Spectacle between Play and Display
As the title states, Kira Kim has transformed the well-organized structure of the white cube into a Super Mega Factory. The regularity and purity of a typical white cube has been presented as a heteropia of juxtapositions that cannot coexist on a flat, level surface. Several rooms filled with kaleidoscopic and mirage-like images appear only once the viewer walks past the bright neon lights at the gallery entrance. The exhibition itself is divided into three different spaces, opening up a number of platforms where different levels of spectacle are portrayed, ranging from light entertainment to imposing “fine art.” The viewer is lead astray as objects and images pour out excessively in lieu of art. In response the audience is forced to reconsider the significance of objects and symbols initially overlooked, and in order for the viewer to find their way around the exhibition, he/she must first lose their way around different rooms as devised by the artist. Even amidst various amusements found in this extravagant space, an invisible thread links the galleries together, revealing an unfamiliar and uncomfortable reality and truth hidden under an outwardly familiar and comfortable surface. Many dualisms exist in these spaces and the works possess cultural codes extracted from a wide range of sources that contain underlying messages of hidden authority based on self-identity. Though these overflowing symbols remain silent in the hubbub, they utter softly in their silence. Anorexia of artistic purism may have led to cultural bulimia, but its outcome is made artistic once more in Kim’s spectacle.
The galleries on the ground floor are mostly filled with cultural codes of the masses, whereas Kim has chosen more venerable artistic codes to permeate the second floor gallery. A common thread linking the two floors is a strategy of referencing or appropriating preexisting sources and forming a linear collection without an organic relationship of constituent elements. Moreover, we are constantly reminded that we are confronting objects made in a “factory” – in this case, a factory defined by two qualifiers, “super” and “mega” - emphasizing the production aspect. Artificially produced reality can only be realized through modulation and fabrication and hence there is a dependence on either macro or micro-power. Kira Kim’s work proposes a question of what is consumed and created in the substituted reality of a massive factory. Yet, his works are not based on a well-organized, rational and directed enlightened language but rather it materializes as a form of homeopathy in response to a dizzying reality. Viewers must independently sort through the excess of symbols instilled in the work. Furthermore, the exhibition spaces can be seen as a kind of scaled-down model of capitalism. The conversion of reality into a miniature model requires either addition or subtraction of various elements. Furthermore, the artist’s creative acts are not based on the contents of real historical texts or any tangible discovery but instead on essential and symptomatic moments of discovery of elements that had preexisted but were unclear until now.
Located at the gallery entrance, A Floor portrays a junior boxer being knocked-out. This depiction is symbolic of the endless struggle to overcome life’s countless challenges but it also represents the stance that the audience and the artist must take in confronting various “super” and “mega” in the world. However, this melancholic atmosphere set by the young boxer is instantly inverted upon entering the gallery. As if to ridicule a viewer who had been admiring the work, an assortment of painterly busts of different shapes and colors are grouped and presented together as 20th Century Super Heroes_Monsters. Twenty busts are enshrined in adjoining cabinets to form a collection. These busts embody an entirely unique set of monsters created using elements of 20th century pop culture heroes. Although heroes of popular culture such as Superman and Batman inherently have monster-like elements, Kim exaggerates these elements, dissects them and mixes them up. The artist combines elements of six or seven characters to create a new monster. For instance, Hulk’s saliva, Captain America’s wings, and Batman’s pointy ears are all combined together to form a single bust. These constituent elements of the new monster are connected via a system of holes. That is to say, the busts can be formed via a plug-and-play method and with this structure of assembly one monster can be easily morphed into another without discriminating what elements are plugged in where. The holes on the body of the monsters thus create a carnival-like atmosphere. The carnival-like image evokes the idea of Mikhail Bakhtin, who has written that the grotesque body of a carnival is impure, unbalanced and direct – it manifests as a physical body with holes. In this way, it can be said that a carnivalesque body can alternative with a classical body.
