I think it is only natural that artists struggle between the pressure they experience as artists representing the nation and the freedom granted to them by the very nature of art. The Venice Biennale’s participating artists are often understood as having proposed a new artistic model and are thereby seen as representative of their era. An artist can be said to have accomplished a grand goal as an artist, if he or she is invited to the Biennale as a participating artist. Such notions have been formed by the reputation the Venice Biennale holds in the art world. Artists who recognize this are bound to place themselves under much pressure. They often fall for the trap that they must lead art’s progress or make social contributions through art. The Venice Biennale, in short, is an event where art, capital and tourism converge. This fusion created a mechanism unique to the Biennale, and the city of Venice demonstrates the limits and confusions of contemporary art through the irony produced by geopolitical dynamics. Paradoxically, my works exhibited at the Korean Pavilion this year reflect the criticism I offer on this topic as an artist. The first Biennale was held in 1895, but Venice had been an actively trading merchant city even before then. This gave way to the emergence of the Venetian school, which included Bellini, Titian and Tintoretto. For centuries, Venice has maintained its economy as a tourist city through its fusion of commerce and its picturesque landscape. Venice has also inspired lofty dreams for many artists, art patrons, and collectors—from the souvenir painters of the Grand Tour to the romantic reverence of Turner and Ruskin and 20th century postmodern artist. It seems to me that other key actors in the art world are just as lured by the city’s splendor. The Venice Biennale, which has been swaying people with its ‘cultural and political commercialism,’ is only going to become more influential and authoritative in the current era of international finance.
Apart from casino capitalism explored in my site-specific installation Venetian Rhapsody, the Korean Pavilion introduces a universal stand-in for Koreans, “Mr. K,” and addresses the issues of labor and wage imbalance through Lee Wan’s works. Some 130 years ago, Karl Marx proclaimed in the Communist Manifesto (1884): “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” In his book Capital, Volume I, Marx defined the imbalance discussed by Lee Wan as “the alienation of labour-power,” which emerges in the course of increasing surplus value through the extension of work hours. If we were to consider the production process simply from the perspective of labor, workers would not comprehend the means of production as capital but instead as a means to support their production. But when the production process is considered in terms of value expansion, a means of production immediately shifts and becomes a means of drawing in the labor force. This is so because the worker no longer utilizes the means of production, but rather, the means of production uses the worker. As such, the distortion that is bound to occur between dead labor and living labor, or value and value creation in other words, is characteristic of capitalistic production. If one fails to distinguish between medieval colonialism, 19th century imperialism and 20th century capitalism, and addresses the issue of labor and means of production simply by connecting them through a causal relationship, then the economist J.B. Say’s law of markets must be addressed as well. We all know that the issue of the alienation of labor emerged in Asia during the formation of a global market after World War II. As the market became global, Hong Kong was established as the trading hub to regularize Asia’s cheap labor as a means of production. This trend also finally reached Korea in the 1970s in the form of the Five-Year Plans for industrial development, launched by the former president and dictator of Korea, Park Chung-hee. I remember these programs being taught and promoted, when I was in middle school. “Korea-US cooperation” was the phrase often used with confidence by many industries then. But in fact, the US was building plants in Korea and supplied the orders, while Korea only functioned similarly to an OEM by providing cheap labor. I think the issue of wage-labor imbalance in Korea that took shape then is continuing to this day. To address the seriousness of this problem in the 1970s, some students participated in workers’ rights activist movements. Among them was Jeon Tae-il, who committed suicide by burning himself to death in a protest against poor working conditions in Korea. An interesting point to note is that Korea’s bonded goods industry had its beginnings then, when people started to siphon defective goods from the factories, instead of discarding them. “Nice” products (knockoff Nikes) were sold in Itaewon, Ichon-dong and shops by Ewha Women’s University. A growing number of women wanted to buy American bonded merchandise. They were probably the earlier versions of today’s petites bourgeoises, obsessing over luxury goods. This facet of Asia’s industrialization is often called the “simulacrum industry” in the world, and recently, Korea has been gaining a ‘reputation’ as the country that manufactures the ‘best quality’ counterfeit goods.
To me, the 1980s in Korea is remembered as the era when protests for democracy and feelings of love and hatred toward the United States coexisted in the nation. In the 1990s, Korea opened its doors to foreign cultures, and Western culture was quickly adopted by those who studied abroad or the generation that dreamed of the American paradise. It was also during the 90s that America’s neoliberalist economic policies quickly gained momentum in Korea, after the country was hit hard by the Asian financial crisis. Neoliberalist economics already had a long history in the United States. Beginning with Milton Friedman’s new monetarism, the Chicago school of economics developed Keynesian economics and argued for neoliberalist economics, and this movement reached its peak in the 1980s, along with the Reagan administration in the US and Thatcherism in Great Britain. Susan Strange noted later, in the 1990s, that the problems of neoliberalist economics and the global era were predicated on what she terms “casino capitalism.” As the international finance market evolved due to globalization and technological innovation, casino capitalism became more evident. Casino capitalism also firmly established itself in the global art world through international art events, such as the Venice Biennale.
Mike Kelley was born into a poor family in Wayne, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. Kelley attended Catholic school and thus received a religious education, but, through his art, he expressed his critique concerning workers, illusions of luxury, masks worn by intellectuals, artists’ bluffs and the ugly truth about humans. Yet he was never a hypocrite, who purposely attacked others in order to be compensated for his scars. He did not criticize for the purpose of criticizing. Nor did he intend to draw attention to himself through criticism. He was not a person who fooled himself. He was an artist who lived and worked hard so as to remain a true artist in an insincere world. So he chose to remain an underground artist and called himself a “blue collar artist.” That is why he abhorred high class art. I heard he started abusing himself when he suddenly became famous, respected by many, and a point of interest in the art market. The pressure must have been extreme in his last days. He couldn’t even work, which is considerable, given that the motto of his artistic practice had entirely collapsed.
Dansaekhwa monochrome painting was recently popularized as the most important and representative movement of Korean contemporary art, but as we all know, that was never true in Korean art history. This ongoing fad seems to be in large part the artificial creation of a speculative art market, seeking a new profit-maximizing craze. Do we really understand Dansaekhwa as the most representative genre of contemporary art in Korea? Do foreigners view Korean art through Dansaekhwa? Such questions pushed me to develop my feelings and view of today’s world. I wanted to make note of the fact that what we see and what we feel are intricately intertwined—between emotions and reason. Cheesekhwa is a demonstration of the chaos I experienced while juggling a painterly practice based in visual factors (emotions or “right brain”) and a conceptual one, based in thinking (reason or “left brain”). By contrasting the rationality of words with the emotional signification of the colors used to paint the words on the canvas, I recreate the slippery and chaotic dependence of the two modes.