The Fifteen Year Long
by Kim Kyung-min
-On the recent exhibition Life Story -
By Kim Bok-young
The main character appearing in Kim Gyung Min’s recent exhibition Life Story is a tender-hearted man with little eyes, a big nose, large mouth, oversized glasses, and a long face that is slightly tilted upwards. He busily moves ahead, with his arms full of little packaged gifts. He walks briskly in his thick-soled shoes, wearing a red tie, a blue jacket and striped trousers.
All of the characters in her recent series are tall and lean, with their arms and legs so thin that it seems as if they might be broken at anytime. They don’t look like real people. It is obvious that they inherit their looks from the tall and lanky figures seen in a certain kind of comic strip or a political-cartoonist’s caricatures. They are characterized in a humorous and endearing way by their exaggerated features and their foibles. It is clear that they come from the world of caricature. Considering their twisted and crooked forms, they appear to have excessive burdens on their shoulders and a great deal of pressure in their worlds.
The partner of the male character is a much more slender woman who appears in pink clothes, wearing long black boots. She is also characterized by her long, slim and pale colored arms and legs.
The male and female characters take on different appearances in other scenes, presenting themselves in new ways. In one instance they carry a black sports car with them, while in another they create a healthy atmosphere, scrubbing the dirt off one another’s back, or on a bike, while father carries children on his shoulders, mother gleefully raises her face towards the sky. The rusted wheels pick up more speed, making a screeching noise. After the race has ended, we see the routines of everyday family life played out, even as far as depicting someone sitting on a toilet, responding to the call of nature. They are truly delightful scenes.
Kim’s recent works have origins in her graduate school days in 1997. At that time Kim presented works full of humor and satire, such as The Unrestrained Happiness of Freedom and Man of the City, and wrote a Masters degree thesis entitled ‘A Study on Form in Relation to Satirical Realism’. Those works served as a signal, predicting the works that were to come.
Kim’s sculptures originally came about through her intentions to transform into three-dimensions the comic film about Charlie Chaplin’s life in the early 1900s. As she suggests below:
Comedy is only created when it becomes possible to disrupt our experience of the world, using laughter, irony and sarcasm to help perceive such qualities as the ugliness, profanity, the trivial and shallowness of life, or more specifically its ‘ideals and contradictions’. Until recent times, sculpture has primarily been used as a means for exalting and affirming the beauty of humanity, rather than ‘giving a critical perspective. (Excerpt from ‘Satirical Realism’, February 1997)
This statement helps us understand her intentions for her sculptures, which reveal aspects of idealism and contradiction that are encountered within our daily lives. It suggests that she was intending to create a new type of comedy through sculptures that had a critical perspective, instead of simply celebrating our daily routines.
Her sculptures, as a symbol of the critical, are intended to reflect reality by depicting our daily routines with a critical eye. The method includes laughter, sarcasm and irony. To Kim, laughter serves as a tool that helps point to our reality, as suggested in an old saying that there is a knife within a piece of laughter. In the Korean language, the concept haehak 諧謔(meaning humor) fits this well. Even though it appears like a kind of joke, which is humorous and at the same time refined, in actuality it reveals what is hidden inside. ‘In contrast to this, irony enables one to express a willingness to use sacrasm within humour. Sarcasm can cause hurt to the other party, serving as a force to confront. As it is seriously intense, and it intends to disclose viciousness, stupidity and absurdity through mockery and scorn, it is accompanied by satire.
For this reason, Kim matches laughter, irony, and sarcasm with the absurdity found within reality. This can be seen as an effective method to present the real. In relationship to Western art history, previous instances of this type of style might be associated with Honore Daumier, rather than Gustave Courbet.
