This is clearest, perhaps, in the works in the Korean Pavilion made in the early and mid-1990s that focus the ideas he addressed following his move to New York in 1993. Self-Portrait in Energy Level (1994) is one of the first in a series of works using wooden boxes secured with banding straps and clamps and punctured by cut-out apertures that was inaugurated by the several versions of Scamps, Scram (1993-94). This key sequence includes Box Animal Face (1994), Cody’s Ego Shop (Study of Male Energy) (1994) and another piece included in the Venice exhibition, Cody’s Legend vs. Freud’s Shit Box, made in 1994-95 with a candle-wax cast, but shown here with a bronze version of the statue cast in 2014. Self-Portrait in Energy Level, features a pair of boxes the apertures in which are formed, respectively, from the penis and big toe of the artist, which can be rested in situ for a certain number of minutes so that the energy of the body-part is “saved.” Cody’s Legend is made up of a similar but larger box, its cut-out shape taken from the hind quarters of the artist—producing a contoured void into which he can squat as on a Western-style toilet—which forms a plinth on top of which stands a cast of the artist’s body posed as Michelangelo’s David (1501-04), its left foot planted in a steel bowl filled with Pepto-Bismol. The exhibition also includes a work from Choi’s The Thinker series (1995-96), the dramatic finale of his work with energy transference and storage. As with Cody’s Legend, The Thinker, pairs a cutout of the artist’s haunches set in the plywood base of the sculpture with a self-representation colored by historical reference to Rodin’s monumental bronze, The Thinker, originally conceived as part of his doorway surround The Gates of Hell in 1880, but cast in bronze as the first of some 28 full-size versions only in 1904.
The “energy” works form a crucial part of Choi’s Venice exhibition. They bear witness to a key turn in the artist’s practice in the 1990s away from his more literal and physical engagement with the apparatuses and effects of U.S. economic and military power to a meditation on the relation between the psychological and physiological economies of the body. But rather than addressing personal or social constitutions of the self in the manner associated with the genealogy of American art in this period informed by what I have termed “critical narcissism,” Choi makes recourse to Asian ideas of energy diffusion and bodily equilibrium drawing on neo-Confucian and Taoist ideas. At first glance the apportionments of energy in Choi’s various boxes seems like a homeopathic riposte to the regimen of pharmaceutical remedialization in the West, emblematized by Pepto-Bismol, the pink-hued antacid and antidiarrheal balm that Choi took up as a means to evoke—and elide—the experience of personal and cultural indigestion. But the response they entail presses further, for Choi takes on both the materialization and the value system associated with energy in the U.S. visual avant-garde.
The boxes can be aligned with what Nietzsche termed “the pessimism of active energy.” They rely on a refrain of mediations informed not by reflexive reference to selfhood or object-ness, but by recourse to the shifting system of positions and repositioning, by turns reactive and voluntaristic, alluded to in the title of the Venice exhibition—Counterbalance. For Choi this is meted out between the body conceived as a whole and as parts, between bodies and objects, energy and void, influence and anxiety, health and morbidity, East and West, and finally in the space that his work annotates most emphatically, between art and life.