People / Critic

Jung Yeon-doo

posted 25 July 2012

Jung, who says he wants to "create work where you can sense the humanity," was born in 1969. In his childhood and adolescence, he had an analog sensibility now, his generation lives an era where digital media are in widespread use. As a media artist in the new century, he presents us with fantadies that are handmade the analog touch lives on.

**Jung Yeon\-doo/ artist** Jung graduated from Seoul National University’s Department of Sculpture in 1994\, and finished a Diploma in Sculpture at Central Saint Martins College of Art in 1995\. He then received an M\.F\.A\. from Goldsmith College\, University of London\, in 1997\. Jung has worked internationally through artist\-in\-residence programs in Korea and overseas\, at Ssamzie Space in 2001\, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in 2002\, and through the International Studio and Curatorial Program\, New York\, in 2006\. He received a 2nd Shanghai Biennale Asia Europe Culture Foundation Award \(2002\)\, was named Artist of the Year by the National Museum of Contemporary Art\, Seoul \(2007\)\, and Young Artist of the Year by Korea’s Ministry of Culture\, Sports and Tourism \(2008\)\. He has held solo exhibitions at many galleries/museums including Galerie Emmanual Perrotin\, Paris\, Galerie Gebr\. Lehmann\, Berlin\, Kukje Gallery\, Seoul\, and the National Museum of Contemporary Art\, Korea\. He has also participated in many group exhibitions\. Currently based in Seoul\, Jung also works in cities around the world\.

Media in the name of Human

The 21st century has brought with it an accelerating proliferation of new media. It is a revolution in the present tense -- altering our ideas, our philosophy, our lives, and the principles by which society operates. There is now a serious debate over how to put this to use. In the 1960s, when television was first entering wide use, many. warned that the "idiot box" would turn us all to dunces with its one-way transmission of messages. But Nam June Paik saw things differently. He tried to give that new medium a bidirectional character, and this new perspective on new media led to his becoming the founder of video art. In everything from mass media (newspapers, cinema, advertisements) to art, which these days is witnesses an intensifying "pop art" trend drawing images from mass media, the featured characters are heroes, beauties, and geniuses -- the kind of people that ordinary folks cannot hope to emulate. Jung Yeon-doo, who has been called the "second Nam June Paik," creates media works where ordinary people are the subjects. He finds artistic value in the people who normally exist outside the lens of the mass media. Kindergartners, dreamy adolescents, senior citizens living in the midst of ancient memories -- each living a unique life.
Jung, who says he wants to "create work where you can sense the humanity," was born in 1969. In his childhood and adolescence, he had an analog sensibility; now, his generation lives an era where digital media are in widespread use. As a media artist in the new century, he presents us with fantasies that are handmade the analog touch lives on. He views the ordinary subject with warmth and equanimity. No theoretical preconceptions intrude, no hint of self-admiration. In some sense, his may be the perspective of the 17th century genre painting; Tzvetan Todorov said of this, "He is neither wild for the world nor despairing. His gaze on the human condition is like the compassion of one who was awakened from illusion, the curiosity of one who has cast aside vain imagination." It is from this foundation that Jung strips away the bedazzling images with which the mass media gild reality. It is a process that lets "us," the ordinary, stand as true stars of life, rather than a foolish throng in thrall to mass media desires.

Handnade Life : Dramas out of the Undramatic

Taken as a whole, Jung's oeuvre constitutes a humanist project: summoning individuals one by one from out of a standardized mass production system, and turning them into meaningful human beings. His Bewitched series (2001) uses photography to make the dreams of young people from different places of employment come true. Another series, Wonderland, reproduces the drawings of kindergartners through the factual medium of photography. The figures in his Boramae Dance Hall series are middle-aged neighbors, balding and paunchy. In the Handmade Memory series, six seniors come forward to reminisce on the happiest time in their life.

Jung  Yeon-doo_Handmade Memory_TV Star_2Cahnnel HD Video_2008

Jung Yeon-doo_Handmade Memory_TV Star_2Cahnnel HD Video_2008

Youthful dreams belong to the future, children's drawing to the realm of imagination. The pot-bellied neighbors just want to forget their reality and let their passion burn brightly for a spell, and the memories of the elderly are embellished just enough that we can't tell where truth ends and fiction begins. These things exist side-by-side in ordinary lives: dreams and reality, genuine and false. With warm humor, Jung teases out the little white lies that are an essential part of living. The Koreans look comical in their intense focus on the Western-style ballroom dancing, something completely alien to their everyday life. So what if others laugh? When they're dancing, at least, they are romantic hoofers like the ones in the movies, burning with passion. Time Capsule, which shows a commemorative photograph taken by tourists posing with props before a fake backdrop, recalls on one hand a snapshot taken at an old-fashioned studio, and on the other an artistic depiction of life where dreams coexist with reality, and the false with the genuine.