Kim’s recent works should be viewed within the framework of the newly coined term ‘pop realism’, rather than as part of pop art, as it belongs strictly within the realms of realism. Her work not only holds itself at a distance from existing pop art, but also from a realism that is related to Daumier’s style, which had an emphasis on representation. Within this context, Kim’s pop realism can be seen as new and unique. It demonstrates totally different qualities to the pop art of Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, or even Andy Warhol, while also taking a different trajectory from the hyperrealist realism seen in this country and overseas.
By encompassing elements of pop and realism, pop realism acts as a method for viewing life in an era when people are caught in a world of pop culture and a society of consumption,. The true implications behind this method will be seen in more detail later, but for now an overview of Kim’s career as a sculptor during the last 15 years may be more helpful. She had her first solo exhibition at Gallery Seogyeong, in the Gongpyeong Art Center in 1997, and since then has been part of fourteen invitational exhibitions, including the most recent exhibition at Gallery Sun Contemporary in 2011.
Her earlier works, from the first to the fifth exhibition, took as their themes the wilderness, intelligence and the way that political desires disguise the falsehood as truth, and often featured ordinary people in the city. The characters in Kim’s work represent life ordeals endured as a woman? for instance, being dragged or running fast with heavy ladder on her shoulders? as well as the corruption of humanity, the loss of humanity, humanity lost at times of confrontation, and they are caught within electronic appliances such as the washing machine, refrigerator, television and audio, which are often compared to ‘jail within abundance’(Herbert Marcuse).
Her second phase of works, from the mid to late 2000s, brought to the foreground the ways in which female psychology undergoes mental devastation in the midst of abundance. She draws upon psychological analysis of daily situations undergone by today’s ‘new women’, in works such as A Beauty with Plastic Surgery, Conflict and Your Place. Taking the purity and colors of sculpture to a higher level using primary colors, it creates a stronger stimulus for the viewer. Among the key representations are a variety of scenes where someone experiences obesity due to gluttony, someone struts while walking to show off his social status, someone excitedly shops, and someone struggles, stuck in his own ego, with eyes and glasses depicted in a way which is suggestive of fixed perspectives.
However Kim’s works that are most representative of pop realism were presented for her thirteenth solo exhibition, at Gallery Sun in 2008. Here we no longer saw the extreme levels of conflict that had featured in the past, and instead works such as My Mom, Good Morning and Piggy-Back Daddy are warm, seen in romantic scenes like a Moonlight Sonata, and subject matters such as travel, painting, reading, playing guitar, and casual chit-chat appear. It is reminiscent of the things a man and a woman do when dating, as if it were a contemporary folk painting.
From this perspective, the recent exhibition Life Story at Gallery Sun Contemporary might be seen to emerge. As mentioned in the introduction of this text, the recent works reveal a candid view of our ordinary everyday lives. It presents human figures that have been reduced to extremely slender proportions. The effect is that the overall sense of humor has a much lighter feel about it. It is worth noting that she worked to use much stronger colors with her sculpture, by painting acrylic colors on their bronze or fiberglass reinforced polyurethane forms. The styles and forms passionately sought by the artist now reveal themselves more distinctly as a brand new form of pop realism
However what needs to be mentioned in conclusion is her concern with her real circumstances, within this pop realism. Kim’s dedication to leading her own life can be read within her artist’s statement from 1997, as she stated that she wants to ‘build her life on the ground’ (meaning that she wishes to ‘lead a life that is down to earth’). That is why her sculpture concerns itself with visualizations of people who are always on the go, racing with happy and healthy faces, with their faces looking towards the bright sky above. On the other hand, it is worth noting that in the recent works the characters take much skinnier, and undersized body proportions, thereby reminding the viewer of facial expressions of obsession in a consumption-oriented society.
The facial expressions in the characters can be read as humans dwarfed under the weight of a megapolitan city. On the other hand, it is also read as ‘irresistible lightness of existence’. It clearly demonstrates that human beings who have lost touch of their intellectual values rely on materialistic values, reflecting the humorous minutia of surviving day by day.
* Kim Bok-young is an art critic and works for the Seoul Institute for the Arts as a chair professor.