Arts: Groove’s 8th year anniversary issue

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First published in Groove Korea magazine October 2014

As the expat community continues to grow and diversify, so too do the arts and music circles within. Over the last eight years, the scenes have welcomed new ways of thinking, creating, performing and sharing.

Costa Rican photographer Joe Wabe, who arrived in Korea 11 years ago, has seen the number of active foreign photographers multiply. “Social media has been an incredible tool that has tripled the amount of people that can be involved in any project, and that has made a huge difference.”

Canadian belly dancer and instructor Eshe agreed. “Everyone’s online presence has dramatically increased, so events are easier to find, book, promote and attend.” Eshe arrived in 2007, and within no time was able to begin teaching classes and forming her own performing troupe, Navah. The year 2010 saw an increased appetite for international activities, and this was the perfect time for Eshe to open Dream Dance Studio.

Social media has also created an opportunity for Korea to share its wealth of creative talent with the rest of the world. Over the years, music collective Loose Union has received international attention and they’ve used this to help promote other musical talents born in the Korean expat scene. “We believe in independent music and culture in Korea,” said Adam Brennan, one of the group’s contributing artists. His comments are obviously not an idle claim if you look at the Korean gigs and North American tours they have organized for expat bands based here.

As the cultural hub of both the Korean and expat art and music milieus, Hongdae has seen the rise of many artistic ventures. This is where the founding members of rock band Magna Fall first met and where they continue to play gigs. The band started playing five years ago and says a lot has changed since then. Members have come and gone, styles and influences have been transformed and personal musical abilities have developed and improved.

“It’s still tough to get your name out there and people at your shows,” the band’s drummer David Holden said. “But appearing on Korean TV shows like ‘Top Band’ has helped a lot,” added guitarist and singer Kevin Heintz.

In the television world, opportunities for expat entertainers are on the rise. Stars such as Robert Holley, Sam Hammington and Bronwyn Mullen have made waves over the past decade, as has British TV personality and sought-after MC Jake Pains. He said the hard work has paid off for him too, and now he is able to pick and choose which events he performs at. “As the first ever foreign MC to do real emceeing in big clubs, not just ‘are you ready, let’s go!,’ I’m proud to see how there is a real club culture for MCs now.”

Hip-hop artist Pinnacle TheHustler echoed Pains, saying he, too, now has more control over his career as there is more demand for hip-hop and other internationally influenced music. “The scene has developed considerably,” the American rapper says. “There are more creatives that are doing some great things in the expat community, and there are more Koreans taking risks.”

And although the arts continue to gain more recognition and support, artists still run into obstacles, with the language barrier obviously being a big one. Irish visual artist Aoife Casey explains that finding gallery space and getting permission to shoot in particular locations would be made easier with a better grasp of the language. “However, there are organizations like PANK (Professional Artist Network Korea) which help facilitate and curate group shows for artists.”

Mike Stewart opened Jankura Art Space, a place for artists to come together, create and learn in English, and said since he got his “artistic gears rolling again in 2006” he has seen more serious artists emerge. “It’s great to see people not giving up on what they had a passion for before crossing the sea,” he said — something all foreign artists and art enthusiasts in Korea can assuredly agree on.
More info 
Joe Wabe www.500px.com/joewabe
Eshe www.eshebellydancer.homestead.com
Loose Union www.looseunion.com
Magna Fall www.magnafall.com
Jake Pains www.facebook.com/beingjake
Pinnacle TheHustler www.planethustle.com
Aoife Casey www.aoifecasey.com
Jankura Artspace jankuraseoul.com

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Only in dreams

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First published in Groove Korea magazine April 2014

 

In her tiny 3.6-by-6-by-2.4-meter Seoul studio, artist Lee Jee-young has been constructing and capturing her own dreamscapes without the luxury of outside help. This means no other contributors and, a more rare occurrence these days, no Photoshop (or any other kind of digital manipulation, for that matter).

Blurring the lines between mediums, she packs a multilayered punch that combines painting, sculpture, installation, theatrical performance, videography and staged analogue photography. Netizens with an eye for the ethereal were blown away last year when the Web was flooded with images from her photographic series “Stage of Mind,” which was exhibited at Opiom Gallery in France this year.

