Everyone likes a good story, right? This year’s finalists of the Korea Artist Prize 2013 seem to like them, too. The four finalists Kong Sung-Hun, Shin Meekyoung, Ham Yang Ah, and Jo Haejun are all great storytellers; it’s just that they do the storytelling in art.
Narrative has always been a huge element in art and not only in what people categorize as “narrative art”. It can be a short story or an epic saga or a snippet; a story is a story. Art just happens to be quite the interesting medium when telling one. And it was this aspect of art which struck me the most at this year’s Korea Artist Prize 2013 exhibition at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.
Held every year since 1995 – although it has been renamed from its original title “Artist of the Year” – the exhibition showcases and sponsors talented artists who have contributed to the Korean contemporary art scene; innovatively and creatively. Four finalists are selected and a winner is chosen before the exhibition is over.
I had a blast last year so I went again this year, albeit quite late. (The exhibition ends October 20th, 2013.) Let the critics tell you the profound meaning of the artists’ works, what they were trying to convey. I’ll just talk about the exhibition as a simple spectator who happens to love art, someone who was just trying to listen to the story the artists were telling. Their stories were quite interesting to see (and listen).
Kong Sung-Hun (공성훈) – Winner
Kong creates paintings. Realistic, almost photographical paintings, a genre which I feel is greatly underrated in the Contemporary Art scene. So must have thought the judging panel for this year’s Korea Artist Prize; they awarded him with high praise, mentioning his innovative perspective in a seemingly old and tired genre.
The narrative in his work is very distinct. His collection of work called “Winter’s Journey” is an odyssey of his trip to Jeju-do, the unfolding of his travelling diary. You go on a walk with the artist as you look over his canvases, a leisurely stroll where you enjoy the scenery, where you discover nature in its many states, and where you look at people as they go about completely unaware of your gaze. The subjects in his paintings exist sometimes in calm harmony and sometimes in imposing contrast; such is the world. The world is out there and he has captured it. In its very essence. And the emotions you feel while looking at his work is yours. Like life.
Shin Meekyoung (신미경)
I do a lot of translation. I’ve been doing it for quite a while. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments when I get stuck, when I am faced with the untranslatable. At these times you just have to try to get across the meaning as close as possible, but inevitably, there are things which get lost in translation.
This is the main theme of Shin Meekyoung’s work. “Translation – An Epic Archive” is an assemblage of her “translation” sculptures: marble is interpreted into soap, her own face is translated into a classic Greek bust, and Asian ceramics are reinterpreted in a “Westernized Asian” style.
Is there something truly lost between the original and the artist’s translations? One of the most intriguing aspects of her work is that she dealt with this issue straight on, this disappearing factor. Her soap sculptures of classic Greek busts are placed in public restrooms where they are meant to be used. Their original (or translation of the original) state is slowly being translated once, twice, thrice, multiple times by the spectator, who technically is no longer the spectator but a protagonist in the translation itself. The boundaries of original and translation become even more vague; a multi-perspective aspect which is easily a metaphor for contemporary everyday life, where translation is the narrative and the narrative is the translation.
Ham Yang Ah (함양아)
Sometimes stories don’t make sense. Sometimes life doesn’t make sense. So sometimes, stories of life don’t make sense. Ham tells such stories in “Nonsense Factory”, a visual ensemble of an actual short story she has written. Once again, storytelling is the art, and in this case, a series of video footage and installations divided in themed rooms where she explores the boundaries of the individual, society, nature, and their relationship to one another.
People sit and watch are sometimes baffled. What is this random video? Why are we watching this? And there is the other spectator, the one who is watching the people watch the video, and then there would also be the artist, who watches the spectators watching other spectators watch her video which is footage of her watching someone else. Does that make any sense?
Birds fly. In the sky, in an empty room. A pen slowly soaks red ink into paper. A miniature sculpture of the artist in chocolate stands before a hot neon sign which glares, “I came for 행복”. [Note: 행복 = happiness.] All can be meaningless and all can be extremely meaningful. That’s how her stories go.
Jo Haejun (조해준)
Literal storytelling. Truly. In drawings and in words, like a wall of cartoons. Stories told by the artist’s narration and then reenacted in film. Jo is, by far, the most direct storyteller of the finalists this year. He tells the stories he heard in his childhood, he tells the stories of his childhood, he tells the stories of his father, he tells the stories of those whose voices should be heard. The compilation of his work on display is called “Scenes of Between” and he tries to capture the details between the grand narratives, the ones we tend to miss.
In a collaboration with his father, he has drawn and written his father’s tale of life in post-war Korea, created short films depicting the almost fairy tale like stories he heard in his youth, and made a video series about pro-democracy activists in the 1980s alongside with the stories of Egyptian, Arab, and East European activists.
The very detailed cartoon about life in the army as a ROTC soldier in the early days was blatantly honest and true – for it was – and the films of the ludicrous stories he heard in his childhood are as whimsical as a child’s imagination. “The Story of the Work that Failed to Win a National Competition” features an actual painting by his father, which, indeed, had failed to win a national art competition, with an explanation of the work thoughtfully written out on paper added to the bottom. And then the artist draws the entire story in another cartoon series. Storytelling in art, art in storytelling, this was the epitome of this exhibition.
Compared to last year’s finalists, this year’s artists seemed less “grandiose”. There weren’t huge impressive installations to gape over or artwork that had to be pondered over and over in an effort to grasp its meaning. Some of the art’s stories were just there, as open as life, and some of the art was tremendously kind in its explanation. Who says art has to be grand and bigger than life? Through their art, the finalists were telling stories about life, theirs and ours. And they were definitely stories worth seeing and listening.
* All unmarked photos are courtesy of the official site.
Korea Artist Prize 2013 at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art