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no.4 Choi Jeong Hwa

Publisher: Total Museum of Contemporary Art Editor-in-chief: Nathalie Boseul SHIN Editors: Juri CHO, Yeong Min KIM, Hyejin KIM, Jung Hyun Anna PARK, Jeongsun YANG Designer: Daeil KIM Special thanks to The Binders, the flat Date of publication: September 2013 Š reproduction of the contents of this magazine in whole or in part without written permission is prohibited.

* Cover Image The unbearable lightness of being, 2010, plastic inflatable flower, motor, dimensions variable, Installation view of the 17th Biennale of Sydney (2010) at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Courtesy the artist This project was made possible through the generous support of Look Print Photograph: Sebastian Kriete


no.4 Choi Jeong Hwa

* Choi Jeong Hwa (Republic of Korea, 1961-) studied fine art in Hongik University, Seoul. After he received a grand prize at the JoongAng Fine Art Prize in 1987, He started to participate various international art exhibitions including saopaolo biennial 26th, <Letâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Entertain>(Walker Art Center, 2000), Gwangju Biennial 2002, <Happiness>(Mori Art Museum, 2003)<Secret Beyond the door> (Venice Biennial, 2005), <Plastic Garden> (Minsheng Art Museum, 2010) and most recent solo exhibition <KABBALA> (Daegu art museum, 2013). He have been involved with public art installation as well as his own art spaces like OLLO OLLO Bar, OZONE Club, space SALand Space Ggooll. www.choijeonghwa.com

** David S. Elliott(UK, 1949-) is British curator and writer. He was the director of Mori Art Museum as well as ModernaMuseet in Stockholm, Istanbul Modern in the past. He curated a show such as <Art and Power: Europe under the dictators 1933-1945>(Hayward Gallery, 1995), <Bye Bye Kitty!>(Japan Society, 2011), <The Best of Times, The Worst of Times. Rebirth and Apocalypse in Contemporary Art>(1st Kiev International Biennale, 2012). He gave lectures at Humboldt University in Berlin and Chinese University in Hong Kong and Toshiba Lecture series in London. His essays were published in <History Today>.

K.NOTe #4. Choi Jeong Hwa

Gangnam Style David Elliott

QUESTION Who refuses to use mobile phones, prefers to walk everywhere rather than drive, likes ‘spectacularly trivial’ things made of plastic1, sees himself as an ‘intruder’ and ‘meddler’ with art2 (who, none the less, through his energy and ability to bring people and ideas together has animated a whole generation of creative people),and who, in theeccentrically fashionable way he presents himself, looks half way between a Buddhist monk and a pop star?


C h o i Je ong Hwa, the Seoul- based artist, thinker, d es ig n er, fac ilit ato r an d p ro d u c er

Taking all this into account, it is not surprising that Choi Jeong Hwa is seen as the pioneer of a completely new way of looking at art as well as how it relates to life at large. Sometimes, in doing this, he has irritated people and has even been accused of ‘not being original’ because, like Marcel Duchamp or Andy Warhol before him, he has transformed into art images or objects which have had another life in the everyday. In this, and many other respects, he has had a decisive impact on Korean culture.


Long before chubby PSY (Park Jae-sang) had, in his virally popular YouTube hit, satirised the dorky fashions and high life of Gangnam, the affluent, aspirational ‘downtown’ of Seoul’s south bank where he was born, Choi had been working on a very different, opposite style. This is based on the cheap, dazzlingly colourful, everyday materials found in the street markets of the working class neighbourhoods of Gangbukon the north bank of the Han River that runs through the capital.

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Choi Jeong Hwa, email to the author 17.01.2013 Choi Jeong Hwa, Creators’ Project interview, http://the creatorsproject.com/creators/choi-jeong-hwa I would like to thank Kim Hee Jin, Lee Dongguk and Park Samchoel for their kind permission to read and quote from their unpublished articles on the work of Choi Jeong Hwa. These were written in 2009 at the time of the Seoul Design Olympic.

