Translation — An Epic Archive,” are made of soap.

The exhibition covers her earliest soap sculptures to the current ones, filling the hall with imaginative shapes and scent.

Shin first thought of using soap simply because it was more transmutable than hard materials like stone.

“Translation” is a series of traditional ceramic objects created in soap, while the sub-series “Translation: Ghost Series” portray different shapes and colors without the body of the objects themselves.

Using soap also allows Shin to let visitors participate in her works. In “Translation: Toilet-Project,” visitors can use Shin’s soap busts in the museum’s restrooms when washing their hands. The remaining parts of these sculptures may be displayed in Shin’s upcoming exhibition as “relics.”

Jo, 41, decided to collaborate with his father, who once dreamed of becoming an artist, for the “Scenes of Between” exhibit at the museum. The works first tell the story of his father, Jo Dong-hwan, being rejected by a national art contest.

After listening to his father’s story of preparing the work, submitting it and being eliminated from the contest, Jo produced a series of drawings which are displayed next to his father’s painting.

The father and son also created a video “Scenes of Between,” in which they portray a heart-to-heart talk between generations. Taking inspiration from a drawing they worked on together, the father-and-son work portrays images of “dokkaebi,” or goblins in Korean folklore, living alongside humans.

Ham’s exhibition space emulates a factory — and not a traditional one. The “Nonsense Factory” has six different rooms where Ham displays videos and installations of different themes, all intended to expose the irrationality of modern life.

Upon entering the gallery, visitors go through a narrow wooden door that leads to a swinging platform — intended to represent the precariousness of society. A desk fixed on the platform can be seen as a master’s desk, symbolizing traditional hierarchy and resistance toward change.

“Central Image Box Control Room” reflects Ham’s intention to maintain an objective, detached view on life, while “Coupon Room” is a commentary on capitalism.

Ham also created a sculpture of herself made of melting chocolate. An artist can taste sweetness, it seems to suggest, and her works can be addictive, but eventually, they will fade away.

The prize exhibition runs through Oct. 20. Admission is 5,000 won. For more information, visit www.mmca.go.kr/engN or call (02) 2188-6114.

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