LEE Sooyoun (Curator, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea)
Kwon Yongju begins his art from the reality that we inhabit. In making his works, he incorporates techniques culled from various work experiences, such as making documentary films, public sculptures, and exhibition installations.In addition, his installations are generally made from everyday objects that are easily obtainable and recognizable from daily life. Through this exchange of labor and art production, Kwon seeks a balance between life and work, while simultaneously contemplating the meaning of labor in contemporary society. Many artists of Kwon’s generation juxtapose art production with elements of their everyday lives, a tendency that seems to reflect the prevalent social thought that one’s self is embodied by one’s work. Starting in 2008, Kwon stopped separating his two primary selves—artist and worker— and began openly assimilating his daily life in his artworks. In so doing, the materials and media used to make the works became the actual contents of the works.For example, We will see at the Top (2009), exhibited at Boan Inn in Tongui-dong, consists of a cement miniature of Mt. Baekdu, along with various photos. Through the model of Mt. Baekdu, Kwon invokes complex sentiments related to Korea’s generational gap.In particular, the cement embodies the labor of Korea’s younger generation, while the symbol of Mt. Baekdu represents the deep-rooted patriotism of the older generation, which fueled the development
economy. The use of material to formulate a narrative can also be seen in Kwon’s Buoy Light, which he first presented in 2010 at various exhibition spaces, including Insa Art Space. For this series, Kwon produced artworks from construction materials that were used during and after the exhibition (e.g., wrapping materials, plastic sheets, paint containers, fiberboard, etc.), assembled with skills that he gained from his part-time jobs. In particular, the materials were piled in a massive heap from the floor to the ceiling of the gallery. The precarious balance of this structure is reminiscent of the balance between labor and life.
For A Melting Point (2013), exhibited at Art Space Pool (Exhibition “A House yet Un-known”), Kwon burned various objects that he had repeatedly used in his works and exhibited the charred remains. Let’s Live an Honest Life (2012) references a phrase from 1970s public sculpture. At first glance, the phrase seems to be chiseled in stone, but the material is actually painted Styrofoam, commenting on the insubstantial nature of such public rhetoric.
Kwon’s unique method of utilizing materials to tell a story evolved through a series!of projects in 2014, wherein he added elements of labor to the process. Seeking more proactive ways to manifest the results of living in an exhibition space, he not only used familiar materials from artistic production but also brought labor into the artistic domain.
In a group exhibition “BONUP: Art as Livelihood (2014)” at Doosan Gallery Seoul, Kwon actively participated in the exhibition design through a multi- purpose wall that acted as both a screen for video projection and a partition. Then, as an exhibition designer for the “4th Anyang Public Art Project (2014),” he rearranged the historical space of the Kimchungup Museum.
Within the exhibition space, the artist’s work is defined as both labor and the artistic act, but in reality, there is no way to definitively combine or distinguish the two. After all, labor necessarily exists for art, as every artwork is the result of labor. But through his works, Kwon Yongju attempts to
demonstrate the concurrent situation of art existing for labor. Notably, the situation of labor becoming an artwork enables a shift from the artist’s individual works to the art of universal labor. For example, since 2013, Kwon has produced a series of single-channel video works entitled “Tying” , which he exhibited as a multi-channel video and installation at D Project Space in 2014. The videos depict the daily lives of workers at a textile factory in Thailand, with voiceover narration by Kwon’s mother, who worked at a Korean textile factory in the 1960s and 70s. As Kwon’s mother shares memories of her past life in the factory, the images of the current lives of the Thai factory workers show that the conditions of labor have not significantly changed. At the same time, the video shows the lives of the individual workers and the humble joy that is woven in the warp and weft. As such, Kwon is continually experimenting with the potential of labor as an expanding experience, as well as labor’s relationship with life.In his article “An Archival Impulse,” Hal Foster wrote that one of the characteristic symptoms of contemporary art is that the artists begin their works from existing objects and information from reality. Today’s artists fill their artworks with real experiences from contemporary life, and utilize the meaning of everyday objects to produce new information in the exhibition space. Through his creative use of everyday objects and materials, Kwon Yongju fits within this trend, but he goes further by attempting to convey the memories and experiences related to the labor of the current generations. As such, Kwon Yongju is an artist who forces us to guess which direction contemporary art may take in the future.