In a dark night, at a place that is difficult to identify, a little play of flame starts. The flame, which by itself seems to be a little romantic, appears to imprint the present in our memory and let us dream of tomorrow. Following the flame, one can realize that it makes part of a sentence, “LIFE IS SHORT BUT.” It is a flame ignition project, which is part of Mo KIM’s 〈 Life Is Short But (Failed) 〉 (2014). Seen a work by an artist, it would be below the standard of contemporary art if it had been a mere happening of a beautiful flame. And the artist’s wording seems not to be that trivial to be judged in such a way. According to the artist’s explanation, the work originates in a certain difference that he has experienced between his temporary job as an assistant of a sculptor and the (semi) permanent sculpture of the sculptor. Perhaps the artist intuitively sensed the irony of ‘art’ at a point where ‘monument’ and ‘evanescence’ diverge under the same category that is art. Arriving at the idea that life is short and his work is even shorter, he composed a sentence ‘Life is short but art is shorter.’ He then tried to sublimate ‘Life is short but’ into a form of ‘even shorter art.’ And he finally faced a failure in a situation where things had not worked as planned. The video recording of the work reveals flames – which are beautiful (or have to be beautiful) and have to be more memorable in a short moment – repeatedly going off. A person wearing a not-so-beautiful costume pathetically even tries to carry out the ceremony with an improvised pole. What is interesting is that Mo KIM specifically gives a title the ‘failure’ (by adding a parenthesized ‘failure’), bringing the gaps and errors that had occurred between the plan and execution within the grammar of happening into the center of the work once again. From the perspective that focuses on the creative process, such aberrations are immediately substituted with possibilities. They are understood as part of a stage for producing the meaning that will come next. However, in his work, the ‘failure’ concludes the result of actions, turning the attention from the artwork to the creative subject. In other words, the attention is turned to his artistic attitude. Namely, for him, art does not exist in a sleek shape made of firm materials. Rather, it is like examining a certain condition that is embedded with irony and about to clash with something.
Indeed, such a failure is not that tragic as it sounds. Rather, we are often enlightened by the fact that we had not realized before. It is because of the fact that the naked face behind the failure is helplessly revealed when his actions are deemed to end up with failure. From that moment, the peaceful everyday life as we know it is damaged with cracks. Rules that have been taken for granted become irony. In 〈PBC Cafe Project t〉 (2014), the artist installed a temporary store for citizens along the path by Tancheon river. The store provided a space for a short rest and sold beverages. Here, an interesting situation could be witnessed. Unregistered business activities are always expelled. However, the administration of the state is temporarily suspended when there are major national events. The artist did business in that situation, and the event was suspended by the intervention of the authorities. Considering the money spent on preparation, the net profit is close to zero. In the end, an economic activity with no profit comes to a failure. However, it leads us to face a temporary paralysis on the national level, which is a failure in a broader dimension. While〈PBC Cafe Project t〉unintentionally discloses the malfunction of the consensus-regulation of the society, 〈Studio Refurbishment Project〉 (2014) actively investigates the conditions of certain environments in which particular groups, including the artist himself, are situated. The project was initiated when the artist understood the environment of his given studio space during his studies in the UK, and it was intended to improve the space in material terms. To work on the project, he first took a few procedures before the beginning. First, he establishes a fictional company. This is to acquire an outer shell to boast professionalism in a more formal dimension from which the artist draws credibility from people. In addition, through a formal proposal, he asks for consent from the school and others who share the studio. By going through this formal process, he is actually granted to do the construction work, which raises awareness of inconvenience that had been taken for granted in everyday life with practical impacts.
