Curatorial essay for the group exhibition “Reconstructed Biotope” (Cemeti 2020)
THE ISSUE THAT FORMS the basis of the artistic practices of Elia Nurvista and Youngho Lee, through which they attempt to draw connecting threads in this exhibition, is an enthusiasm for representing the phenomena of global migration of resources. They have investigated a number of these sources as historical issues, while others have been collected from contemporary encounters. Their practices, however, find their most exciting polemic in the field of study rooted in “historical materialism” on the one hand, and on the other, in stimulating spirited reflection on the experience and modes with which people represent the “objects” that they frame.
From a curatorial reading the starting point for explorations of this enthusiasm is the project they developed during a residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, Germany, in 2018 – 2019, although the residency project is not the only reference from which the concept of this exhibition was constructed. That project was a continuation of what they had already done in previous years. Their work on the narratives that form the background to these works clearly differ: if Youngho prioritises historical motifs, Elia foregrounds political attractions. However, we can sense the similarities in their paradigms in their translation of the relative progress of a civilisation that, it might be said, is the product of ceaseless conflict: “North-South”—West versus East. That is, a paradigm which attempts to understand how modern products (or the by-products of modernity’s incursions on all parts of the world) have come to play such a significant role in our lives today. Their paradigm for understanding all of this comes from the perspective of “post-protectorate-era” or even “postcolonial” nations. In other words, there is a desire in their work to offer an “decolonising” interpretative model—although not drowning in analytical terms, it still proposes a programmatic framework—to investigate the development of today’s world, “the progressive era,” which in fact now towers over narratives of tyrannical power, the cruelty of war and new and old forms of colonisation and exploitation.
This “progressive era” remains unbalanced as a result of the remaining injustices that reside, obscure in people’s subconscious, hidden behind the pretext of cultural assimilation, manifesting in the “global system” that never ceases to repress those who are marginalised and continues to influence the way we view our local environment. The paradigm that links Elia and Youngho’s work is an attempt to deconstruct, or invite us to understand, this imbalance.
With an awareness of the characteristics that underlie the practices of both these artists—practices that are very different but which have a magnetic attraction that allows them to connect with each other—this exhibition is presented as striking combination of “expository tendencies” and “poetic aspiration,” which both artists attach to their arrangement of political statements about cross-geographical events and phenomena. They utilise the diverse content dispersed across the information wilderness, which is increasingly formed from arbitrary sources in today’s era of technology. “The globalisation of material conditions and ideals” is the focus of the issues they examine by each exploring different subjects—food and sound—free from the constraints of how major historical narratives connect the two subjects. While Elia investigates the politics behind food (waste) Youngho re-maps any kind of experimental sound (waste).
Although they are very different, we can sense how Elia and Youngho’s works in this exhibition both target the issue of global migration, which not only problematises the active movement of humans, but also encompasses ceaseless (and unlimited) exchange of inanimate objects (commodities) and abstractions (concepts), both actually and virtually The process of migration itself seems influential on our senses when we translate the meaning and context of what is migrated (in this case food and sound). In connection with these two subjects, we can see that the artists’ journeys have led them to encounters with the visual jargon that represents mechanisms of data-based labour, surveillance systems, digital technology and social media in the lives of contemporary society. However, their work has a more analogical role—far from analytical although it carries that decolonial paradigm—when demonstrating, if not transfiguring, the tensions that often surface between binary oppositions such as global and local, East and West, Orientalist and Occidentalist, modern and traditional, authentic and reproduces, aural and visual, ordered and random, between the synthetic and the organic. In that context, the construction of the two works by these artists seems to have a strong orientation to materialise—or to use a materialistic approach as its foundation—imagination, memory, discourse, and even stereotypes around situations that are invisible but firmly tangible. Their experiments concur with efforts to appropriate the past and adopt the present.
Savage Noble Series, No. 6 and 7, which is the result of digital processes applied to Papaya and Watermelon (1860), a painting by Brazilian artist Agostinho José da Mota, and Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge (probably around 1601-1610), by Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, are parodies of iconic images which radiate “Renaissance symbology” (or at least, the formal images particular to Europe). These digital prints on canvas are part of Elia’s Früchtlinge series (produced in 2018-2019) are deliberately displayed in this exhibition as “opening works” to present the context of the artists efforts in contesting, or pointing out the standards of Western knowledge and, primarily, the European model of identity construction around globalised subjects and objects. Spatially, Elia’s images are presented alongside videos titled You Are Not Paranoid; Observed Yourself Being Watched (2018), a single channel version from an installation that, when presented in Berlin, was part of Youngho’s Clinamen – Matter Misprision project. As a short essay showing the possibilities of audio-visual sublimation within the phenomenon of technological dependence in mediated human life, this video’s suggestion of futuristic tendencies stimulates our awareness of control over contemporary human activity, the way in which our routines are noted, followed and tracked by technology itself.
Interestingly, the connection between these two works emerges when we carefully consider how “the materiality of the abstract” and the “abstraction of the material” are circulated in a cultural biotope constructed by a system. As in Dawkin’s predictions of a memescape and the potential for a “memetika” that follows, the video You Are Not Paranoid; Observed Yourself Being Watched and the images in Savage Noble Series No. 6 and 7 are appropriate analogies for understanding how our world has become part of a “non-concrete” nature, the existence of intangible issues that also circulate beyond material mobility, and that non-material threads (threads of concepts) also become a factor in the discursive discrepancies that the world experiences. These come in many forms. One can be seen from the ways that regions define other regions, through a practice of othering and labelling as well as colonialism, control and surveillance. The animated video that Elia made for the Früchtlinge project, displayed between the aforementioned works, is an illustration of these discrepant discourses: how commodities experience particular migrations and exoticisation by the dominant system, by modernism—which is in this work represented by the symbology of machines.
