From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, Korean video art underwent a significant transformation, as artists abandoned the video sculpture of previous generations and began experimenting with the inherent aesthetics and technical characteristics of the medium. Hence, works of this period are characterized by non-linear narratives, fragmentary editing, temporal shifts, and discordance between sound and image, or image and text.
In this issue, Wolganmisool begins a new series of articles exploring the activities and achievements of Korean video artists from around the turn of the twenty-first century, especially those working in the single-channel format. Written by critic Hye Jin Mun, the series represents the “first sketches in a topographical map of Korean single channel video art.” By analyzing the cultural characteristics and specificities of Korean video works from this seminal period, the series ultimately aims to enhance our current understanding of the field. The first installment in the series covers the artist Sejin Kim, with a particular focus on her commercially minded videos and films from the late 1990s.
Any investigation into the origins of this phenomenon should probably begin with the overall florescence of video culture in the 1990s, culminating with the advent of cable broadcasting in 1995. February of that year saw the arrival of M.net, Korea’s first television channel specializing in music, followed in quick succession by Dong-A TV, KMTV, Tooniverse, and YTN. By 1996, with the launch of 24-hour channels from M.net, DCN, Catch-One, Maeil Business TV, and others, the cable era was in full swing.3) Among the new channels, M.net had a particularly profound effect on the image sensibilities of Korea’s youth. Offering programs from MTV from its first day on the air, M.net went on to form a strategic partnership with MTV Asia in 1998, before launching Korea’s first 24-hour internet broadcasting service in 1999. In the art world, the emerging video culture was represented by a new generation of video artists, led by Sejin Kim, who began producing image-centric works infused with the spirit of pop culture. Invoking terms such as “sensual,” “playful,” “superficial,” and “spontaneous,” the resulting works varied considerably from the existing video art of Korea.
The new video culture quickly gained prominence within the art world through several major video exhibitions in prominent locations, such as International Video Art: Beyond the Smiles of 1,000 Years, held in 1998 at the Gyeongju World Culture Expo; Seoul in Media - Food, Clothing, Shelter, held in 1998 at the Seoul 600th Year Memorial Hall (curated by Young Chul LEE); and Media City Seoul 2000, held in 2000 at various sites around the city, including Gyeonghuigung Park, thirteen subway stations, and forty-two electronic displays (general director Song Mi-sook).4) Specifically, in Seoul in Media, art director Young Chul LEE invited graphic designers, architects, filmmakers, and photographers besides artists and produced bold spatial presentations in an unconventional exhibition setting, ultimately seeking to enact “non-linear visual communication” between work and work, work and space, art and non-art. Capturing the spirit of a metropolis on the eve of a new millennium, this event had both a direct and indirect impact on future video artists, activities, and exhibitions. The new ubiquity of images and media in everyday life was also visualized by Media City Seoul 2000, which escaped the confines of art museums to take over subway stations and electronic displays in downtown Seoul.
Contributing significantly to the video and media art boom, two institutions specializing in video and new media opened their doors in 2000; first, Ilju Art House announced itself as Korea’s first exhibition space dedicated exclusively to media art, followed by the reopening of Art Center Nabi inside the corporate headquarters of SK. Equipped with a gallery, media archive, digital editing room, and conference spaces, Ilju Art House played a leading role in the discovery and promotion of video artists, documentarians, and experimental filmmakers before shutting down in 2005.
As opposed to the early Korean video artists, who were primarily interested in video sculpture or exploration of device itself, the new generation pursued image-centric aesthetics that were unique to video art. The resulting works introduced many of the tropes, themes, and techniques that are now familiar aspects of video art (e.g., non-linear narratives, fragmentary editing, temporal shifts, discordance between sound/image and image/text). Such disjunctive approaches proved ideal for creating multi-layered narratives that tapped into concepts such as the hybridity of bodies, the intersection of time and space, and the splitting of the subject and the gaze. Representative artists from this period include Taeeun Kim, Park Hyesung, Sejin Kim, Hwa Young Park, RYU Biho, RHO Jaeoon, Hong Sungmin, KIM Du-jin, Ium, Han Keryoon, Seo Hyun-suk, CHANG Jia, Yang Ah Ham, and Ham Kyung-Ah. Either through immersion in Korea’s new video culture or their overseas studies of video art, these artists were the first generation who could draw upon an internalized sense of media images in creating their works and theories. In addition to their own artistic activities, many of them also taught or trained the next generation of video artists, thus laying the foundation for the contemporary video art scene.5)
Similarly, the multimedia video installations of YOOK Tae-jin give equal weight to the “video” and “installation” components by prominently featuring antique furniture and objects. In Dancing Chair (1994), for instance, images of a man walking up stairs are shown on a motor-driven model of stairs, such that the actions of the image and the object coincide. Also, in Yook’s Tunnel (1998), the projected image of a person inside a large tunnel repeatedly grows and vanishes in conjunction with the sounds of a train.
