In the corner of the Venice Biennale's Giardini, the Korean pavilion makes an exciting first impression. A fantastical medley of technicolor neon conveys the shapes of a roaring tiger, peacocks, and dragons. A fake advertisement for Pepto-Bismol is surrounded by the blinking bulbs you'd see on a Broadway marquee. Above all this, a cheeky neon sign spells out "Holiday Motel," and to the side, a light box advertises "Free Narcissistic People Disorder... Free Orgasms," and more.
The work, entitled Venetian Rhapsody, is by Cody Choi, and is a direct comment on his inclusion in the vast European art spectacle, inspired by Macau casinos, Las Vegas motels, and the work of Patrick Tuttofuoco. "This work is talking about the double-crossed reality... of Venice, capitalism, and art. This is the conflict of contemporary artists being in the Venice Biennale," the "Komerican" artist, who moved from Korea to the States in the early 80s, says.
The pavilion is a collaboration between Choi and Lee Wan. The latter is showing his collection of archive material that traces power relations in recent Korean history through an installation titled Mr. K and the Collection of Korean History. "I collect items that represent a particular era or those that have become symbols of an era beyond their original functions or values," he says. Lee has been collecting this selection of newspaper articles and official records, as well as knick knacks and ephemera, since 2010, and has also added a box of photographs from the life of a "Mr. Kim" that he scavenged at a market. Tiny statues, a rotary phone, and a Newsweek cover all scatter the walls in an accumulation of information.
Born in 1936, "Mr. K" as the exhibition dubs him, lived through some of the most tumultuous times in Korean history. "I wanted to show the influence of politics and power on the life of an individual. I also wanted to contemplate what that individual means to a nation," Lee says. Mr. K becomes a kind of "universal" Korean, with his acronym nickname invented by curator Lee Daehyung.
But how much can an individual life tell us about the country as a whole? Lee is skeptical of neat narrative-building: "The life of an individual that I paint and imagine based solely on photos may, in fact, be entirely different from the individual's actual life. Likewise, it may be impossible to understand the circumstances of a country merely based on fragments of history that I collected. Yet, what is important is that people and the society often come to have similar memories of the past, as is recorded in history." In other words: nationality might be complicated, but cultural memory is still important.
Lee is also ambivalent about the concept of "Koreanness," noting that the country has undergone change from a military regime to a more openly international, neoliberal government in the past 50 years. "Frankly speaking, I am not entirely sure what it means for something to be 'Korean,'" Lee says. "Traditions no longer exist in ways they used to before, and Korea has seen modernization, thanks to the help of foreign nations. Given such circumstances, I think the expression 'Korean' is more multi-layered and comprehensive in meaning."
Choi is similarly doubtful about the stability of this definition, especially as it relates to the label of Korean art. His work Cheesekwha - Color Painting expresses this problem, playing with Western expectations of Korean art. Punning on the popular and minimally-toned paintings that are typical of the Dansaekhwa movement, Choi instead writes the names of colors onto the canvas in different shades. "I think it's still in progress," he says, on the development of a national artistic movement. "That's why I try to be honest myself. That's what I'm trying to do with my art."
At the same time, Choi feels a pressure to take part in the "-merican" part of his "Komerican" identity. "When I moved to the States in the early 80s, I studied at the Art Center College for Design under Mike Kelley. I got the sense that most American artists' expression is very aggressive. That kind of expression we never learned in Korea. Asian philosophy says: 'Don't express yourself! If you do, it means you're shallow.'" Choi's own artistic temperament is to take a less direct but still humorous approach, for example in The Thinker, that recreates Rodin's famous sculpture out of toilet paper and Pepto Bismol, which the artist downed by the bottle when he first arrived in America, in response to the stomach trouble and culture shock.
Elsewhere in the Pavilion, Lee considers the accumulation of labour as a model for citizenship, such as in the installation piece Proper Time, in which 668 clocks are each affixed to the wall, programmed to the relative time it takes a person in a different country to earn enough for a meal. Drawing on Einstein's statistical theories, the work incorporates a vast amount of research and evaluation of personal stories, and takes into account all the minutiae of what makes our lives different.
"Labor has always been the most basic and important act of exchange necessary in order for humans to continue to lead their lives," says Wan. "At the center of many problems and conflicts that we see in the world today are disparity and imbalance between these values." In this piece, as well as the Made In videos and associated objects that chart the course of Asian nations through the production of export products, Lee zooms into the individual memories, stories and personalities that all add up to create a singular culture, whether it's a silk weaver in Thailand sending her daughter to college using the fruits of this labour, or the women affected by declining demand for Korean wig manufacture.
Over the last 50 years, Korea has become much more open to an international market, and yet, according to this pavilion, it is still finding ways to construct its identity. On this point, Lee mentions a telling fact from his years of research: "In the 1990s, there was an interesting government slogan that read 'What is Korean is international.'" If you try to define yourself by what's outside yourself, it's hard to find what was inside all along.