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Chung Seoyoung, Knocking Air, Barakam Contemporary, Seoul

Installation view of Chung Seoyoung: Knocking Air, Barakat Contemporary, Seoul

Image courtesy Barakat Contemporary.

Barakat Contemporary presents Knocking Air, a solo exhibition by Chung Seoyoung, from Tuesday, May 12 to Sunday, July 5, 2020. As an artist, Chung Seoyoung played a leading role in the establishment of “Korean Contemporary Art” as a new category of contemporary art in the 1990s. The 1990s in South Korea was a period that saw the conservative, academic social atmosphere of the past abandoned as individualism and consumer-oriented values rooted in material abundance began to flourish. In the Korean contemporary art of the time, attention was shifting away from the conflict between Minjung (people’s) art and modernist painting and moving toward the art of a “new generation” with new aesthetic sensibilities. Chung began producing work that incorporated as sculptural elements the unrealistic divides that were emerging amid the rapidly changing social climate. As she focused on fundamental questions concerning sculpture itself, she incorporated non-sculptural materials found throughout industrialized society – Styrofoam, linoleum, plastic, sponges, plywood, and the like – and transformed them into a sculptural state. In particular, the artist was sensitive in her perception of the “functional objects” situated throughout the everyday landscapes created by accelerated growth. Actively contemplating the “relationship between language and objects,” both as surplus products of the real-world economic structure’s rapid transformation and as evidence of that process, she brought them into the realm of sculpture. 

The exhibition’s title, Knocking Air, engenders linguistic performativity, giving rise to an impossible activity (“knocking” on an invisible element like air) while creating anticipation for the unpredictable situations that arise from it. For the title of the exhibition, the artist used a phrase that appeared when she entered the Korean phrase ‘gonggireul dudeuryeo’ into Google Translate – a “Googlish” translation, as she has described it. This process shares some similarities with the artist’s flexible patterns of thinking in guiding objects and languages to form relationships outside of standards of “right” and “wrong.” In this exhibition, the artist flexibly expands the scope of sculpture through the use of more diverse materials including ceramic, aluminum, jesmonite, glass, and cloth. Alongside her fundamental contemplation of sculpture, Chung Seoyoung has also used her discerning thoughts and perceptions to capture the moments when ordinary objects become sculpture. As it explores the relationship between objects and sculpture, Knocking Air departs from the established artistic practice of perceiving sculpture through language, activating instead an autonomous aesthetic language that belongs to sculpture itself. The 27 new and older pieces use different media to contemplate the relationships among the forms and detailed elements internal to sculpture, the moments at which sculpture is achieved, and the surrounding spaces – thus achieving a unique sculptural world.

Hanging inside the gallery’s first floor are the showcases Walnut*, Walnut**, and Walnut*** (2020), featuring walnuts of slightly different sizes. Focusing on “plastic” as a material, the artist cast the sculptures of walnuts that are distributed within the three wall-hanging showcases. The showcase surface is shielded in glass to protect the walnuts, yet with the empty margins on either side on the cover, it seems unlikely to function completely as a showcase. Indeed, the artist has attempted to disrupt the conventional view towards the “walnut” as a typical object by altering its conditions in unfamiliar ways – its material, form, color, and position – and adjusting the details of the showcase where the walnuts are placed. In her past work, Chung has used materials such as wood, plywood, and lumber as material to produce Gatehouse (2000), Lookout (1999), and furniture such as desks, bookcases, and showcases. While she leaves behind aspects of the objects to consider the possibility of furniture that forms a close connection with the human body, she has transformed ordinary objects into sculptural states by reconstructing or eliminating aspects of the material or its size or state. In Walnut, disparate materials and colors clash with khaki-colored plastic walnuts and brick-red wooden showcases; the result evokes social memories of objects throughout South Korea whose functionality has been their most emphasized aspect, achieving a transformation into an important “space” where objects become sculpture.

