Korea Artist Prize (KAP) is Korea’s most prestigious art award established in 2012 by SBS Cultural Foundation (cultural subunit of Seoul Broadcasting System) and the Museum for Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul. Every year four artists or teams at a decisive point in their career are given financial support to produce an artwork for the subsequent exhibition. Insofar the winners have explored various universal topics such as colonisation, crafted realities, the place of the individual in contemporary society, industrialisation, displacement and identity etc. Some have adopted a more reflexive approach in their works addressing issues of Contemporary art and style. It is in this context that KAP 2017 is different and important. What I am about to see as I enter the museum is perhaps MMCA’s most socially-engaged exhibition in recent history, one that unapologetically addresses issues very controversial in Korean society today.
But of course I do not yet know this.
"Girls in High School Uniforms" by Sunny Kim, MMCA Seoul
The exhibition takes me through four halls each showcasing the work of each one of the four winners. First is Sunny Kim’s Leap into the Dark. Through images of high school girls in uniforms placed in fabricated environments she explores the issues of memories, lost realities and the mental process of “retrieving” those past moments. The natural look and poses of the girls mislead me to try and reconstruct the original situation. But the "fakeness" of their surroundings get in my way and I begin to grasp the author's message. The "natural-ness" of the girls juxtaposed with the unnatural background refer to the tension between perfection and actuality. And I wonder - is it not in that space between the ideal and the objective reality where we constantly find ourselves dwelling? The theme of displacement and identity seems to be a very personal one for the artist herself as she reportedly drew inspiration from her first years living in the States and the fact that she never had the chance to wear a Korean uniform.
"UnemploymentBankruptcyDivorceDebtSuicideRestStop" by Bek Hyunjin, MMCA Seoul
Just as the title of Sunny Kim’s section says (or should I say warns) this is only the leap in the exhibition - reality is about to hit harder in the second section. Bek Hyunjin’s UnemploymentBankruptcyDivorceDebtSuicideRestStop spells out your biggest fears and promises no mercy. His abstract geometries reflects human emotions and thoughts that cannot be tamed, intact or arranged in a world so fast-moving, fast-changing and unsafe. Zen has been lost and the “pathological phenomena that occur like dominoes throughout Korean society, and all of these horrible, sad, and lonesome conditions are my stories and our stories at the same time”, the artist tells us in the brochure accompanying the show. In the context of Korea's astonishing development after the Korean War Mr Bek's section speaks for the emotional and social price of this success namely the loss of security and sense of stability amid so many changes.
"Robots" by Kelvin Kyungkun Park, MMCA Seoul
Kelvin Kyungkun Park’s works in the next section are to address another problem often talked about in Korean society. His installation features robots which move uniformly with light and colors in response to outside stimulus, an obvious reference to military training. Drawing inspiration from his army days (under Korean law all healthy men are required to complete a two-year mandatory military service) he questions the notion of the collective and points to the alienation which exists between members of the same system. Stories of misconduct and abuse in the military have been on the rise in Korean media in recent years which has prompted a social outcry for changes in the system. In that sense Mr Park's section adds yet another aspect of the issue to the public debate.
"Come Back Alive Baby" by Song Sang-hee
Logically the last section explores death. Song Sanghee’s video work Come back alive baby discusses the survival of life energy after death and is based on folk tales and Ms Song’s visits to Auschwitz and Chernobyl. In a video accompanying the exhibition she talks about the impact of these experiences on her practice also making a subtle comparison between the aforementioned historical events and the 2014 Sewol accident in which over 400 Korean high school children died in the sea. Opposite from the video projections is a compilation of explosion images titled This is the Way the World Ends Not with a Bang but with a Sob. As I stand before the artwork I slowly realise what a perfect closure for the exhibition it is. It hangs on the wall and asks: Are we going to die from a nuclear bomb (maybe a reference to the North Korea question) or in the game of UnemploymentBankruptcyDivorceDebtSuicideRestStop?
Formulated as a statement the title is in fact a question - do we die once, or little by little, one silent explosion at a time?
"This is the Way the World Ends Not with a Bang but with a Sob" by Song Sang-hee
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