Lee Dongi's Atomouse has long been beloved as an icon of Korean pop art. For more than two decades, the artist's universe has been in a constant state of evolution, and we the onlookers have changed as well. More and more, we see what he meant when he said "Ultimately, my work is about balance. The pieces I do are connected with the complex array of elements that make up the world within them is a mixture of highbrow culture and popular culture, abstract and concrete, substance and spirit, East and West, internal and external words." After all, we are living today in an era of convergence, where old media is coming together with new media, deceloped with developing countries, and everyone's digital technology with everyone else's to create all kinds of new things.
with 21st Century Alchemy
Lee Dongi's Atomouse has long been beloved as an icon of Korean pop art. For more than two decades, the artist's universe has been in a constant state of evolution, and we the onlookers have changed as well. More and more, we see what he meant when he said, "Ultimately, my work is about balance. The pieces I do are connected with the complex array of elements that make up the world; within them is a mixture of highbrow culture and popular culture, abstract and concrete, substance and spirit, East and West, internal and external words."After all, we are living today in an era of convergence, where old media is coming together with new media, developed with developing countries, and everyone's digital technology with everyone else's to create all kinds of new things.
Lee gives us a different kind of music. His Bittersweet Symphony is a prelude that the artist provides to help us better understand his world. The canvas shows both the face of the serious musician and the dissolving yellow visage of Atomouse. Beside him is a wolf, an identical expression on its face -- recalling the story of how the newborn Atomouse had resembled a wolf. Disparate and seemingly unrelated images and symbols -- mountains, a tomography capture of the brain, cartoonish symbols like "@" and '$" -- are arrayed into a single canvas, a world created through the coexistence of that which can be interpreted and that which cannot, of Atomouse and non-Automouse. As the title suggests, it is both "bitter" and "sweet." The age of modernism, and its hunger for pure oneness, has long since breathed its last. The story that Lee tells is a bittersweet symphony for the convergence era, where new things are created through the clashing and combining of heterogeneous, sometimes contradictory, elements.
Brain Scan shows a frank picture of the artist's methodology. Recalling a panel from a sci fi comic, it features a character wearing a large helmet with wires attached. He is undergoing a complete examination of all the active and passive reactions going on in his mind, the conscious and unconscious. The arrays of images in the Bittersweet Symphony series are the results of brain scans like this: advertising images, newspaper articles, comic book panels, lines from a novel, scenes from a movie, a song that you find yourself humming, then singing along to. . . . Our brain is where all the different stimuli, the individual pieces of information, are consciously and unconsciously gathered, deleted, twisted, and transformed. This effort to tease apart the different cultural layers that have built up in our brain makes Lee Dongi more than just a pop artist.
The Korean word for nature is Jayeon. Literally, this means "being just as it is." Kim's paintings, too, blossom on the canvas like flowers in bloom. When asked, "Why flowers?" his answer is simple: because they are there. And, indeed, a look at his recent work shows that is no longer "the flower" -- identifiable -- but simply "a flower," its name unknowable. His lawns are so flat as to verge on the abstract, lacking any concrete sense of space or direction. Though it seems to unfold carelessly, Kim's canvas is packed with presence. From far away, we see the shapes of the flowers, and the countless repetitions of brushstrokes; from up close, we see that none of them is repeated or identical. Such is the providence of Kim Hong-joo's art. In a series of works, he has shaped a two-layered world through the doubling of images. Like Kim So-wol's poem, his paintings show the rhetoric of stammering and the silence of eloquence.
Atomouse, an icon whose 1993 debut ushered in the Korean pop art wave, is a quintessential example of cultural convergence: a Korean-made character born from the meeting of America's Mickey Mouse and Japan's Atom manga series. The artist's emphasis is on how Korea, being a peninsular country, is a place where both continental and oceanic culture enter side by side. Korea's economic development over the years has been nothing short of staggering. Cultural interchange and the changing of the generational guard have taken place just as quickly, in a complex clashing and fusion of different cultures. Born from this environment, Atomouse is not a cultural hybrid of indeterminate nationality, but historical evidence of Korea's own cultural hybridity. His recent behavior has been self-destructive to the extreme -- a new face that actively draws on this eclectic context.
In contrast with the American pop art of the 1960s, the style that emerged rapidly out of the Korea, China, and Japan of the 1990s has centered on characters. In addition to Atomouse, we find Yue Minjun's laughing men, Fang Lijun's bald bums, Takashi Murakami's "DOB," and many other figures besides these. What this phenomenon signifies is the growing influence that animation, TV series, and films are having on our individual lives. The characters lend themselves to the aggregation of pop culture imagery, a basic function of pop art. At the same time, they necessarily reflect society, and are capable of communicating a message very aggressively. "As a product of the unconscious, Atomouse is both an alter ego and something that shows the social and cultural context that shaped the individual," the artist says. Having grown out of Korean society over a period of more than twenty years, Atomouse is now an inseparable part of "us." He is now a presence that traces and understands his own history (art history), while helping others living in the same era to understand it, too.
