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Yongju Kwon’s “makeshift art” portal

(Park Chan-kyong, artist)


Yongju Kwon is a worker. He is an interior designer, a carpenter, and a plasterer. Kwon’s major works include the design of the archive space of “The 4th Anyang Public Art Project (APAP) - Public Story,” which was held at the Kim Chung Up Museum. He has also been involved in the design and renovation of several alternative spaces and “shinsaeng gonggan.”[1] He has erected walls and made furniture for countless exhibitions. To qualify it solely by his main source of income, it is Kwon’s day job to create the spaces for the exhibitions of other artists and to install artworks on others’ behalf. His video work Multi-Use Wall (2014) includes the artist’s confession as follows: “In the past, I wanted to keep my life and art completely separate, so I tried to hide my awkward survival behind inconsequential artworks. Even now, after I have coolly arranged my artwork and my life on separate, parallel tracks, I sometimes feel an involuntary shudder.”


Viewed literally, it is difficult to determine whether Kwon is an amateur or a professional artist. He does not seem overly proud of his own works, and he might not have been overly proud about his way of survival, either. Of course, I suppose it would not be a very high standard of work ethic if you felt ashamed about your own job. To state it otherwise, Kwon’s modesty may stand out in an era where overconfidence and vain auteurism are prevalent. I suggest that you try to take the above statement as his being honest without unnecessary greed or pretension—that is, to take a long view on Yongju Kwon, a young artist who has not practiced long enough as an artist. Whatever your evaluation of Kwon’s work may be, it is still worthwhile to notice that Kwon situates himself between the two domains of work and art in order to acknowledge his in-between position. Kwon’s thoughts on this split identity are made visible in Multi-Use Wall, and these issues resonate in his other works as well.


Here, if the artist’s statement above holds value as the plain truth, then it should be sufficiently thought provoking. Multi-Use Wall poses questions about the artists’ identity between labor and artwork to the artist himself and to the audience as well. A video that briefly depicts the process of producing walls and furniture in an exhibition hall is mounted on a small wall that he made. In parallel with it, another panel wall—the production process of which is also depicted in the video—stands impassively as well. The viewers simply watch a video of the process of making the furniture and walls for the exhibition, and they are confronted with the wall as its outcome.


Standing alone in the middle of the exhibition hall, Multi-Use Wall has been designed to reveal its own structure and the process of its production: the surface of one side of the installation is the surface exposing the grain of the lumber as it is; the rear side exposes the supporting lumber and steel frame. Installed on a rotating disc powered by an electric motor, the wall resembles a product that could be on display in a retail shop; however, by alternately exposing its front and the rear surfaces, it repeats a cyclical rise and fall as it shifts from the status of a product into that of an object. This intellectual simplicity and physical factuality provocatively highlight a “retreat,” or a “withdrawal.” Through its reduction of art into labor, its reversion of creation into production, and the fact that it replaces the artwork with a brief dispatch about labor for the sake of art, the artwork pulls the virtual culture or the world of artistic signs back into the actual work and the object.


Kwon’s reversal of artwork to objects could be read as ironic, too, since the “artwork” confirms the fact that the “work” reduced to labor operates just as well as “art” by virtue of being bestowed artistic value by institutional acknowledgment. For some time now, museums have had the capacity to house works like Multi-Use Wall, and, in fact, museums already stand fully ready to bring “the object” back to the position of art. This particular work has actually been invited to be shown in various exhibitions, and it suits the self-reflective taste of contemporary art quite well. It is difficult to say that this paradoxical situation undermines the message of the work; after all, the disturbance of the conventional value system that is inherent to art came along hand-in-hand with the institutionalization of this such disturbance. Instead, a more fascinating provocation would appear to present itself when the aesthetic withdrawal is simpler and more radical.


There are not many artworks that examine the institutional critique or attempt to reflect on the multitude of conditions of art. Also, the tradition of self-criticism has been rendered scarce due to the historical weakness of Modernism. The main theme of Multi-Use Wall, the labor of artists, must be a deep-rooted one considering the features of the artistic institution. Sociological explanations of art carry much more weight than generally thought, especially in times when a strong disapproval towards “stress” is prevalent, as is the case nowadays. Allow me to give you an example from a recent occasion. The late Goeun Choi[2] was part of the film profession, and her untimely death revealed the miserable life conditions of the cultural industry. Multi-Use Wall cannot be irrelevant with regard to Choi’s death. Choi’s death is not simply about the problems of the social welfare system. Rather, the tragic incident exposed society’s treatment of its investment of social costs into art, and it also revealed the hypocrisy that lies behind the admiration regarding culture and arts.