In deciding to do this Choi was not making an overtly political point, although his sympathies undoubtedly lie with popular culture and the people who create it. He was more concerned to establish a kind of truth through art that reflected his own thoughts and experience. But he was unable to do this with the methods he was taught at Art School and had to shed previous learning so that he could take a different path. Choi was born in Busan in 1961 but had to constantly change elementary schools (eight times in six years) because his father’s work as a career soldier meant that he had constantly to be on the move. This, however, was not the normal military childhood. His father and eldest uncle were devout Buddhists and he was the eldest of five siblings. Of this time he remembers ‘…my father always offered rice and soup to beggars…and I hung out with many monks… everywhere we moved, I stayed in Buddhist temples and lived with the people there.’4 His father also occupied the honorary post of Chief Secretary for the venerable Cheongdam, a highly regarded Soenmonk who had been one of the reforming spirits within Korean Buddhism.5 Choi was taught to live strictly according to the Buddhist code of ethics that included the belief that everyone had the potential to become a Buddha. There is little doubt in my mind that such an inclusive idea of grace was, much later,strongly to influence Choi’s conviction that everyone had the innate capability of being an artist. In Choi’s case the origin of this kind of thinking is rooted in Buddhismrather than in the more well-worn path usually expected in the West -the utopian romanticism of Joseph Beuys.6 Before Choi enrolled in the prestigious Art Department of Seoul’s Hongik University in 1980, he had imagined embarking ona literary career and had studied classical Chinese calligraphy. The rendering of Chinese characters has been described as ‘the written form of divine sounds,’ and it seems that Choi has tried to expressthe same kind of feeling,visually and physically throughout his work.7 Choi had not yet travelled outside Koreaand his interests in art were primarily local: the rich, often shamanistic, imageryof folk art, or Jogakbo, brightly coloured traditional Korean patchwork cloths and quilts. His favourite artists at this time were the scholar, calligrapher and ink painter Kim Jeonghui (1786 – 1856), a man who contemplated the totality of relationships within the world as much as making art, rather in the same way that Choi now does; the painter Park Saeng-kwang (1904 – 1985) whose exuberant late works exploredthe fusion of shamanism and Buddhism in traditional Korean

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See footnote 1. Soen Buddhism in Korea is related in approach to the Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen schools of Buddhism. At the beginning of the 1970s German artist Joseph Beuys (1921 – 1986), echoing the sentiments of the German Romantic poet Novalis (1772 – 1801), stated ‘Everyone is an artist’. This idea was one of the founding tenets of Beuys’s theory of Social Sculpture that, in the tradition of Swiss cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897), regarded the whole organism of society as a large artwork. This expression was used by Lee Dongguk, Curator of the Seoul Calligraphy Art Museum, when discussing how Gather Together a large installation of plastic rubbish that Choi brought together to cover the surface of the Jamsil Stadium at the time of the Seoul Design Olympiad in 2009, created a strange harmony between seemingly disparate elements. A series of related exhibitions added to this impression. He said that Choi’s approach ‘was perfectly matched to calligraphy,’ unpublished essay, 2009, Choi Jeong Hwa archive.

Super flower, 470x420x195cm, Mixed media, 1995

folk religion; and the Fluxus provocations, robotic combines and video installations of Nam Jun Paik (1932 – 2006), a world famous artist born in Korea who spent most of his time in Europe and the USA.8 As a student Choi remembers that he was ‘…indifferent to all kinds of academic work and information about art … there was nothing more important [for methen] than to earn a living.’9 He regarded himself as little more than ‘a skilful art instructor’ and started to become increasingly frustrated with the narrowness of what he was being taught. Although his lecturers talked eloquently about Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol or Joseph Beuys,artists who in their choice of materials and imagery or social ideas could be regarded as kindred spirits with Choi’s later work, they seemed remote, historical figures and he showed little interest in them.10 Even the minimalist Mono-ha group of Japanese artists who were then all the rage he simply ‘…did not understand.’11 He supported himself by teaching students cramming for art college exams; in 1982 he left the university and enlisted in the army. This gave him the breathing space he so obviously needed to think things through. In 1985, after coming out of the army, he made a first trip to Japan and was immediately attracted not by the art, the famous street style,nor even by the manga, then at the highpoint of its quality and production. The radical innovations of Tokyo fashion designerssuch asIssey Miyake, Yoji Yamamoto

