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 “I will number them, and they shall be multiplied above the sand” (Psalm 138: 18)


Contemporary art is extremely inconsiderate. Proclaiming that everything can be art, Conceptual Art after 1960s brought an element of humor in the representation and interpretation for artists and critics, but made art more difficult for the audience with the most objective perspective, especially those without artistic education or sense of judgment, to whom gallery is an unfamiliar place.

Obviously, art doesn’t necessarily have to satisfy everyone in order to be art. However, at the time when they were discussing the visual sensation of the ‘film’, the new technology which brought about the destruction of Benjamin’s traditional notion of the aura in the 19th century, portraits were largely what produced that conventional aura and the only genre that could be understood by everyone. People were able to easily understand the work of art within 3 seconds, which is shorter than what it takes to cook a serving of instant noodles.

And what can we say about art works in galleries and museums today? They demand a reconstitution of indiscriminate gaze throughout the entire space of the white cube and beyond, with chaotic sounds escaping from media art works, bombardment of videos and objects spread out like a farmer’s market. The audience must arrange their own flow of traffic to view the exhibition, and exchange their time and patience for cultural benefits. It’s not an easy task to take in an art work, especially conceptual art work which demands a thinking process that can be flat out exhausting. Not that Benjamin took pleasure in it, but the destruction of aura that Benjamin pointed out was to make art enjoyable for the outsiders today, which precisely means to reconstitute the distribution of political authority.

As an art critic with amazing intuitive powers to predict the audience and consumer-based society of the 21st century, Benjamin is an essential philosopher extremely pertinent to the Korean society in the 21st century, devastated by cultural consumerism. Like how Benjamin took strolls throughout the modernized Paris and physically embodied sensational art, the art and culture of Korea in the 21st century is in the process of meandering through the town alleys to proceed into the traditional market. Korea, always in a present-progressive mentality and placing particular importance on art education is looking forward to the world UNESCO competition. This background seems not too irrelevant to Yang Ah Ham’s exhibition Adjective Life, which ultimately sums up the discourse in the relationship between art and society.


Adjective Life vs. An Inconsiderate Adjective


Yang Ah Ham uses diverse mediums and materials, but focuses mainly on video. The nomadic disposition of the artist who works in Korea and Amsterdam, focuses on a necessary element of ‘travel.’ Her ‘Life’ series, starting with her solo exhibition Dream in Life (2004), Transient Life (2005) and Adjective Life (2010), functions partly as a poetic documentary which depicts the artist, as an outsider having left Korea, trying to form a relationship with Korea. The space of Ham’s works which traverses across Seoul, New York, Chicago, China and the Netherlands, is really glocal. Observing the relationship between reality and man as an agent of the society, her work and perspective is summed up as being existentialistic. Her works capture various looks of the adjective life, capturing the gaze on man, man’s gaze on the world, the other, and the disciplined gaze of the pigeons that have become part of the modern society.

As a retrospective type of solo exhibition showing all of Ham’s works since 2006, Adjective Life is an exhibition that is much dedicated to the content and form. Above all, it demands time and observation from the audience. But to require such careful and delicate observation from the audience means to also demand a certain level of patience, which inversely connotes to the fact that the works are not easily understandable. Upon entering the exhibition, what greets the audience along the glass wall is the text written Non-Sense Factory (2010), a novel type written by the artist. Naturally I looked at the wall and read the Korean text. To confess, I actually read the rest of the text when I went back home. Fascinated by novels, the artist furnished and distributed the printed text, not visual image, throughout the exhibition space like a printed material. The ‘inconsiderate’ nature of contemporary art is exemplified at this point. For this exhibition review, I visited the exhibition twice, as it required that much time to fully understand the works. Or, to put in another way, it might be said that the space is a result of the inconsiderate installation manner of the organizers, who, filled with the passion for a retrospective show, spread out the art works across the two floors of the exhibition space like a rude flea market. This is referred to as the excess in the exhibition spectacle.

In terms of exhibition space and under the title Non-sense factory, it’s incomprehensible as to why the second and third works share the space without any division, despite the fact that they are organically related to each other. I asked for a description of the works to a docent of the gallery, whose reply was simply that she didn’t know. She claimed that she wasn’t a docent. The description of the third work was found behind the wall of the second work. Naturally, there were descriptions of the art works printed on paper; however, it’s not such a tough thing to facilitate the reading of the space by numbering the art works and having their title and descriptions in order. This is the same case for other contemporary art exhibitions, where moving from work to work with a description paper feels like finding one’s way through a maze.

