This article discusses contemporary Korean art practices that explore the convergence of art and science. For this, it categorize science/technology-based Korean artists into four groups such as “scientific principle and method”, “materiality”, “automata and robotics,” and “interactivity.” In each section, one or two leading Korean artist’s work will be reviewed intensively. At the beginning, a short survey of major exhibition on this theme will be provided. And some challenges that Korean new media art scene is presently facing will be pointed out at the ending of the essay.
Korea is often characterised as one of the most high-tech nations in the world, driven by high-speed internet, the proliferation of mobile devices and computer gaming. This also embraces a significant role for the intersection between the arts, technology and science. One of the trends that recently became a point of focus in Korean contemporary art is “post-genre” or “convergence” across disciplines. The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, has held a series of art-science convergence exhibitions, such as The Aleph Project (2013), Super Nature (2014-15), and Robot Essay (2015), based on its strategy of “Producing discourses of visual culture through convergence”. Related projects include an exhibition held last year, Project Daejeon 2014: The Brain, in Daedeok Science Town, which grafted the theme of brain science onto art, the media art biennial Mediacity Seoul, and the work of private organisations such as Alternative Space Loop and Art Centre Nabi, which continuously introduce new media- or technology-based artworks. Such projects are, of course, heavily influenced by external factors such as volatile economic conditions and changes to the policies and leadership of arts organisations. These issues must be tackled to support the further development of Korean contemporary art.
Joohyun Kim is a rare artist who adopts scientific thought at a fundamental level to embody the basic principles of the universe, diverging from the more common modes of art that superficially resemble scientific or technological ideas and imagery. All her works are processes through which minimal units are repeated according to a simple rule. For example, Simply Complex (2003-04) adds the concept of multiplication to the planar figure of a cube. In this work, three different planar figures, each consisting of eleven regular hexahedrons, are combined. The process is then repeated with three of the figures being combined again, so that in just five repetitions there emerges a complexity close to that of a world map. This process resembles the principle of cosmogenesis; the complexity of living organisms is defined by the infinite repetition of combinations of simple atoms.
Introducing curves of different lengths into the structures, the electric line, initially chosen to express the curve, naturally brings light into the works, opening a pathway to a more intuitive approach. Extra Dimension (2015) is a gigantic spiral torus composed of twisted and curved surfaces in grids. Standing before the huge ring of light, reminiscent of the spiral structure of DNA or a galaxy, spectators feel a sense of awe, as if they were witnessing a hidden dimension. Unlike Joohyun Kim, who takes a formative approach toward the concepts of science, Jungki Beak’s method is more empirical and technical. The artist’s works are labour-intensive, with an emphasis on the process rather than the result. Kim is famous for personally designing and making all the devices necessary for his work. To produce Is of: Seoraksan (2012), the artist invented a process for extracting pigment from plants and used this ink to print his photographic images of autumn foliage in Mt Seorak. In the case of Egg Incubator: Candle and Earth (2014), which used heat from candles and ions from soil, the artist required a device that would transform thermal energy into electrical energy to minimise energy loss. His process - making a hypothesis, gaining results through repetitious experiments supplementing the inadequate aspects, and proceeding to the next work - is no different from scientific methodology.
No artist would consider the physical properties of the material unimportant. Yunchul Kim has advanced to the stage of unifying phenomenon and substance by controlling the microscopic properties of the material. His main area of interest is the artistic potential of metamaterial1) and fluid mechanics, and he develops new matter revealing the different states as the material changes according to certain conditions. Effulge (2012/2014) is a work that visualises the movement of fluid endlessly surging with paramagnetic photonic crystals2), made by the artist himself. The movement of the suspension produced by the air pump, the magnetic force and gravity resembles that of a primordial universe being formed, or the plasma in the sun. Yunchul Kim became fascinated with fluid because of its eternally vibrating dynamic state, never fixed in a single form. Such pre-form materiality is revealed through processes of continuous change. Viewers encounter the movement of the fluid present and hence experience directly the “thing-in-itself”. This phenomenological encounter awakens the experience of the senses as a form of comprehension that exists prior to intellectual understanding, and incarnates the principle of the universe as one of infinite change.
1) Artificial matter that does not exist in nature.
2) Matter made by adjusting the units of the lattice to the wavelength of light so that only certain wavelengths of light can pass through or diffract. Generally the colours change depending on the viewing angle.
Compared to works that use mechanical devices to introduce movement as the central element, works that seriously question the definitions of machines and humans (or living things) from an ontological perspective are rare in Korean art. For instance, in some recent exhibitions that dealt with the issue of robots or artificial intelligence, such as Machine, Dreaming of Life (Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art, 2013), and Artificial Brain, The Robot is Evolving (the sub-exhibition of Project Daejeon 2014: The Brain), the majority of the works embodied simple reactions of machines or used the machine form to metaphorically express the artist’s imagination.
