On the verge of a nuclear confrontation, the Korean peninsula appears to be torn between self destruction and the iteration of a post-colonial trauma that has split into two apparently irreconcilable halves. The Korean Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale has been curated by Lee Daehyung and its metaphorical title ‘Counterbalance: The Stone and The Mountain’ refers to two ways of looking at the same phenomenon. Those two ways are not North and Soutch and derive from a generational divide. In fact, the show is structured around three geographical frames – Korea, Asia and the world and three generations of Koreans, Mister K represents the first generation, Cody Choi the second and Lee Wan the third.
From afar the pavilion’s architecture is covered by neon signs that, according to the curatorial text, are supposed to be read a casino Vegas/Macao-like metaphor for late capitalism. The installation, however, with its pastel colours comes across as rather chic and a la mode. There is nothing negatively capitalistic about it nor particularly American. Once inside the pavilion, Cody Choi’s approach comes across as satirical and plays rather ineffectively with that same casino metaphor but the ‘high art’ arrangement of the objects conspire against that.
A painting titled Cheesekhwa (Color Painting), clearly inspired by Ed Ruscha worded aesthetics depicts a threedimensional representation of a white cube’s corner with the words ‘Green’ and ‘Red’ painted on the surface of the canvas. The pigment drips from the words and draws attention to the fact that we are infront of a painting after all. Leaning on that same wall not far from the previous work, there is a copy of Edvard Munch’s The Scream wrapped in a cloth with the word ‘Shit’.
During my visit, a kid tried to dance in a dancing pole before he was immediately told off by two security guards. The pomposity and seriousness of the whole exercise conspired against the intended irony. By far the most interesting piece by Choi is ‘The Thinker’ (1993) which is a copy of the homonymous Rodin’s sculpture but made in toilet paper, Pepto Bismol, wood and plaster. Having said that, is that it?
Himself a US resident, Choi represents the younger generation of Korean artists supposedly more in touch with a globalised world and impregnated by Western cultural values. Is he happy or sad about it? Difficult to say. The artist’s fascination with the topic is a bit anachronic if you ask me with a madman threatening South Korea with total annihilation. I found it particularly interesting that in front of nuclear Armaggedon, Choi’s preoccupation is rather superficial and the irony comes across as too candid. There is a degree of a denial in this whole exercise.
The second part of the show is by Lee Wan who adopts an ‘investigative’ approach and inserts himself into the socio-political reality. For his five year project, title Made In, Lee travelled to various Asian countries in order to produce the raw goods necessary for the preparation of a typical breakfast. Later, in Proper Time, 668 clocks were engraved with the names, birth dates, nationalities and occupations of individuals he interviewed from around the world. Each clock moves at a different rate that is determined by the amount of time the individual in question must work in order to afford a meal. For Counterbalance, Lee presents the story of a deceased journalist, MrK., through Mr.K’s personal archive of 1,412 photographs and objects, with the artist found and purchased for $50 USD at an antique market in Korea. His life story unfolds through Japanese imperialism, the Korean War, years of dictatorship and rapid economic transformation, mainly, represented thorugh the political kleptocracy that took place there. There is something Kafkian in this archival unfolding of a man’s life and to be honest, the overlapping of this pessimism with the minor place that esthetics place in this mainly ethical account leaves the visitor dry.