The Eye of the Needle

Peace Museum, The Eye of the Needle, 2.24-4.17.2011


The intimate space the Peace Museum currently occupies, located down a tiny alley in Jong-ro gu, augments the discomforts raised in The Eye of the Needle. The show deals directly with the lives of migrant and temporary workers, and more precisely our own perception of their place in society. The artists invited to participate in the show address the particular situation in Korea, although it’s easy to see how these issues reach into nearly every sector of the world, where workers in many fields are currently under siege for adequate working conditions and human rights. We have also, become familiar lately with the plight of migrant workers, from images streaming out of Libya last month, as the lives of workers there have been placed in even greater danger, making their plight visible, if only temporarily. As this exhibition demonstrates, the existence of most migrant or temporary workers is unacknowledged or ignored by the general population, unless there is a crisis or they organize and protest, as the Cleaning staff at Hongik University did earlier this year. In a modern society these workers function as the invisible hand of the developed world, without the glory, let alone esteem, granted the king-making CEO who pose as the progenitors of progress.


The works of artists Kim Young-gle, Na Kyu-hwan, An Bo-young, Im heung soon and Joseob give an accounting of the way in which workers are objectively placed, posed, seen, ignored, and considered, and how they act subjectively under Capital in their labor, lives, struggles, desires, and ambitions. When entering the space the viewer is confronted by the work of Na Kyu-hwan, who gives, perhaps the most palpable and immediate expression of the dynamic between Capital and labor in the piece I Am Living Under Your Bitter Refrigerator. This sculpture is comprised of a figure with a refrigerator resting on its back. The artist may make the worker an object equal to the object he works with, which instead of lifting him up, the wages and his position only weigh him down. This work also directly links the disposability of modern appliances with the disposability of the worker. This work gives way to the other works, such as those of Joseob, which make plain the ways in which workers are often considered objects. The photographic works of Joseob, particularly Special Container Series Ttabong and Special Container Series – Embrace depict bodies used at once as both objects and puppets. Although there is something absurd in these images, they critically manifest the use of bodies in the flow of Capital. In a contrasting work Special Container Series Rice Planting Joseob confronts the viewer with the awkward pose of the photo’s subject, while simultaneously showing the repetitive nature of work as a poetic. The image also beyond its message shows a command of picture making in the manner the artist has arranged both the composition and the setting, lending it a painterly quality.


That these works demand so much attention does not diminish that required for the other remaining works in the exhibit, which uses video to document and discuss the invisibility of these workers through durational and historical footage to highlight the plight of workers in general. Kim Young-gle shows the unseen or rather the attempt to erase the struggle of workers for their rights, while An Bo-young ‘s video follows a cleaning lady doing her work in an empty school showing the daily routine/monotony of her routine. And although Joseob and Na’s works dominate, the works of Im heung soo, including This Is Not a Dream, Dead End – Poem, Dead End – Star, and Dead End – Worker, anchor the show in the manifold plight of workers and their an ongoing saga. While the show is didactic this does not weaken its messages, because these messages are woven together by a rather well selected group of artists that allow for viewer to get caught up in those messages without feeling preached at or repulsed by the content. The show allows for our experience to be one of empathy and complicity, leaving space to interrogate our own part in this equation.


reviewed by Julia Marsh


Review: Oh Seung Yul

Oh Seung Yul

Solo Group Show



Last month I sat down with Oh Seung Yul to talk at length about his works. The following review is informed, in part, by that conversation.


The new works of Oh Seung Yul, featured in his Solo Group Show, on view last month at ggooll, encompassed many styles and mediums, including painting, sculpture, video and photography. A resident of New Zealand, Oh responded both to the space and to the local environment’s flavor and materials, by making works specifically and on site for this exhibition. Because he used only materials and objects he could purchase or have fabricated locally, these works ultimately differ from his previous work in their obviously less refined style. In the end the objects and images show more readily the different impulses artists can have, but may withhold from their audiences, in order to demonstrate a more defined image as a cultural producer. In contrast to his other works, Oh’s work in ggooll had a decidedly rough and immediate character that was both refreshing and impetuously fun.


When entering ggooll, a space that is both café lounge and gallery, at any time, one may not see the difference between the gallery and the café, because there is no difference essentially. There are art object placed throughout the two main rooms in a way that can lead the customer/viewer to think that these are all of one piece or by one artist, until they enter the more gallery like rooms in the rear of the first and second floors, where exhibitions are typically centered. For artists this kind of space always presents the challenge of how or whether to try to distinguish one’s own work from that which is in and of the space. As a site of artistic production ggooll is perhaps one of the most ambiguous kind, as it is a gallery: an empty box, but also a defined space: a lounge, while at the same time contradicting both of these imperatives in it’s moody demeanor and fun house feel. And since the space of ggooll is, itself, distracting, for someone like Oh, who has characterized his previous work as “distracting the space,” and is more accustomed to working in a more sterile and static gallery environment, this balancing act was at times difficult.