The captivating images we encounter in the mass media make missing children of us all, but in the work of Jung Yeon-doo they never let go of the strand that ties them back to reality. For this purpose, he adopts a two-canvas strategy, juxtaposing reality on one side with the imaginary on the other. The actual present on the one side comes face-to-face with the other side's dreams, imagining, and recollections. The artist's world is not one where real and fake compete for supremacy, each cursing the other. But he does laughingly reveal the fictional elements in the dreams and varnished reminiscences that ordinary people need to survive in this world. These little white lies make drama in undramatic lives, turning us ordinary people into the stars of our own movie.

‘Cha first met with the cable installation worker when an acquaintance, the head of a labor union, commissioned a video project. The union had been looking for an artist who could capture video footage of a survey on labor conditions that would be sent to the National Assembly. Though introduced casually, Cha’s connection with the worker inevitably became a central element of her work. That is, Cha’s mode of work, informed by a mature sense of discretion, makes room for a viewpoint that refuses to objectify. She prepares for the production as if making a documentary: meeting with the subject of her film face to face, observing, researching, and communicating with the subject from a close distance, and establishing deep ties with the community. Yet Cha doesn’t arrange the information she collects in chronological fashion. One sees from the footage that she consistently keeps the camera a fixed distance from the subject. The camera neither strays too far from the worker nor zooms in on him through close-ups. Even when the worker is climbing up and down a telephone pole or untangling cable wires in an alley, the camera stays at the same distance. Cha is faithful to position herself in a place where she can identify and highlight a certain feeling within the overall context, articulating problems and creating a thin fissure in a framework that had been considered solid.

Whereas ‘Chroma-key and Labyrinth’ focuses on the act of labor, ‘Twelve,’ a new work that was presented for the first time at Mediacity Seoul 2016, focuses on the conditions of labor. Commissioned for the biennale, ‘Twelve’ looks at the negotiation process of the Minimum Wage Commission as it carries out its deliberations for the year ahead. Since its establishment in 1987, the commission has had closed proceedings. Cha secured, with some difficulty, the records of the 2015 proceedings, which she turned into a script for her film, without added dramatization. Though some modifications were made to the number of people partaking in the meeting and their tone of voice, the dialogue was not altered in any significant way; viewers will feel as if they are watching a scene in a reality show.

Handmade Strategy : A World Without Edits

This is perhaps a kind of "anti-blockbuster" response to the tyranny of mass media. The modern viewers raised on it are forced to forget their own reality as they consume the beautiful images and fantasy that is the media's stock in trade. Today's public experiences fantasy as high-resolution reality in movies like Lord of the Rings or The Matrix and in video games like Lineage and StarCraft. Jung performs what amounts to an artistic rescue of the real lives forgotten amid all these films and games, and the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars that go into them. His anti-blockbuster tactics are twofold: no trimming, and no editing. With the former, he shows the fake as fake; with the latter, he shows the real as real.

The works in his Location series -- named after the term for outdoor settings where a movie or TV show is shot show the first tactic, the eschewing of any trimming. Scenes are staged that seem somehow familiar to us from the media. The people who make TV shows and movies generally do everything in their power to make this world of fakery look real. But Jung's work tells the truth: this scene has been staged, is false. Location #19, for example, shows a romantic meeting in the kind of resort we've all dreamed of visiting. But it ultimately emerges that this is all a world of manufactured images. Someone who wanted to make this scene look like the genuine article would have had to trim out the background screen. Jung's strategy is not to trim, so awkward evidence of the fakery is left for us to see.

Documentary Nostalgia finds him making art of the very process by which we get the finished images seen in the mass media. Set and filmed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Gwacheon, the video's third sequence, "Farming Village Landscape," shows unedited footage of the setting (an agricultural community in autumn) being created with dirt roads, cloth rice paddies, and fake rice stalks in the gallery. In this, it recalls Sleep, the Andy Warhol piece in which actor John Giorno is showing sleeping for six hours straight in real time. These pieces ask us to reflect on our passive sentimentalism, the result of our being raised on the edited world of blockbuster movies and news programs.

Jung Yeon-doo_Cimemagician, 2Cahnnel HD Video_55min_Sogang University Mary Hall Performing Art Theater _2010

Jung Yeon-doo_Cimemagician, 2Cahnnel HD Video_55min_Sogang University Mary Hall Performing Art Theater _2010

The more intensely we compete, the more we edit. There is no need to explain how the idea of selecting sensational titles for articles, and editing them accordingly, arose from the capitalist goal of bumping up hit counts, and thus advertising prices. But no commercial prices are assigned to our ordinary, undramatic lives. In a capitalist society, the lack of a price is seen as indicating a lack of value. We hear a lot of different sounds in the work of Jung Yeon-doo, but we never hear the word "cut" being announced so that the scene can be edited. It is only ever "small things" that happen in these pieces -- no heroes saving the world from evil, no heart-wrenching love stories. As we see in the Cine Magician series, even a magician's feats are nothing more than simple trickery in Jung's world. Just as no straight lines exist in nature, no edits exist in life. It may be nothing more than a repeated cycle of ordinary, dreadfully tedious acts that we simply have to get through. But Jung hand-crafts our dreams, our memories, romance and fantasy, and he says to us, "Maybe it's not dramatic, maybe it's not spectacular, but isn't it at least bearable?" When you shape a world by hand, the warmth of its touch lingers on.