Meanwhile, artist Choe U-Ram extends the bounds of the moving automata to artificial life with his pseudo life forms, which he calls Anima Machines. The analogy between machines and animals is present throughout, and all his anima machines originate from actual animals and plants. Jet Hiatus (2004) was modelled after the teeth of a shark digging into a school of sardines and Una Lumino (2012) was inspired by the way barnacles open, the final goal being to create “life as it could be” (Christopher Langton). For example, Arbor Deus Pennatus (2011) is a mechanical embodiment of a bird flapping its wings, based on careful study of the double structure of a bird’s wing, consisting of the radius and ulna bones.
What connects Choe U-Ram’s work with artificial life is the desire to make the mechanical device. Like Vaucanson’s Digesting Duck, the ambition behind all automata is in fact a Promethean usurpation of the privilege to create life. In this sense, his major works, Custos Cavum (2011) and Opertus Lunula Umbra (2008), are “breathing machines” since to breathe is a sign that an inanimate object has become a living thing. The artist’s virtual life forms, which now go beyond individual organisms and evolve into colonies and ecosystems, question the concept of life as they re-mediate 18th-century automata and 21st-century artificial life.
Interactive art has received much attention since the introduction of media art in Korea in the early 1990s. The reason the Korean new media art scene has particularly focused on this genre, with a thin artist base compared to traditional media, is its accessibility to audiences and potential for easy industrialisation. Interactive art has been prominent in major exhibitions focused on keywords such as digital, internet, mobile, games and SNS. Typical was Incheon International Digital Art Festival 2010, which promoted mobile art while attempting collaborations between application developers and artists.
As a leading new media artist, Bei-kyoung Lee has engaged continuously in interactive work since the early 2000s. He focuses on interactivity in order to change the relationship between the artist who produces meaning and the spectator who receives it. Lee’s work is embodied by three key words: time, space and body. Insel (Island) (2004) is a masterpiece that effectively integrates these three elements. The real-time video-feed street scene captures a distorted image of the viewer standing in front of the screen. The moment the spectator is sensed by the camera, the video in the background stops, while the area within the outline of that person continues playing. If the spectator moves, the image (scene of passers-by at the given time) is frozen where he/she used to be, and only the video inside the new outline is played. Hence, a series of traces is left along the path of movement.
The creative group Everyware (Hyunwoo Bang and Yunsil Heo), with a background in engineering and design, traverses advanced technology and fine art in an intuitive and human-friendly way. Cloud Pink (2011) is a simulation work in which spectators press on a cloth screen to cause the projected image of clouds to disperse. A three-dimensional space-perception sensor measures the depth of the impression, which determines where the clouds are scattered. What spectators experience is not the state-of-the-art technology, but a romantic illusion of touching clouds floating by. Likewise, Oasis (2008), which uses light sensors and real-time morphing, recalls memories of playing in the dirt as a child. By using everyday objects such as cloth, sand, balls and cups to induce participation, the viewer is drawn to experiencing nature through digital technology. Arthur C. Clarke’s comment, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, well represents Everyware’s dream of a humanistic technology.
The curators and artists I interviewed for this article3) noted that the greatest problem for the sector is that most works lean towards areas that are easy to commercialise such as the Davinci Creative (2010~) contest, sponsored by the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture, and Hyundai Motor Group’s media art contest, VH Award (2015~). The organisers of these competitions prefer works that have application to industry. Another problem is that many of the projects are one-off events, rather than continuous long-term support projects. In fact there is no R&D-based institute to support technical development in this field. The most fundamental issue is that convergence is often driven by the government, rather than being voluntary. Borders between academic disciplines in Korea tend to be clearly drawn, making it difficult to realise open dialogue and integration of thought. Despite such obstacles, in the long run the current of convergence between art and science will continue, and works based on such convergence will increase.
3) The interviewees were as follows: Houngcheol Choi (curator of the exhibition Super Nature), Bokyoung Lee (curator of Project Daejeon 2014: The Brain), Yunchul Kim (artist), and Bei-kyoung Lee (artist).
※ This article is published as part of a collaboration between Artlink magazine and Korean Arts Management Service. It first appeared in Artlink's special bilingual issue KOREA contemporary art now,V.35:4, Dec. 2015 for which KAMS provided advisory and translation services. Copyright the author and Artlink.
Hye Jin Mun is a critic, translator and lecturer at Korea National University of Arts. Her major interest is technology-based media and cross-media study in contemporary art.