TheArtro introduces young Korean artists who have attracted international attention through their participation at Gwangju Biennale, Busan Biennale, and Mediacity Seoul in 2016. Kim Heecheon, who was a participating artist at Mediacity Seoul, creates unique video art. Belonging to a generation that is intimately familiar with the created reality of the Internet-based world, Kim combines virtual reality with the reality that we all know. In this way, Kim examines the blurred line between virtual and conventional reality and the existential confusion produced by such a situation.
For the past two to three years, post-Internet art has been a hot issue in the Korean modern art scene. It is recognized as a major trend and as a genre by which the works of young artists can be understood. Kim Heecheon’s works, too, are interpreted within this framework. Artists born in the mid-to-late 1980s are fluent in computers and digital language. Using the simple platforms of the computer and smartphone, they have traversed online and offline spaces from a young age. The world they see is flat. The world of the Internet unfolds as virtual images on a flat screen, though the information contained therein is vast, as is the space that holds it. Differences are inevitable between the specific visual language familiar to this generation and the worldview of earlier generations. This generation’s perception of reality and pseudo-reality is not only a distinguishing feature of its hegemony but has also significantly shaped the construction of its identity. This is visible in the prominence of the ideas of recreation and pseudo-reality in Kim Heecheon’s works. Kim tells stories of the present day, a time in which reality and pseudo-reality are opaque. His works are a dreamlike exploration of the blurred distinctions between outside and inside, exterior and interior, reality and pseudo-reality.
Kim’s first solo exhibition took place at Common Center, an exhibition space in the Yeongdeungpo-gu district of Seoul. In the bare, dilapidated-looking space, a black-and-white video was playing, narrated in exotic-sounding Spanish. A large crowd of visitors had braved the winter chill to watch this very film, titled ‘Wall Rally Drill’. But the exhibition space was no warmer. The windows had all been ripped out, and a fierce, biting wind was all around. As the stinging cold air blew in and through the windowless space, it seemed to connect the world inside to the world outside, making the space one. In our coming, staying, and going, we who had come to the exhibit were given no respite, whether of space or time, from the temperature outside. The “connectedness” of the reality inside the indoor exhibit space—itself a recreation of the reality and pseudo-reality in the video (a virtual reality)—and the reality that had infiltrated the space from outside—that is, the outdoors—was also a re-connection of a heretofore segmented spatiality. In his bold gesture of removing the windows and thereby tying together the real physical space and the imagined space, it seemed the artist was indicating that his work would not be confined to the realm of video but would also explore physical and nonphysical spaces. Kim’s work is engrossing in its focus on spatiality.
‘Wall Rally Drill’ is the third in his film series, preceded by ‘Lifting Barbell’, which was part of “New Skin: Modeling and Attaching”, and ‘Soulseek/ Pegging/ Air-Twerking’. ‘Wall Rally Drill’ begins with the artist’s reflections on the intersections of the actual and the imagined in the aftermath of his breakup, over the Internet, with his long-distance girlfriend. The film “imports” an actual building, Lotte World Tower, into a 3D space. The windows of the building are erased and covered up, injecting a sense of the strangeness of a pseudo-reality. The accretion of reflections on the building’s glass exterior, including the glass of another building and countless other images, prompts thought concerning where existence takes place. The artist ties a scene in which a bird crashes to its death into the glass, having mistaken the reflected scenery for the real thing, to meditation scripts: “Imagine yourself dead.” “Erase all data for the imagined world.” “You must dictate your own perspective.” This ‘three-part meditation technique’ figures into the film as one of the central narrative strands. The process of erasing oneself from inside the abundance of data on the imagined world is an unfiltered expression of the existential concerns of a generation that regards the Internet not as an artificial world entered by logging in but as a natural part of everyday life. The dialogue at the end of the film hints at the artist’s own existential deliberations on whether the two worlds, the online and offline worlds, can be differentiated: “I want to go home. Will I be able to leave this place? This place where the online and offline merge? Even if I’ve already been downloaded in this place?”