The Hongik University graduate says she chooses not to use Photoshop because of her personal art philosophy. And although she does get a kick out of people’s disbelief, she says that what is more important to her, and hopefully the viewer, is the subject matter.

Another fundamental component to the artist is the reflective yet laborious task of installing and taking apart her surreal and fantastic creations. “The final format is photography, but to me the making and the breaking process is an integral part of my work. My work always portrays my mental condition at the time. I recreate the imaginary scenery from my mental landscape, record and document. After that I destroy the set, returning it to nothing, or something of the past.”

Working since 2007, Lee has officially released the original 4-by-5-inch large-format film camera photographs of 27 of these artistic elucidations, each set taking at least two months to complete. Unsurprisingly, her biggest challenge is the time limitation, but that’s the price to pay when recreating, completely by hand, a tableau that is only otherwise visible in the mind.

These mindscapes, sometimes whimsical and other times of a more somber nature, are an exploration into Lee’s head. “In my work, I reconstruct my feelings. The background props and objects in them reenact these scenes in a metaphorical way,” she says. “My work is about sublimating my complicated emotions into a form of art. From a personal level it helps me analyze and understand ‘me,’ and often then I feel healed.”

Besides the fact that she is the artist, the presence of Lee herself in most of the photographs further discloses the personal and reflective nature of her work. “My works are based on my personal stories and the model represents my ego, I feel it is a self-portrait of sorts,” Lee says. Always engulfed in her surroundings, the model — Lee — is never looking directly into the camera. “The model is never the main focus of my pieces; the focus is more on the situation the person is in,” she says. “The model is the only living organism on set, and if she looked straight into the camera it would dominate the piece and disrupt the narrative. That is not what I want. The characters in my pieces are passive. They do not fight or resist the situation they are in. I feel that element resembles me in real life.”

Likened to American installation artist and photographer Sandy Skoglund for her transformations of room-sized installations into fantasy spaces and their shared obsessive-compulsive use of color and pattern, art critics have also linked Lee’s work with German sculptor and photographer Thomas Demand, another artist who builds life-size models, photographs them and then demolishes them.

What sets her apart from these two, however, is her Korean identity and the significance of this in many of her pieces. Referencing Korean folk tales and her own experiences as a native to the country in the modern day, Lee explores the influence her country has on her. “I feel a strong sense of belonging here in Korea,” she explains. “I grew up in Korea fully immersed in its social fabric, and my identity is rooted in the experiences I have accumulated in this social sphere. It determines my actions and thoughts. I cannot be completely free from social pressures, conventions or other elements that are imposed on its members.”

And while referencing these societal benchmarks, Lee more importantly expresses her own experiences with them: “Individuals often find themselves caught between their own needs and social convention. I touch upon the issues of conflicting interests between myself and my society in my work.”

By reverting the imagination to the tangible and the private to the public, Lee uses her art as a form of catharsis. “Looking at yourself objectively is a difficult task, and I am no exception,” she discloses. But in this artistic struggle for self-acceptance, understanding and healing, Lee says she finds meaning and clarity.

Perhaps, then, it’s not just the breathtaking level of handiwork and unbelievable imagination Lee pours into her art that makes it so incredible, but the honesty that underlies it all.

The artistic entrepreneur

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First published in Groove Korea magazine January 2014

Scrolling trough Dirk Fleischmann’s portfolio of work, you wouldn’t be far off in mistaking the German conceptual artist for an ambitious, albeit arbitrary, businessman. In fact, his artworks are businesses, and over the past 15 years he has been the proprietor of several capitalist ventures. Starting off with a candy kiosk in 1998, he has since owned and run a bistro, a free-range egg farm, a trailer rental, a game show, a solar power plant, a fashion label, a virtual real estate business and a carbon credit farm. So what is his art, exactly?