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Choi Jeong Hwa. See footnote 1. Choi Jeong Hwa, ibid. Ibid. Choi wrote that although he was vaguely aware of the existence of such artists, they seemed irrelevant to his own situation and for reasons of language and his lack of interest he did not understand the ideas underlying their work. Choi Jeong Hwa, ibid. Korean artist Lee U Fan (born 1936) was one of the leading figures of Japanese mono-ha, which remains very popular in Korea.

and Comme des Garçons are what caught his eye. Design cannot exist without people to use itand the new forms he encountered in Japan changed the way the world looked to him. ‘They truly shocked me,’ he said.12 This trip to Japan was obviously an epiphany. Choi now started to feel related to the present, he realised that art was actually an important part of contemporary society, and began to engage with a broad swathe of culture from all over the world. But most criticalfor his development was the influence of what he saw around him as he walked every day from Hongje-dong, where he lived,to his studio at the university: ‘Going to college on foot, I discovered that art was not taught in school but outside it. I was impressed and excited by the different things I saw in back alleys, traditional markets and construction sites, as well as by the lives of A-Zoom-Ma, ordinary middle aged women who have survived hard lives. I admired their aggressive positivity’.13 Returning to art school, Choi now seems to have made the decision to graduate as quickly and as painlessly as possible. He turned his back on the worthiness of his art instructors and started to make ‘illustrations’ using crayons and acrylic in a hybrid style, somewhere between the then fashionableJapanese minimalism and the new wave of European figurative painting. His description of why he decided to do this sounds calculated, even cynical: ‘The works I created in 1986 and 1987 were made to receive prizes…’14 He had by now fully understoodhow the art system worked and was prepared to exploit its weakness in order to create a more open opportunity beyond it. In 1987 he was awarded the prestigiousJoongAng Fine Arts Prize. Choi graduated from university immediately after this, burnt all his previous work, stopped making ‘art’, and threw himself into interior design, working on outlets for Ssamzie, a new Korean fashion brand, as well as on designs for books, posters, theatre and dance productions. This was all done under the umbrella of the Ghaseum Visual Development Laboratory; the neologism ghaseum, which he still uses, was derived from the hangul characters for mind, heart and breath that, when taken together, connote the source of feeling or emotion. For Choi art now became the creation of a protective shell or framework within which people could develop their taste and begin to realise dreams anddesires that they never suspected they had.


At the beginning of the 1990s Choi began to design his first creative spaces thatimmediately attracted a huge following of young culturally engaged people. The OLLO OLLO bar opened in front of the Ewha Women’s University in 1990 and he stagedthereseries of talks and exhibitions on interior and

12 13 14

Choi Jeong Hwa, ibid. Choi Jeong Hwa, ibid. Choi Jeong Hwa, ibid.

