ON CODY CHOI
Interview by Michaela de Lacaze
You curated the exhibition Culture Cuts, which toured throughout Europe. What made you decide that the time was ripe for a retrospective of Cody Choi’s work? How would you describe the general response to Culture Cuts?
There had been discussion of a mid-career exhibition of the work of Cody Choi for some years, which we were able to realize when Gregor at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf agreed to participate and offer the opening venue. 2014-15 seemed like a good time to reflect on the various aspects of Choi’s career including his formation in the art world in Los Angeles in the later 1980s, his work in New York in the 1990s and his later thinking and production in Seoul, following his return to Korea, over the last decade or more. There was a strong and enthusiastic response to the exhibition especially in the German and French press and media following the Düsseldorf and Marseille versions of the exhibition.
You are perhaps one of the first scholars to critique and contextualize Choi’s work in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, Choi has experimented with different media and explored a variety of subjects, often taking his work in unexpected directions. How would you describe his trajectory as an artist? In what ways is his latest work for the Venice Biennale innovative or surprising for someone familiar with his work? And what are the particular challenges and pleasures that you encountered as a critic analyzing Choi’s oeuvre?
I have written several essays on Choi’s work over the years, beginning with a reconsideration of his signature project from the mid-1990s, The Thinker. As I note in my first text on the artist his interests were built on the collision and fragmentation of cultures, the disturbance, sublimation and reallocation of a shifted sexuality, and on the ironic armament he mustered to wage surrogate war with the titanic period icons of Western visual culture —classical Greek sculpture, Michelangelo, and Auguste Rodin. Choi was overwhelmed by the immensity and seeming omnipotence of the torrent of American culture that coursed into South Korea during the 1960s and 70s. But he was not remotely taken-in by the nationalist ideology of the state-sanctioned riposte proffered by the Park Chung-hee regime. It is important, I think, that Choi’s response to the deluge of Americana was the product of obsession. He was seduced, compelled, even enraptured; but at the same time disaffected and appalled. Much of the power of these contradictions was caught up in their libidinal origins. For the unstoppable allure, volcanic eroticism and desperate untouchability of the stereotypes of American sexuality he encountered in his adolescence provoked a riot of frustrated transference. The ineffability of American military and political power, and the enormity of its economic might and media dominance merely added unfathomable depth to a desire that could not really be faced, let alone delivered or relieved.
Choi’s works from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s make a platform on which the concerns of his exhibition in the Korean Pavilion (2017) are built. Choi transforms his share of the space into a multipart fantasy on the compulsions of international capitalism seen—from a certain distance—as a splicing of image and participation, symbolization and projection. The elastic strands of the exhibition are woven together in another double cross—this time predicated on absurdity—that turns on the relations between tourism, economic exchange and art. While some of the rawness and urgency of the earlier projects have now been tempered, their visceral immediacy is channeled by dystopian proliferation as the languages of power have multiplied and mutated. This is nowhere more apparent than on the flat roof of the Korean Pavilion where, in Venetian Rhapsody – The Power of Bluff (2016-17), Choi has confected a dense, glowing forest of neon signage, borrowing freely from the shapes, letters, colors and hoardings associated with the entrepôts of casino capitalism, Las Vegas and Macao. Choi reflects on the spectacle of global capital at its most visible epicenters where they are mediated by allegiances with self-consciously stylized leisure and the dissipations of expenditure tourism—all, of course, fueled by rapacious variants of the lust, delirium and desire that have been present for Choi from the outset of his artistic and personal journeys.
Appropriation, double entendres, and parody have been central to Choi’s art since the beginning of his career. How have these strategies evolved or been redeployed in his project for the Venice Biennale?
This development is apparent if we look at the work situated in the Korean Pavilion underneath Venetian Rhapsody on the roof. Each part of the representational triptych of Venetian Rhapsody—the “Sin Cities” of East and West and the contradictory, medicated selfhood of the artist—is implicated in a complex knot of interrelations that also refer to other aspects of the exhibition and their frames of reference. Immediately below Venetian Rhapsody, in a space that mirrors the semi-circular shape from which it seems to bloom, Choi has installed the single dance pole atop a circle of mirrored floor of Vacant Strip (2016-17), which shares the ground floor space with the two videos of National Anthem (2016-17) and Dance in Big Country (1997). The title of the former alludes to “strips” in the double sense of real estate and staged undressing, both governed by different forms of vacancy and (pre)occupation, and both associated with the casino capitals sprouting synecdochally above them. Instead of a dancer, Choi has tied a knock-off Nike sports shoe to the pole, recalling the fakes shoes made by children when he was growing up to create what he terms a “Nike fantasy.”
In your opinion, how does the Pavilion’s theme of “Counterbalance” manifest itself in Choi’s art?
