Features / Focus

Monstrosity and Futurity in Post-Millenial Art

posted 01 June 2021

TheArtro presents two feature articles that shed light on Korean female artists and respond to their active role in the international art world. Korean female artists occupy an important position on the global stage, with works that not only deal with individual artists’ personal experiences, but also address Korean society’s various social and political issues with a transcendental worldview. In this second cover, H. G. Masters focuses on the keywords "Monstrosity" and “futurity” as they relate to three artists’ work to provide an opportunity to imagine the present and future through art.

Lee Bul in her monster costume in Tokyo during her 12-day performance, ″Sorry for suffering - You think I'm a puppy on a picnic?″, 1990. Image provided by SeMA.

Lee Bul in her monster costume in Tokyo during her 12-day performance, ″Sorry for suffering - You think I'm a puppy on a picnic?″, 1990. Image provided by SeMA.

In the summer of 1990, at the age of 26, Lee Bul arrived at Gimpo airport for a flight to Tokyo’s Narita airport dressed in an engorged blood-red-stained costume with dangling apendages. Over the next 12 days in Japan she wore the monstrous costume around the hypermodern megacity in a performance titled 〈Sorry for suffering – You think I’m a puppy on a picnic〉 (1990), in which her gruesome, exaggerated physicality protested the paradoxical position of women’s experience in patriarchal societies as both invisible and highly aestheticized. Lee’s performance, and her early sculptures of her 〈Monster〉 series, are featured in the Seoul Museum of Art’s recent exhibition 《Lee Bul: Beginning》, which looked at the artist’s early-career feminist critique of a society that was developing rapidly, even rapaciously, in material terms, while entrenching forms of social hierarchy. Lee Bul’s explorations of bodily monstrosity and abjection would feed into her later interests in cyborgs, the specter of modernization, and its failed utopian promises of beauty, order, and efficacy, as all of these interests coalesced in her practice over the ensuing decades.

Monstrous figures exist in every culture, though in modernity they have become intertwined with visions of futurity. Following Judith Halberstam’s observations in Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995) about Mary Shelley’s 1816 novel Frankenstein, we have come to view the eponymous inventor’s human-like creation as a figure that binds together technological innovation and the monstrous into a modernist dialectic that folds back onto the relationship between artist and artwork. In their account of the scholarship around the novel Halberstam recounts how the Frankenstein’s humanoid creation has been interpreted along numerous lines, whether as a metaphor for class struggle, the return of the repressed, models of colonialism, or a parody of Christian theology—in short any of the major features of modern societies that grew out of, or were contaminated by, post-Enlightenment, liberal-market beliefs. The monstrous is, in this cultural universe, a figure of the uncanny (another, psychoanalytic trope of modernism), as both something familiar in its human-ness and terrifying in its difference. Pre- and post-millenium feminist and queer theorists have honed in on the figure of the monster as a site of difference and also resistance, which are the discursive realms where Lee Bul deployed her own gruesome human-like creations as something that “exceeds prescribed boundaries” in a societal context, illustrating the lines of normative expectations around gendered bodies and probing the borders of human/nonhuman.

LEFT : Installation view of 《Carriers》, 2020, Photo: Yeonje Kim. Right :  〈The Complicits〉, 2019, Wireropes, silicone hoses, flex foam, glycerine, pumps, motor and other mixed media, 300 X 180 X 380cm, 《iwillmedievalfutureyou1》, 2019, Photo : Euirock Lee, Image Provided by Art Sonje Center.

LEFT : Mire Lee, Installation view of 《Carriers》, 2020, Photo: Yeonje Kim. Right : 〈The Complicits〉, 2019, Wireropes, silicone hoses, flex foam, glycerine, pumps, motor and other mixed media, 300 X 180 X 380cm, 《iwillmedievalfutureyou1》, 2019, Photo : Euirock Lee, Image Provided by Art Sonje Center.

After a period of dormancy, monsters have once again re-awoken in cultural conceptions of the future, appearing in new bodily incarnations in millennial contemporary art and culture—carrying new meanings and lashing out with new tentacles of associations. For instance Mire Lee’s exhibition at Art sonje Center featured 《Carriers》(2020), a hanging pair of silicone-dripped tangles of hoses, which are pumping and expelling fluids over their forms. Along with evoking figures from Asian and Hollywood cinema—the tentacular forms are primarily excreting-machines, closer to jellyfish or medical devices that circulate blood or maintain organ function than the amphibious squid-like creature that stalks Seoul’s waterways in The Host (2006) or H.P. Lovecraft’s octopus-like deity, Cthulhu. Similarly Lee’s sculpture 〈The Complicits〉 (2019) is a ceiling-suspended kinetic object made from interwined metal wire, a mechanical chain, silicone hoses, and strands of sanitary paper that are dragged by a motor across a milky liquid (it was shown at Art Sonje in an earlier exhibition, 《iwillmedievalfutureyou1》 from 2019). Lee’s monsters appear grotesquely disembodied, barely attaining anthropomorphic or animalistic qualities, save for their organic fluids and organ-like movement, which paradoxically makes them even more terrifying, in raw body-horror terms. They achieve new levels of abjection, entering the realm where Julia Kristeva, in Powers of Horror (1982) finds that human subjectivity affirms its “I” by giving birth to itself “at the border of my condition as a living being,” in opposition to the static cadaver.