While this emphasis on objects can be partially attributed to the difficulties of editing long videos before the advent of digital technology, it also reflects the Korean art world in the late 1980s in conceptual and formative aspects, when object and installation art began coming into its own.8) In defiance of “Dansaekhwa” (Korean monochrome), small groups such as TARA, Nanjido, Meta-vox, and Logos and Pathos led the push away from two-dimensional art with their calls for “after modernism.” While most of the aforementioned media artists of the mid-’90s were not yet established in the late 80s, they were certainly influenced by the contemporaneous visual language of the time, which was characterized by the predominance of installations. Indeed, many of the prevalent themes of 1990s video art—history and the individual, genesis and extinction, self and other, cycles and regeneration—echo the emotional landscape of installation works of the 1980s, the titles of which frequently included words such as “mythology,” “absence,” “transcendence,” and “void.”
Unlike in the West, where artists had been producing single-channel videos since the 1970s, Koreans did not fully embrace the medium of single-channel video until the late 1990s. While the shift to single-channel videos—as opposed to “video sculptures” or “video installations”—was partially stimulated by outside sources, it was more the result of the increasing acceptance of video culture within the overall community of Korea. As Cho Seon-ryeong has noted, single-channel videos were not truly accepted in Korea until the late ’90s, by which time popular video culture (especially television) had become inscribed within the society.9) Thus, in contrast to Western video art, which surfaced largely in resistance to the perceived inundation of commercial television, Korean single-channel videos were cultivated within the context of commercial advertising and pop culture. As such, the single-channel video works that originated independently within Korea (i.e., not including those produced by artists educated in the West) were directly influenced by advertising and cinema. Reflecting this situation, a June 1997 Wolganmisool article about the “Emerging Artists of the 1990s” featured cartoonists (Mo Hae-gyu and Shin Il-seop), animation directors (Lee Seong-gang and Jeon Seung-il), and a director of television commercials (Park Myeong-cheon), along with the requisite painters and other practitioners of the fine arts.10) In September 2000, Wolganmisool invited critics from various fields—including photography (Lee Sang-hak), fashion (Kim Seong-bok), cartoons (Lee Myeong-seok), film (Kim Bong-seok), and popular music (Kang Heon)—to analyze the current trends and tastes in visual culture.11)
2.One of the foremost representatives of the new video scene was Sejin Kim, who rose to prominence with videos showcasing a commercial and popular—rather than an artistic— sensibility. Eschewing the conventional path of a formal education, Kim was largely self-taught as a video artist. Although she attended Hongik University, she majored in Oriental painting, which failed to satisfy her creative impulses. Bored with her studies, Kim began searching for a form of visual expression that could keep pace with her rapidly changing society. After dabbling in architecture, photography, and computer generated graphics, she happened across a friend’s 8mm video camcorder.12) Immediately intrigued by the new media technology, Kim submitted a video work with no relation to oriental painting as her graduation project.
Kim’s first video work is The Girl (1994), which uses fragmentary, unconnected black-and-white images to produce a variety of visual effects. Incorporating almost every conceivable digital video effect, including morphing, zooms, fades, dissolves, screen inversion, and composite images, The Girl eventually stands out because of Kim’s meticulous use of Photoshop program to generate each individual frame. Clearly, she was not interested in narrative or concepts, but rather in the power of the visual image. As the artist herself has acknowledged, the uncanny aura and strong contrast of the black-and-white images show the influence of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). But whereas Deren conjured a spiraling psychological structure by repeating the opening sequence, The Girl highlighted the texture and surface of the individual images, rather than the overall structure.
