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Nam June Paik’s “TV Buddha,” which he presented extemporaneously in his fourth solo exhibition in 1974, is his representative work that is simple yet suggestive.  This installation, in which an old statue of Buddha is facing its own image on a television screen projected by a video camera installed opposite the statue, received lavish praise at the time that it symbolized the meeting between the past and the present, and between a god of the east and the media of the west.  Furthermore, it asks a philosophical question, given that what I (the Buddha) am currently looking at is nothing but myself (the Buddha image on TV), whether it is meaningless to distinguish clearly between the subject and object, and whether there is any fundamental difference between the physical real Buddha and the Buddha as a nonphysical image that are facing each other.  Hence, in addition to the evaluation at the time that it had the east and the west meet or that it put the television in a new context as a medium of art, this work offers a great deal for an essential definition of interactive art that followed in that it blurs the distinction between the subject and the object and that the artwork is completed through their interaction.  For the point of interactive art is the active intervention by the audience stemming from the doubt about the dichotomous relationship between the artist who creates a work and the audience who appreciates it as the subject and the object.

Lee Beikyoung is called an interactive artist.  To be more precise, he is a video installation artist in whose work interactivity plays an important role.  That is, he employs computer technology in order to achieve interactivity with the audience rather than bringing the technology to the fore, and as such, his interactive art is cinematic rather than mechanical.  After first using a video in his college graduation work, he went to Germany to specialize in video art, and continuously pushed on with single-channel video art.  However, because of the linear concept of time and the unilateral characteristic of single-channel videos, he has widened the scope of his specialty to today’s media art focusing on interactivity.  Therefore, his interactive art is derived from the single-channel video through and through, and this fact could be very important in understanding Lee Beikyoung’s artistic inclination.  While a series of his works since 2003 are identical in terms of the basic definition of interactive art – that it induces the audience’s participation whereby the work is completed -- to the cluster of interactive digital art or web art that appeared in the 1990s in the United States that highlight computer technologies, his work is situated in a completely different context from such works.

Rather, his interactive video installations are reminiscent of the early video arts such as Nam June Paik’s “TV Buddha” that offer great philosophical insights through simple techniques.  In fact, the structures of his works are mostly simple: they use a projector to project images onto the wall or panel, and program a computer so that the images on the screen may change with a set rule in accordance with the input signals of the audience sensed by the video camera.  Of course, the images projected onto the screen are sometimes real-time filming of a specific space, at other times something recorded in advance, the video camera might reflect various elements such as the motions of the audience, color, and sound, or even the computer uses input signals of some unrelated specific space rather than those of the audience within the space.  However, most of them are video arts consisting of the interrelationship among the three parts of the projector, video camera, and computer, but with the addition of the audience’s intervention in these three parts, their dynamic produces different variations planned by the artist.  Also, he has concentrated on stimulating the audience’s participation by making the interface which is the contact point between the audience and the artwork as easy as possible, dispelling the prejudice that media art is difficult.  His first interactive video work “Videochapel” (2003) demonstrates all such characteristics.  The images of the rolling waves of the sea projected onto the wall of the space react in accordance with the audience’s location and movements captured by the camera installed on the ceiling.  Of ten divisions of the screen only the part of the screen which senses the audience’s movement moves about, and all the rest come to a momentary halt, and hence the whole image of the rolling waves of the sea is broken and scattered.  The perplexed audience takes a few steps back and gets out of the camera, the image runs in the scattered state for ten seconds and then goes back to the original state.  In this way, even someone who experiences the work for the first time can readily grasp the interface of his work after walking around it, and those who do not want the interactivity that unconditionally reacts to their presence can get out of the camera frame and observe the original image.  Lee Beikyoung’s interactive video installations, characterized by the uncomplicated structure and easy accessibility, also use images that are personally taken without any special manipulation or distortion, and continuously repeat such simple images at an interval of approximately ten seconds.  However, most of them pack a profound meaning beyond the simple image on the surface, and their contents, ranging from the nature of the medium to symbolic implication about humans and nature, are products of the artist’s long agony and deliberation.  The artist, who has said several times “I intend to deal with the three themes of the body, time, and space in all my works,” has tried in his works to give a concrete shape to the various relationships the human body bears to the world where it belongs.  That has been shown in various ways, such as the question of “How would we feel the space if we could stop or selectively progress time?” (“Videochapel”); the expression about how “the time that exists within an individual determined in each mind” is realized (“Self time”); the investigation about what happens at the same time in a different space where I do not exist (“Island,” “Before the Big Bang,” and “That time”); the confirmation about what I could think while looking at them in a virtual reality where different time and different space meet together (“Relationship”); the figurative depiction of “people of contemporary cities who exist in the same space at the same time, but who drift about naturally without running into one another” (“City, Man, Wind”).

