1 March – 20 May 2012 @ PLATEAU, Samsung Museum of Art
Opening hours: Tuesday – Sunday, 10:00-18:00
Admission: 3,000 won
by Andy St. Louis
**This review appeared in Eloquence Magazine (April 2012)
Pop music is a universal language with common currency and mass appeal the world over. It brings people together in its voicing of the human condition, stirring our hopes and dreams, consoling us in times of hardship, tugging at our heartstrings, and simultaneously offering a necessary escape from our most entrenched longings. This escape is always temporary, however—a condition that points at the nature of pop songs themselves. Their shelf life is limited and subject to the shifts in taste and hunger expressed by our society. At their best, pop songs set to words the sentimentality of our common cultural heritage.
Bae Young-whan—whose rise to prominence began 15 years ago with his Pop Song series (1997-2002)—is the subject of a new mid-career survey entitled ‘Song for Nobody’ at PLATEAU. The human condition, reflected in pop music and similarly universally accessible cultural referents, is the subject of his captivating and often enigmatic work which uses a collective visual vernacular to convey messages contradictory to our culturally-conditioned preconceptions. In his Pop Song works, Bae repurposes the conventionally romantic and sentimental stylings of the genre to draw attention to the lives of people surviving on the margins of society. Developed over the course of three solo exhibitions early in the artist’s career, in ‘Song for Nobody’ these works are displayed in the exhibition’s very first section, and rightly so; the entirety of Bae’s artistic production has evolved from his initial consideration of pop songs as a mode of examining ourselves in relation to a larger social system, and the Pop Song series provides a crucial context for the artist’s later work.
The exhibition is prefaced with the artist’s newest work, Golden Ring—A Beautiful Hell (2012). This piece serves as an overture to ‘Song for Nobody’ and is a fitting distillation of the artist’s psychological development during his career thus far. Installed in the center of PLATEAU’s airy glass-enclosed atrium, this gilded boxing ring (constructed at roughly 1/3 scale) proposes a meditation on emptiness; not only in terms of the void enclosed by its ropes, but also in the obstacles to interpretation it presents as a stand-alone object. The atrium, which houses Rodin’s monumental bronzes The Gates of Hell and The Burghers of Calais, provides an unmatched setting for this type of contemplation. The space itself is a postmodern cathedral of sorts, and Golden Ring its high altar, albeit one absolved of any commonly-held belief system. Just as the moral of a fable cannot be fully appreciated until the story has been read, Golden Ring realizes its full expression only in the context of the exhibition as a whole.
The latter half of the exhibition, which includes works from 2010 to the present, differs considerably from the rest of the show, and reveals the artist shifting his gaze ever inward in contemplation of his own humanity. This is the nature of any mid-career survey of an artist such as Bae, at a crossroads in his artistic practice and seeking new avenues of expression. In fact, this uncertainty in direction is one of the most captivating aspects of the exhibition, and it would be misguided to classify the artist’s oeuvre according to any single interpretation. Nevertheless, the exhibition literature offers up the following interpretation of the show’s allegorical title, ‘Song for Nobody:’ “a sincere ode to those marginalized ‘nobody’ [sic] in our society.” This is the curatorial equivalent of claiming one pop song to be representative of all pop music, rejecting the inescapable brevity that is essential to the health and continued relevance of the genre as a whole. The exhibition is more than a humble ‘ode;’ it is a ‘theme and variations,’ revealing the full range of Bae’s avenues of inquiry in search for a more perfect expression of his unique artistic vision.