THE CONTEXT MAKER

Korean Pavilion Curator, Lee Daehyung

The Korean Pavilion’s theme for the 2017 exhibition is “Counterbalance.” How did you decide on this theme?
Good curating starts from creating a smart metaphor. Constructing a metaphor means to create an irony in which, say, ‘A’ is being told but the underlying message is ‘B.’ In my opinion, a metaphor becomes more meaningful and powerful when the theoretical distance between A and B is greater. For example, the flame of a candle can be easily blown out by the wind, but, in this manner, it symbolizes the hope that battles against injustice. One can use a myth as a motif but reinterpret it in a new fashion that lets the audience imagine the future. The Venice Biennale is an arena full of such new metaphors that speak to the present. This often pressures curators and artists to offer new artistic trends or theories. However, I believe art should be rooted in telling a message about reality rather than being tautological. In the brainstorming stages of the Korean Pavilion exhibition, I closely followed and examined domestic and international news. In the past year, the world has seen Brexit, terrorist attacks by ISIS, and a resurgence of isolationist, anti-immigration policies. What can art do in such a gloomy reality, where invisible walls are erected and people exclude or hate one another? What can restore more positive values in today’s world, defined by imbalance?
The subtitle of the Korean Pavilion’s exhibition is The Stone and the Mountain. Could you elaborate on its meaning?
Stone, mountain, and waves came to my mind as metaphors of positive energy that can resist and overturn the depressing situation that the world faces today. I envisioned two images. The first image was that of a mountain and a stone from the mountain. The second was an image of rolling waves, whose momentum and enlargement are tempered by the reciprocal force of gravity. Much difference exists between a stone and a mountain in terms of physical size; yet a scientific and philosophical analysis of the essential substance of a stone reveals that it is fundamentally no different from that of a mountain. The water molecules of a wave constantly change their positions, depending on the size of the wave. Their ever-changing positions indicate that the concepts of high and low, great and trivial, and large and small are always relative and thus never constant. It is important to note that this relentless movement is not disruptive but constitutive of the wave’s equilibrium, indeed, of its very power and identity. My continuous contemplation of these two images eventually engendered the title for the Korean Pavilion’s 2017 exhibition: Counterbalance. By adding the subtitle The Stone and the Mountain, I wanted to point to the violent events witnessed in the 21st century, where compassion for others is often lacking. The unfortunate paradox lies in the imbalance between the large and the small—for instance, the majority fails to keep its ears opened to the opinions of the minority, and world powers refuse to accept immigrants from weak nations and instead adopt neo-isolationist policies. What we define as great or trivial are only relative and are thus bound to change. I find it very unfortunate that we struggle to acknowledge this very simple truth.
I am also curious to know how and why you chose Cody Choi and Lee Wan as the artists to represent the Korean Pavilion.
Lee Wan came to my mind first as an artist who can offer a fitting and timely perspective on the global issue of imbalance through the Counterbalance exhibition. Lee Wan spent five years traveling to ten different Asian countries, where he toiled similarly to local producers in order to harvest rice, make sugar, craft wooden chopsticks, and so forth in an effort to truly grasp the amount of labor and time required to produce a breakfast meal. His five long years of unflagging hard work are far from the spectacular performances that draw large crowds to the atriums of internationally renowned museums and turn artists into megastars. Rather, Lee Wan’s efforts present an unglamorous and humbling image of the artist as a toiling craftsman and meticulous excavator of truth. The art his travails ultimately yield is, of course, a banal meal but one with serious implications as an exposé of power relations. I thought Lee Wan’s analysis of contemporaneity was powerful precisely because it concentrated its gaze on Asia’s reality alone, thereby avoiding futile comparisons with other parts of the world, such as the simplistic East vs. West dichotomy perpetuated by so much art. Lee Wan examines the modernization of Asia (and its tribulations) not through abstract theories but through an almost sociological approach to economic systems and communities in Asian countries. This is also in line with the curatorial agenda of Christine Macel, who intends to revisit and reexamine the history of Asia. The Made In series encourages viewers to look at the world not just through the artist’s work but also through the individuals that the artist met in the process of creating his art. The collection of these perspectives not only fosters an empathetic response but also constructs a complex portrait of Asia’s present.
