People / Critic

Choe Uram, Sculptor

posted 19 July 2012

An imagination about ecosytems consisting of new mechanic found in cities lies at the heart of Choe Uram's art. His works have pseudo-scientiffic names like Opertus Lunula Umabro, with his exhibition venues be coming places for the United Research of Anima Machine (URAM - a name coined after the artist's name) to publicly display the results of his research.

Choe Uram Sculptor, Professor, Korea National University of Arts Choe graduated from Chung-Ang University’s Department of Sculpture in 1993 and then received an M.F.A. from the same university. Choe has been interested in machines since childhood and has been releasing “kinetic art,” which combines sculpture with “movement,” for quite some time. He has held quite a number of solo exhibitions at places such as Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, New York’s Asia Society Museum, and the John Curtin Gallery in Perth, Australia. Recently, he has mainly been showing his work at overseas events like the Shanghai Biennale (2006) and the Liverpool Biennale (2008).

The New Ecology of a Nonexistent World

LOn entering the gallery, viewers find themselves plunged into a sci fi pseudo-ecology, the creation of sculptor Choe Uram. Scientific explanations, not captions, accompany the works; mechanical organisms creep along through the darkened space. As a massive hub of modern civilization, the city is a kind of organic being unto itself, with its manifold networks and complex arrays of circuits unseen by the eye. The jumping-off point for Choe's work lies in his imagining of an ecosystem of newly discovered mechanical beings in the city. His sculptures have scientific-sounding names like Opertus Lunula Umbro, and the gallery becomes a conference room for reports by the United Research of Anima Machine (URAM, an acronym based on the artist's given name).

Choe Uram_Varietal Urbanus Female_2007

Choe Uram_Varietal Urbanus Female_2007

The work of Choe Uram combines boundless imagination with meticulous technique. Traditionally, art has developed through absorbing the major scientific discoveries of its time, and offering a wealth of imagination to science in return. This mixture of the aesthetic and mechanical may have always been in Choe's genes. Both his parents were art majors; in 1955, his grandfather developed the first car in Korea. Much like his work, the artist himself is a perfect combination of systematically advanced genes. He has loved machinery since he was a child, and worked at a robotics company for a time after studying sculpture in college. What he presents to the viewer -- the "new ecology of a nonexistent world" -- is a reversal of the work of the paleontologist, someone who uses fossils to study organisms that once existed but no longer do. By imagining futuristic creatures grounded in modern urban culture, Choe is reflecting on the life we live today.

Electric Animism

Choe Uram_Una Lumino_2008

Choe Uram_Una Lumino_2008

Choe's work starts from a kind of terror of the mechanical culture we have built -- an animistic mind-set toward the machinery. People have long imagined that artificial intelligence might someday allow machines to overwhelm mankind. In May 1997, the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue won at chess against then-world champion Garry Kasparov. This suggests a practical grounding for fears that the domination of people by advanced machinery might not just be a figment of cinematic or novelistic imagination. Says Choe: "A relationship that for a brief moment seemed mutually beneficial is now breaking apart, as machines have captured the edge in a 65,000-year evolutionary race. . . . I shudder to think that all of us, not just me but everyone else, may be nothing more than their [machines'] hosts. The sea of machinery that mankind has spawned is enough to form the coaecervate that give birth to life on our early planet. It may be that at this very moment, somewhere, machines are arising for machines themselves."

Choe Uram_Cakra-2552-B_2008

Choe Uram_Cakra-2552-B_2008

Choe Uram_Cakra-2552-B_2008
The inorganic creatures that Choe imagines do not exist in some faraway place. Mudfox, for example, lives in subway passages, moving its way along the train's course. The passages they live in are human creations, but humans cannot easily access them. The beings exist outside our view, showing themselves only when we happen upon them by chance. Woven into the artist's sci fi imagination is a strand of animist thought that interprets inorganic objects not as dead or fixed, but as living creatures. The origins of animism lie in our fear of natural phenomena that we otherwise could not explain, and in our attempt to personify them, make them comprehensible. Back when natural science was not as advanced as it is today, the sudden occurrence of the bizarre and incomprehensible was explained away as the antics of goblins. Gremlins, "bachelor ghosts," broomstick-shaped spirits -- these and many more like them represent popularized forms of animism. Any natural phenomenon that could not be explained became grist for the animist mill. Now, that animist thinking has reemerged into the 21st century: the runaway development of urban and scientific culture has left them beyond the ken of the general public, transforming them into complex, fearsome things. This is the wellspring from which electric animism emerges.