Although the film industry and the field of fine art have dealt with similar problems as discussed above, there are issues that pertain specifically to fine art: the similarity and difference between art-labor and generic labor; the artistic value existing in general manual labor; the sense of “ethic-aesthetic” trust created by the input of the artist’s labor into the artwork; and so on. Fine art has traditionally been closer to artisan culture and craftsmen than to industry; as such, manual production still carries so much weight that it becomes a major criteria for the assessment of value. Even when one uses one’s thoughts or language—if not one’s hands—to create an artwork, those methods still count as extended uses of one’s hands. The price of the artwork is has an especially high relevance with regard to this factor.


No matter how simple Multi-Use Wall may be, in its presentation of the basic frame of the wall, it is nevertheless a creation resulting from the manual work of Yongju Kwon and his fellow artists, a clean object that conveys aesthetic pleasure in its own sense, and an aesthetic object removed from any use-value in real life. While this work seems to withdraw art labor into generic labor, it in fact simultaneously proposes the idiosyncrasy of artistic labor. Videos and texts that depict the process of creation highlight that this is still an outcome of the many processes involved, such as manual labor, contemplation on contemporary art, and design and display. Thus, any retreat into generic labor or skepticism towards art practice ceases at some point, and it starts to recover its position as an “artwork” by strongly advocating the existence-value of art. For me, the grain of the plywood made visible in Multi-Use Wall feels secretly mystical; it feels like a metaphor for such “artistry.”


What matters is such a pause, a gesture to resist until the end, hoping not to end up as an artwork. Indeed, in Multi-Use Wall, Kwon raises a somewhat naive question about the value of art (i.e., “What on earth is fine art?”), and his suggested answer is obvious: life comes prior to art, and any artwork is the outcome of someone’s labor. Bertolt Brecht once questioned: “Why wouldn’t you call a person who makes a good costume cultured when you call a person who wears a good costume cultured?” This remark points out that in modern society, culture is related mainly to appreciation or consumption, in other words, it is separated from its production. However special a work of art is, it cannot come into being without someone’s generic labor. Besides, there is something “artistic” inside generic labor. 


Buoy Light and Waterfall_Structure of Survival


At a glance, Multi-Use Wall seems to stand in contrast to Buoy Light (2010) and Waterfall (2011-2013). Whereas Multi-Use Wall demonstrates the value and process of labor that fulfills functional precision, Buoy Light and Waterfall starkly present artistic or playful aspects of labor. The objects used in this work seem to gain some sort of animistic vigor through the process of becoming an interrelated entity. In contrast, the “aesthetics of poverty” manifested in the Multi-Use Wall compose the conceptual basis of the Waterfall series. Whereas Multi-Use Wall stubbornly repressed the “artistic” aspects of labor and object, Buoy Light and Waterfall are more openly articulate about it. Art critic Sohyun Ahn offers an apt description about Waterfall by writing that it is “a subtle increase of power in the remote corners of indigent lives,” although I would say that “happenstance” is more appropriate than the word “subtle,” as the accidental mixture of miscellaneous objects and waste dominates in this work. The work is more about the spirit of “you can do something if you try” than being pretentious with subtle shades of meanings behind it. To be more specific, it is more the cynicism of “you will do what it takes” than the determination of “you can do something if you try,” and, going one step further, it is more the humorous view that “there is nothing you cannot achieve if you really try to do something.”


Therein lie some symptoms of humor, or mania as a pathological metaphor. The symptoms of megalomaniac mania in Korean modernity, which are commonly found in the works of artist Jeong Hwa Choi, are something that could be referred to as “pop art from a developing country,” and those elements similarly appear in Yongju Kwon’s works. Whereas Choi’s works remind viewers of a group known as the “consumerist crowd” in a developing country, the works of Yongju Kwon appear as a fantasy that could exist in the temporary expedient survival of the urban lower classes. Kwon wants the work to be deprived of durability, and reversely wants it to be filled with some sort of “efficacy.” In this way, it bears a resemblance to Bulgwang-Dong Totem by Sangdon Kim, or the ephemeral aesthetics of John Bock. There is some kind of an ecstatic hodgepodge of jazz playfulness and a bit of emotional resignation. This could be likened to the sublimated emotion triggered by the Korean “trot” dance music—which is corny to a maximum degree—that one can typically hear at any outdoor picnic area in Korea.