However, interestingly, there is not even one theme that appeared unexpectedly; the thoughts that he had since he first started working have been continued and developed from one after another to next work.  His works in this exhibition also have a natural point of continuation with earlier works in terms of the content.  Notably, continuing the theme of his recent work “City, Man, Wind” (2007), which used the faces of seven hundred people to raise the question of whether the image of a city is not made by its buildings but by the people living in it, the artist in the current exhibition develops the story about the city we reside in and its people.  First of all, “Repeated Freedom,” which shows the biggest change in terms of the form among the works presented in this exhibition, still exhibits a close relationship to previous works in terms of the content.  With this work, the artist depicts contemporary men who live repetitive lives confined in urban spaces and yet have the illusion of freedom in it, and asks if the freedom that repeats itself at a specific cycle could be genuine freedom.  For this he built a monumental, 230cm high, wooden hexahedron that reminds one of a high-rise apartment building, and he sporadically inserted three monitors and sixteen speakers into the six sides which narrow toward the top.  The three monitors repeatedly show images of male and female dancers performing fixed movements within a cramped box.  The artist constructed a wooden square box with 150cm-long sides, asked two people to perform movements that they consider the most free within the space, filmed them for about a month, and chose only two movements out of them.  On the other hand, through the ten-channel amplified hidden with a computer inside the sculpture, the repetitive sounds of the movements of the dancers and the flow of the wind emanate from the sixteen speakers on rotation, effectively highlighting the image of a cold and chilly contemporary city.  First, this work is very different from the artist’s previous interactive video installations in that it is shown in the form of a newly made sculpture rather than in the form of projected images.  Also with respect to interactivity, he emphasizes the feeling of watching a complete work by limiting the changes caused by the audience’s movements captured by the camera installed on the ceiling merely to the replacement of the movement on the screen with another movement.  This is a meaningful attempt to go beyond his consistent method of image projection, to show the interactive video installation in a new light as an independent sculpture, which naturally displays the artist’s prior specialty.  It is also an ambitious attempt by the artist, who always considers music a genre as great as, or even greater than, visual art, to grant the aural element a status equal to the visual element, and to combine them into one work.

Another work “Episode #2” also reveals the artist’s interest in sounds in the current exhibition in that it transforms visual elements into noises in order to have the images cognized through the auditory sense.  After connecting and converting the panoramic photographs, taken from the perspective of a person looking at  a riverside or a mountain ridge at sunrise and sunset, into revolving moving images, the artist inserted a white band right in the middle of the image and had the noises change according to the changes of topography as the images pass the band.  In fact, the change of topography as it passes the white band comes from the change in color, since the artist programmed the computer so that it would react to the numerical value of R (red) out of the values of the three primary colors, RGB, of the pictures of the monitor.  This work applies a relatively rich interactivity such that, according to the audience’s location the pictures vary in their direction and speed – as the audience stands toward the right, the picture rapidly moves toward the left, while as the audience stands toward the left, the picture rapidly moves toward the right —, the noises vary in their volume, and as the audience moves farther away from the screen, the picture and sound returns to the initial state.  Through all such processes, this work captures the time and space in which we who live in the city often become sentimental, and mechanically transforms such images into noises, thereby inviting us to reconsider our unconditional reactions to such hackneyed situations.  By suspending in air a 200cm X 120cm special acrylic screen enclosed with a wooden frame and projecting a beam on it from behind, this work also gives the novel feeling of looking at a moving painting within a frame.  As in the previous work, “Repeated Freedom,” this point reveals the artist’s intention to pay more attention to the way in which the work is presented.

Lastly, another work in the current exhibition is an interactive video art, “The Mirror inside Me.” This is a projection on the wall similar in form to the artist’s earlier works – especially “Island” presented in 2004.  The image of a slightly shaking river is projected onto a wall surface of the gallery, and once the video camera placed on the floor captures the audience, the image within the silhouette is magnified as if a magnifying glass is placed on it with an artificial sound effect of a water drop rolling in accordance with the movements of the audience.  As a matter of fact, the artist is said to have filmed this from beneath an artificial waterfall in order to obtain images of rolling water without directionality, unlike in the case of flowing water.  The images taken this way, together with the sounds, give the audience the optical illusion that the picture is pulsating and anxiety for some unknown reason, and the image of the bottom of the river magnified within the silhouette of the approaching person is perplexing as if one is looking into the inside of the person.  As we gaze at the surface of the water, we first see our own face.  After a little while we see the surface of the water instead of the face, and in the end we come to think about different things regardless of what is visible.  Likewise, the audience who enters the scenery of murmuring water sees her own figure in the changed scenery, and then sees the bottom magnified within her silhouette, and after a while, starts thinking various thoughts, feeling as though it were a mirror inside her reflecting herself.  Of course this is merely my interpretation.  Perhaps the artist expressed his desire for his work to be interpreted differently by different audiences through the images of water that changes its shape depending on where it is contained.

In the current exhibition the artist reveals some changes from the past and at the same time offers clues as to the future road he will take.  First, while he uses materials from nature such as the images of water (“The Mirror Inside Me”), the sounds of wind (“Repeated Freedom”), and the scenery of sunrise and sunset (“Episode #2”), their symbolic meanings on the contrary refer to the lives of contemporary men living in cities.  Compared to his earlier works, this conveys the theme in a more indirect yet effective way, and demonstrates the unique, poetic rather than prosaic, characteristics of the artist.  Also, note that he elevates sound, which merely played an auxiliary role to the image, as a major element that is as important as, or even more important than, the image.  This is, as I mentioned earlier, a natural phenomenon originating from the artist’s immense interest in music and sound, and I look forward to his future work, which includes media art that explores a new methodology about sound art and its interrelation with video. 

Another point that suggests that the current exhibition constitutes a new turning point for the artist is his pursuit of formativity and completeness.  From the works presented in the current exhibition, which include a large-scale sculpture as a primary ingredient or pursue a more complete form, we can expect the artist in the future to present various interactive arts that mix physical and nonphysical forms unlike existing nonphysical media art.  Of course, such a road must presuppose the artist’s principle of freely using computer technologies, but only as a tool with which to induce genuine communication with the audience and to show conceptual depth and emotional richness, just as Nam June Paik’s “TV Buddha” was faithful to the basic definition yet possessed such rich connotations.
By Hyeyoung Shin / Curator, Gaain Gallery

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