Where Oh’s site-specific production succeeded in this fight to be seen and heard in the larger context of ggooll were his two works that filled the space both physically and audibly. The Ability to Blow Themselves Up, an ongoing video project, shows a series of people blowing up balloons to the point of bursting. This video played loud enough to cut the space as each balloon popped loudly. The other work Balls, made up of two inflatable ball-like structures, literally filled the entrance of the space. Oh’s use of local materials to make these objects, in contrast to much of his previous work, could be called DIY, even crappy craft, by the standard of craft set by his other earlier fabricated works. But these works, especially the three objects making up Gaze, constructed out of paper and glue, placed in the second room, showed, in all their messiness, some of the limitations of such materials, while lending the space a kind of funny reflection, unintentionally perhaps mirroring some of the ridiculousness of the café society of Korea back on its denizens. In the end Oh’s experience and experiment produced some interesting findings that are already making their way back into his more refined practice: last month he opened a show in Sydney’s 4A Gallery, where Balls was the inspiration.

reviewed by Julia Marsh


Review: Gwangju Biennale

Gwangju Biennale, September 3 – November 7, 2010
This year’s Gwangju Biennale curated by Massimilliano Gioni entitled 10,000 LIVES is an excellent example of good curating—some might say even too good. If you were lucky enough to have seen it, you would have been treated to excellent works of art, and a compelling narrative embedded in the exhibition. Gioni’s layout of the exhibit, in part organized to commemorate the 1980 massacre of South Korean civilians in Gwangju by the then reigning military junta, leads the viewer through a maze of emotions and expositions related to politics, society, mourning and comfort. Before getting past the third room this was clearly going to be an experience that would push towards something definitive, for each viewer, in both context and content.
Upon entering the exhibition, Gioni sets the viewer up for his narrative by leading with Kim SangGil’s seemingly benign, but fundamentally disturbing photographs of online communities, offline. This work is followed by Bruce Nauman’s Poke in the Eye/Nose/Ear 3/8/94 Edit. At this early point it was very unclear, nearly confusing, where Gioni was heading, as these two works did not make that much sense together. But upon entering the third room Gioni’s narrative began to unfold beautifully. The show was moving and gripping, with each floor of the Biennale Hall so well arranged around one theme, succeeded by another: death, witnessing, mourning, burial, the body, waking, fallen heroes, innocent victims, worship, memorial, the tactile, stand-ins, comfort and surrealism.

Some could argue against Gioni’s tight control of the exhibition, and purposeful ordering in the Biennale Hall, but frankly what is a curator for if not to arrange an exhibition’s narrative. The problem for some could have been Gioni’s totalizing approach, which in many ways was refreshing and simultaneously disturbing. I found myself looking for slippage and at first found none. In the end my main criticism is that some of Gioni’s choices were cliché. Especially in the Gwangju Museum of Art, even if they did have a part in the overall narrative, works such as Garden Dead Men by Paul McCarthy and those of Dieter Roth and Andy Warhol in particular felt as though they were simply included for name recognition. That Roth and Warhol were stuck in the back of an initially disturbing collection of works in the Gwangju Museum of Art but ended up feeling a bit like afterthoughts.
In his opening statement included in the guidebook Gioni speaks to the flood of images that inundate us everyday. Here was slippage in terms of analysis. Gioni’s idea would have been more effective if there were actually a critique. Instead the viewer is forced to look at two project of totalizing scale in particular, that in the end, only provide the viewer with the nauseating feeling of will this ever end? The exhibition’s simultaneous imperatives—one exposition, an examining without critique the torrent of images and the other akin to the processing of grief—work at cross purposes.

The complexity of images begs for some kind of rigor in examination, while we know that the process of life or processing of living is not so easily experienced as explained, it does not preclude that images in that process can be analogous and/or critical. The exhibit taps into the potential of a distinctly bicameral experience. Yet akin to Murakami’s Hard-boiled Wonderland, the end results reflect one imperative as intellectual and the other more palpable—describing life as all tumult and mystery and in the other case a logical and order stream of information. Yet life is by far messier. And although the exhibition allows for that kind of self-consciousness in tandem with more visceral experiences, still they remain separate.

That this endeavor is resting on the memory of one of the more terrible moments in modern history is also something for consideration. In light of the exhibitions reason d’être it is important to keep in mind the significance of that event, which I realize makes it sound like what happened is settled, but for the people of Gwangju and many Koreans the massacre stands as a testimony to how far there is to go for equality and transparency. In any case this biennale functions as a monument to trauma and grief as well as the need for outlets and expressions of that and all the other injustices and cowardly acts of violence perpetrated on innocents and the opposition, alike. It would have been hard to ignore the overtly political aspects of this show, when in the 3rd room you are confronted with Sanja Ivekovic’s On the Barricades, which was a very direct memorial to the victims and survivors of the massacre.

All exhibits beg the question: what’s the point? Here despite the curatorial feats and foibles, the Gwangju Biennale in the end made one think, and happily or not, that looking is at it’s best is both work and wonder and be glad that there is still the possibility for art to invite discourse on tragedy and terror.

reviewed by Julia Marsh