exhibition design as well as on the programming of performances. This wasfollowed in 1991 by the OZONE club and bar on Jongno 2-ga which also had a similar programme and ambience.15 The much smaller café and bar SAL in the Daehak-ro district that ran between 1996 and 2007was also an importantartists’ hang out. Its name denoted living but could also refer to flesh, sex and death. With their imaginative combinations of cheap plastic, recycled wood and market kitsch within rough carapaces of raw concrete or brick, these spaces created a wholly new style of shabby chic which continues to the present in Ghaseum, his labyrinthine café, bar, gallery space and meeting rooms that ramble over a whole block on Nakwon-dong. These new kinds of spacehave had a decisive impact onemerging generations of young artists and creators working in design, theatre, music, dance, film, performance and installation. Choi had begun to establish himself as a producer, thinker and facilitator, as well as an artist and designer. Painter, installation and performance artist Yeesookyung remembers the excitement of this time when she herself was just beginning to find her way ‘…. lots of young artists used to gather in Jeong Hwa’s place. He generously shared experimental films and up-to-date art books and magazines with younger artists. I think I learned about contemporary art not from school but from him.’16 One of the first exhibitions at OZONE was a two man show of the work of Murakami Takashi and Nakamura Masato, young Japanese artists of the same generation as Choi who were also dissatisfied with the blinkered artiness of what they had been taught and wanted to work with new materials and imagery. Over the next few years, unaware of how each other were thinking, both Choi and Murakami were both to experiment with plastic inflatables and trashy, generic images of flowers, yet their motives for doing so were radically different. At that time,Murakami was critical of the ‘Disneyfication’ of Japanese culture and in the figure of Mr. Dob presented a super-sized inflatable of a hybrid somewhere between a self-portrait and a malevolent, Big Brother Mickey Mouse. In the series of painted and plastic images of anthropomorphic flowers started in the mid-1990s, Murakami was exploring what he described as Superflat, a conflation of the flattened spaces of traditional Japanese art with the undiscriminating commercialisation of contemporary Japanese culture.17 Choi hasalways maintaineda more celebratory attitude towards popular culture, and kept relatively clear of the dark taste for Japanese otaku that strongly influenced Murakami.18 His earliest inflatables in 1992 were based on floral advertising balloons seen on the street. He asked the manufacturer to produce the same product for him but with an on and off timer so that the balloons would appear to breath by inflating and deflating. This is essentially how all his inflatables have been produced to the present.

15 16 17 18

The interior design of OZONE still exists on this site Yeesookyung, email to the author, 14 July 2012. Murakami Takashi, Superflat, MaddoraShuppan, Tokyo, 2000. Otaku describes the geeky, largely male, often violent and pornographic fantasy subculture propagated amongst Japanese teenagers since the end of the 1970s in manga [comic books], animé[animated films], computer games and role play.

Choi’s works seemplayful, yet they also make strong comments about rampant materialism, unchecked urbanisation and the alienation from nature that results from this. ‘I feel strange,’ he once said, ‘when I see a real tree or flower. Nature as such is so rare in Korea these days that I’m actually afraid when I encounter it. I’m afraid of the “real”. Maybe all I can deal with is an idea of nature immune to destruction, so I make an artificial one to look at and enjoy.’19 A different, but similarly ironical, sense of alienation intrudes in Mother, presented at the São Paulo Biennial in 2006 where the inflatable is a found object, a full size naked woman sold as a sex toy who liesawkwardly spreadeagled on the floor. ‘She’ is overlooked by the serene smile of the garishly coloured figure of a goddess.


Regarding himself as ‘an intruder’ who ‘messes round with art,’ Choi remembers that he chose to use plastic ‘… because it does not decompose and is recyclable.’20 Perhaps he found in this humble yet long lasting material an equivalent to the Buddhist cycle of birth, death and rebirth. He regards his work as part of an interactive process of inclusionand transmutation in which he is able to obliterate differences between nature and artifice, the real and thefake while, at the same time,allowing others to project feelings of insecurity, alienation and beauty into it. It is not so much the material of his work itself that is important to Choi but its possibility to resound clearly with simple spirit energy, untrammelled by pretension or ‘artfulness’. In this approach Choi is hearkening back to the ethics of early Chinese painting - to the writings of GuKaizhi ( (c. 344-406), a celebrated artist who claimed that the spirit of a painting was more important than its appearance. These ideas were further developed two hundred years later by artist Xie He in his influential manual Six Principles of Chinese Painting.21 Although Choi could never be described as gifted in his command of European languages, from the late 1980s he had begun to absorb influences and ideas from many different sources. Friedrich Nietzsche’s mystical writings on taste, judgement and feeling reinforced his own developing ideas on aesthetics, while Marxist sociologist Henri Lefebvre’s revolutionary credo that everyday life was becoming like a work of art itself could also be adapted to his inclusive sensibility.22

