NOW X HERE: The 5th UK Korean Artists Exhibition


The premise of this exhibit is to showcase the work of Korean artists currently living in the United Kingdom. It is the fifth year that the series has run at the Korean Cultural Centre UK (KCCUK), reflecting the South Korean government's continued commitment to a soft power strategy. This year, Monocle placed South Korea eleventh in their annual survey of global soft power, thanks largely to the ubiquitous Gangnam Style, a pop song which Slavoj Žižek has called both a "pure ideological phenomenon" and a "divine obscenity." For that reason alone, it is nice to see some other elements of South Korea receiving attention. And mercifully, nobody at the opening of the exhibit was induced to perform the "Horse Dance."

There are a variety of media on display: painting, sculpture, digital art and photography are all represented. Standout pieces included Kyung Hwa Shon's paintings, which reminded me a little of 8-bit Mario games, and Beomsik Won's Archisculpture photographs, in which new buildings are fashioned form the facades of existing London buildings, well-known and otherwise.

Jin Woo Yoo's work was also interesting in that its references to calligraphic techniques were one of the few points at which something that could be considered "Eastern" actually appeared. This is not to suggest that Korean artists should necessarily be concerned with questions of identity or Korean-ness, but to ask what these particular artists were doing in an exhibition together.

There is a kind of cold precision that runs across all of the artwork. It seems to channel thought and technique more than emotion. Perhaps this reflects a nation that creates cultural products in much the same way as it creates colour televisions: with efficiency and purpose, and without a sense of irony (Gangnam Style being the exception that proves the rule). This is not a bad thing in itself, but at the same time, it's hard to imagine a British artist producing work in the same way without self-consciously trying to be clever.

There is an ideology at work in South Korea's particular deployment of soft power, one which Žižek might call post-ideological:> I claim that the minimum necessary structuring ingredient of every ideology is to distance itself from another ideology... Every ideology does this. Which is why, the worst ideology today is post-ideology, where they claim we are entering a new pragmatic era, negotiations, plural interests, no longer time for big ideological projects.

For all the time I have spent engaging with and enjoying Korean culture, I have little idea of what the place really stands for, even in the superficial and contradictory sense that one might say that France stands for liberté, égalité, and fraternité. The South Korean motto is apparently "Benefit all mankind," which I suppose is reflected in the good food and good times I quite easily associate with Korean culture. However, its also more than a little empty, and that is what frightens me about Korea. I'm sure it frightens more than a few Koreans too, and I am therefore surprised not to see that fear reflected more strongly in Korean contemporary art.

NOW X HERE is at the Korean Cultural Centre UK in London until the 23rd of January, 2013.

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