Representing the Body in Contemporary Korean Art

Korean Artist Project
May 28, 2014 8:02AM

Defining the ‘self’ has long been a topic of fascination for mankind. In Western civilization, Aristotle’s inquiry into the nature of ‘primary substance’ (the fundamental form of matter) marks one of the hallmarks in this historical debate; deploying the enigmatically esoteric axiom “This is something,” he concluded that substance consists of more than mere matter and is instead determined by form and/or essence. In Eastern traditions of thought, where the goal is not to categorically define the ‘self’ but rather explore its many potential explanations, the Buddhist *koan* “What is this?” stands as a universal jumping-off point for existential consideration.


Across the globe and throughout the ages, artists seem universally drawn to the human figure as a source of inspiration. Their attraction differs from case to case, however, according to their distinct perceptions of the body itself. Among this year’s participating KAP artists, Hyung Kyung BAE, Sang Woo KOH and Jongjun SON offer an array of interpretations of the body-self dichotomy. 

Hyung Kyung Bae: Body as Matter

For Bae, a sculptor whose work is often likened to that of Auguste Rodin due to its material qualities, the human form is anonymous; a lump of matter, ambiguously defined. Her work depicts bodies that are neither masculine nor feminine, old nor young, and presents these forms in a state of undress and emotional detachment. By stripping the body of its distinguishing features, she orients her interpretation of the ‘self’ toward that which commonly defines us ‘humans’ as a universal type rather than what gives rise to the innate differences between each one of us as individuals. In this way, her works assume meaning relationally, deriving significance based on how these lumps of matter are grouped together and how their formal attributes interact within such groupings.

 * Click here to see Hyung Kyung BAE’s artist page 

Sang Woo Koh: Intimacy and Essence

If Hyung Kyung Bae interprets substance as a conglomeration of particles collectively constituting ‘matter,’ Sang Woo Koh’s approach lies at the other extreme of the spectrum. We are more than the sum of our parts, he seems to argue; the ‘self’ is to be found in our essence and explored through idiosyncrasies of form. The intense emotional engagement elicited from Koh’s photographs bespeaks his artistic process of drawing nearer to the human figure rather than pulling away from it. Connection and passion are at the heart of his works, executed through an active and intimate physical dialogue with his sitters which he photographs after adorning their bodies with floral motifs in water-based paint. Although they bear strong resemblance to one another due to their striking color palette (a result of the reverse exposure effect he employs to process his images), Koh’s photographs are unequivocally unique since each one is based on one-on-one connection between the artist and his subject. The ‘self’ for Koh is what is located within each of us, made manifest in the form without.

* Click here to see Sang Woo KOH’s artist page 


Jongjun Son: Beyond the Body

Jongjun Son’s works—armor-like futuristic metal constructions worn by various human subjects—appear to be more concerned with strategies of self-defense than with the body as an entity, in and of itself. First impressions notwithstanding, Son’s imposing exoskeletal equipment nonetheless depends on the human form in order to be recognized as anything meaningful; in short, its very existence is defined by the body it serves to protect. These ‘defensive measures’ (the title of Son’s series of objects and photographs) are not merely assembly-line manufactures assembled without regard for the individuals they are intended for. Rather, they are instead made-to-order, as it were, as Son fashions each piece according to the character and disposition of each of his human subjects. In this way, Son resists universal categorization of the body as any single type and implies a parallel approach to his consideration of the ‘self;’ we are not all ‘of the same mold,’ he seems to suggest, nor can the external appearance of our human form be taken to define us as individuals. Indeed, what determines Son’s definition of the ‘self’ is more than matter, more than form, more than essence. The self is what we imagine it to be—and that is something to be defended at all costs.

* Click here to see Jongjun SON’s artist page 


It is worth noting that all three artists, despite their differing perspectives on the body, invariably create work on a life-size scale. Without trivializing it in miniature or exaggerating it in magnification, each artist does the subject justice by approaching the body it *in its own terms* rather than attempting to cast it as something it is not. Herein lies the fundamental correlation between Bae’s sculptures, Koh’s photographs and Son’s constructions; they allow for a multitude of interpretations and facilitate an ongoing dialogue on what the body represents.


In the work of Bae, Koh and Son, the Aristotelian “This is something” and Buddhist “What is this?” are not found to be in opposition or at conflict with one another. These artists have instead synthesized an diversity of perspectives which arrive at similar conclusions, commenting on material superficiality, the role of external appearances in our logic of perception, and the interrelation (as well as independence) of the inner and outer world—all viewed on an unmistakably human scale.

Korean Artist Project