The list of materials that are “improvised” in the Waterfall goes as follows: submersible pump, water, lumber for construction, tarpaulin, vinyl, PVC plate, sandwich panel, plastic box, tin bucket, fan cover, wrapping tent, shading curtain, PVC pipe, dog house, rubber basin, corrugated cardboard, Styrofoam, Polystyrene, hose, metal ladder, abandoned furniture, flowerpot, audio speakers, rubber gloves, stones, and so on. While each iteration of Waterfall_Structure of Survival is installed with varying materials and with a varying size and structure based on the given size and the configuration of the exhibition space, the use of a submersible pump to create an artificial waterfall remains the same. Of course, while the artist draws a rough sketch of the expected installation of this complex construction, it is difficult to realize the installation as it is in the sketch. It seems impossible to premeditate the installation for a specific space since it is impossible to plan the “proper” combination of the required elements such as size, weight, texture, and colors before working with the actual space. While it is common in contemporary art that works are complemented and completed at the site of the exhibition, as a work that revolves around the “makeshift” as its subject, what matters most in this work is the change of the plan more so than the plan itself, and the makeshift more so than the plan’s realization.


Therefore, I suggest that we use the term “makeshift art” to refer to this kind of art, rather than “installation art,” a term that is broadly used in the field of fine art. In the western tradition of art, as an art movement that appeared after minimalism and post-minimalism, installation art is regarded as a genre of art that deals with the reality of object/space in the way that architecture does; “makeshift art” is more concerned with the solid fictionality of object/space, futility, the possibility of extinction, the possibility of change, temporality, and meaninglessness. Rather than the sublime, it seems to express a kind of spectacle, one that is brought about by an elaborate scheme, a thorough concept, a fine form, or the solidity of the object. There also exists a kind of spectacle created from an attitude of “whatever possible, anyway, inevitably, after all, in the end, by all means, and roughly.” The subtitle of the work—Structure of Survival—indicates that this, of course, is an allegory about modern Korean society, or the high-speed maldevelopment of Korea.


The main feature of Yongju Kwon’s use of allegory lies in its somewhat cartoonish sensibility. In particular, much like Korean webcomics often make a virtue of being irresponsible yet free and pursuing simple and straightforward fun, often commanding self-degrading humor, in Waterfall, too, there is a paradoxical sense of victory or joy, an aura that one who already has resigned it all would give off. I suppose it is something closer to the “de-sublimation of resignation,” a more advanced stage than the point of “a subtle increase of power in the remote corners of indigent lives.” This is demonstrated in the shooting streams of water from pinholes in the rubber glove. One could refer to this to as a sort of spectacle of masturbation, in that it is an action of self-consolation when there is no special hope outside. This is manifested in the structure of the work as well. Just as Multi-Use Wall employs a structure of circumrotation to express a skeptical perspective in its examination of labor in an art institution, to return back to art, the Waterfall series shows off the complacent circumrotation of water in an extremely self-disparaging way. This might be one of the reasons why Waterfall looks like a direct expression of “overflowing Eros.”


 Of course, there is a sense of sadness and a feeling of resignation behind these humorous elements. Actually, Waterfall can be associated with a deluge or disaster. For example, you might think of the “flood victims” that repeatedly come along every monsoon season. Since many people have had the experience of bailing water out of a house, or positioning a bucket to catch water dripping from the ceiling, the work stimulates the collective memory of citizens who have lived in the peripheries of modern Korea. The work lives into a memory that could be more easily connected to “resident art” than “civil art,” and more than “Minjung Art.” While humor is unacceptable to “Minjung” [“the People”], and “civil” sounds too much attached to governance, there is a sense in “resident art” that it is able to activate the “shift in the function of agony” in the relentless life of everyday people. The following phrase is weaved into the silk installed in Kwon’s recent work Tying: “Dragged and left alone in a gravel field, you will live on.” What the “structure of survival” means in the title Waterfall_Structure of Survival is exactly this kind of relentlessness.