Recognizing Kim’s outstanding eye for images, 3D graphic designer Park Young-min hired her to work at Bisontek, one of the leading commercial post-production companies of the time.13) Driven by the explosive boom of special effect in commercial advertising and films, Korean computer graphic industries had grown dramatically in 1990s. Despite its relatively brief existence (1990-1997), Bisontek has attained legendary status as an innovator in the early days of Korean computer graphics industry. In two of their most iconic commercials, Bisontek used advanced morphing effects to transform an old car into a brand-new Hyundai Sonata and gold lettering into a washing machine.14) In her new working atmosphere, Kim had access not only to the highly technologic computer and most cutting-edge video equipment, but also film magazines and VHS copies of award-winning films from around the world. In other words, she was the proverbial kid in a candy store.15) From 1994 to the early 2000s, Kim worked as a designer and freelancer for Bisontek and other post-productions, such as V-post and Image House. Through her various assignments, she directly experienced the thrill of digital image processing while learning the subtle variations between different types of digital media equipment.
As presaged by The Girl, Kim’s earliest video works are replete with image effects and quick cuts, giving them a rough, jaunty quality. At her first solo exhibition, she presented Too Close (1997) and Too Far (1997), a linked pair of works that generate audiovisual rhythms through multiple channels. For instance, an image of an arm reaching to grasp a feather shakes with an intermittent rhythm, as if the figure is reaching either “too close” or “too far.” Further visualizing the titles, computer generated graphic images are used to either segment or extend the images. Completing a pleasant unity of sound, image, and device, Too Close is a two-channel video, while Too Far has four channels, indicating correspondence between content and form. Taking full advantage of the advanced digital image-processing equipment at her disposal, Kim used a Betacam (which can record in either forward or rewind) to produce r.e.v.e.r.s.e. (1998) for her second exhibition. Seen and heard in reverse, ordinary activities—such as eating, speaking, tearing, drying hair, lighting a match, and drawing—become incredibly alien. Also in the video, Kim made mirror images borrowing from cartoons, edited out a child’s flowered shoes, removed colors, and accentuated a character’s outline to produce an animation-style effect.16) In these early works, rather than using images to convey some concept or story, Kim indulged her interest in the raw images themselves. The resulting works were saturated with sensual images that are typically seen only in advertising or animation: physical, non-narrative, and intuitive. Within the Korean art world, these images were thought to embody the new sensibility of the contemporary era, thus laying the groundwork for Sejin Kim to create her own synesthetic narratives from image and sound, rather than plot and drama.
3.Writing about new trends among young artists in the late 1990s, Baek Ji-sook noted the importance of versatile cultural venues that were post-genre, post-system, and post-art. Clubs in the Seoul neighborhoods of Hongdae and Dongsung-dong (e.g., Sal, Domabaem, Hwanggeum Tugu, Underground, and Sangsudo) served as interdisciplinary cultural spaces, offering performances, exhibitions, poetry recitals, and concerts, along with food, drinks, and dancing. These clubs were the heart of a distinct avant-garde atmosphere, where one could hear music from the Uhuhboo Project Band, watch a poetic (and pornographic) performance by cartoonist Shin Il-seop and the Heobeokji Band, and receive a free CD-rom catalogue from artist Park Hwal-min.17) Led by initiative cultural figures called new generation young artist such as CHOI Jung-hwa, Kim Hyung-tae, and Nak Beom Kho in early 1990s, this scene lasted through the 1990s, encouraging artist collaborations that transcended genre.
In Korea, the 1990s were a time of creation and expansion, as artists and other professionals began migrating among genres and producing new conventions through collaborative collisions. This liberated environment was certainly conducive to the development of a multimedia sensibility, as demonstrated by Sejin Kim. In her own fields of TV commercials and computer graphics, projects were carried out jointly by teams of experts in 3D image graphics, video editing, visual special effects, and sound, who once would have been limited to their own specific task.18) As a graduate of Hongik University (at the heart of Seoul’s art and indie music scene), Kim was also well acquainted with the contemporary music scene, such that the merger of music and film came naturally to her. In 1999, she collaborated with musician Sung Ki-wan on In Dreams (1999), which was produced as part of Bus—Demonstration (1999), a huge project led by artist Ium, wherein seventy participants from different cultural fields worked together (in thirteen teams) to bring art closer to the public. Representing the paranoid dreams of a man who has fallen asleep on a bus, In Dreams retains many of the characteristics of Kim’s early work, focusing on images rather than narrative. Rapid intercutting, augmented with the back-and-forth sound of a ping-pong ball, evinces a hybrid state, blurring the line between the real and the imaginary. Moreover, Kim liberally deployed her arsenal of dazzling visual effects—blurring, morphing, pinhole camera, quick pans, and flashy camerawork—to give the work the feel of a music video.