In Fleischmann’s own words, he explains, “What I explore in my art are fundamental questions like ‘What is capital?'” Although all in unrelated industries, what each of these business ventures above have in common is that they are powered by economics, and the nature of economics is what drives both Fleischmann’s thinking and his art. In a nutshell, Fleischmann uses the capitalist model – people buying products – to distribute commentary about some of the hypocrisies he observes in the system.

At present, Fleischmann is working as a professor of fine art at Cheongju University, and previously taught in the same department at Hansung University in Seoul. Academic opportunities aside, he admits that employment isn’t what brought him to the Korean Peninsula.

“I was drawn to Korea by the chaebol (conglomerates) like Samsung, LG and Hyundai, which dominate the markets,” Fleischmann says. “I grew up with this naive idea that if you have a business, you become an expert at that one thing, but then you look at these huge conglomerates – I just simply can’t understand how one corporation can have so many unrelated businesses.”

Now with a bevy of his own unconnected business titles, Fleischmann continues to explore the driving, transformative force behind all these multinational corporations: money. “My art inhabits economic forms and sneaks into given capitalist structures. The art projects intend to create financial profit, which I have been continuously reinvesting completely. This means the projects themselves create the budget for my next artistic investment.”

Fleischmann currently has two separate artistic capitalist ventures on the go: a fashion label and a carbon credit farm.

Myfashionindustries, which kicked off in 2008, is divided into two clothing labels: “Made in the Philippines” and “Made in North Korea.” On his website, Fleischmann frames the project as a commentary on commodity fetishism, or how a product’s value often has very little to do with the work that some laborer has put into its creation; that one garment can be grossly more expensive than another, even though both required similar amounts of human effort in their production. The stylish, Philippine-made dress shirts Fleischmann sells were manufactured at the Cavite Economic Zone in Rosario, where Fleischmann documented the working conditions. With this project, he adds to the massive archive of documentation about this free trade zone and the urban areas that surround it.

His products, branded “Made in North Korea,” which are also trendy formal shirts, were produced at the infamous Gaeseong industrial complex, tucked a mere 10 kilometers north of the DMZ. Those who purchase one of the shirts will also receive an artist book with more than 1,000 articles about the complex from the time when the shirts were produced.

It’s because of this additional documentation that Fleischmann says these garments differ from the others made in the same region: “These shirts are not just commodities; they are an invitation, whereby other shirts are just an illusion. Mine are an invitation to explore, to see the shirt in context of its origin and the people who made it.”

Fleischmann says a challenge his work presents is “finding a way to translate a process that is happening in real life into an artistic form that can be experienced by a viewer.”

More recently, he has been collaborating with other Cheongju-based artists on mycheongjuchandelierchohab. “It’s a project about hierarchies,” Fleischmann says. “It’s about that fucked-up question, ‘What is art, what is design and what is craft?'” Fleischmann says they chose to explore this question by making site-specific chandeliers. “We asked the question: What is the difference between a light, a lamp and a chandelier? A light bulb sells for a dollar but a chandelier’s value is endless; it’s a very special category of object.”

Unlike any of his other projects, Fleischmann says mycheongjuchandelierchohab offered him a form of escape. “I am a conceptual artist, and my framework of art is to play around and discover. This experiment offered me a rediscovery of working with my hands and playing with form and taste, and not needing to fulfill any expectations of what art is and what artwork is.”

At his shared studio and exhibition space, SALON VIT, he runs the Black Sheep Lecture Series, which he formed in 2009 with fellow Hansung University professor Hunyee Jung. The informal talks see international art practitioners engage and converse with the audience on a range of artistic issues and ideas. Since its inception, the series has hosted more than 50 artists. SALON VIT also acts as home base to Fleischmann’s newest endeavor: listening events, where experimental electronic music is played to a darkened room, sending listeners on unexpected auditory adventures.

With new business ideas constantly abuzz in his head, it will be interesting to see how this artist continues to grow his empire.

MORE INFO

Find out more about Dirk Fleischmann at www.dirkfleischmann.net www.facebook.com/BlackSheepLectures www.myforestfarm.com  and www.myfashionindustries.com

Short-term street art

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First published in Groove Korea magazine December 2013

“I tend to make all my art really big and really impractical,” Jesse Olwen says, peering over a painting he’s about to temporarily install under the Hangang Bridge on the Han River. Chasing the sunrise on foot, the Canadian artist delicately maneuvers the artwork, which straddles the line between street art and still life, as he crosses Seoul’s sidewalks to the chosen spot.