The next gallery presents a miniature model of capitalism using elements that are different to those of a carnival. Perhaps it only appears like an amusement park that imitates a carnival, but there are still dangerous elements contained in the act of violating a taboo that blur boundaries of class but does not neutralize it completely. Referencing the works in the previous gallery, there are wooden sculptures that remind the viewer that prominent monsters of the contemporary era have primitive and mythological elements. And like mythological constructs, the identities of heroes are also constructed using various elements. Exploiting this heterogeneity, Kim plays with the elements that form the identity of heroes as if they were Lego blocks that can be disassembled at will. The work Great Deed!! Great Dead!! borrows scenes from Goya’s paintings full of cruel images of beheading, amputation, and castration to create a sculpture of a Tinman, a decapitated Pinocchio, and a victimized sacrificial child. Aside from a basic message conveying that wars victimize the weak, Kim emphasizes how often there is war in the world by transforming a terrible historical painting into a sculpture based on common children’s fairy tales and fables. Here, the artist has depicted and transformed hot wars that originally take place in specific battle grounds into a cold war that takes place in our everyday lives. Characters in this sculpture are those who had dreamed of becoming human (adult), but instead meet an early death. Here, the artist is also referring to infantilism - also called “kidult” - in capitalist culture, which describes the lack of moral maturity that impedes adult development. However this work is interpreted, this allusion to childlike fables must be seen as connected to the sense of grotesque reality characterized by what Antonin Artaud called the “Theater of Cruelty” in his book “The Theatre and its Double.”
“A propaganda city of spectacle” is portrayed in the next gallery. Approximately half of the gallery is staged as a theater and the other half of the gallery is decorated with sign works, similar to those seen at the entrance of the gallery. Presented like a mini-city, this stage resembles a model of a contemporary metropolis, portraying a compressed reality of capitalism. This representation reveals the contemporary city as a sanctuary for images and messages of consumer culture. Furthermore, the recipients of these copious messages, i.e. viewers, are immediately recognized as consumers. However, in the process of consuming culture, they also internalize and hide the capitalistic politico-economic system in a package labeled culture. Framing this packaging of culture, Kim presents a sculpture titled 21st Century World which is the logo of the Hollywood film company that has dominated 20th century mass culture with the alteration of a single digit. The sign stands alone like an abandoned commemorative statue with the sculpture of Tinman looking down on this logo with a melancholic expression. Moreover, a crude signboard leads the viewer into a makeshift theater. This model of a theater, constructed as a simulacrum, conveys the idea of reality that is accepted by the masses through certain generalized codes. For example, the advertisement signboards read: “The happiest moment of this century begins”, “We are the one”, “We will always be together, We will remain one even if the world changes”, etc. By alienating this space of mass consumption as a Palace of Mirages, the artist attempts to convert individuals from all over the world into citizens of a global village, and reveal the truth of “one” as an outcome of universal experience and competition — an assertion Kim conveys in a highly critical and rather sarcastic manner.
This critique can be seen in another strategy wherein Kim takes Hollywood film subtitles and selectively transforms them into sculptures that are installed in the theater. These sculptures then re-appear in the accompanying film. In the act of transforming a select image into sculpture and then back again into film, Kim reveals various ways in which we encounter symbols and images. In much the same way, video work Universal Experience is screened in the theater as a 3D animation. It portrays an image of the earth behind a logo at the moment of earth’s total destruction, and the fireworks portrayed in the film allude to a worldwide war rather than a festival. In another work, modified intro of the movie Star Wars is appropriated, followed by a dark screen. Thus, the audience is lured in as if something grand will appear but nothing follows. Here, the work implies vanity and emptiness of entertainment. Entertainment is not extraordinary or different, there is no actuality. Instead, entertainment is only created using tools of exaggeration in the interest of conveying propaganda messages and to target the consumer’s wallets. This same critique can be seen in the neon signs titled WE ARE THE ONE and I LOVE U, bothof which use LED lighting to borrow common and overly used advertising expressions of a consumerist culture as well as a totalitarian political system. These expressions place human universal values in words such as “one” or “love” so that our preferences can be unified as “one” and to “love products” in order to sustain an infinite cycle of consumption and production. For the market, a break in this cycle would be seen as a disaster comparable to a natural disaster. Just as Haven · Hell is signified by colors: red being synonymous with hell if one does not have money and white being akin being in a haven if one is rich, the artwork unifies all kinds of existence under a single identity of a consumer. In effect, the gallery is filled with slogans that exclude outsiders who cannot be assimilated under a unified identity of a consumer.