On the opening day, the artist was explaining her work to professionals in the art world. Perhaps she was just showing her respect to the elders, but what could be said of an artist whose work needs an explanation for the general public? Another inconsiderate aspect of the exhibition was the excess of sound. The sound of an angry man and a horse formed a symmetrical chaos with the video Out of Frame (2010). The sounds intersected with the video in which young crowds played around with a chocolate bust, interrupting the contemplation of the art work. Such is a common phenomenon for video works that are not provided with a partitioned booth. The video work titled Bird’s View was suspended in the air on the first floor through 3 channels, but the title of the work was nowhere to be found. The viewing of this exhibition was not easy, even with the help of the descriptions on paper: hence, emphasizing the adjective ‘inconsiderate.’


Melodrama, Art vs. Society

The central theme penetrating through the oeuvre of Yang Ah Ham is Life. This arises from her nomadic life, above all things. Like Paik Nam June who opted for a nomadic life rather than rooting down somewhere, most of the artists of the neoliberal generation lived a life of pilgrimage. Ham also coats layers of identity on her ontology through endless relationships with the others and the society. Following her early works that reinvented personal narratives or memories, which is something that an emerging artist often take on to define oneself, Ham embodies social issues and collective memories in her works. Whether collective or private, such life of diverse spectrum that cannot be fixed and defined is like the never ending current of water. The film critic Geoffrey Nowell Smith who studied the popular melodramas of America in the 1950s-60s, noted in his book Home Is Where the Heart Is, that: “Melodramas create and depict how people live in the society, and it defined as a genre which recapitulates social and psychological issues.” Ham’s works also follow the regulations of mellow dramas. In her work Collected Anonymous (2007), she picks up numerous hair bands on the streets, bring them back to Korea to analyze the DNA of the owner of the hair bands to carry on a futile attempt at imagining and guessing such anonymous life. Intervened in this work is a reason of fantasy, like a novel that tries to retrace the faults of diversity in life. Her grounds for fantasy are more apparent especially in her video works. This is especially true in terms of formality in works like Portable Life and Ultimate Traveler’s Guide, both from 2006, in which the screen is shaky and slow motion is applied like a road movie. Like Bunuel and Dali’s surrealist movie Un Chien Andalou, the motive to render reality surreal, or to depict things that are visible and invisible, are often delivered through narration or dialogue. In the quasi-Sci-fi movie Invisible Clothes (2008), the image is barely apparent due to the overwhelming amount of text (dialogue), meaning that the film is appreciated only through paying undivided attention to the dialogue. On the other hand, this also reveals the inferiority of the visual image. Like the example of the new work Non-Sense Factory, with novel text and installation, it is clear to read the motive to emphasize more on the text rather than on the image in many works, especially in many video works.

Like the proposition of Geoffrey Nowell Smith who saw melodrama as a transformation of tragedy in a new social context in the 18th century, and Fredric Jameson who proposed that “melodrama and tragedy are similar, but the former reveals the conflict between the hero and the villain, and the goodness of the individual and the ethics of evil,” our lives are carried out through innumerable decisions made and battles taken between the good and the evil within ourselves. Like the circular cycle of the chasing predator and the prey being chased in the TV animation Tom and Jerry, our lives are filled with such a cycle of being a predator one day and a prey the next. The works Chocolate Head (2007) and Out of Frame (2007), illustrate the problems of art, society, politics and the distribution of authority, and bring to mind the animation Tom and Jerry. Like the performance of casting the head of world-famous collector and curator in chocolate and then consume it without being able to resist the temptation, the relationship between the artist and curator-collector remains as an inescapable subject, like the endless food chain of contemporary art, where good human network has become something important even for artists. For more than half of her 13 works in this exhibition, the artist chose to use chocolate as the material. I dare to propose an alternative, Korean version for the new work Out of Frame. I wonder what the audience’s reaction would be, if the heads of famous Korean figures, including Hong Ra hee, were cast in chocolate and the performers sucked on them like in Chocolate Head. Although small in scale, the artist cast her whole entire body in chocolate for this exhibition. I quoted a biblical verse in the epilogue. It questions as to who would actually count sand. Our life is such, like the sand that cannot be counted despite of our desire to count it. Yang Ah Ham’s adjective life, or more precisely the individual human life, is like mere accumulation of sand, beyond the human count.


(This text was an on-site review written by a critic selected and supported by ‘Art Critic Support Program’ by Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture, for artist selected by ‘2010 Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture Support Program.’)


IAN, Art Critic

Posted by EYEBALL_Media Arts Webzine

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