Painted in acrylic on plywood board, the artwork entitled “Til Death” juxtaposes graffiti-style tagging and finely detailed flowers. “This piece is a gift to my soon-to-be wife. The text reads ‘til death’ and I’ve chosen her favorite flower, pink gardenias, as the subject. We met in Korea, so it was important for me to create and install the piece here. Normally my work isn’t involved with my personal life like this, but you know artists are sensitive creatures and all. I wanted to create a piece that was powerful and arresting, for her.”

But his fiancée was not the only one intrigued by the piece. Early morning joggers and cyclists have stopped by to watch as Olwen attaches the pre-painted artwork to the bridge using double-sided tape. The early morning unveiling of his masterpiece is paramount due to the short time frame the painting would be up. Sunrise offers not only ideal lighting, but also more exposure to the public.

Olwen says he began displaying his art in public spaces after being repeatedly denied exhibition space. “I make my own gallery spaces. I find my walls outside because I’m so sick of people telling me I can’t put my art up on their gallery walls.” This, coupled with his fascination for street art and the cultural significance behind it, is what prompted the start of the series that “Til Death” is now a part of.

The series began in 2006 when Olwen returned to Canada after studying architecture in Singapore. “Singapore is completely void of graffiti and vandalism, the absence was a huge culture shock for me,” he says. “Graffiti makes me feel comfortable and at home in a city. It makes it alive and provides proof that someone has been there.”

But instead of relying on spray paint and fat tip markers to express himself, Olwen, channeling his fine arts background, creates artwork that aims to mock the art world and its perceptions of beauty while celebrating the freedom of expression that street art offers. The artist feels he further elucidates this through his often tongue-in-cheek choice in subject matter.

“The images I choose say different things. Diamonds are valuable, durable and sexy. Kittens are soft, vulnerable and kitsch. Flowers are precious, temporary and beautiful, and these are things I believe street art is, or hope it could be.” He says that his choice in subject matter further expresses his frustration with the value the arts and white cube spaces place on seemingly trivial and clichéd themes. “Still life paintings of things like flowers are probably the most conservative thing I can think of; they don’t offer the viewer anything new to think about or debate. So by incorporating these types of images into my art in a new way, I hope to spark conversation and get people thinking.”

Similar to the way he felt in Singapore, the lack of street art in South Korea compared to Canada saw Olwen temporarily adding color and quirk to a number of Korean public spaces during the two years he’s been teaching English here. From a stained glass phone booth to an ultra-kitsch kitten street art style painting and rhinestone anarchy signs, the artist exposes lucky passersby to imagery he feels might be overlooked in a gallery space. Olwen believes these pieces are more likely to make a statement when contrasted with the grit and grim of a cityscape. “I think the unexpected places (where) I put my pieces up makes them more beautiful and makes the subject matter feel more important,” he says.

And although his subject matter certainly sets him apart from other more conventional street artists, perhaps the transient nature of his work does so even more. Olwen says he always removes his art in respect for the spaces he displays them in. “If I choose a site, it’s because I like it and if I wanted to install one of my pieces there permanently I would have to deface that site by drilling holes,” he says. “So by temporarily putting it up and then removing it I am instead taking a piece of that place with me and my art through the photographs and my process.”

“Til Death” is the last artwork Olwen will install in Korea before he packs up and moves to Tasmania, where he is currently a contestant in the Off the Wall street art competition.

More info

Visit Jesse Olwen’s website at www.jesseolwen.com

Unearthing hair-itage

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First published in Groove Korea magazine September 2013

Artist Yuni Kim Lang may have lived outside Korea for the past 24 years, but her work is intricately entangled in her longing for the country and the hereditary and cultural cues it imparted to her. Using hair as her primary subject matter, Kim Lang’s sculptures, wearable artworks and photographs explore the cultural significance of one’s appearance and how her own personal identity is rooted in this significance.