The disembodied nature of Mire Lee’s monsters marks a significant break with the lineage of Frankenstein-ian monsters—whose descendents are today artificial-intelligent humanoid robots like Sophia (Hanson Robotics) and Vyommitra (the Indian Space Research Organization). The monstrosity of Mire Lee’s work is arguably non-human. Its dialectic pivots around the nodes of organic / artificial, but not the human / humanoid. As contemporary metaphors for technology, Carriers and The Complicits mirror the gradual de-corporealization of experience found in technologies like virtual or augmented reality, and even labor itself through forms of remote work or computational analysis. Modernist technology created physical machines for bodies to use—from the steam engine to the artificial heart, the airplane to the personal computer. However, the great millennial-era innovations are not found in creating new hardware but more intangible forms of software, whether an operating system, a search algorithm, a digital community, or crypto-currency. Mire Lee’s works also point toward non-anthropomorphic systems of life—forms that are more mutant, pathogenic, and mycological. The “intelligence” of such systems is networked and affective rather than embodied and hardwired.

Our post-millenial generational outlook is both anthropocenic and apocalyptic—we experience horror as not as a function of “innovations that could go wrong” or that “might come back to haunt us” but through the framework of a systemic collapse, happening in real time, that is proliferating forms of post-humanism that are frequently monstrous. One emerging arena of speculation around our collective catastrophe lies in the fate of humanity, and the depleted confidence that technological innovation can preserve rigid borders between human and non-human species. The Covid-19 pandemic is an immediate example of a quasi-life form crossing between species to optimize and reproduce itself, and, in the process, fundamentally disrupt our carefully cultivated distinctions between nature/humanity. But even before Covid-19 infected our collective bodies, we were aware of how humans’ impact on the earth was mutating species, including our own, with endocrine-disrupting chemicals from plastics shifting bodily hormones or environmental pollution of light, air, and water reprogramming our natural cycles and body clocks. Futurity, then, in this sense, even if it is quite volatile and unpredictable, promises to be more classically monstrous.

Team Homo Paulinella, <the Lab: Don't you cry dear Zarathustra> Installation & Performance View, 2020, Photo: Yi joo hyuk, Image provided by Platform-L.

Team Homo Paulinella(Yaloo), Installation & Performance View, 2020, Photo: Yi joo hyuk, Image provided by Platform-L.

The artist Yaloo explores the hybridization and adaption of the human species in several recent projects. InHomoPaulinella, Photosynthesizing Post Human Scenario (2020), shown at Platform L Contemporary Art Center in 2020, Yaloo draws on the bio-physical properties of paulinella—named for the genus of freshwater amoeboids that has coopted a cynobacterium (bacteria that perform photosynthesis) into an endosymbiotic relationship—to visualize humans reconfigured to do the same. In the installation, two human-like figures appear on adjacent screens, their vaguely human-female-looking heads modified with seaweed- and anemone-like features and appendages. The central channel of the video installation features images of the sun and arrays of solar panels, as well as microscopic views of green paulinella, and an ironic caption belittling the human emotions that we tend to cherish as markers of our consciousness: “Your grief and pity are meaningless and shitty. Self-comfort is dirty. You are nothing but just a little witty.” Images of the sun, an animated amoeboid, and green seaweed-like forms float in a montage of electronic music before a pair of green, hexagonal lips appears in a close-up of the Homo paulinella’s adaptive features. In this imagination of futurity, human evolution was not a function of technological innovation as we understand it, but an adaptive modification than draws on the universe’s fundamental forces. And by our contemporaneous societal terms, the Homo paulinella is monstrous, in their visual markings of difference from Homo sapiens, but also, Yaloo’s renderings suggest, they still have the affective qualities of “cute” and “happy” and “playful”—in the meanings that we ascribe to such features today.