Cody Choi, on the other hand, experienced Korea’s modernization in person, immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s, and fought against biases toward Asians and Asian culture. Choi is an artist who appropriates the methodologies of Western art and thereby offers a satire of Western culture’s traditional value system. I met Cody Choi for the first time in 1993, when he gave a special lecture at the university I was attending at the time. The lecture was refreshing, even shocking, and left a lasting impression on me. In the process of selecting him as the artist to join the Korean Pavilion’s exhibition, I noticed something very interesting. I realized that Korean curators and artists see Cody Choi very differently from foreign curators and artists. Cody Choi, who rose to prominence in the U.S. during the 1990s, is highly esteemed by Nancy Spector, Gregor Jansen, John Welchman and Philippe Vergne. However, I was surprised to discover that his work is not well known, underappreciated and even a taboo subject in his mother country. This disparity reinforced my decision to display his art at the Korean Pavilion this year.
You emphasized the importance of Mr. K, the “third artist” and a figure in one of Lee Wan’s works, as a key, symbolic component of Counterbalance. Why Mr. K?
My thoughts on how to narrate Asia’s modernity naturally pushed me to consider how to communicate Korea’s own modernization. I proposed to Lee Wan the idea of having another person join the exhibition. We discussed the possibility of inviting an individual, who was not an artist but who could still offer a point of view from which to both narrate and complicate Korea’s national trajectory. It was then that Lee Wan told me a very intriguing story. It was the story of Mr. Kim Kimoon, whom Lee Wan grew to know, thanks to over 1,400 photos in a wooden box, found at the Hwanghakdong antique market and bought for just 50,000 KRW—a sum that hardly did justice to the importance of the intact archive, which had miraculously survived through Korea’s experience of Japanese imperialism, the Korean War, dictatorship, and rapid industrialization. To behold Korea’s modernization through Kim Kimoon’s family photos was a deeply moving experience, as the modern history of the nation was one of sacrifice, hard work and loss. Kim Kimoon reminds us of our grandfathers, who wrestled to overcome hardships with the support of their families, so I decided to give him the universalizing nickname of “Mr. K.”
The role of the curator is expanding and thus it is meaningless to draw boundaries in terms of the curator’s roles. Given that you have worked in many different divisions of the art world as a curator, I think you may view this development as a new opportunity rather than crisis. What is the most important role of curators today, in your opinion?
Curating must now be understood not merely as a subject but also as a methodology. Curators must not limit their roles to solely researching artists and their works, but expand their roles. They must have an understanding of technological environments, global communications and project management. Nonetheless, the most important role of the curator is to discern the values of contemporary society and the direction in which this society is heading. Curators must go beyond the borders of their nations and understand the ‘transnational condition’ that defines our world in order to curate exhibitions. After all, the work of curators is a valuable asset to all of humanity and not just the public of a particular nation.
What exhibitions or projects do you hope to present in the future?
I curated an exhibition titled World Curators in 2011, but the show was never realized. I would love to see that exhibition open. World Curators is not meant for conventional exhibition spaces. Instead, it should be shown in an abandoned space or run-down area of Seoul. The exhibition aims to gather curators, architects, designers and artists from around the world in order to discuss key themes, such as the environment, future, regeneration, convergence and responsibility. The project’s core goal is to discover and support emerging curators in Korea, introduce them to a global network of artistic professionals, and allow intellectuals from different countries and spheres to collectively discuss what art can do in the contemporary world. Ideas that existed as abstract concepts in the “sterilized” white cube will have to fight against a wide range of variables outside of the art institution, where communication with people and understanding of their lives is crucial. Conflicts with local communities must turn into cooperation, and we must overcome the barriers posed by customs and regulations to put forth new systems for creative environments. In the very near future, curators will be asked to be more well-rounded in their abilities. I sincerely hope that Korean curators will make meaningful contributions to creating a new ecosystem that extends beyond national borders.