With the aid of black polypropylene rope as her hair substitute, the Michigan-based artist has twisted, braided, knotted and unknotted her way to exploring her place in this rapidly globalizing world. She has also done this while testing to see how far a cultural symbol can be stripped down before it becomes unrecognizable.

Groove Korea: You left Korea when you were 3 years old, but your connection with the country plays a central role in your work. How has this relationship influenced you and your art?

Yuni Kim Lang: I have always been connected to Korea but have never really been in the middle of it. My relationship with it is mostly about my longing for it and to understand it. In most cases, the “longing” becomes the most beautiful part of the experience.

But this longing for Korea is not about finding answers to what being Korean means — it’s more like a deeper search to understand the emotional experience of wanting to know what makes me who I am.

My work is an exploration of this emotional search. After each body of work, I understand myself a little better but am also left with more questions to ask. What would be the beauty of life if we had all the answers?

You describe yourself as a foreigner in someone else’s country. How does this self-identification continue to drive your work? 

I will always be Korean in my heart and will also always identify myself as a Korean. My heritage is very important to me. As our world becomes more and more globalized and the phrase “melting pot” becomes applicable to all nations, the importance of understanding our individual heritage becomes very important. I myself am a unique example of a melting pot: I am a Korean married to a Chinese-American living in the USA with our baby who was born here (in the USA).

Can you shed some light on your perceptions of hair and how its ‘roots’ link to cultural identity, more specifically your own Korean heritage?

When it comes to hair, all women can relate. Whether you are Asian, white or black, we all agonize over how to wear it. Why is it that we have such intimate relationships with our hair? Why do no other body parts hold such a variety of symbolic power? Hair is a part of our body and therefore part of our individual identity, and yet it can so easily be changed, detached, transformed.

There is so much information embedded in the way one wears and handles their hair. Not only can you read into someone’s style and preferences but their social background and heritage as well. This is why I am using hair as a powerful tool to embed my experiences and emotions of my cultural identity. For example, “Comfort Hair” is a sculpture that was inspired by the ga-che, a big wig that was historically worn by Korean women from high social backgrounds. I used the patterns, motifs and form of the ga-che as inspiration to fantasize about my hair and how it represents my cultural identity.

To follow on what you have said about hair and its links to cultural identity, can you explain if and how you draw links between the transient nature of hair and our rapidly globalizing world?

Hair, just like our society, is becoming a melting pot in its own way. Hair used to be a way to identify someone’s heritage, but with new technologies and fashion, our hair is easily altered and modified. It is no longer reliable in representing what it used to. Globalization is affecting our cultural identities on various levels, not just physical attributes but also our values and ways of life. The hair is just a metaphor to communicate these experiences or fantasies.

Do you keep a close watch on the Korean contemporary art scene? Does contemporary Korean life influence your work at all?

Yes, I am interested in contemporary Korean life: people, fashion, the constructed idea of beauty through the Korean eyes and much more. However, I am also interested in what the rest of the world identifies as Korean or Asian. What are the cultural cues and visual elements we identify and understand as representing a culture or a society? I look to deconstruct these forms and truly understand what it is about these visual elements that we read into.

For example, my “Wearables,” “Adornment at Large” (photographs) and “Comfort Hair” (sculpture) were a deeper investigation of the Chinese button knot and Korean mae-deup hairstyles. I reconstructed these knots and deconstructed them, made them over and over again, and tried to understand the motion of making the knot and why this action was so prevalent in understanding my culture. It was the perfect metaphor and form to begin with.

Do you have any upcoming works or exhibitions? Any plans to visit Korea?

I will be in Beijing for the month of August for a residency through Red Gate Gallery. I will be making my new body of work there. My time there will be spent researching and gathering materials and information about Eastern cultures, specifically Chinese cultural patterns and objects that have history with layers of meaning embedded in them. I will be visiting Korea after the residency to do more research. I am interested in finding links between the two cultures and understanding the differences as well.

For more information about Yuni Kim Lang and her work, visit www.yunikimlang.com (link is external).