The elephant artworks interrogating Korean life: ‘When we get rid of the power structure, what will we see?’

PSBF
조회수 156

The elephant artworks interrogating Korean life: ‘When we get rid of the power structure, what will we see?’


원문기사: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2023/apr/24/the-elephant-artworks-interrogating-korean-life-when-we-get-rid-of-the-power-structure-what-will-we-see?fbclid=IwAR3PvdTsTtldYpikTkcmenYZu3gF-X8pnB3gZioQOF49RmJT4szpgO5FM4I

‘When we visualise an elephant, the first thing we think about is its nose’: Oum Jeongsoon in front of one of her award-winning elephant pieces.

‘When we visualise an elephant, the first thing we think about is its nose’: Oum Jeongsoon in front of one of her award-winning elephant pieces. Photograph: Gwangju Biennale Foundation 


Oum Jeongsoon became fascinated with elephants more than a decade ago. Her latest sculpture has no trunk and invites touch – and it’s just won a $100,000 prize


It’s a strange sight at an art exhibition. While people mill around, respectfully observing works from a distance, some walk towards a white sculpture with their arms outstretched. Then they put their hands directly on to it: the cardinal art sin.

But this artwork doesn’t just invite touch – it depends on it. Wool and fabric cover a 3m x 3m, 500kg iron skeleton. The figure looks at once familiar and alien: its large ears and thick legs are instantly recognisable but there is no tail, trunk or face. Touching the elephant, something stirs.

On display at the 14th Gwangju Biennale, the South Korean artist Oum Jeongsoon’s Elephant Without Trunk is the inaugural winner of the art show’s $100,000 Park Seo-Bo art prize. It’s the latest instalment in her ongoing project, Another Way of Seeing, which draws from experiences of difference to suggest new modes of understanding the world.


A hand on the artwork

‘It was a natural process for me to also question what it means to not see.’ Photograph: Gwangju Biennale Foundation


“In my art career, I usually deal with the topic of what it means to see,” Oum says from Kote, an art space in Seoul’s bustling Insa-dong district. It’s days after the prize announcement, and the artist, who was born in the central province of Chungju in 1961, speaks mostly through an interpreter, Ho Bin Kim. “It was a natural process for me to also question what it means to not see.”

Oum launched Another Way of Seeing in 1996, beginning as an art teacher for blind school students before starting her own workshops. Since 2008, she has been fascinated by elephants, after reading about the first elephant to arrive on the Korean peninsula via Indonesia 600 years ago as a gift from Japan.

After the creature trampled a government official who mocked its appearance, it was exiled to the southern Jangdo Island. There’s a loneliness in this story that comes across in Oum’s works.

Another of Oum’s elephants

Another of Oum’s elephants. Photograph: Gwangju Biennale Foundation


Her award-winning piece, she says, “represents the current situation of minorities in Korea … I’m looking at the similarities between oppressed groups and the elephant, who was going around as a stranger”.

Oum’s first elephant workshop took place at Gwangju’s Uchi Park zoo, giving the biennale prize additional significance. The blind students touched the elephants and shared what they felt through art. A workshop in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with disabled or ill elephants, offered a new depth.


“We spent four days in the sanctuary, cleaning the animals’ poop and eating together. During that time, not only did they touch, but they also had the ability to hear and smell,” Oum says. “Because both the animals and the students had a disability, when the students were asked to create a narrative, they could really sympathise with the elephants and create products that are phenomenal.”

Oum’s works inspired by these workshops have included paintings and mixed media, depicting elephants at various stages of their journeys. Commissioned for the Gwangju Biennale, Elephant Without Trunk includes three related works – some older that have been newly covered in wool. The trunk’s absence forces a new perspective of a familiar form.

“When we visualise an elephant, the first thing we think about is its nose,” Oum says. “It represents power and hierarchy, and I wanted to make a connection to our society: when we get rid of the power structure, what will we see?”


Oum with an artwork

Teaching a workshop with elephants in Thailand became a formative experience for Oum.Photograph: Gwangju Biennale Foundation


The work’s tactility invites the audience to experience the animal through different senses. I’m awash in childlike wonder as I feel the wool beneath my fingers, closing my eyes to immerse myself fully. “When you touch the wool, you get an immediate sense of something inside of you,” Oum says.

Of course, works are usually not to be touched for preservation’s sake. Was there concern about degradation? “When I made this piece, I assumed that there would be damages,” Oum says. “I was quite surprised to see some damage already happening but I was also happy, because it means that a lot of people came to see my work.” The artwork will require regular maintenance as it continues its life at the biennale.

Winning the Park Seo-Bo prize – named after one of Korea’s preeminent contemporary artists – is a boon for Oum after a long career that has gone largely unrecognised. “It was a cheer for what I have done for quite some time,” she says. “Community art involving non-artists is quite a new form of art and, in the eyes of a very conventional field in Korea, it has been underestimated.

“Winning this prize gave me assurance, because many very well-established judges were involved. One [piece of] feedback from the judges was that it was visually satisfying, as well as portraying our current society and era very well.”

The prize money will allow the artist to further investigate the possibilities of her dual projects. “What it means to see is a very fundamental question that artists have been asking for ages,” she says. “Because it doesn’t have a clear answer, I can use it as a pivot point to explore many other fields. As a person who works with images, asking these questions is what drives me to continue.”

Oum and Kim laugh, before the interpreter turns to me: “She said that if I know the answer, please don’t tell.”

  • The 14th Gwangju Biennale, Soft and Weak Like Water, is on at the Gwangju Biennale Exhibition Hall and various sites throughout the city until 9 July

  • Guardian Australia travelled to South Korea courtesy of the Gwangju Biennale