This is clearest, perhaps, in the works in the Korean Pavilion made in the early and mid-1990s that focus the ideas he addressed following his move to New York in 1993. Self-Portrait in Energy Level (1994) is one of the first in a series of works using wooden boxes secured with banding straps and clamps and punctured by cut-out apertures that was inaugurated by the several versions of Scamps, Scram (1993-94). This key sequence includes Box Animal Face (1994), Cody’s Ego Shop (Study of Male Energy) (1994) and another piece included in the Venice exhibition, Cody’s Legend vs. Freud’s Shit Box, made in 1994-95 with a candle-wax cast, but shown here with a bronze version of the statue cast in 2014. Self-Portrait in Energy Level, features a pair of boxes the apertures in which are formed, respectively, from the penis and big toe of the artist, which can be rested in situ for a certain number of minutes so that the energy of the body-part is “saved.” Cody’s Legend is made up of a similar but larger box, its cut-out shape taken from the hind quarters of the artist—producing a contoured void into which he can squat as on a Western-style toilet—which forms a plinth on top of which stands a cast of the artist’s body posed as Michelangelo’s David (1501-04), its left foot planted in a steel bowl filled with Pepto-Bismol. The exhibition also includes a work from Choi’s The Thinker series (1995-96), the dramatic finale of his work with energy transference and storage. As with Cody’s Legend, The Thinker, pairs a cutout of the artist’s haunches set in the plywood base of the sculpture with a self-representation colored by historical reference to Rodin’s monumental bronze, The Thinker, originally conceived as part of his doorway surround The Gates of Hell in 1880, but cast in bronze as the first of some 28 full-size versions only in 1904.
The “energy” works form a crucial part of Choi’s Venice exhibition. They bear witness to a key turn in the artist’s practice in the 1990s away from his more literal and physical engagement with the apparatuses and effects of U.S. economic and military power to a meditation on the relation between the psychological and physiological economies of the body. But rather than addressing personal or social constitutions of the self in the manner associated with the genealogy of American art in this period informed by what I have termed “critical narcissism,” Choi makes recourse to Asian ideas of energy diffusion and bodily equilibrium drawing on neo-Confucian and Taoist ideas. At first glance the apportionments of energy in Choi’s various boxes seems like a homeopathic riposte to the regimen of pharmaceutical remedialization in the West, emblematized by Pepto-Bismol, the pink-hued antacid and antidiarrheal balm that Choi took up as a means to evoke—and elide—the experience of personal and cultural indigestion. But the response they entail presses further, for Choi takes on both the materialization and the value system associated with energy in the U.S. visual avant-garde.
The boxes can be aligned with what Nietzsche termed “the pessimism of active energy.” They rely on a refrain of mediations informed not by reflexive reference to selfhood or object-ness, but by recourse to the shifting system of positions and repositioning, by turns reactive and voluntaristic, alluded to in the title of the Venice exhibition—Counterbalance. For Choi this is meted out between the body conceived as a whole and as parts, between bodies and objects, energy and void, influence and anxiety, health and morbidity, East and West, and finally in the space that his work annotates most emphatically, between art and life.
Susan Strange’s book Casino Capitalism is a point of reference for Choi’s contribution to the Pavilion. The artist often mentions the book’s main concept in his written statements and interviews. What does “casino capitalism” actually mean to the artist? And how does his work investigate and develop this concept?
Choi doesn’t set out to offer a literal “illustration” of casino capitalism, of course. In fact, there’s no direct reference to the book in my essay because it didn’t seem necessary to cite it in detail: the exhibition takes the general drift of its arguments as a point of departure rather than some kind of essential predicate. Published in 1986, Casino Capitalism was the first of several studies that Strange wrote before she died in 1998, including States and Markets (1988), The Retreat of the State (1996), and Mad Money (1998). It is significant that Strange argued that the inherent risks caught up in the development of a little regulated international financial system which Casino Capitalism detailed were confirmed by the 1997 Asian financial crisis. In fact, the arguments presented in her later writings, especially Mad Money, are more directly relevant to Choi’s thinking—though even this book is now two decades old. As witnessed by the economic crisis of 2008, many of the financial instruments and “off-shore” routings developed since the turn of the millennium have become ever more exotic and sophisticated and “abstract.” And these developments are part of ground in front of which Choi places his subtly ambiguous “figures.”
In the early 2000s, Choi left the U.S. and moved back to Korea. Did this return to his home country have an impact on his art? And if so, in what ways?
Without doubt, his return to Korea had a defining impact. Choi notes that he became another outsider all over again, but this time in an even more problematic way as he was an alien in his own “hometown”—a place he used to know but which had changed in so many dimensions, economically, territorially, psychologically. He was struck by his inability to account for much of this in the terms available to him. These dilemmas led to periods of deep reflection including his study of traditional Korean and Asian knowledge and how it had been distorted or abandoned in the headlong rush for technological and material “advancement.” These concerns animate some of his most recent work, including Myeangshim Bogam series commenced in 2015—referring to the Myung Shim Bo Gam (Bright Mind, Precious Mirror), an anthology of neo-Confucian aphorisms compiled in 1305 by the scholar Choo Jeok and widely used in Korean education until the mid-twentieth century. Drawing on his research into the history of education in Korea and the weave of Chinese and Asian philosophies on which it drew, Myeangshim Bogam gives rise to another manifestation of the artist’s frustration. Impugning the mindlessness of rote learning and repetition, Choi wrote the title of the collection over and over again, some one thousand times, so that its legibility was replaced by a ghostly graphic palimpsest. One of the most direct, even literal, of his works, the overwriting insists on a scene of disappearance and loss such that the brightness of mind and the preciousness of its mirroring reflection are eviscerated by repetition. The abundance of Korean wisdom and knowledge is thus collapsed into a mere image of itself, a cipher that empties the words of both their meaning and their history.