In ‘Lifting Barbell’, presented several months earlier, in May of the same year, Kim distinguishes the online world from the offline world much more clearly. The work is a consideration of the subjects involved in the online world and their physically nonexistent bodies. After the sudden passing of his father due to an accident, the artist traces his father’s movements on his last day using Google Maps. Though physically absent, his deceased father ironically remains as traces imported into the virtual world. Such are the questions the artist wrestles with regarding the existence of the virtual world. In the film, spaces are recreated using photographs taken by the artist, and computer graphics are used to recreate yet again the spaces that appear on screen. Of the three-part film series, both ‘Lifting Barbell’ and ‘Wall Rally Drill’ are black-and-white films that feature narration in Spanish. The use of a foreign language for the narration is a simple tool by which the artist, while placing the viewer in an unfamiliar environment, refrains from sentimentality, effectively creating distance between the film and the viewer. The buildup of a montage completely unrelated to what is said in the monologue creates an effect that contrasts with the familiar yet somehow unfamiliar Seoul cityscape. Both works have a pessimistic take on a city already in ruins. The city the artist constructs on film is an empty, made-up space, an illusion created using 3D data.
In “Void”, the recent and ongoing architecture exhibition at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Seoul (October 12, 2016–February 5, 2017), Kim has turned his attention away from the screen to explore the architectural features of empty spaces. While preparing his work for the exhibition, Kim heard the architect behind MMCA Seoul explain the museum as a group of islands in the sea. He suspected, however, that visitors walking through the enormous buildings were unlikely to understand the architect’s intentions and methods. So he shrank and expanded certain elements, focusing on the parts as well as the whole, so that the viewers would connect the empty spaces and understand the museum as anarchipelago. For example, Kim makes MMCA Seoul a smartphone stand, setting up a giant screen on one side of an exhibition room, and juxtaposing this with a miniature model of the museum. The aim of this effort is to connect the museum-cum-smartphone stand with the visitors. The way the artist links 3D data with existing buildings and enables exploration of the interstitial spaces corresponds to the interests he has explored and the themes he has developed in previous works.
‘Sleigh Ride Chill,’ commissioned for Mediacity Seoul 2016, can be interpreted as an extension of the artist’s earlier three-part video series, which focused on the deconstructing of Seoul. At the same time, Kim is clearly trying to break away from the modes of expression prevalent in his earlier works, which makes ‘Sleigh Ride Chill’ an intermediate work in his efforts for change. The seventeen-minute video features images of modern-day Seoul. Roughly three stories are presented and interwoven: a missing smartphone and notebook result in someone’s personal information becoming openly accessible; someone else plays a game while live-streaming the game online; and footage from television investigations into the emergence of a new “suicide club” in Korea. Kim uses simple virtual reality technology and the interface of a face-swapping application as technological tools that undergird the three narrative components. Things that happen online affect and are affected by things that happen offline, and the game becomes the medium that creates a dizzying experience for viewers, delivering content at a fast pace and rhythm. Whereas the earlier three-part video series looked at how and where reality is imported into the virtual, created world, ‘Sleigh Ride Chill’ focuses on how the stuff of the online world is outputted into actual reality, spilling over, being exported. It remains to be seen whether the artist has positioned himself closer to reality than in previous works, or is communicating a message that is slightly more positive than his earlier proclamations of utter futility at a world gone to pieces, or intending to paint the present as an irreversible, apocalyptic age. The directions he takes in his future works will make this clearer.
Given the rapid changes shaping Korean society, it’s only natural that his approaches and position toward understanding reality and pseudo-reality also change at a fast pace. He covers subjects first in the realm of personal experience and then in the context of their social significance. Because he looks at issues that are still ongoing, even to the point of seeming too immediate to properly grasp, it is possible that in just a short while, his works will have to be interpreted differently, or perhaps be interpreted incorrectly. Kim has said, “I am not particularly interested in social issues. But the scope of what happens through the Internet is expanding. Rather than things taking place separately online and offline, things take place online and are from there ignited (having a physical influence on the real world). For this reason, the themes of my work might appear to be interpreted from and encompass a social standpoint.” As can be inferred, the artist is interested in the realism of reality/virtual reality as explored in post-Internet art in its relation to the medium of the Internet. His approach to this topic doesn’t end with telling his own stories, in the form of a personal diary; his works are significant because they generate the possibility of discourse on media and generations. The unself-conscious way in which the artist seeks to read the times, through a repeated process of creation that builds upon his earlier works while also cutting away certain parts, is a sufficient reason for those like me, living as part of the same generation through a time of loss, to look forward to his works.
Lim Seunghyun is an art journalist and former staff editor and writer at Wolganmisool (2013~2016). She received her BFA in art history from Myongji University, Seoul and her MA in art history from Courtauld Institute of Art University of London.