Fish pay the price of living in the media age

29th September 2000 at 01:00
Radical Korean artists can compete with Britain's Damien Hirst or Tracy Emin for shock tactics. In this new nation of cities, they have embraced the globalisation of ideas as brashly in art as in advertising and architecture.

Many modern artists explore the same themes of a culture dominated by media images and the resulting loss of a sense of place or reality.

The pioneer of technology-age art in Korea is Nam-June Paik. In the National Museum of Contemporary Art his 1982 installation on video culture comprises a long tank in which fish swim in front of five television screens. Footage on screen flits between fish swimming, jet trails making circles in the sky and shots of buildings.

Museum staff say the fish get stressed by the harsh changing light of the videos playing behind them and constantly have to be replaced. "It's a metaphor for human beings who have to live in the media age," says Soojung Kang, assistant curator. "The fish are born and die in this tank but the video never stops."

Another Paik masterpiece dominates the entrance to the gallery, a multi-layered tower of videos several floors high, each screen switching between disparate images from US movies, documentaries on lives in France, and garish kaleidoscopic montages. Called Tadaikson ("The more the better"), it is made up of 1,003 monitors and people can walk around it all the way to the top on a spiral ramp.

More and more Korean artists are using video or new materials, says Kang, but there is a persistent counter theme of rediscovering Korean identity amid the global culture bombarding the country as the digital age tears down national barriers.

Some do this by focusing on issues peculiar to Korea - it's rapid economic transformation or the darker years under military governments.

A blue dining table by Hun-Ki Park has a white plate on it filled with stones, with footage shining on to them of political events in Korea. It symbolises the social and political upheaval since the 1950s and its disturbane of everyday life.

Others like Jong-ni Jeong turn to traditional Korean materials like paper to make intrinsically Korean imprints of bodies. Even highly abstract zig-zagging blocks created by Hyung-woo Lee in 1986 are part of a trend in the late 1970s and 1980s for monograms in white. The white is said to represent the Korean people because it is the country's traditional colour. "Before the 1980s sculptors were very abstract," says Kang. "Post-1980 people tried to reflect traditional society or politics. They wanted to find the identity of Korea. In the 1970s there was also a movement to revive traditional Korean painting styles."

She also says it reflects the fact that after being relatively isolated during Japanese occupation between the world wars, Korea had to accept a sudden influx of Western culture after 1945 for which it was not prepared. From baseball to the ubiquitous American bars and steak houses in Seoul, the US influence has been huge.

There are, of course, art issues similar to those in any industrialised country. As most art collections in Korea are not open to the public - for security reasons, for instance - radical artists have taken their work on to the streets to reach ordinary people.

Some perform art on the bus. Others use a car park as their gallery. Among the more provocative concepts are cooking traditional Korean food in front of people as a performance, or leaving cups in the street and watching people's reaction: posing the question, "Is a cup really a cup?" One well-known artist made a traditional Korean scarf and transported it on a truck from Pusan in the south to Seoul in the north: the journey itself was her performance.

"These are the TV generation," explains Kang. "Compared to the older generation they are very radical. They are largely influenced by TV, the media and Japanese animation."

How fitting then, that like Damien Hirst, some of them have become as famous as movie stars - a case of art imitating life on the screen.


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