Since her 2008 work, Monster Map, 15 min., Chung Seoyoung has consistently produced work in the medium of text drawings – collections of sentences that are generally enigmatic or unclear in meaning. For this exhibition, the artist presents 10 text drawings, produced with a glaze “pencil” on ceramic plates shaped like A4 sheets of paper. These text drawings consist of phrases that are realistically nonsensical, or arouse a poetic imagination – phrases such as “tall, tall thorny plants with purple flowers in a garden surrounded by four walls,” “cheeky addition,” “coming closer and splitting in two,” and “removing its nose as it flies through space.” The minute material qualities of the ceramics can be sensed in the textual drawings, which are placed upon pedestals whose dimensions have been beyond their original function, resulting in the two being recognized as a single mass. The text written by the artist has been fired as smudged over the ceramic plate’s surface, with the smudging illustrating the space and depth obscured by the two-dimensionality of the plate. The moments of experiencing the sculpture are heightened further by the pedestals, which are presented in three subtly different tones of white.

The time spent creating a sculpture has often been an artistic theme in Chung’s work. No. 0 and No. 1 capture the instant of a branch snapping, while A Long-Continued Question is an aluminum cast of Styrofoam, sculpted quickly and without any specific plan. In Untitled (1994), the “moments when objects become sculpture” that the artist has consistently spoken of are visualized more intuitively. The coat hanger precariously cantilevered off of the top drawer of a three-tiered wooden cabinet, and the herringbone fabric draped heedlessly over top of it, evokes a sense of tension in the viewer, along with ordinary memories of daily life and the ways it intersects with objects.

The three columns of Blood, Flesh, Bone (2019), Yellow, It (2020), and Dark Red, It (2020) shrewdly reveal the moments of the artist perceiving the world, while also showing moments in which forms unassociated with anything transform into sculpture. Chung has engraved “bloo d flesh bone” – materials that are essential for sustaining life but have no fixed forms on their own – onto a wooden signboard. Located on either side are the two columns Yellow, It, and Dark Red, It, which are metal reproductions of paper columns created as by-products from the experimentation process for Blood, Flesh, Bone. A small mirror has been placed at the base of Yellow, It, while a crumpled waxed envelope dangles on a scanty wire from Dark Red, It. Inside the envelope are tiny keys, faint outlines of which are visible on the envelope’s exterior. The instant we recognize the round wooden signpost bearing the words “Blood Flesh Bone” in organic letters, it becomes powerfully embedded in our mind. As we brush past the yellow column, we have the sensation of the back of our necks being caught in a small mirror, while the small key marks on the surface of the envelope suspended from the dark red column offer a sculptural moment that can only be captured when all of our bodies’ senses are heightened. Together, the three columns serve as a kind of manifesto, in which we are made to physically experience the sculptural time so sensitively captured by the artist.

Table A (2020) is a sculpture in the shape of a table, but its structure is far from typical. To produce the table’s legs, the artist opted for two wooden stools and wooden sculptures as her materials. At the floor-level, sculptural segments of branches are distributed among the table legs; on the glass tabletop ceramics shaped like clenched fists or clipped fingernails are arranged along with a sculpture in the shape of a highway. The relationship among the sculptures is like a riddle posed by the artist, amplifying our curiosity as to why a fist or a highway might be on the table. This confusion is a by-product of the functional conditions of balancing the table, but it also leads us to consider the potential connections among the sculptures, which appear ambiguously linked when viewed from the outside. The senses of irony and absurdity in Chung Seoyoung’s sculptures can be interpreted in terms of the semiotics of art, while also reflecting the artist’s rejection of an authoritarian society. Her mixtures of objects of indeterminate relationships create a sense of perplexity and tension in contemporary art audiences, who are used to “reading” artworks and their messages. Perceiving “society” to be a shared myth established through the looseness of language, the artist has constantly strived to ensure that her sculptural objects are not subsumed into the comprehensible logical language of the real world. Chung’s sculptures start from an attempt to “surmise, misunderstand, and discover objects and share how they are capable of forming balances with all other things in the world” – leaving the domain of “meaning” that surrounds the objects as a field for active interpretation.

