One of the most commendable characteristics of a young artist today is a constant search and desire to refine and develop artistic thought and practice. Although written over 50 years ago, Sontag’s words continue to echo, providing an irresistible definition: “art today is a new kind of instrument, an instrument for modifying consciousness and organizing new modes of sensibility.”*
Hye-Soo Park’s interest is not in making ‘things.’ She seeks, she researches, she tests and uses different and multiple means to create lengthy projects, complex works and installations. While she employs simple themes such as time, dream and love, her work aims to address and tap into the sensibilities and complexities of human behavior, desires and expectations, or the intricacies of societal structure, social and cultural changes.
Park does not favor a particular medium. Instead she keeps her practice diverse, open-ended, not only by using different materials, but also by crossing disciplines. A few of her projects have used the audience as an integral part of the work; she has collaborated with poets and psychologists, and even used a fortune teller. She uses text (her own as well as appropriated) and found objects; she makes sound machines, and puzzles, and large installations; she makes videos, collects things, follows people, and has spent almost a year burning tree rings with a magnifying glass. She is an ‘everyday’ artist, one whose tactic is not about the product, the ‘thing,’ but about methodology, process, development, and investigation.
Hye-Soo Park’s recent exhibition at SongEun Art Space, Now Here is Nowhere, demonstrates the range of her work. While each individual installation or project seems to have a theme and purpose of its own, the general theme that unites the exhibition is directly related to Park’s interest in the rapid (and irreversible) change of Korean society and culture, driven specifically by its intense ambition to achieve the ‘normality’ of western middle class. The artist uses as starting point and recurring theme the term “botong,” which can be translated “normal,” “regular,” “common,” or “average.” Park uses this term to comment on the transformation of society and “the disappearing values of an individual’s life.” Park attributes vanishing individuality and desire for conformity to the fast appropriation of capitalism; yet I would argue the opposite: that even though capitalism has its own way of destroying culture and society, its core aim is to promote and encourage individuality. In Korean society, the lack (or loss, as Park suggests) of individuality is not a product of capitalism but rather the product of a society still deeply immersed in Confucianism; ‘individuality’ was never present to begin with. Nevertheless, her work offers an astute, sensible and at times heart-breaking commentary on the ‘normal,’ conventional practice of using success and achievement as the ultimate goals of individual and society. World’s Best, a towering installation of ladders that leads to self-reflecting mirrors, A0 to A8, a room filled with hanging steel mirrors that turn and reveal different views and aspects of the space, of self and the present, Game World’s Best, a supersized jenga tower made of trophies, all reveal a frightening outlook on a society where failure is not an option.
There are a few stand-out works in the exhibition, such as Gloomy Monday, 1,875 Days of Lonely Home, and City Poem, that engage the viewer using multiple entry points (both visually and conceptually), defy simplistic interpretation and offer the possibility of multiple narratives.
City Poem, one of Park’s most recent works, is an installation developed during her residency at Gasworks. It is one of her more complex projects, involving video work (of the artist following random people), a display of collected, lost objects, and maps overlaid with photos of people. There is nothing particularly unique about the concept or practice behind City Poem, since a large number of artists have engaged with, and some, arguably, have mastered, the walk as an artistic practice. Some have used the found object as evidence, the main focus, or the driving force of the narrative, and others have used the city to explore space and place, to offer an alternative way of engaging with it, and to alter or dissolve the boundaries between art and life. What Park contributes is the idea of roaming the city as a temporary inhabitant, as a foreigner who adopts the city as her own for a brief time. The artist in this case becomes an anthropologist. For Hye-Soo Park, walking, following, and collecting found objects does not point to an interest in discovering the archaeology of a city or a place, in claiming and re-mapping. Instead it betrays an ethnological fascination: many of the found objects are snippets of an experience, snapshots into a stranger’s life, a chance encounter. City Poem is about the banal and the surprise of the every day life. It is about the ‘botong,’ about what makes a life ‘normal.’
The Worry Inside the Pocket, one of the sub-works of City Poem, is a wall installation of found objects. While very meticulous, well executed and visually well curated, it includes a few objects that are a bit too evident, such as gloves, ticket stubs, labels, and a lottery ticket. The more interesting objects, of which I wish the artist had included more, are those that create a narrative for themselves outside of their context: notes, poems, lists, games, grocery lists—objects that allow the viewer to play a guessing game, to transform a historical moment into fiction, rather than simply historicizing a banal everyday moment, to develop into something bigger than their original definition and purpose. A glove, even when out of context, remains just a glove. A personal note, a list, an appointment reminder, out of context, takes on a different meaning and purpose, which changes with every new reading; it becomes its own thing, it defies singular interpretation and simplistic narrative. And the need for art to shy away from the evident, the obvious, the standardized, arises because art works are most successful when they do not provide an answer or clear, inflexible interpretation, but rather allow themselves to develop further, on their own and with each viewer, as their merit has to lie, as Sontag wrote, “elsewhere than in their meanings.”
Hye-Soo Park creates work with a distinct social dimension. She is interested in the human experience, and develops projects that become transformative experiences for herself, and also stir sensibilities in the audience. She seems to continuously and rigorously work towards developing her artistic vision while allowing herself be transformed and taught in and by the process. “. . . artists have had to become self conscious aestheticians,” Sontag explains, “continually challenging their means, their materials and methods,” in order to be in-tune with the “transformation of the function of art.” Hye-Soo Park does just that, and her freedom from the strictures of ‘object-making’ commends itself.
* Quotes are from Susan Sontag’s essay “One culture and the new sensibility.”