Welcome to the Review Repository - an archive of reviews that were originally published in the Saturday edition of the Taranaki Daily News from September 2007 – April 2008.

The reviews were written for a general audience and therefore tend to be descriptive and educational in focus.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Activating New Plymouth

Art can be used as both a political puppet and independent agent inspiring social change. As the local mayoral elections gear up not only will we notice careful and strategic decisions made by those in power but also signs and billboards of contending hopefuls. These campaign advertisements may seem common and simple enough – but the choices of visual imagery no matter how nondescript are always trying to present a certain perception or attitude to attract voters. Art and politics have a long and alarming historical relationship. Used either to stir up ferverent belonging to revolutionary ideologies or to inspire trust and optimism under oppressive regimes art has - more often than not - been subservient to politics. However, resulting from the social, racial and gender politics from the 1960s to the 1980s new art practices have emerged that resist nationalistic political power. Such new practices have tended to resemble forms of social activism, in-depth research and community based projects rather than the traditions of painting and sculpture.

The new exhibition at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery - Activating Korea: Tides of Collective Action - features South Korean artists and artist collectives many of whom work in these new modes of artistic practice. Acknowledgement of such new artistic practices is significant since – like Soviet Russia of the early 20th century - art in Korea before the 90s was warped by the passionate but singular ideologies of either revolutionary or governmental propaganda.

artwork by Bae Young-whan

For instance, rather than erecting banners to rally supporters some Korean artists have opted for persuasive interventions that draw attention to overlooked social problems. This is apparent in a series of photographs that document a project by artist Bae Young-whan. The project was undertaken in the Chungcheong nam-do province were the roads are too narrow for a sidewalk so children are forced to walk single file too and from school along the road markings. Not surprisingly there has been a high casualty rate. To draw attention to the alarming danger that children are subjected to Bae designed brightly coloured helmets with bubbles on stems (wobbling about a metre above their head) that make their presence visible to motorists. I doubt that Bae’s project solved the problem – at best a temporary band-aid remedy perhaps. It would have however drawn attention to the problem that could only be solved by legislative control of road planning. The helmets would also have made an artistic statement to local motorists. The random assortment of bright colours could be seen as representing the individuality of each child. Likewise the bubbles – being thin membranes that can burst easily – suggest the fragility and dependence of children on adults for protection and care. The bubbles also draw attention to the precariousness of the children’s situation not unlike a balloon blown by the wind. Accompanying the photographs are the actual helmets that visitors are encouraged to wear around the gallery.

New Town Ghost by Minouk Lim
images courtesy of the Govett-Brewster

Other work is more reactionary as apposed to actively trying to solve an issue. One is a video work entitled New Town Ghost by Minouk Lim. The video features two musicians on the back of a small truck driving down the streets of Seoul. The two musicians, a young man pounding aggressive beats on a drum kit and a staunch young woman belting out rap lyrics in Korean. The lyrics - in poetic ambiguity and rife with angst -tell us (via subtitles) about the societal discord and rupture caused by the rapid urban economic development that has taken place in Korea over the past three decades. Which has caused hundreds of thousands of Seoul’s low-income inhabitants to be relocated to make room for industry. The particular redevelopment that this video is staged will be causing the closure of many small businesses only to be colonised by multinational companies. The video footage features the vocalist standing with a militant pose arching her back and clasping a megaphone receiver as if she is commanding the glass towers of corporate wealth to fall. This performance is not a protest rather a random happening that would have taken streets of people by surprise. Furthermore, a protest usually has a singular purpose or message whereas the aims of this performance are deliberately allusive. What is tangible, however, is the emotion of the people that live at the whims of a lustful inhuman machine of corporate power.

This exhibition highlights the many examples (far too many to include in this review) in which artists have freed themselves from political idealism and are challenging societal change within South Korea. Despite the different geographic, historical and cultural context that this exhibition grapples with it also touches on many understandable and relevant concerns of our global age that non-Korean New Zealanders will be able to relate to. Failing that there is plenty of information accompanying this exhibition – a whole gallery space has been dedicated to a reading and research area. If anything this exhibition will definitely activate the knowledge and geopolitical awareness of anyone who walks through the gallery door.

Activating Korea: tides of collective action
closes on 25th November 2007