We do not understand the phrase Contemporary Art merely in terms of a time as distinct from that of the past. Rather, it refers to the entirety of artistic events within a modern cultural context. Indeed, we are not properly able to conceptualize time. In order to do so, we must borrow from numerous other ideas, the most frequent of which are spatial, or linked with imagery of past events, so that we generally perceive time within these terms. Our understanding of time relies upon imagery of particular events which occurred in particular places, and it is hard to appreciate contemporary time without the assistance of such images of events, and the sequential order in which they took place within a particular space.
Thus, contemporary art can be apprehended through images of (artistic) events that are obviously distinct from those of the past. Such differentiations from the past appear in a variety of contexts, all of which we perceive as being characteristics of contemporary art, one of the most readily identifiable being “diversity” achieved through the “expansion” of artistic boundaries. I wish to pay particular attention here to the expansion and diversity of art brought about by the development of modern technology. A mistake we are often apt to make is the assumption that “expansion and diversity” are inherently good. As we are all aware, advances in science have inarguably elevated human civilization to a higher level, but there have been numerous unforeseen consequences. The lessons we learn from this are invaluable. We have learned of the necessity to remember principles of “harmony” and “balance”, to deal with the repercussions of the supposed conveniences science brings, to turn adversities into positives. Science cannot rule over nature, and nature cannot escape science. Thus, the “expansion” and “diversity” of contemporary art must be determined to follow a path of “harmony” and “balance”. We do not yet know how to find or stay upon the right course. But, the birth of the Museum of Contemporary Art Busan (MoCA Busan) began with this mission to seek out the best way forward, and in the midst of this challenge, the opening exhibitions began on June 16th, 2018.
The location of the museum, surrounded by an ecological conservation area, can be understood in this context. It was crucial that the museum demonstrate how high-tech arts events can coexist in harmony and balance with a flourishing natural environment. The opening exhibition, Artist Project Ⅰ,Ⅱ,Ⅲ, illustrates this balance especially well; how the arts have expanded through the development of science and technology and also how and when art must reflect the consequences and repercussions of that expansion.
Science has historically provided rich inspiration and motivation for artists. Consider the mathematics involved in Renaissance era perspective, for example, or the development of optics and mechanical technology which allowed for the invention of the camera. Photography has revolutionized the perception of both artists and viewers of art. Today’s advanced technology is a crucial element of modern art, yet advances in science and technology have also led to the destruction of diverse human cultural values. As humans are replaced by machines in the world, technology is taking over in the name of science what it means to be human, and this human alienation results in our longing for a new nature and purpose.
In the opening exhibition, Artist Project, three artists have each created their own individual exhibitions. All three artists are well-established and representative of Korean media installation art. Although each is inspired by completely different motives, it is interesting that they have all gravitated towards the same medium - light. In the work of Project I artist, Jeon Joon-ho, artificial lighting and natural lighting both play crucial roles in delivering his artistic message. In Jung Hye-ryun’s work for Project II, “LED lighting” is used metaphorically. The fantastic spectacle of the lively illuminated lights flow in ironic longing to share the nature of the Nakdong River. In Project III, Kang Airan's work recalls our modern information and knowledge systems, using fake books illuminated with artificial daylight so that knowledge becomes displaced by elements of light. For each artist, however, “light” is simply a means to give their works structure or context. Each seeks to communicate their own fundamental truth.
Landscape of –1: Artist Project Ⅱ
When we look at a landscape, provided we do not bestow upon the objects within it any special meaning, it is the experience of spectacle. The countless stars in the night sky, city lights in the late evening seen from the mountains, illuminated billboards dancing by outside the car windows; we are carried away by the spectacle on view. In fact, the modern visual experience is to “objectify” through the “act of seeing”. In other words, it is to look back on the “I” that responds to visual stimuli. Nevertheless, the highs of spectacular views have the effect of fantasy, allowing one to forget real time and space. The experience of looking through a toy kaleidoscope as a child might recall the feeling; the joy of becoming lost rather than awareness through objects. It might be akin to the experiences of medieval Protestants who fell into infinite religious ecstasies while gazing upon their icons.
The immediate experience of Jung Hye-ryun’s work, Landscape of –1, is to be carried away by the fantastic spectacle, and then what follows is curiosity about its peculiarities. Initially, what we see is a linear, free-curving structure, apparently running somewhere, displayed by LED lighting of various colours. The stream of LED lights, which seems to float in zero gravity over our heads, stretches throughout the space of the showroom. Next, we see a structure resembling the contour lines on a map, with a small tower (sotdae) standing atop. Elsewhere, there is another tower of a different shape and a large cylindrical structure with several translucent acrylic windows. Each object involves some kind of LED or artificial light source. This is a landscape made up of strange objects that we have never before encountered. Despite the ensemble produced by the meticulously planned design and the relatively conventional materials, viewers nonetheless respond to the abstract emotional power of the scene.
After the artist was commissioned to submit work for the opening exhibition of MoCA Busan, she began to research the area surrounding the museum. She examined Eulsukdo Island, the Nakdong River delta and estuary, and the culture of the local residents, all with renewed vision, and realigned the information she gathered into her own artistic language. She discovered that the conservative locals have held, since long ago, stronger faith in folk beliefs based on traditional Confucianism than in the other common foreign religions, and this became an important motif in her work. The objects in her artworks, the shapes of the pagodas and architectural structures, derive from her experiences of the rituals of 'Dansanje' which she witnessed in the local area around the museum. This uncommon visual experience brought a new awareness of the unique times and spaces of the region. Thus, the linear beam of light created by the artist is a metaphor for the flow of the Nakdong River, and the river reminds us once again that it is home to human life.
In Landscape of –1, the “-1” might prompt thoughts of being beneath the surface of the river or perhaps suggest the passage of time. The fantastic spectacle produced by Jung Hye-ryun can be said to derive meaning from a recognition of the origins of human culture in time and space. Although her work may have blinded our eyes and led to the loss of our sense of real time and space, we comprehend that the stream of high-tech, pre-programmed LEDs, in fact, yearns to be at one with Mother Nature, the Nakdong River, and harks back to the origins of culture.
In all respects, our cognitive abilities and senses work within the predictable boundaries of our daily lives. Our sense of reality is formed in this way. It is universal, defining our absolute values. However, as soon as our experiences move beyond our normal boundaries and classifications, the context in which our reality exists and its universality become the subject of speculation. In the opening exhibition of MoCA Busan in 2018, Artist Project, each artist attempts to redefine our reality within their own personal context; an aim that surely one can identify as being another defining quality of contemporary art.
1) Sotdae(솟대) : a long platform built for the purpose of civil belief or celebration (a summary, quoted from Internet Doosan Encyclopedia)
2) Dansanje(당산제) : a community rite to pray to village guardian Dansanshin for the prosperity and peace of the village. (a summary, quoted from Internet Korean National Culture Encyclopedia)