The South Korean Artist Choi Jeong-Hwa Combines Buddhism and Pop Culture at Kiasma
True to the old-school Pop tradition of blending sincerity with irony, Choi Jeong-Hwa is an ambiguous artistic character. Attending the opening of his first exhibition in Finland this week, the South Korean artist cut a quietly charismatic and curiously graceful figure as he accompanied press around the opening of his exhibition, Happy Together. Imagine, if you can, a Buddhist monk crossed with late ‘70s ironic pop group, The Buggles, and you’ll get a picture of Choi; short, dapper, with over-sized specs, art-world savvy and yet emanating humility. The first of many paradoxes about this artist’s work is apparent in the figure of the man himself. Dispensing the Buddhist wisdom of love and participation across the medium of gaudy plastic colanders piled in decorative columns by school children, Choi Jeong-Hwa certainly knows how to play an art scene needy of public engagement and brandable, photogenic works.
Described by the museum curators as a “plastic jungle,” Happy Together is an exhibition of colourful constructions made from artificial and natural materials. We are welcomed with an over-sized bouquet of bright silk inflatable flowers and depart through a room filled with a shiny pink inflatable (nearly) flying pig, titled Love Me. According to the gallery wall tag, this work “is a shiny herald of consumerism that plays with the aesthetics of 1980s neo-pop,” making it clear that this is an artist very fluent in the visual semiotics and installation narrative of pop art. Here’s is the rub though.
There is again something playfully paradoxical about such a work; quoting the puff-ball depths of ‘80s Koonsian kitsch, Love Me also reflects the pop folklore of Choi’s native Korea, where the pig is a symbol of affluence and abundance. A conspicuous observation is further offered in the same wall tag, which proffers that despite the knowing pop referencing of the porcine balloon, “in Choi Jeong-Hwa’s hands it becomes silly and lovable.”
Any viewer who by now has the feeling that there is something more than meets the eye to Choi’s work, will find this tag somewhat quizzical; perhaps revealing more about the cultural politics of museum wall tags than the work itself. It’s 2016, and eight years after a global market crash, at a time when rapacious Asian tigers are beginning to look very much like bloated reproductions of their historical Occidental counterparts, this short-winged, failing to fly, inflatable pig is surely more than “silly and loveable.”
While in part Choi’s work does express the all embracing humanism of the exhibition title, this final work reveals another explicitly critical dimension. In a very informative essay in the exhibition catalogue, the British curator and art historian David Elliott tells us that Choi was very much influenced by the Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre, whose monumental Critique of Everyday Life argued against the capitalist banalization of everyday life through developing a greater consciousness of significant moments.
Countering life’s reduction to a zone of consumption, Lefebvre declared: “We have to rediscover real love, behind the love that is all protestation, real freedom behind illusory freedom.” Choi’s radicalism is subtle, his humanism heartfelt, and his embrace of participatory art is rooted in this well-constructed hybrid of Marxist critique and genuine Buddhist compassion. In Choi’s work, Eastern philosophy and Deleuzean critique meet in the revelation of immanence. Choi’s critique is very welcome, especially at a time when the West is stupefying itself with cod-spiritual mantras of “wellness” and “positivity,” all rubber stamped by governments eager to spin away anxieties they’ve created with superficial and perniciously deluding self-help remedies to further shackle people to life-reducing cycles of work-and-spend.
The encounter of East and West is a strong feature of Choi’s art, and one which introduces a polysemic richness to his work and its place within a globally corresponding history of art practice and social critique. Perhaps the beauty of Choi’s work, and the marker of his lack of cynicism, is that viewers are free to respond to his art on a superficial level. Yes, you can just find the pig “silly and loveable.” We can take pleasure in the brightly-coloured simplicity, and delight in the post-modern-rag-picking-street-market-stall spontaneity of the artist’s choice of objects and materials. We can also participate in the on-going construction of works in a way that makes active sense of Choi’s pop ecology.