19 Choi Jeong Hwa, interview with James B. Lee, ‘Flim-flam and fabrication: an interview with Choi Jeong Hwa, Art Asia Pacific, Vol 3, no 4, 1996, p. 66. 20 Choi Jeong Hwa, see footnote 2. 21 GuKaizhi’s important theoretical books are On Painting (畫論), An Introduction of Famous Paintings of Wei and Jin Dynasties (魏晉勝流畫贊) and Painting Yuntai Mountain (畫雲台山記). The most fundamental of Xie’s Six Principles (绘画六法) is Spirit Resonance or vitality. See Kim Hee Jin, ‘Choi Conveys the Spirit of Life,’ unpublished essay, 2009, Choi Jeong Hwa archive. 22 Park Samcheol, “I play ‘well’ therefore I am,” unpublished essay, 2009, Choi Jeong Hwa archive. In this essay Park discusses Nietzsche’s ideas on pleasure and taste in ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-85) and how this related toChoi’s own concept of taste. Park also mentions Henri Lefebvre’sideas about how everyday life was becoming art as set out in his book ‘Art and the Everyday World’ (1968).

In his quest for a contemporary form of Korean beauty based on the synergy between seemingly disparate ideas, influences and objects, Choi has invented a completely new aesthetic vocabulary, exploiting the mimetic nature of Korean words to describe the particular characteristics he wants. In this, words such as Singsing fresh, SaengsaengHwalhwal lively and vigorous, Bbageulbbageul bubbling and boiling, Jjambong hotchpotch/mess, Saeksaek peaceful and Wageulwageul swarming, occur regularly as both as titles and descriptions.23 Choi first started making his mature work using plastic and other cheap materials found in local markets and junkyards. He also used toys or models as templates.24 His affection for tin toys of the 1950s and ‘60s is evident and provided inspiration for the humorous jerky presence of his inflatable The death of the robot - about being irritated (1995) as well as for RoboRobo, a children’s playground with swings, slides, climbing frames and an illuminated Robot Tower designed in 2003 for the newly built Tokyo district of Roppongi Hills. Funny Game (1997), a dramatic example of Choi’s playful appropriation of found material,25 is an ever changing installation of recycled, just-over-life-size mannequins of traffic cops. Choi exhumed these literally from the pits in which they had been buried after the police had decided no longer to use them. This work still continues to appear as part of much larger installations. The synthetic, at times syncretic, environments he now produces veer between the sinister, the threatening, the hilarious and the sublime. Truth, an exhibition installed in the Red Cat Gallery, Los Angeles in 2007, puts these cops together with different decorative elements of flowers, trees, furniture, chandeliers, masks, fashion mannequins, figures, vegetables and gods to create new forms of lifejust as if Choi were running some kind of crazy Frankenstein laboratory. In Choi’s persistent, bitter-sweet search for ‘how the natural and artificial can be combined in harmony’, flowers made out of different kinds of plastic material have become established as a dominant motif.26 They were the topic of Super Flower(1995), his first giant balloon tulip as well as his first book for Ssamsie(1998). They appear in his work as both inflatables and as large cast plastic objects. A long, slowly deflating, then expanding, multi-coloured wreath of flowers led the way up the entrance spiral of the newly built Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in 2003; large replicas of Roses of Sharon adorned Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Gate in 2008 in commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of theRepublic of Korea; in 2012 a twelve metre wide blossom of a Golden Lotus inflated and deflated in front of the National Monument’s phallic column on Kiev’s central square, later it was to move to the entrance of the Mystetskyi Arsenalwhere,to mark the opening of the First Kiev International Biennale of Contemporary Art, it throbbed and bounced under the silhouettes of a venerable monastery’s glittering golden domes. Indeed, these works make such an impact on the

23 Park Samcheol, ibid. 24 Choi has a large collection of such toys and objects as well as a large photographic library of possible source materials. Part of this is available on his web site. 25 The title of this work is taken from Austrian film director Michael Haneke’s Pinteresque psychological thriller Funny Games (1997). 26 Choi Jeong Hwa, ibid.