Here, we need to take a closer look at the background that enables Mo KIM’s practice to come into existence. It can be something that is in a practical and material dimension of reality, or it can be something conceptual such as art and language. Also, it can be a world(view) that encompasses everything in a macroscopic dimension, or it can often be limited to the extent that represents a particular community in a microscopic dimension. What is clear is that such a background is one aspect of the society that functions upon rules and ideas that are constructed by a mutual consensus. The artist often designs new situations to create new relations on top of them. In 〈The Souvenir Store〉 (2016), for example, the artist opened an art shop at a particular event that was the graduation exhibition, which was a little oblique to the context. As same in the previous work, 〈Studio Refurbishment Project〉, he first asked for consent from the participants of the graduation exhibition. And he arbitrarily interpreted and reorganized the works by the exhibition participants, selling them as products. Such an action detached the artists from their artworks, converting the artworks into objects that were to be selected by superficial aesthetic taste. As the artworks were deprived of artistic concepts or motivations and became the objects of aesthetic pleasure and consumption, what kind of souvenir did the artworks become? Mo KIM names his studio in an artist residency, which is a rather exceptional space, as a disaster shelter and invites the viewers to the place. For a young artist that has been trying to continue 〈Disaster-Art Project 〉 (2017), it might be that reality is always difficult. A residency program, which seems to guarantee the development of his artistic capabilities, expansion of the artistic boundary, and networking, might be a place where he can temporarily evacuate himself from the reality-disaster. The artist invites the viewers to a reorganized space based on the idea of a shelter, experimenting if an aesthetic experience can be transferred to a common dimension while asking the viewers to share the calamities they encounter in reality. It also seems that the artist anticipates the viewers to sense actual disasters that exist in reality, not the image of disasters that are produced by mass media. Taking a step further, in 〈Squatting〉 (2018), Mo KIM attempts to reinstate the context that is erased in the material construction of the format of an exhibition. KIM participated in an exhibition, but he could not be credited as a ‘participating artist’ since he was part of a project within the exhibition. Then, he planned a participatory performance. He provided tools (flamboyant fabric, paper tapes, etc.) and a squatting manual to the viewers, suggesting them to see the exhibition by the manual – in specific, he suggested the viewers to ‘squat’ the exhibition. In the end, the installation view of the exhibition could not help but display the eye-catching squatting tools that are scattered around the exhibition. This can be considered as an action that secures a new spacetime within the gap within the established consensus by becoming out of joint and slipping away from what is restrained, regulated, and framed by language within the sphere of an exhibition under a consensus of a singular theme. In the end, it is to subvert and deconstruct the hierarchy between the ‘main exhibition’ and ‘auxiliary programs.’ By doing so, it makes the fact, which lies beneath the surface that we perceive as information, apparent and visible.
The societal environment always operates upon the rules and conditions that are established by consensus. It regulates dynamic moments in our life, which erupt from time to time, making us perceive the still and calm surface of our everyday life. It is possible to consider Mo KIM’s work as examining the true nature of the society that moves beneath the surface created by such consensus, suggesting a totally different possibility that cannot be anticipated from that consensus. It is not a new and marvelous world that could not be witnessed before. Rather, it is one of the different aspects that simultaneously exist in the same quiet and still space and time in one’s everyday life. While such aspects are accumulated into one entity like the two sides of a coin, they are just aspects directed toward different directions. In Mo KIM’s work, such aspects are made visible in the forms of certain failures, zero net benefit, malfunctions, a studio that is not functional, and exhibitions. These can be considered as different words with the same meaning, indicating the inherent ‘irony’ within a social consensus. Since his work is always oriented toward failure, it can secure a very close distance to ironies. By this point, it might even be possible to consider that failures are a goal and success for the artist to arrive at ironies. The ironies presented in the artworks described in this essay might not have been the intended outcome from the start. It might be that Mo KIM was rather clumsy or too honest, or he could not have time to consider unexpected variables while setting up his plan too perfectly. However, what is important is ironies are at the center of Mo KIM’s work. For the moments at which such ironies become visible, the artist is cautious about falling into a naïve attitude focusing only on the result and makes efforts to be more sensitive to situations that one does not bother to reveal. In such a way, Mo KIM always continues to suspect the existing frameworks or obvious rules, examining directions within newly established situations, and taking his own failures as part of the path. As a result, he arrives at the omitted fact, which stands at the opposite side of the consensus that has been taken for granted.
※ This content was first published in 『2019 MMCA Residency Goyang: A Collection of Critical Reviews』, and re-published here with the consent of MMCA Goyang Residency