Yongju Kwon’s Multi-Use Wall

Sohyun Ahn (curator, Nam June Paik Art Center)

 

 

“I came to sustain my livelihood by designing and producing free-standing walls, pedestals, and furniture for other artists’ works, and by installing exhibitions on behalf of other artists.

Although it is an interesting and rewarding job, I am seized with the equivocal feelings that emerge from my position in between two seemingly conflicting jobs—a maker of art and a supporting laborer for other artists’ exhibitions. […]  I still don’t know what my day job is, nor do I know what my side job is. The tedious work that I have been perpetually repeating to make money is my day job, and the one thing that I have set my heart on, but haven’t been able to achieve, is my side job.”

-Excerpt from Yongju Kwon’s Multi-Use Wall video subtitles

 

Yongju Kwon’s Multi-Use Wall encompasses both (1) an installation where a white free-standing wall—the type that is frequently used in exhibition spaces—rotates around on an automated revolving pedestal in a manner that makes it appear like a sample of a product for sale, and (2) a video containing scenes that depict a group of artists installing exhibitions as a side job and the artist’s inner musings on his side job. The free-standing wall is installed in a way that distinctly reveals a retail purpose, not the aura of a work of art, while the video dispassionately presents acts of woodworking and applying paint, not creative acts of art making. Nevertheless, the installation and video are undeniably being “exhibited” inside an art gallery as artist Yongju Kwon’s “artwork.” 

 

The artist’s outlook is not revolutionary. He neither cynically exposes that art is dependent on commercial capital nor strains to depict his situation as one in which the only way to maintain his art-making activities is to work side jobs. By slyly informing viewers of the telephone number and contact email address of his exhibition design company at the conclusion of the video, he unhesitatingly uses his day job (creating artworks) to promote his side job. What can we take away from his stance, which looks like that of a petit bourgeoisie who has apparently adapted to the economic paradigm set before him, not one that suggests an alternative that can reconfigure today’s reality?

 

Many artists have used both artworks and the art-making process to expose that art is by no means isolated from economic conditions. Andy Warhol, for instance, proactively “surrendered” to the capitalist art market, flatly denying the purity of art trumpeted by bohemian artists. But Warhol operated a “factory” that churned out artworks and thus became a capitalist himself, in effect escaping the alienation of the artist—whereby an artist creates a material object with artistic value, but then the object is separated from the artist and appreciated, traded, and owned—that Marx had warned of. In a sense, it could be said that this situation is independent of a market system controlled by galleries and collectors who are considered to be the sole means of entry into the art market. In his own way, Warhol found an alternative within the capitalist economic system where the artist is not excluded from the method of production.[1]

 

Santiago Sierra displays absurd performances at biennales or art institutions to reveal that art activities posturing to have no connection to economic value are, indeed, closely connected to social class structures. He pays a specific sum of money to mobilize individuals in performances, such as participants tearing out a gallery’s wall and holding it upright with their bodies, or participants dying all of their hair blond, and he discloses the amount of money that has been paid in the title of each work. In reality, the people who participate in these performances for very little compensation are excluded from the artworks, and they cannot become members of a class with the means to enjoy the artworks.

 

Yongju Kwon neither surrenders nor reveals. As an initial matter, he is no bohemian who rejects the art market and claims to advocate for the purity of art. That said, his practice reflects a will that is directed not at selling artworks on the art market, but instead directed at continuing to make artworks. As these artworks cannot be sold on the art market, he reveals a volition to continue his art practice through the act of sustaining his livelihood with side jobs. Thus, the commercial viability of the side jobs that Kwon freely presents to us is for the sake of the commercial non-viability of his day job as an artist, a role in which he will continue to create artworks instead of depending on the art market. But, once again, this non-artistic product is exhibited as if it is an “artwork,” and the artwork itself plays a role in promoting his side job. Consequently, all value systems are rendered ambiguous.

 

Kwon’s prior works also reflect a sustained interest in the reversal and confusion of general economic value. In Buoy Light, he observed how street junk collectors (the decomposers of the city) created a shape that allowed them to pile up more junk in a limited space, and created an installation out of the beauty that emerged from the junk collectors’ movements—

movements that they perform solely to support their livelihoods. Waterfall-Trickle Down: Overflowing Water Gets the Floor Wet, which he presented in Gunsan, was created based on Gunsan’s circumstances: the city was once an opulent logistics center during the Japanese colonial era, but now only traces of a barren economy remain, a legacy of colonial plunder. This work emphasized the illusion of the “Trickle Down” economic policy (the theory that maximizing economic benefits to upper income levels would benefit the poorer members of society) that had been advocated by the then-President. Waterfall – the Structure of Survival, which was presented at Seoul Art Space_Mullae, substantiated how the energy of survival is durable by pumping up massive amounts of water and then pouring the water onto the vertical structure of narrowly stacked-up abandoned objects that had previously been presented in Buoy Light. Here, it is interesting to note the artist’s economic irrationality, which is revealed through the work’s production process. Kwon, who wanted to re-create a parasol that is commonly found in artificial waterfalls around the city, attempted to track down an abandoned, used parasol, but was unable to find one. Consequently, he decided to buy one from a nearby street vendor. However, the funding offered by the public institution—