Space Ggooll, Hannam-dong 683-31, Yongsan-Gu, Seoul.

viewer that they appropriate as part of their orbit everything around them, natural or man made. The context is perceived and remembered as much as the object itself. Humorous, reckless and sometimes provocative, Choi’s work started to make waves. Nothing quite like it had been seen in Korea before and its critical ‘anti-art’ position was not so dissimilar from that of the young British artists who, at the same time, were starting to make an impact in the UK (YBAs). Increasingly, Choi has moved away from showing his work in dedicated art spaces and prefers to work outside.27 Along with this, the participation of many people by helping put the work together has also become animportant element within the whole operation. This process is often referred to in their titles. Gather Together, made out of about 1.7 million pieces of plastic garbage, transformed the outside of Seoul’s old Olympic Stadium. In Time After Time, made in London to coincide with the 2012 Olympics,five thousand plastic sieves covered the discoloured concrete columns of the Brutalist South Bank and two thousand balloons added a carnival atmosphere to the surrounding trees. Choi often refers to this necessary transfer of energy between people which is an outcome of this by saying ‘Your heart is my art! What you see, what you feel - that’s my art. I help you feel and you find the art yourself…[You see] the same kimchi tastes different in different mouths….’28 Contemporary writers, such as Jared Diamond, who have been rethinking the causes and effects of transcultural development, have also fitted into Choi’s desire for synthesis. Diamond’s 1997 Pulitzer prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, which Choi strongly recommended that I read, provided the title for a chaotic labyrinth of cheap, brightly coloured plastic sieves and buckets that he constructed on the roof of KIMUSA, the former Head Quarters of the Defence Security Command (the Korean ‘CIA’), a historic building with many associations with Korea’s painfully divided present and past.29

I remember, about ten years back, sitting, listening to music in Choi’s house in Seoul and hearing for the first time the cabaret opera of The Tiger Lilies, an English, Brechtian, post-punk group by whom Iwas so impressed that I searched them out and have since started to work with them. I think that the same intuitive ability to create synergy has been repeated by Choi with different people in various places since he first seriously started to work as an artist and has become an integral part of his work. He is obviously a genius in bringingideas,things and people together.30

27 28 29 30

Choi Jeong Hwa: ‘I like doing things outside art museums. I dislike the whole pay system of museums and prefer working and interacting with people outside.’ See footnote 2. Choi Jeong Hwa, ibid. Choi Jeong Hwa, conversation with the author, October 2009. The Kimusa building is now slated to become a part of the National Museum of Contemporary Art. The music in question was Shock Headed Peter (1998) for The Tiger Lilies’ inimitable performance of the nineteenth century German children’s cautionary tale Struwwelpeter. They wrote and performed for me Cockatoo Prison - a Grand Opera of Crime and Punishment - for the 17th Biennale of Sydney in 2010 of which I was Artistic Director. Choi also participated in this with a floating red Lotus Blossom in the Royal Botanic Gardens and a large, site-specific structure of green plastic sieves situated between the two ‘sails’ of the Sydney Opera House.

And over the past three years he seems to have been constantly on the move, presenting exhibitions and large, site specific projects in such diverse places as Sydney, Shanghai, Berlin, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Kota Kinbalu, St. Moritz, Brisbane, Los Angeles, London, Kiev, Krasnoyarsk and Prague as well as in different cities in Korea. In its own way Choiâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s particular Gangnam Style has gone virally global. Brightly coloured, hospitable, yet complex and always with a humorous and thoughtful edge, the work of Choi Jeong Hwa radiates a critical liveliness that challenges conventional ideas about the boundaries of art. If it is to be wholly appreciated in all of its many different manifestations, this workdemands new ways of thinking about art as well as new words to describe it. Berlin - Hong Kong, January 2013

Time after time, Hayward gallery, London, 2012


K. NOTe is a monthly digital publication that aims to introduce Korean artists and curators to overseas audiences. Much like an exquisitely interwoven Korean ‘Knot’, K.NOTe hopes to become a medium that creates strong ties and solid knots within the contemporary arts scene by publishing e-notebooks of Korean artists and events that are worthy of ‘Note’.

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