The World (2019), a two-channel video in which the walnut sculptures appear, cast from plasticine, is situated in a separate space on the gallery’s second floor. For 10 minutes and 25 seconds, the video quietly depicts walnuts positioned before a bright white backdrop. The only information that can be discerned through the screen is that of the wrinkled husk and surface of the two walnuts, minutely different in how they have been shelled– something that can be figured out after just a few moments. Produced by the artist during her first stage of preparations for the exhibition, the video incorporates questions of “time spent focusing on something for an extended period,” which she explored as she was contemplating the sculptural works. If we continue patiently observing the object, the exterior of the walnut falls away at some point, and we are enveloped in the minute surrounding changes to the environment – air, time, light, shadow, and sound. This change is not a fragmentary experience, but an experience involving all of the senses as the microscopic changes to the walnut on our retina are transported throughout our bodies. The walnuts sink into an intangible space created by the sound as it subtly stimulates our nerves – a space formed by our consciousness – and our senses become more acute as they perceive the events. Amid this period of movement, The World establishes an inner world that comes fully into contact with the sculpture. The walnuts in The World are not finished sculptures in themselves; the sculpture is created by the environmental elements of light, shadow, air, and sound that surround the walnuts, and by a world of different dimensions that breaks apart from the unpredictability of time. 

For The Same (2020), an aluminum sculpture in the same room as The World, the artist brought a 1997 photograph of an unfinished sculpture into the present moment, recasting it. Positioned on a small table with the shape of a dog side-by-side with a sculptural armature, the aluminum sculpture is frozen in a state where the two are beginning to resemble one another. Chung often produces sculptures showing a pair of twins, an approach that originates in her imagination of the unknown realm that may emerge from the splitting-apart of the time and space where a single object previously existed before dividing in two. As a domain that is both physical and abstract, space is very important to the perception of Chung’s sculptures. The Same  is a sculpture that sprang out of the process of locating these subtle moments.

Clues from the artist’s previous works appear like riddles throughout the exhibition venue. The “walnut” that did not appear in Bone and Walnut (2016) finally reveals its physical form, as does the key that was absent from Evidence (2014), a photographic work visually representing the experience of searching in a bag for a key and instead randomly grasping unrelated objects. In Ballpoint Pen (2020), we see a new form of the Monami ballpoint pen repeatedly twirled by the characters in the video work, The Adventure of Mr. Kim and Mr. Lee. Other past works are also brought into the present and recombined or newly presented. H. G. Masters has referred to Chung Seoyoung’s work as “proto-augmented reality” – perhaps because he spied the sculptural world of the artist as she keeps one foot in reality while summoning images of imaginary memories and objects that exist in a different time. Thanks to her magical skill in handling time and space, fiction acquires a justification for existing here. Originating in her free contemplation of objects, Chung’s sculptures create a new dimension, a fictional and poetic realm that separates away from the inner moments established between the artist and the objects. Through the unknown territory that emerges unexpectedly from these combinations of strange and different objects, one encounters the “extraordinary moments when an object becomes sculpture.”

Cheong Seoyoung (b.1964, Seoul) studied sculpture at Seoul National University and the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart. In the mid-1990s, she began her activity as a sculptor within the context of Korean contemporary art. She was a representative artist for the Korean Pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennale and has held solo exhibitions at Portiks Frankfurt, Art Sonje Center, Atelier Hermès, and Ilmin Museum of Art. She has also taken part in group exhibitions at the 4th and 7th Gwangju Biennale, Plateau, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (Korea), the Mediacity Biennale, Shiseido Gallery (Tokyo), Taipei Fine Arts Museum, and the Hong Kong Arts Centre. She has been honored with the Kim Se-jung Sculpture Award, artist support from the state of Baden-Württemberg, and arts foundation support, and a number of her works are included in the collections of various public and national museums and institutions in South Korea, including the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul Museum of Art, Gyeonggi Museum of Art, Art Sonje Center, and Platform-L.

All images courtesy Barakat Contemporary

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