Meanwhile, Elia’s installation, which is constructed in the form of a fruit market complete with wooden boxes, is an extension of the articulation of global migration that this exhibition addresses. However, unlike the story told through the animated video or the digital appropriation in the Früchtlinge series, which embeds in fruit the symbology of European power (the Rennaisance and, subsequently, Modernism— “visual and machine symbology”) as a critique of Western standardisation, Elia’s new work Tropical Repertoire (2020) is more focused on what may be carried by this commodity (fruit) besides its biological characteristics. The commodity that migrates in fact carries textuality that is also, essentially, migrated as an abstraction: invisible, but culturally alive in people’s understanding or knowledge. Matters outside of the biological category that migrate from one location to another, from one object to another. “One narrative of fruit migrates and will be connected to another narrative of fruit.” Every object has a story, a context, data, which can be mutually connected to the story, context and data of another object. The illustrations of global migration in the fruit installation are also Elia’s unique metaphor for actual socio-political conditions, closely tied to humanism, which are inseparable from how “textual problems are attached” by the system (producing forms of identity, figures and labels) which determine the narrative and status of the migrated subject/object.
This is also the case in the context of sound, such as music. Youngho’s video SOUNDTRACK: Biotope – Temporary protectorate (2019) takes as background the situation of post-war Korea, when the “advanced development” of the West (in this case the United States of America) was transplanted into South Korea, and which aligned with how the country’s then political-economic powers introduced contemporary culture to citizens by emphasising the visual, and through adoption of technology. The video is a transfiguration of repurposed textual, visual and aural archives through the artist’s process of artistic interpretation and conservation of historical sources. This video was made in the context of long-term research which investigates and explores media sources (such as publications and film) that have been collected in Korea since the 1960s and 1970s. These videos represent how artefacts of “sound culture” (for instance, music) also undergo global migration and, in their progression, determine characteristics of development in the regions that they seize. This video speculates—through visual games based on found footage, of course, as characteristic of the sound exploration model that it complements—on the connection between Western and Korean culture that resulted from the distribution of cultural resources which, to paraphrase Youngho’s own statement, “is not only based on material matters, but also on the concept and structure of historical narratives and other institutionalised forms of politics.” As a visual mapping of experimental documentary approaches, this video is Youngho’s visualisation of the technical (and spatial) structure that characterises South Korean musical rhythms which, in all aspects (economic, political and cultural) is related to the “progress” of the USA. This visualisation is presented as a story of contemporary Korea, of how postcolonial appropriation is utilised in recent developments and connected as a way of challenging the structural definitions that have thus far been based on Western perspectives.
Youngho’s photography series Pencil of Nox (2008) complements efforts to trace how, and to what extent, Youngho atttends to spatial and temporal developments of a city, like Seoul, with socio-cultural connections to the USA. The work plays with blurring the boundaries of organic and geometrics aspects of the city. This series of photographic collages, in which the artist intends to experiment with merging visual landscapes from the layered synthetic environment into a polyphonic coexistence, also uniquely represents a visual impression of sound—the sound of the city. Apart from this, we can observe that Youngho consistently pays particular attention to the development of the digital media that influences his photographic practice. His video Photo Studio Project – Episode I (2010), which also complements the rest of the exhibition, shows traces of the artists’ creative process. These two accompaniments are presented not only in order show why Youngho’s attention was initially drawn to these issues, but also as an important element of exhibitions richness in looking at modernism’s position (or the “migration of cultural artefacts”, if we want to align with the curatorial context of the exhibition) as a determining factor in the changes and processes of future development in a region, which are always in tension with existing local interests.
Youngho’s practice in appropriating mediated data and material is also evident in his latest video work, titled Epilogue SORI Blacksmith’s Anvil (2020). As a continuation of his efforts to rescue forgotten audio and visual recordings, this video is an audio-visual experiment that consciously applies multi-screen logic in cinematic articulations, even though it is presented in one frame (single channel video). This video is also made under the auspices of a long project to develop a new cultural ecosystem through digital archiving, and has been part of the online project Kino Music Project (https://kinomusicproject.com/KINO).
Simultaneously, with a similar approach to appropriation, Elia has made a new video titled The Maladies (2020). This video seems to be a further development on the issue addressed in Früchtlinge, addressing the origins of food that has been historicised alongside the increasing institutionalisation of political-economic discourse in capitalist ideology; narratives that live in the realm of media and which mediate public understanding of the social and cultural functions of food consumption, are also legitimised by their global imaging. It appears that Elia’s latest video operates on the same frequency as Youngho’s projects when discussing the migrations of that which is not concrete alongside the mobility of that which is.
In closing, it should also be noted that my efforts to curate a number of works by these two artists in this exhibition is in fact motivated by a desire to open discussion on the position of an art exhibition that has a specific, minimalist scope, which results from stable and balanced conditions, and which offers a temporary abode for a collection of particular “lives”.
Reconstructed Biotope is a metaphor for the interpretation of products of art practice, displayed for the public within a certain curatorial framework as a culturally constructed “collection of lives”. The cultural ideas and objects that have been produced by this process of artistic interpretation are treated like living things that can interact with each other both dialectically and dialogically. The art exhibition, although presented as an “artificial biotope”, can become our main window into understanding what is actually alive in reality. *