Tying and Mounting on Rocks


“Tying” refers to the process of connecting threads in textile manufacturing. In the interview shown in the video, Sanghee Na, the artist’s mother, explains as follows: “At a certain moment during the process of weaving, you need to connect yarns to the loom-roller. This action is called ‘Mimari’ in Japanese, or ‘Yoen Kyung’ in Korean. The problem is that no one can set up a time to do it since it happens unpredictably. Sometimes you need to get out of bed in the middle of the night to do it if needed.” By focusing on a process of weaving called “tying,” one side of textile manufacturing is exposed. “Tying,” again, is a title that emphasizes a temporary and unstable life, as in the artist’s other works. However, Tying is different from the other works mentioned above in that it barely attempts to adopt provocative methodology or a subversive effect as to museum aesthetics. Rather, it maintains an objective distance in its approach to specific cases of factory labor that occurred, or are occurring, somewhere in Korea and in Thailand.


Tying consists of a video and two installations. Especially, the “installation art” part of it is designed to invite audiences to perceive changes in the light spectrum, which is created using interwoven threads dyed in various colors, according to their different points of view; this eventually creates a mystical effect that can be likened to “Op Art.” This is a similar to the approach of overlapping poverty with beauty in Kwon’s 2010 work Underground Sewing Factory. The contrast/overlap of silk in Tying—which represents the fantastic pleasure of universal perception and the relentlessness of life—is basically an extension of Underground Sewing Factory, a work that presents the contrast/overlap between a ruin-like space and a rainbow. While the binary distinctions between many things such as labor and art, citizen and artist, and society and beauty are equally applied in these two works, Tying is deeply involved in a world of more concrete labor in real life.


What you see is a video depicting a weaving loom called the “Jacquard” at the Jim Thompson Factory, one of the major silk manufacturers in Thailand. What you hear are cross-edited interviews with the artist’s mother, who worked for a long period of time at a textile factory, and Nuek Sandon, who works at the Jim Thompson Factory in Thailand. The interview reveals the fact that the textile labor performed in Korea was repeated in the same format in Thailand, the only difference being the chronological time when the labor took place. Whereas the interviewees are quite nostalgic and composed in revealing details of their labor and lives, the repetitive and powerful automatic movements of the machines in an automated and quasi-workerless factory stands in dramatic contrast with the factories of the past, where humans were constantly bustling from here to there. Presented alongside the video footage of nonchalant machines operating in an orderly manner like an army, in a factory where one or two workers barely remain, the humanistic retrospection of artist’s mother loses its value: “Even though I don’t have many memories… but I remember the chalk powder, that powder slipped down from my fingers and landed on your hair, that it was like snowflakes had landed on your hair. That moment suddenly comes to mind from time to time.”


Yongju Kwon commented on Tying as follows: “In Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand, I saw a crowd of young female workers spilling out of the silk factory for lunch. Watching them, I felt as if I was seeing a scene from my mother’s youth. The life of my mother is being repeated in their lives, in their level of education, in their health, and in their fate. However, bookish terms such as labor-intensive, light industry, heavy industry, trickle-down effect are not enough to describe this ‘industry.’ It is hard to grasp what the industry is really about, just as it is hard to grasp the different lives of hundreds of people. I am still not sure if I was wrong in the first place to compare the textile industry of the two countries, and to examine the lives subjected to the industry, or if the scene of the young female workers who seem to repeat my mother’s youth already told me the whole story.” While Kwon’s original intention of examining stories about global capitalism and the complexity of various aspects of labor might have become less important in the course of the work’s production, his concern about the laborers’ individual existences ironically demonstrates the reality of modern industrial production, where labor itself is vanishing.


What the automatic weaving machine makes in the video is a cloth, and this cloth is installed in the exhibition space along with the video. We watch a weaving machine weave the phrase into the silk: “Dragged and left alone in a gravel field, you will live on, even in a vast field of sand, you will lay the cornerstone to build a house…”; and this very silk is hung from the ceiling to the floor in the exhibition hall. The statements of the artist’s mother and Nuek Sandon are quite retrospective, and the video does not show you their faces but only allows you to hear their voices. The labor is already vanishing, and the statement about the “gravel field” when speaking about a relentless life is presented as a product of automatic machine rather than the outcome of human labor. In this respect, different from Kwon’s self-evaluation, a macro analysis about the textile industry does compose part of the work. Today, talking about labor and depicting it feels like a thing of the past. This invisibility of labor is a feature of modern urban geography, over which spectacle dominates. If labor and life itself become virtual or pushed away to an invisible area, then perhaps fantasy could bring about a sense of reality.