Thriving within this interdisciplinary atmosphere, Kim enrolled in a film studies of master program at a university in 2001. In the early 2000s, she produced two short films in collaboration with the musician Jang Young-gyu: 10 to 10 (2001) and Kid (2003-2005). With these early films, in addition to basic techniques of cinema production, Kim was learning new ways to transform text into images and to sustain longer rhythms with images. However, she also soon realized that the film world, with its significance reliance on funding, would not allow for the creative or collaborative freedom that she had become accustomed to. After About YS, Chae (2005-2006), which consisted of different remembrances of a figure who had been edited out of the film, Kim returned to the art world, but her film experience left an indelible mark on her works from the early 2000s.
For example, in Take A Picture (2002), which gained wide attention after winning the UNESCO Award at the 2002 Gwangju Biennale, Kim showed the endless repetition that is involved with filming and capturing images. While we typically remember history as a series of discrete events, like still photographs, reality is actually a dynamic continuum composed of countless forgotten moments. While based on actual methods of film production, the repeated sequence also represents the artist’s personal take on history.
Subsequent works such as Night Watch (2006), Trans-Lumine-Scence (2011), Sleeping Sun (2012), and Day for Night (2014) also feature filming and storytelling techniques derived from cinema, thus manifesting the image sensibility that Kim developed while working in advertising and film in the late 1990s and early 2000s. While such elements are now viewed as distinctive characteristics of Sejin Kim’s own artistic world, they are also the echo of an era and the reflection of its visual culture.
1)Related articles from Wolganmisool include Lee Won-gon, “Basics of the Visual Language of Montage,” (July 1998); Kim Won-bang, “Transformed Electronic Media and the Power of Transformation” (July 1998); Kwon Joong-woon, “Eye of the Visual Painter, Eye of the Camera” (July 1998); Kim Hyeon-do, “The Path Forward for Korean Video Art: A Critique of Recent Video Exhibitions” (October 1998); and Park Shin-ui, “Seoul in Media—Food, Clothing, Shelter: Everyday Emotions, Rhythm, and Speed” (November 1998).
2)Shim Sang-yong, p. 70.
3)Cha Woo-jin, “The History of Cable Broadcasting in South Korea,” Magazine T, April 5, 2007. This webzine is no longer published, but the text can be viewed (in Korean) on the author’s blog at https://brunch.co.kr/@woojin/148.
4)Established by the city of Seoul in 1996, the Seoul in Media event was held three times through 1999 before being renamed Media City Seoul, an event that continues to this day.
5)Seo Hyun-suk and Hong Sung-min taught at Yonsei University and Kaywon University of Art and Design (respectively), while various other artists trained apprentices in other ways. For example, promising young contemporary video artists JungJu An, Ji Hye Yeom, and Ham Hyekyung studied under Yang Ah Ham at Seoul National University and Kaywon University of Art and Design.
6)See Shim Cheol-woong, “The History and Current State of Video Art in South Korea” (Wolganmisool, April 2003, pp. 74-79).
7)Min Hee-jeong, “Study of Korean Media Art: Video Works between 1969 and 1999,” master’s thesis in art theory, Kookmin University, 2012, pp. 156-157.
8)For the latter, see Min, p. 64.
9)Cho Seon-ryeong, p. 130.
10)Indeed, many of the art practitioners mentioned in this article have worked on commercial ventures rather than fine art scenes. Editorial staff, “What Is the Focused Video Research Generation Describing?: The New Sensibility of Emerging Artists in the 1990s,” Wolganmisool, June 1997, pp. 106-113.
11)Editorial staff, “Special Feature: The Young Sensibility of Video Era Artists,” Wolganmisool, September 2000, pp. 76-86.
13)Interview with Sejin Kim, Aug. 16, 2018.
15)Interview with Sejin Kim, Ibid.
16)Kim Joon-ki, “The Everyday Seen Backwards, Reversed Time,” Gana Art, Fall 1998, p. 14.
17)Baek Ji-sook, “Image Producers Shatter the High Art Framework,” Wolganmisool, June 1997, p. 119.
18)Interview with Sejin Kim, Ibid.
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.