in this case, Seoul Art Space—could only be used with a credit card, not cash. In the end, the artist had to undergo an anti-capitalistic process whereby he bought a new parasol using the credit card and then exchanged it for a used one. He obtained other materials using the same process. Although he created this artwork through a process of buying discarded furniture sold by junk collectors, the work’s exchangeable value was effectively “zero,” and even the waterlogged furniture that the artist poured water over lost its only economic value—that of the raw materials. Quite the opposite, in fact: because he had to move the materials into the gallery, he faced a situation in which he was required to again expend money for shipping expenses in order to dispose of the remaining materials. Together, these artworks embody activities that retrogress with regard to production activity that is undertaken to obtain general exchange value.

 

 The confusion of economic value appears in Multi-Use Wall as well. If the valuation basis of the artwork is not the exchange value or the effective value of the physical material, then the value is immaterial.[2] However, for those artworks to be exhibited in today’s exhibition space, clearly a material assistive device—that is, exhibition design—is needed. In the case at hand, the exhibition design comprises material works that assist the immaterial production of others.

Of course, every design involves a process during which immaterial ideas and material realization coexist, but the artist’s statement that “sometimes, I am seized with the equivocal feelings emerging from my position in between two seemingly conflicting jobs—a maker of art and a supporting laborer for other artists’ exhibitions” leads us to presume that a clear division of value exists in society. But Kwon ultimately blurs the distinction between material labor and immaterial labor that exists in the art field by intertwining day job with side job. Granted, for him, exhibition design is his side job and making artwork is his day job. Yet the artist, who himself states in a self-mocking voice that he doesn’t know where his day job ends and his side job begins, thinks nothing of displaying a commercial product in an art exhibition space and using his video work as a means of promoting his business. Accordingly, the title of Multi-Use Wall is itself meaningful. The multi-use wall, while serving as a reminder of how it can be used to transform any exhibition space, is also all-powerful[3] in the sense that it is both a product with a very functional effectiveness in exhibitions and, simultaneously, a financial source that allows Kwon to continue his art practice. Moreover, while many artists speak of the predicament of lacking sufficient time to focus exclusively on creating artworks while also performing side jobs, Multi-Use Wall resolves the issue of limited labor power in the sense that it seamlessly transforms the time reserved for labor (or the labor power) that is needed to maintain one’s livelihood into time that is reserved for creation.

 

Although Kwon’s Multi-Use Wall is neither a denial nor an adulation of the economic system, its ultimate significance lies in the fact that it allows the artist to maintain his art practice. It is far from an optimal set of conditions for an artist to live in, but at the least it allows the artist to make artworks unrestrained by the art market’s logic, and even his survival as an artist becomes a bit easier given that the locations for his day job and his side job are the same. Nevertheless, the meaning of this work does not remain only on the level of the artist’s own survival. The other meaning of this work lies in the so-called effect of “Defamiliarization” that occurs with the reversal and confusion of economic value. Just as Bertolt Brecht forced the audience to face reality by defamiliarizing a play with an unexpected situation and ending, the “product” brazenly placed in the art exhibition space and the business promotion that unabashedly appears in the middle of the artwork spur us to reflect on the life of an artist living at the limits of a capitalist society and in the insufficient welfare system. Multi-Use Wall contains neither a severe criticism of, nor a cynical surrender to, the capitalist system. Yet, bit by bit, the work achieves the politicalization of art that Brecht and Walter Benjamin dreamed of by means of strange and unfamiliar scenes that we encounter amid divisions of value that we have unwittingly become subservient to, and that we unknowingly help to reinforce.

 

 

 

 

[1] Anton Vidokle, “Art without Market, Art without Education: Political Economy of Art,” e-flux Journal, n°43 March 2013, p.6. 

[2] Cf. Maurizio Lazzarato, “Immaterial Labor”(1996), in Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt, eds., Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, tr. Paul Colilli & Ed Emory, Univ. of Minnesota Press (2006). http://www.e-flux.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/2.-Maurizio-Lazzarato-Immaterial-Labor.pdf.

[3] The term manneung byuk (“만능벽”) could be translated from Korean to English both as “multi-use wall” or “all-powerful wall.” (Ed.)