The spectrality of the dyed yarn installed in Tying, the rainbow effect of Underground Sewing Factory, the cartoonist fantasy triggered by the falling water of Waterfall—these all have the power to inversely stack layers of labor-reality-society-imagination-fantasy-art, or they appear to contribute to reinforcing the layer of labor-reality that is increasingly weakening. At first, you might wonder if these elements are wrongly manipulated to dramatize poverty; however, upon taking a closer look at the structure of the work, you can find that the axis of fantasy-art has been reversed into the axis of labor-reality. This has the same logical structure as Multi-Use Wall in that you sense the absence of labor even though the video makes you watch its process.


Yongju Kwon explained about his latest work Mounting on Rocks in an email. He wrote: “ As I have spent the past month placing Aerides orchids into cement chunks and watering them, I found the once-exclusive hobby of seokbujak—now in a period of decline—to be refreshingly fascinating. It is only a small landscape, the size of a palm or a human head. Yet it functions as a sort of portal towards an exquisite perspective (fantasy-paradise), at least in one’s imagination.” In the end, what matters is what the “fantasy-paradise” could be, what it could mean, and how it could turn the sphere to the axis of reality. I am also curious to see how this is developed in his future works.


For Mounting on Rocks, Yongju Kwon utilized a variety of different materials to make each mold: fragments of cement, bricks, egg containers, waste paper, paint rollers, and plastic bottles. Then, Kwon poured cement into the cast, attached orchid varieties like Sickle Neofinetia and Kinroukaku, and proceeded to grow them. Kwon made a quasi-rock from cement, deceiving the elegant orchid into believing that is an actual stone on which it can survive. This work could be an extreme summing up of the “hybridization of reality (reality, labor, etc.) and paradise (symbol, art, etc.)” that the artist has been working with. When Kwon builds Baekdusan Mountain out of cement in We Will Meet at the Top (2009), a symbol of nationalist ideology like Baekdusan Mountain falls to the position of a failed portal that nobody is willing to enter. On the other hand, a rainbow portal, dyed yarn portal, waterfall portal, and orchid portal all serve as rather fascinating screens that entice us to go beyond the virtual reality.


The “escape” could itself be a part of the reality when the world is paved with gravel, sand, or even with shit. A window at a prison is a screen to an unconfined world, and an account with a zero balance is a virtual portal to traveling overseas, so to speak. This underlies the framework, inclination, and critical mind of Yongju Kwon’s work. For instance, the cement brick installed in the Amateur Architecture Association (2010) is juxtaposed with a painting of a brain. It seems like there could be an escape route, or portal, in the brain belonging to a construction worker who goes up the stairs, carrying a heavy load of bricks on his back. Another example is Better a Live Coward than a Dead Hero (2010), a block of cement installed in the front yard of the Art Space Pool, on which a quote is inscribed: “Better to roll around in a field of shit while alive, in this world.” And the Melting Point (2013) is a theatrical presentation of the portal between reality and paradise, and a literal embodiment of the portal since it is the point where reality melts down.


Perhaps museums and galleries would prefer that Kwon make a more captivating and decorous portal, and they would wait for “a subtle increase of power in the remote corners of indigent lives” to arise. However, if the energy itself is not objectified as the cement in the construction site, it is inevitable that it resembles the abstractness of financial capital separate from labor itself, or the fictionality of artistic symbolic capital, or cheap impressions of the “dirt spoon.”[3] This is the case for many artworks out there. Consequently, I believe that the portal should adopt the method of de-sublimation rather than sublimation to be appealing; in this respect, I believe that the strength of Yongju Kwon, who is a worker as well as an artist, lies in the fact that he is well-acquainted with different sensations such as de-sublimation, the withdrawal from the portal to this world, and the descent from paradise to a gravel valley. I doubt if there has ever existed a time when you are (not) explicitly told that “post-internet culture” is still based on labor. Because of this, I am becoming more and more interested in the approach of Yongju Kwon. (Park Chan-kyong, artist)


[1] The term “shinsaeng gonggan” refers to a new type of artists-run space that first appeared starting around 2014 in Korea. (Trans.)

[2] Goeun Choi (1979 - 2011) was a Korean screenwriter whose body was discovered in her unheated apartment due to apparent starvation after asking neighbors to donate extra rice and kimchi. (Trans.)

[3] “Dirt spoon” is a pejorative term that refers to the lower classes of the society and is a parodical expression of the saying,“born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth.” (Trans.)

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