View of Yooah Park’s Music Box series (2013) and North Korean posters (from left to right) by Kim In Chang and Ji Jeong Sik.

“KOREA” at FiveMyles Gallery
558 St. John’s Place
Brooklyn, NYC
June 25 – July 13, 2014
            The
exhibition simply titled “KOREA,” curated by Han Heng-Gil, is a rare occasion,
if not the first here, that has provided an opportunity for New Yorkers to view
contemporary works by North and South Korean artists within the same space. Mr.
Han has been around the New York City art scene as a curator at The Jamaica
Center for Arts & Learning and, over the years, has developed relationships
with Korean artists who have both passed through the cultural hub for brief
residencies as well as those who have decided to stick around for a longer term.
Han occasionally travels back and forth to NYC and South Korea, but the current
exhibition at FiveMyles Gallery in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is the result of a
trip the curator recently made to North Korea. He was fortunate to have been
able to bring back several paintings by North Korean artists, whose work are on
display with those of South Korean as well as Korean American artists.
            Whenever
I see an art exhibit as of late, my focus increasingly turns to the curatorial
efforts: the way in which the selected art works are displayed as a whole,
their flow as overcoming and complicating what the individual works may offer
in isolated or otherwise different contexts. Sometimes a curator makes or
breaks art works by their arrangements in a given space. My interest in “KOREA”
lies in the clear traces of the curator’s hand. When visitors walk into the
gallery, the visual divide between the two sides of the space is clear: the two
dimensional works along the left side of the space are monochrome, while the
works along the right side burst in a clash of vivid colors. In the middle of
the floor between the two divides, bronze busts of the former president of
South Korea, Lee Myung Bak, and the likewise former ruler of North Korea, Kim
Jong-Il, turn around on the floor—just moving in for, or breaking away from, a
kiss.

View of SunTek Chung’s Me and You, You and Me, 2011 in foreground, projection of Kelvin Kyung Kun Park’s Cheonggyecheon Medley (2011) and N. Korean posters (from left to right) by Kim Young Il, Ha Ju Won, and Kim In Chang.
            The
bronze work, titled Me and You, You and Me, 2011, is by SunTek Chung, a born-and-raised American. Its position at
the center of the space casts a curious light on the nature of the entire show
itself: was this convergence of North and South Korean art work—and a critique
of North-South relations—only possible by virtue of its locale in New York
City, a third-party? NYC serves as the neutral ground (arguably the DMZ in this
context) in which the curator (also a “global” citizen in a sense, though South
Korean by nationality) is able to articulate a possible utopia or instigate a dialogue
about the relationship between two nations whose separation, Mr. Han seems to
suggest, have been imposed—and still exist—artificially.
            The
installation of the art works indicates the artificiality of the divide between
North and South (similarly applicable to East and West, but that is indeed
another discussion
à la Edward Said). The
monochrome side of the exhibit is particularly interesting especially in
context of the recent Korean monochrome “trend” as legitimized by exhibitions in
“Western” spaces (Alexander Gray Associates in NYC, for one) and the climbing
prices for such representative mid- and late-career artists such as (now
Guggenheim veteran) Lee Ufan and Park Seo-bo. In contrast, perhaps the nearly
intrusive vividness of bright colors on the right side of the gallery may even
appear too cheesy and “pop.”

View of the left side of the gallery, including works by Pang In Soo, Kim Tcha Sup, Choi Gye Keun, Choi Il Dan, and Ri Chang.


“KOREA,”
however, does not clearly indicate which of the works are by North, South, or
Korean American artists. The majestically tacit North Korean monochrome ink
paintings hang next to South Korean ones, whereas the display of colorful North
Korean propaganda posters from 2007 are interspersed by the equally (if not
more) colorful paintings by New York-based Yooah Park and a projection of Cheonggyecheon Medley (2011) by Kelvin
Kyung Kun Park, a UCLA and CalArts graduate, who grew up around the world.
Kelvin Park’s film portrays South Korean metal shops during the nation’s time
of modern development and Yooah Park’s paintings prod at questions about
“couples,” but juxtaposed with the propaganda posters, all of their differences
melt into a single visual image.

South Korean artist Lee Kakyoung’s Window View, 2012

The inclusion of
Lee Kakyoung’s video work acts as a humorous visual summary of the almost
deceptive melding of the so-called national and cultural divides within the
entire exhibition. The work, titled Window View, 2012, is the sole piece placed at a narrow wall adjacent
to the monochrome side, only visible when one turns one’s body fully toward the
left-hand side. The sneakiest is the work itself: what appears from a distance
as a slightly open window penciled onto the surface is actually accompanied by
a video projected only onto the open crack of the drawn window. Small people
move around busily outside (inside?) this fictional opening.

The best thing
about the exhibition, though, is that the visual result achieved by the
curatorial efforts overcomes what could have been a cheesy, ideologically propaganda-esque,
and utopia-driven project about a “united” Korea. The simultaneous dissonances
and resonances offered by the visual selection of works in “KOREA” reaches
beyond a singular argument for a possible utopia, but rather opens a dialogue.
During my visit, I overheard other visitors argue whether or not the Kelvin
Park’s film projection was a North Korean film. We need fresh eyes to look at
our world anew in order to change it for the better. I received some hope today
that it may still be possible with art.