Humorous Imagination Added to Reality, Its Wit and Truth
By Shin Bo-seul, Curator of Total Museum of Contemporary Art
I could not keep my eyes off the monkey, giggling after daubing a painting in black. Why did he do this? I feel better when looking at his humorous deed. I move my eye to the canvas from the monkey. An anguished singer - Seo Sang-ik referred to him as Kurt Cobain - flops down on the floor. Before him, viewers take photographs of the monkey and singer. Seo Sang-ik accounts for this as a scene at The Louvre. As if going on a pilgrimage, visitors to The Louvre aspire to see the Mona Lisa. Like a policeman who conducts on-the-spot inspections, they review the painting. They are obsessed by this painting. But it doesn’t matter if the painting is not Mona Lisa: Seo’s Art Museum series started from this work. (Paint Black)
Melting Afternoon was Seo’s first solo show in which his inherent unique technique stood out. Seo represents daily life in the limited space of his studio (Time for the Lambs / 4:00 pm Sunday Afternoon), and presents an exquisite combination of a film scene and a moment of his private life (Ezekiel Chapter 25 Clause 17). Although the way of a spectacle melding of fantasy with daily life, illusion with reality is not his distinctive style, his work is particularly marked by the element of with and humor.
In this exhibition his views of such reality and his way of talking in a witty manner is still the same. His daily life naturally enters his painting too, blending with his imagination; interweaving with other people (City Full of Stories / City for Strangers). Scene from a film are inserted (No Country for Me), and well-known singers like Kurt Cobain and John Lennon are at times visible. Despite this familiarity and similitude, Seo’s work proceeds gradually toward a different level, free from previous personal narrative.
A distinctive characteristic is change in his visualization and view of space. In his previous work, Seo addressed space by lending cinematic imagery to a limited space, but in this work he unveils concrete space such as an art museum or apartment. Through spatial structure and narrative Seo presents episodes. Although his work may involve distraction due to many spaces and layers of narrative within a museum, Seo has successfully constructed a natural, solid world, capturing a moment of daily life.
As the space he focuses on changes, connotation and interpretation in his work diversifies. Since spaces like an ‘art museum’ and ‘apartment’ connote diverse meanings via their name, beyond artistic control, they are linked to social systems. For example, Paint Black, one of his museum series, can be discussed alongside various narratives around the art world. Playing the Game featuring Marcel Duchamp playing chess on the toilet, and viewers appreciating a piano hanging upside-down (referring to Rebecca Horn’s Sonata for Anarchism), and Encounters with the Alienated with a penguin roaming in an art museum, and Rothko’s serious painting, all offer reflection on diverse narratives within the art world. This becomes explicit in Not Being Tamed. Those who look seriously at a white canvas; a coyote gnawing a carpet; the hand of a falling man; and a cap: all parody Joseph Beuys’s performance I like America, America likes me. Although we don’t know this, it is easy to sense Seo’s critical mind toward the contemporary art world. I giggle unintentionally before his work, sympathizing with his sarcastic remarks on the art world.
Of course, Seo’s Art Museum series was not intended to express his critical viewpoint of the system of the art museum. A more accurate account for this is a departure point of this series is a young artist who has just entered the art world comes to have doubts about the art world through his diverse experiences. Despite this, as the art museum building or structure has diverse connotations, his work seems to undergo huge change, but can be more diversely interpreted with the introduction of architectural structures with strong social (or at times political) connotations.
Interesting is his way of naturally combining heterogeneous situations, embracing the concept of space in his work. Many works in his previous show Melting Afternoon were two-dimensional. In Time for Dialogue – Do the Lambs Stop Questioning?, for instance, a scene shows Anthony Hopkins appearing behind the artist, but in this work, two heterogeneous situations - a matching between a film scene and reality - emerge as solid imagery. Works are not presented as complete images, but show a space in which viewers may have a delightful journey into imagery, guided by the artist. He has set motifs for viewers not to lose their way in this journey.
In Encounters with the Alienated viewers travel to images in different dimensions, so their gaze moves from a penguin in the foreground to viewers in the background; from a man in the right hand corner to a Rothko painting at the back. In Not Being Tamed our gaze moves from the white canvas to viewers appreciating this, and halts at a coyote biting a carpet. Or our gaze flows from the coyote to the canvas, from the canvas to the viewers, and again to the entire scene.
In Ping Pong – Endless Rally this sort of gaze-movement is natural. Through monotonous apartment-scenes filling the canvas, Seo represents aspects of daily life. Some apartment looks like a film scene, and others appear tired. A table-tennis table captures our attention suddenly. A contrast between apartment scenes and this table stimulates subtle emotion.
Facing Seo’s work we encounter the space of a new narrative through an act of ‘viewing’, like the rabbit taking Alice to wonderland, or Marcel who eats madeleine with tea and sinks into her childhood memory. The images from film, daily life, literature, or Seo’s imagination elicit new spaces and narratives. The act of viewing his paintings is like reading a fairytale, and animals and motifs popping out of his paintings are like ushers leading us into his work. Strolling through his painting makes viewers smile with his wit and humor.