At a time when viewers were listlessly shrinking from abstract art, which made it impossible to make any claims of formal purity, it was the pop artists who brought them back. These artists went to work discovering and incorporating images from popular culture, and in the process cleared a space for communication. But Atomouse is not content to draw on pop culture alone. With his curious and unique ability to transform himself, he has made an important tradition in art history his own, while suggesting possibilities for a new paradigm.
Take the Atomouse in 2000's Flower Garden . So widely loved is this piece that it has been the subject of multiple reproductions in different colors. We find Atomouse emulating -- shamelessly! -- the quiet, meditative posture of the old man in Gang Hui-an's 15th century Joseon-era painting Gosagwansudo. It is a beautiful moment, one of the greatest in the history of Korean modern art. His eyes are lucid and sincere, the overall mood tranquil and transparent. The aging Confucian scholar of Gang's painting might simply have lingered in the purity of nature. But Atomouse, after viewing the world from a riotously colorful flower garden, strolls down from the mountain for some diligent role-playing. He launches himself cheerfully into the painting in a tireless stream of transformation -- a rock star here, then a Buddha in cross-legged contemplation, now a guitarist.
Lee's boldest attempt to blend conflicting elements into a single image is the Double Vision series. Traditionally, the concrete and abstract have existed as opposing concepts in art history. The venom spewed at concrete art by the first abstract painters, Malevich and Kandinsky among them, would linger on for years as a specter in art history. But in his paintings, Lee Dongi opts for coexistence, not opposition, between the abstract and concrete. In Coin Atomouse, his familiar character is flattened like a coin -- all the better to fit with the two-dimensionality of abstract art. The use of black-and-white alludes to the solid colors of the monochrome school, a major trend in Korean abstract painting.
We can also see the artist's efforts to achieve a balance between conflicting things in his early work. Lee did a number of paintings where opposing elements were paired on a single canvas: men/women, +/-, sky/earth, human/hero, left/right. Now, he is transcending himself. The idea of understanding the world in terms of opposing pairs can be traced to modernism, with its grounding in typical Newtonian dualism. But we are now in the 21st century, the digital era; virtual reality is an important part of our life, and there are all too many things that we cannot fathom in these simple dualistic terms. The artist draws on this diversity in what he describes as "eclecticism." The term is a bit misleading, but its message is clear. The complexity of the world, its hybridity, and finally the convergence of all these things -- this is the world Lee seeks to portray.
The constant role-playing of Atomouse effectively portrays our own sensibilities in the era of digital convergence. What we gain through our voluntary "otherizing" is a deeper understanding of others and ourselves. Instead of being something unfamiliar and separate from us, the other is another potentiality of the self. Atomouse goes from being a baseball player or a guitarist to becoming Picasso, Warhol, and Duchamp all at once. In a photograph by the surrealist photographer Man Ray, Duchamp boldly rejects the conventional portrait. The artist, who was responsible for a major part of modern art history, rejected the trite notion that the individual's essence could only be shown if he were facing the camera straight on. The resulting portrait shows the back of his head, a star shaved into his hair. Many other modern artists saw the star and followed suit, with object art, conceptual art, performance art, pop art, and so forth. From Duchamp, Atomouse transforms into Andy Warhol in silver wig and sunglasses. This role-playing, this becoming of the other, is part of Atomouse's "convergence project," blending conflicting things into himself.
Okay, fine, convergence. But what is that giant ear on his back? No need to be astonished: this is Atomouse as the Australian performance artist Stelarc. An experimental artist who has worked to extend the human body by designing hybrid human/machines, Stelarc has produced art that ties in with the media theory of critic Marshall McLuhan. As far back as the 1960s, McLuhan was already saying that humans would eventually expand their senses through media, and that these expanded senses would bring about revolutionary changes in our thinking and behavior. Experts now say that the development of digital technology today is breaking down the final boundaries between man and machine. According to some scholars, the cyborgization of humankind is already under way, as computers, the internet, the smartphone, and all manner of other digital devices have become interposed in our everyday thinking and planning of behavior. Stelarc's Third Ear project involved surgically attaching an ear to his own arm, thus graphically demonstrating his ideas about the post-human (cyborg), a physical mixture of man and machine. The phenomenon of digital convergence is not just about the blending of one machine with another, but of humans with machines. What this shows us is that our selves are no longer ours alone -- they are joined to our technological environment. So Atomouse is giving a performance with a big ear grafted onto his back in place of an arm. Bizarre, yes, but if we can look ahead with both eyes, listen to our sides with both ears, and hear the message coming in with the big ear on our back, we might end up becoming a bit more other-oriented. In humanistic terms, Atomouse may be even more evolved than Stelarc.
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.