What Choe presents us with is a figurative world of mechanical creatures that have formed their own ecosystem. Even if robots do rebel and escape the yoke of humankind, the typical script has them existing first under human control and operation. Choe's creatures, however, while the products of mechanical culture, are by no means intentional creations. Here is where Choe's electric animism reaches its extreme: the emergence of something unfathomable, something that we never controlled in the first place.

A New Genre : Robot Art

Choe's work is a kind of progressive kinetic art, the perfect melding of artistic imagination with technique. Advancements in technology and science has always been a major force in taking art to the next level. The discovery of perspective, the camera obscura, the development of new materials through advancements in chemistry, Einstein's relativity theory, Nam June Paik's video art, recent strides in media art -- these examples show how art has moved in tandem with cutting-edge technology not only as in the domain of the psychological and philosophical but also in physical terms, as material and subject matter. Computer technology in particular has afforded artists seemingly infinite freedom. Most of those who use it are software-oriented, but Choe's work stakes out a new genre, one that might well be called "robot art."It is a kind of advanced kinetic art.

His works sacrifice nothing of the grandeur or independence of classical sculpture. They are free-standing "things" with fully developed storylines and sci fi origins. To begin with, they are characterized by morphological sophistication and beauty. Even the most simple-seeming of them is made up of two thousand different parts, all crafted in the most meticulous detail to embody a beautiful mechanical aesthetic. Fantasies from inside the mind become things with a full-bodied presence, concrete sculptural objects of aesthetic appreciation -- in short, they become another reality. In their slow, flexible movements, they are comparable to the work of Rebecca Horn. Her mechanical sculptures are hand-crafted machines whose operation is really very simple. The artistry in those works, which are operated through simple mechanical control units, and in the more advanced works of Choe Uram comes from the way that lyricism thoroughly governs and mirrors technical skill. Artistic robot sculptures come about when lyricism and technique meet in a golden ratio.

"The mechanical organisms first arose from the boundless swelling of human greed," Choe says. "I wanted the work to contain my own critique of civilization, of human beings' insatiable desire." The course of scientific development overlaps precisely with the flow of capital. No technological advancement exists that does not generate gains. But the technology Choe Uram develops is intended not to turn a profit, but to embody an artistic idea. The slow pace of Choe's art runs counter to the fast pace of the competition spurred on by capitalism. He is not a developer of technology, but an artist presenting us with new ideas. Choe describes the sculpture as "someone who expresses his feelings through shapes that do not exist in people's heads." Today, he enjoys the status of the century's most exalted artist and creator -- and of creator of an ecosystem.

Taming Science Through Art

Choe Uram's mechanical creatures are slow and flexible in their movements. Their motion is ill-suited to survival; any animal moving at that pace is certain to be snapped up by a predator. Certainly, it hurts one's chances of surviving in the jungle of capitalism, where the principles of survival of the fittest and the strong dominating the weak operate explicitly. But no predators, no conflict, are to be found in the ecosystem that Choe has constructed. Many works of science fiction show a kind of proxy warfare, echoing real-world conflicts in jaw-dropping displays of carnage and destruction. There is no war in Choe's world. But the creatures in it, by reflecting our world, are faithful to the mission of art: using metaphor and imagery to express what cannot readily be understood. Opertus Lunula Umbra, which was shown at the 2008 Liverpool Biennial, is a behemoth of a piece, weighing in at 750 kilograms and stretching to fully 5.70 meters in length. Shaped like the crescent of a new moon, it swam through the venue with leisurely movements of its oarlike ribs. "On brightly moonlit nights, I would sit up watching the sea on the docks of Liverpool and it was as though some organism was rising up over the surface of the water," Choe says. "With this work, I was recreating those sunken boats and machines in the waters off Liverpool." The name of the piece means "hidden moon shadow." By giving classical, lyrical names to his cold, mechanical beings, Choe is trying to build a new myth where myth has been lost to civilization.

His recent works are based in a new narrative. Arbor Deus (Tree of God) has a mythic structure, explaining the world we live in with a critique of our fanaticism and greed for mechanical civilization. But this mythic world is forever in danger of being marred by human apathy and overheated desire. Indeed, the story of the endangered Custos Cavum is fraught with tragedy. This creature's job is to make sure the two worlds, linked by small holes, do not become completely closed to each other. The reason they are in danger is because memories of another world are gradually disappearing from people's minds. And the one who brings a light of hope in this crisis is none other than the artist: Choe Uram himself. "Last night," he writes, "some Unicuses began growing out of the last remaining Custos Cavum bone in my little yard." As long as we have artists, and as long as artists can imagine a deeper reality within reality, the world will correct its way out of crisis.

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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