Altered States and Divergent Realities in Contemporary Korean Installation Art

Korean Artist Project
Jul 28, 2014 8:46AM

Installation art is a unique medium which synthesizes aspects of sculpture, drawing and performance. The aesthetic value of installation-based art practice is inextricably linked to interpretation; the audience’s active engagement with sensory stimuli in a common space where the viewer and the work become one in a non-dualistic dialectic. There is a certain timelessness and universality inherent in installation art, reflected in the immediacy of its expression and multiplicity of perspectives offered to the viewer. The works of 2013 KAP artists Sook Jin Jo, Aiyoung Yun and Jungho Kwon embody these characteristics to a superlative extent, though in subtly different ways, and share a similar meditative approach.


Jo Sook Jin: Presence, Absence and Memory 

Though Sook Jin Jo’s works assume many forms—sculpture, drawing, photography, performance, installation and public art—they all originate from the same point of departure: found materials, such as old furniture and other wooden fragments, discarded by their owners and abandoned on the roadside. Although these objects retain the material forms through which they previously assumed meaning, when disconnected from their former uses they are stripped of their expressive power. In creating her works, Jo attempts to rehabilitate detritus; not in order to restore it to its former glory, but rather to re-activate the memory of its fundamental essence within a new context. These materials lend Jo’s work a pervasive sense of emptiness; this quality is not to be misinterpreted as emotional detachment on the part of the artist, however, but a locus for engagement—a space to be filled by memory. The absence of overt significance in Jo’s work becomes a void to be filled by each viewer’s individual recollections of Jo’s ‘waste’ materials in their own past, and the varying ways in which different people respond to these personal resonances is what brings her installations to life. In this way, Jo seems to hit at the very essence of memory itself: the presence that can only be evoked by absence. 

Aiyoung YUN: Consciousness, Desire and Dreams  

Aiyoung Yun’s work is often described as having a dream-like quality, and such a categorization is all-too-apt—especially in her installations which often incorporate light and sound elements in addition to objects, photographs and videos. Photography and video assert an authority over our perception, telling viewers “This is real” even when an image has been manipulated beyond the the point of belief. Multi-media installation achieves similar ends via different means; instead of passively observing ‘reality’ as such, viewers actually experience it first-hand. For their part, dreams are created by the mind using fragments form our actual lived experiences which are then recombined in surreal ways to construct the not-quite-real world of our subconscious. This can be seen in Yun’s frequent use of images of the female nude in her work; this is the body ‘as we know it’ ourselves, though in reality it is rarely presented in this way. This gives rise to an otherworldly sensibility that is at once disorienting yet desirable—surreal yet seductive. This surreality, in turn, arouses a conscious awareness of the disjuncture between the concrete present and a parallel one that is imagined, both of which exist simultaneously in a state of awakened consciousness that nonetheless wants to believe it is dreaming. 

Kwonjungho: Existence, Death and Destiny 

Whereas Jo and Yun reflect on reality in its past and present tense, JungHo Kwon contemplates its future. Death has been a strong focus in Kwon’s art practice for decades, although his most recent installation-based work seems to center exclusively on this theme. Kwon is not in fact concerned with the event of death itself, however; it is simply the universal trope he uses as a vehicle to make the conceptual underpinnings of his work accessible to viewers. The skulls he fashions out of dakpaper (a type of Korean hanji paper predominantly used to create dolls or traditional lanterns) serve as visual signifiers of the existential dichotomy of material and conceptual substance. By creating these images of death using this undignified and fragile material, he attempts to remove all preconceptions about death and the afterlife. Presented row upon row in multiple, the significance of the individual forms is lost, each skull becoming indistinguishable from all the others. We are all equal in death, he seems to say, no matter what may have differentiated us in life—the ultimate reality of human existence. 


 The divergent realities proposed by these artists are alike in that they are all imagined; they don’t express interpretations of the actual here-and-now of the world we live in today but rather seek to transcend reality as such. They are after a more profound understanding of what is at the essence of the present, rather than ignoring or hiding from it. In one way or another, each artist engages with the concept of reality on a personal level as well. The contemplative nature of their work reflects their individual interpretations of the human condition. Given the synchronic approach with which they address this subject, Jo, Yun and Kwon all seem to be more concerned with what reality precludes from our consciousness—and not what it embodies. Using installation as the medium to express these sentiments allows viewers to more directly engage with their line of inquiry and be able to join the artists  in a meditation on mortality. 

-  ANDY ST. LOUIS (Independent Curator)



1) Jo Sook Jin, Frames, 2012, About 80 wooden frames, variable size

2) Aiyoung YUN, Secret Garden, 2005, Video, sound installation

3) Kwonjungho, Gate through the future, 2013, Dakpaper in acrylic case, 315x410x440cm

Korean Artist Project