An important post-millenial shift in consciousness is the de-centering of the human perspective from narratives of futurity, thereby dislocating markers of difference—like monstrosity—from human bodies to the natural sphere. As theorists like Bruno Latour articulate new understandings of concepts like Gaia for a cross-species, planetary actor-network, the body of “we” is dislocated from our physical corporeal selves into the lifecycles of the larger natural world, even as it too has become a site of contamination and modification. As Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing reflects on the global matsutake trade in The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2016), nature and humans alike will adapt in unforeseeable ways to dramatic changes in the physical landscape and society, as multiple agents—including humans with distinctive cultural backgrounds, many of whom fled regional conflicts—will reshape a degraded environment that has itself become monstrous.

Ayoung Kim, At the Surisol Underwater Lab, 2020 Single-channel video, Color, Approx. 17min., Image provided by Ayoung Kim.

Ayoung Kim, 〈At the Surisol Underwater Lab〉, 2020, From Tales of a City(2010-2020), Installation view, Single-channel video, color, sound, approx. 17min., Image provided by Ayoung Kim.

Many of these anthropocenic and posthuman themes are wrapped into Ayoung Kim’s project 〈At the Surisol Underwater Lab〉 (2020), commissioned for the 2020 Busan Biennale. The video imagines the potential of kelp cultivation and harvesting as both a traditional form of aquaculture and economic development as South Korea’s second-largest city creates a new industry and urban area, Biomass Town. In this world, algae fermented into biofuel are the primary source of energy after the global depletion of fossil fuels. Set a decade from the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the protagonist is Sohila (Sohila AlBna’a), a senior researcher at the undersea lab who escaped from the Yemen War and claimed asylum in Korea (based on the actor’s own lived experiences). After sending out a drone to investigate a toxic spores in the kelp farm, turbulence from a squid swarm causes Sohila to black out and she finds herself falling through a series of disorienting, out-of-body flashbacks from the Covid-19 pandemic, including statistics of infections and the public rationing of masks and plasma. In Kim’s narrative, it is not the human body that is monstrous but our present—from references to trauma of fleeing a conflict often attributed to, and exacerbated by climate change, to her donation of antibodies after an infection. At the end of the video, the AI-computer voice awakens Sohila on the floor of the lab to look at the “marine snow,” a phenomenon that began in 2024, and helps maintain life under the sea. While Sohila, in all her humanity, remains encased in a glass submarine laboratory, accompanied only by the voice of the lab’s computer system, the monstrosity of the contaminated earth is briefly rendered beautiful, as the planet becomes an uncanny, Frankenstein-ian version of its former self—made of old parts and strange chemicals with the power to kill humans who don’t care properly for it.

Ayoung Kim, Petrogenesis, Petra Genetrix, 2019 ~, Single-channel video, 6 min 50 sec., Image provided by Ayoung Kim.

Ayoung Kim, 〈Petrogenesis, Petra Genetrix〉, 2019 ~, Single-channel video, 6 min 50 sec., Image provided by Ayoung Kim.

Today many artists are discovering recuperative potentials for the Earth in genres of speculative fiction, Ayoung Kim among them. Frequently these future-facing narratives draw on topics related to indigeneity—across regional geographies and present settler-colonial and nationalistic contexts—as a vital discursive space for recuperating intersectional struggles against ethnic, environmental, and political abuse and oppression. Ayoung Kim’s project 〈Petra Genetrix〉 (2019–21), for instance, relates to the search for alternative forms of knowledge and intelligence in its creation of a fictional, quasi-mythological personality (whose Latinate name means “fecund rock”) that is simultaneously a mineral cluster and a data cluster. This titular personality, its pronouns plural and ambiguous, and whose face and form are constantly in flux, Kim’s narrative in 〈Petra Genetrix〉 draws on the similarity many ancient cultures observed between the Earth’s creation of minerals and human birth from Mongolian shamanistic beliefs about the life-like properties of rocks. While simultaneously futuristic and ancient, the universe of 〈Petra Genetrix〉 collapses smooth modernist conceptions of time and gender. Kim borrows the words of philosopher Reza Negarestani in multiple personality, voice-altered lecture-performances: “The conflict between genders is an anthropomorphic folly.” And whereas the breakdown of gender identities—and the monstrosity of its forms—for Lee Bul in the late 1980s and early 1990s was critique of modern development, for Kim it is a path to the future.

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HG Masters / Editor at Large, ArtAsiaPacific

HG Masters is currently writer and editor-at-large for ArtAsiaPacific magazine, after previously serving as managing editor. Since 2008, Masters has edited the ArtAsiaPacific Almanac, an annual review of contemporary art in 53 countries from Turkey to Taiwan. Masters studied at Yale University, and was the recipient of an Andy Warhol Foundation Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant in 2011. He is based in Istanbul. 

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