At the Korean pavilion in the Giardini section of the Venice Biennale, commissioner Yun Cheagab and artist Lee Yongbaek have concocted a postmodern mishmash of installations, sculptures and paintings. The works, according to the catalogue, are meant to address the coldness of today’s secular Korean society.
Lee (b. 1966) holds a BFA from Hongik University in Seoul, where he currently lives and works, and did graduate studies at the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste Stuttgart before beginning to exhibit internationally. His Venice show, “The Love Is Gone but the Scar Will Heal,” is formally diverse to the point of looking like a group exhibition.
Five large-scale photos from Lee’s series “Angel Soldier” (2011) show an abundance of gaudy flowers; matching patterns camouflage barely visible military gunmen. (A number of floral uniforms hang from the pavilion’s roof and walls.) On each of the ornately wood-framed monitors of the multi-channel video installation Broken Mirror (2011), a pane of glass appears. From time to time, the glass surfaces appear to shatter noisily, as if struck by a bullet. A similar “mirror,” titled Between Buddha and Jesus (2002), offers a floating head that morphs back and forth from the face of one titular figure to the other. Plastic Fish (2011) is a 12-foot-wide painting of myriad richly hued fishing lures.
Nowhere is the theme of love, suffering and recovery more clearly (or ironically) conveyed than in two greater than life-size sculptural groups. Pietà: Self-Hatred (2011) depicts a jointed male mannequin made of fiber-reinforced plastic, violently beating the figurative mold from which it was supposedly cast. In Pietà: Self-Death (2008) another mannequin lies thrown back on the lap of its progenitor mold like Christ in the arms of Michelangelo’s Virgin Mary.
For viewers familiar with recent Korean art, some of these Lee Yongbaek works may be too reminiscent of Lee Bul’s famous cyborgs and her use of rotting fish at New York’s MoMA in 1997. But the larger question is whether the artistic impersonality of “The Love Is Gone” is really an effective form of social critique. Isn’t there more life and expressiveness—and thus more compelling critical potential—in a K-Pop video clip?