Light : A Question for All Media

The video work Six Points shows a series of streets in the United States that are home to migrants from six countries: Korea, China, India, Russia, Italy, and Mexico. The narration comes out in broken, accented English as the point-of-view gradually shifts. On the road, we see New York's famous Yellow Cabs; the commercial districts are posted with signs that let us know what the country is. What this work shows us is that just as there is no purely real or purely imaginary, so there is no pure United States. Or, rather, that this hybrid street is the United States.

Jung Yeon-doo _Six Points-Korean Town_HD Video_2011

Jung Yeon-doo _Six Points-Korean Town_HD Video_2011

The intriguing thing here is the lighting. To show all the discrete streets as one continuous road, Jung filmed each of them under the exact same conditions. Shot in stills and converted to video, its characters do not move, so shadows were added in one by one through computer graphics to generate the effect of movement. In the process, the work unwittingly comes to reveal the essence of "light" (or, more properly, artificial lighting) in Western art, and its illusion of naturalness. Traditionally, light was not taken into consideration in Eastern painting -- it was seen as extrinsic, ever changing. In Western art, it assumed greater and greater importance as the desire to reproduce reality intensified. Jung's work shows that not just the images of the new mass media, but even those of painting -- a genre purported to be about representing the reality have the stuff of intense imagination.

Jung  Yeon-doo_Adolescence  #8_c-print_2011

Jung Yeon-doo_Adolescence #8_c-print_2011

Jung's latest work, Adolescence, recreates the memory of camping and a bonfire, something all of us have experienced at some point. Once an avid hiker, the artist referred to memories of his own past as he filmed US college students camping. The results show a use of color that is in some ways reminiscent of 17th century painting from Caravaggio to Rembrandt. Careful artificial lighting was used for these outdoor scenes, which lead the viewer to ponder the reliability and meaning of memory. But how many people sense anything unnatural about it? What Jung shows us with his pictures, and their romanticized memories, is the very artificiality of our visual environment. He wanted to recapture a beautiful adolescent memory, only to come up against the ironic situation of us having to lie (manipulate the lighting) to achieve it.

Indeed, light is one of the means used to make the imaginary look like the most plausible reality. It is the first environmental factor that we use in recognizing objects in reality's three-dimensional space, and it is a vital element of composition. In Western art since the Renaissance, light is skillfully used to make imaginary images appear real. The 17th century Baroque painter Caravaggio applied extreme chiaroscuro effects to heighten the drama of his canvases. Paintings in the academist style are fundamentally premised on the appropriately modulated use of light. Whether taken in a studio or filmed for a movie, photographs have relied on artificial, not natural, light to perfectly represent the real. As a result, the viewers of today may take this exaggerated light for granted, as natural as the rays of the sun. It's not. Even in the old medium of painting, artists developed all sorts of ways to bring viewers into their world, to convince them.

Jung goes on to ask more questions, questions based in our ordinary lives. He sees the world through the "curiosity of one who has cast aside vain imagination." In centering his work on ordinary people, he shows an existence where our white lies of dreams and hope are forever mixing with the reality we face. At the same time, with his hand-crafting strategy -- "no trimming, no editing" -- he has refused to let the virtual world overwhelm the real. He is constantly finding a balance between the dream and the reality, the virtual and the actual. And with this sense of balance, he poses a challenge to all the images out there. Perhaps we should be questioning all the things we see. These unending questions are our only means to avoid being cast adrift in the flood of images that pours from the different media. And those questions only enhance the human-centered work of Jung Yeon-doo.

[Photo courtesy of of Jung Yeon-doo]

Lee Jin-sook / Art Critic

Lee received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Seoul National University’s Department of German Language & Literature. She received another master’s degree dealing with Kazimir Malevich at the Russian State University for the Humanities’ Division of History of Art. She runs the programs “Between Russian Art and Literature” and “A Thematic History of Western Art” and teaches at Dongduk Women’s University, Yonsei University, and Chung-Ang University. She regularly contributes to columns such as “Lee Jin-sook and Artists of Our Era” (Monthly Top Class) and “Lee Jin-sook’s In-depth Reading of Art Books” (Joongang SUNDAY). She is the author of the Russian Art History (Minumin, 2007), an introduction to Russian painters, The Big Bang of Art (Minumsa, 2010), a criticism on young Korean artists, and a collection of art essays called Depending on Beauty. 

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