Interview with Cody Choi

The first thing that captivates the audience at the Korean Pavilion is your dazzling forest of neon signage that sits atop the building. It reminds us of Las Vegas’ streets, lined up with casinos, but, at the same time, it creates an interesting contrast with the greenery surrounding the Korean Pavilion. Could you tell us about this piece?
Venetian Rhapsody is the result of a rigorous reconsideration that commenced when I was invited to show my work at the Korean Pavilion of the 57th Venice Biennale. In the past, I had been somewhat skeptical, and even bitter, about events like the Biennale. The invitation therefore produced a powerful inner conflict that I was obligated to confront. Working through it, I had the opportunity to reflect on the geo-cultural implications of the city of Venice. Venice has been a tourist city whose economy fuses art and commercialism. It is also a city that has inspired grandiose dreams for many artists. It seems to me those who take part in the Venice Biennale are lured and swayed by the city’s glittering image. Perhaps, I am not an exception.

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.

In your new site-specific installation Venetian Rhapsody – The Power of Bluff, you address “casino capitalism,” the most characteristic phenomenon in the international finance era.
A characteristic of the international finance era is that speculative capitalist activities across borders are maximized as finance markets are integrated globally. The result is a gamble table-like financial order. Considering that the United States is a dominant player in international finance and that major international art exhibitions, such as the Venice Biennale, contribute to casino capitalism, casino capitalism is both a source of hope and dread to art. I began to search for other cities that share with Venice the power to make people dream and are likewise dominated by commercialism. Two came to my mind: Las Vegas in the West and Macao in the East. I appropriated and re-presented symbols of the two cities in this installation in an attempt to reflect on this conjunction. At the same time, the rooftop location of Venetian Rhapsody is also a bid to overcome the spatial limitations presented by the Korean Pavilion’s unique architecture.
“Mr. K” represents the chaos that marked Korea’s modern and contemporary history, and moments from Mr. K’s life set the context for the Korean Pavilion’s exhibition. That makes us curious about your life before you became an artist.
I was born in 1961 in Hyehwa-dong, a neighborhood in Seoul. My parents were born in 1920 during the Japanese colonial rule, got married and saw the country’s liberation together. After their first daughter (my oldest sister) was born, the Korean War broke out. They had two more daughters during the war. My parents, however, lost two daughters. Oddly enough, I was born after my eldest sister died, and I happen to have the same birthday as her. When I was born in 1961, the Eighth United States Army (EUSA) was dominating Korea. I recently learned of a person called “The Father of Korean Modernization” in a recent web search. I searched on Wikipedia and found out that this person is General James Van Fleet, who served as the second Commander of the EUSA. One of the most striking memories I have from childhood is seeing women and children queue for food and other supplies in front of the EUSA building. I think these women were probably the so-called mije ajumma, who sold these EUSA goods on the black market. At the time, people who were able to afford American goods on the black market were considered economically and culturally ‘advanced.’ Another memory that I have from my childhood is going out to the streets, instead of going to school, to wave the Korean flag and cheer on the Tiger Division and the White Horse Division, deploying to Vietnam. In the 1970s, I was a feisty teenager, full of vigor. I became curious about women, after flipping through the Playboy, Penthouse and Club magazines, supplied by the US. army. My fantasies about the West grew as I watched the American TV series Bonanza, Combat, The Green Hornet, The Wild Wild West, and I mimicked the superficiality of the petite bourgeoisie by listening to pop songs on pirate label LP records. During my high school years, multiple English teachers tutored me so that I could do well on the college admissions exam. Once I was in college, I was seized by the bias that I had to be able to read English textbooks in order to be part of an elite, and I took part in the Gwangju Uprising and student movements to pretend being an intellectual. In the 1980s, when I used to watched the College Song Festival on TV and Madame Aema (the first erotic film in Korea), I found myself torn by fantasies of America and feelings of love and hatred towards Korea. Right around then, a multimillion-dollar loan fraud, involving Chang Young-Ja (often dubbed the “curb money queen” then), rocked the country and drove many Korean companies to bankruptcy. My father’s business also went broke, and my family ended up immigrating to the United States.

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, who had much influence on you and even wrote an essay on your work, passed away in 2012. I am sure it was a big loss for you personally, as you were close to him. But more than anything, it must have been hard for you because you lost a teacher and a colleague with whom you have shared similar artistic values.
I was actually in Los Angeles around the time he committed suicide. A year or two prior to his death, Mike Kelley and I had discussed organizing an exhibition together. I went to L.A. to begin discussing the details of the exhibition, but he wasn’t answering my calls and the doors to his house were locked. That was around the time he passed. I think I understand why he decided to take his own life and know that that was all he could do. I know this because I had a lot in common with him in terms of inner experiences. The double-bindings and double-crossings I encountered as an Asian immigrant caught in a clash of cultures over a thirty-year period could only be expressed cynically through parodies and appropriation of Western art. That openness was what kept me going. I could not pretend to be American or Asian. I did not have the courage to show off as an intellectual when my depth of knowledge was so shallow and limited. I was enraged when I found myself among hypocrites, who wanted to be sincere yet only pretended to be honest. When I discovered that artists and intellectuals were captives of illusions, I was disappointed and had to translate that despair in my works in order to overcome the shock. It is possible that I am giving myself an ‘excuse’ to hold on to life by attacking my ugly self and paying the price for it. Frankly speaking, I find myself struggling to live on. Back in the days, when I studied with Mike Kelley, I often told him that I live in “yellow comedy,” where I can’t do anything about this condition I am in. So I choose to call myself a “side effect” of this world rather than a social misfit.

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.

Cheesekhwa(Color Painting), which is exhibited at the Korean Pavilion, is obviously your commentary on Dansaekhwa that also relies on modernism of the West.
In considering Dansaekhwa, it is impossible not to bring up Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. As contemporary art made its way to the United States through the two World Wars, a new art market called the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) emerged. In the early days, artists from Europe were exhibited. Not long after, abstract expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock, made their debuts and collaborated with the market. Young artists, who opposed such movements, emerged in the 1960s. The minimalists were one group of such artists, while conceptual artists formed another. “We reject any and all aesthetics in art” and “We refute any and all expressions related to art” were the key arguments of minimalist artists. In other words, they wanted to minimize everything and question the very essence of art. It can be said that American Minimalism was a form of resistance to the commercial and political aspects of Abstract Expressionism.

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.

Could you also briefly explain Color Haze?
A moving beam and empty glasses have been installed in a small space along with emotive popular music playing in the background. Color Haze invites the audience to contemplate the following questions: How is it that we become emotional so easily? Why is it that we so readily overlook or misread meanings and concepts in contemporary art? For while contemporary art supposedly emphasizes concepts, I wanted to make a statement about how easily emotions can overwhelm thoughts and ideas.