Open Flower, for example, consists of small plastic, connectable forms that Choi calls “plastic flower seeds” which the viewer can piece together: they “do not bloom by themselves, until they meet all of you.” This is pop-Buddhism at its most accessible. After all, the artist notes, plastic is only another transmutation of originally natural substances. A playful, participatory creative act turns plastic into part of an organic process. The Buddhist laws of impermanence and transmutation thus meet the cheapest ends of particle physics, redeeming even this gaudy, non-biodegradable substance through its original and metaphorical organic identity. The artist stated of the exhibition: “This exhibition is one kind of ritual which serves and takes care of three elements in our lives: human beings, nature, and love.” Earnest stuff indeed, and yet the clear consciousness of consumption and material excess reflected in Choi’s work denotes another level of ecological anxiety in his work.
In the middle of the exhibition, a number of works arranged in a circle in the centre of a dimply-lit room enable us to take a breath away from the gaudy joy of plastics. These works, with titles like Alchemy, Iron Age, and Alchemy, Wooden Age, or Karma and Relatum, present Choi’s more meditative reflections upon materials. Wooden bowls, rusty nails, and ground glass (notably, from Dom Pérignon champagne bottles) are presented like relics of a pre-historic era. The artist’s sculptural sense for morphology and the essential and recurrent forms of nature carry us to another realm in which the underlying connectedness of things is expressed through everyday objects. Microcosm and macrocosm, the cosmos, nature, salad bowls, and the people who use them, are all inter-related in Choi’s visual and social universe.
This calming interlude seems significant within the “plastic jungle.” Choi has stated that he is drawn to colourful plastics because they remind him of the area of Seoul in which he grew up, Gangbuk, which is brimming with street markets selling cheap, mass-produced goods. He has a genuinely celebratory attitude to popular culture, and to the lives of the people who buy and sell the goods he includes in his works. In spite his (apparently late development of) art-world savviness, he apparently still considers himself a “meddler” in art, something of an outsider, who in no way identifies with the cool, wry detachment of the often cynical character of historical pop artistry. Nonetheless, his urban, Korean sensibility, as well as his manifold career in the worlds of art and design, fits very neatly into both a Western art scene eager for the art of Asia and a no less niche fascination with its popular culture and urban vibrancy.
Choi’s disquieting comments on nature serve in some way to confirm a stereotype of the modern Asian metropolis as high on mass-production, low on natural greenery. According to David Elliott, Choi once said: “I feel strange when I see a real tree or flower. Nature is so rare in Korea these days that I’m actually afraid when I encounter it. I’m afraid of the ‘real’. Maybe all I can deal with is an idea of nature immune to destruction, so I make an artificial one to look at and enjoy.” While this paradoxical aphorism might remind us of Warhol’s passing provocations, it nonetheless belies a genuine anxiety at the state of relations between the artificial and the natural. We might even be led to interpret Choi’s professed attempts to “harmonise” this very contemporary dichotomy as more of an anxious symptom than optimistic solution.
With works entitled Happy Happy and Love Me, the exhibition Happy Together deals a perfect sleight of hand. It ticks the big “Asian Art” cultural box; it’s family friendly; it appears to be promoting art as a means to “wellbeing”; and it charms us into a rich and accessible intercultural exchange. What more could the Helsinki City council ask of Kiasma? At the same time, however, through the conspicuous excess of these public friendly features, Choi invites (but never pushes) us through the looking glass of all this accessible rhetoric of “happiness” and “harmony” to confront the currents of anxiety that feed into our far more general needs for easily consumable pop panaceas. Choi’s spoken English is not fluent, but it’s far less ambiguous than his art. When I asked him about the paradoxes of his work, especially how the apparently earnest elements of Buddhism are offset against the clearly sardonic allusions to the “happiness” discourse and the bloated pigs of affluence, Choi nodded seriously in agreement: “You understand. It’s very dark, very dark.”