The gallery on the second floor is staged as a “room of authority.” The first work the viewer encounters is a portrait of an unknown figure wearing a white hood, reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan. The portrait is based on a real person who initiated a massacre in modern history. This work symbolizes the murder of minorities in society. Beginning with this work, gallery on the second floor shows an array of figures representing left and right of fascism and imperialism who played domineering roles in modernity - portraits which are rendered as traditional paintings encased in gold-colored frames. Although this collection of sculptures, embroidered works, and historical, still-life, and portrait paintings seems to resemble a museum exhibition, the contents of the work remain comic and kitschy. The work Hit-lmaria as a continent of history presents a heinous image of Hitler disguised as a Virgin Mary statue. Sprayed with marble powder, this sculpture unmasks a parallel relation of religion and fascism – two ideologies that clearly polarize good and evil. Moreover, figures representing left and right, such as Marx, Queen Elizabeth II, and Hitler stand amongst other individuals who symbolize feudalism and they are all presented in a comical fashion as if they had been badly beaten. These historical figures of differing contexts and time periods are forced to coexist in the gallery. They are not depicted realistically but they are interpreted distinctly according to each time period. In doing so, Kim emphasizes the fictive re-representation of historical individuals.
In addition to sculptures, the second floor gallery features large-scale ‘historical paintings of the 20th century (painted in 2009)’, works made in the same manner as portrait paintings. Kim creates paintings that layer scenes of war and massacre in the Middle East, applying the compositions of master painters such as Goya, Delacroix and Picasso, all of whom painted images of war or disasters. Massacre of the West_Beautiful Victim similarly depicts tragic 20th century wars that took place in the West. Kim sees these wars as having been waged in the interest of enforcing and introducing a unique capitalist system into previously untainted regions. His underlying message in this work is that capitalism, in aiming for universality, has brought about a dangerous collision and formation of another kind of fundamentalism. The work St Kira as killed on Super animals is an adaptation of a portrait of the beheaded St John but in this case it has been painted using the artist’s own face. Through this work, the artist joins the ranks of other “beautiful victims” and Kim insinuates his own current worldview by borrowing the mask of a beheaded saint. Although appropriated images are depicted as solemn oil paintings, inscribed text highlights the work making it appear as if it is a hot news item. Overall, these historical paintings represent lessons in history that one must never forget, but whose teachings are quickly burned under the flood of news and quickly forgotten. Moreover, the pages of our newspapers combine tragic events around the world with idiotic and insignificant amusements – an unwitting juxtaposition that reveals the media’s even more dangerous massacre.
It goes without saying that contemporary society is engaged in an everyday cold war, and that frequent hot wars – where real blood is shed – is part of a “dangerous society” that is a result of globalization. Among the various sculptures and paintings that fill the space, embroidered work entitled historical UN as a flag appears rather foreign. The surface of the fabric is covered in bay leaves and the earth is portrayed in red. Thus, the earth appears as though it is feverishly ill and bleeding. The fabric is dry and merciless. It does not appear as if it would wipe away a victim’s tears. Rather, it would be better suited as a flag for a multinational business desiring to appear extraordinary. Further, the painting depicting a contemporary cruise liner refers to genre paintings of the 16-17th centuries which suggests a collinear relationship between grand tours of the modern era and wars of the colonial era which sought to acquire raw materials from, and then sell its by products back to the victims. This romantic concept of exploring and venturing into the unknown is played out as a cruel game, a game that does not recognize the “otherness” of the other, but instead is played out by enforcing the principles of one group onto the other. By citing references from Zygmunt Baumans’ Liquid Modernity and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes tropiques, the artist states that two strategies have been applied whenever the issue of otherness had to be resolved throughout the history of humanity. One is a strategy to spit out and the other is to consume as a whole.
The first strategy works by expelling all that is regarded unfamiliar and foreign; this strategy applies to all that cannot be corrected. The other strategy conforms what is deemed alien. The mind and body of the other is ingested and swallowed so that it can be metabolized and made homogenous to the body that has consumed the alien contents. This strategy can be applied to diverse customs ranging from cannibalism to enforced nursery tales. Whereas the first strategy aims to banish or exterminate the other, the second strategy aims to suspend the other or make them invalid. Similarly, Kira Kim’s work featuring cruise liners such as A cruiser of the Pioneer as tourism 01 shows the pain felt by the “other” who do not belong to (cannot belong to, and do not want to belong to) those in power. Kim’s work reveals both micro-powers of invisible blackmail placed on the other as well as macro-power applied to a bleeding victim. But whether it is micro or macro-power, power in its truest form is not revealed directly and thus indirect methods such as reference or allegory is applied. Symbols and motifs are the languages that penetrate many layers of contemporary society. Moreover, in recognizing the distance (gap, delay, disparity) between the subject, Kim has made amusement possible. Overall, Kira Kim’s work conveys a message by exploring the gap between layers in language. Also, his work is grounded in emotions that range from deeply sympathetic melancholy to cynicism.
By Lee Sun-young / Art Critic