Chungwoo Lee / Art and Design Critic, Editor-in-Chief, Art in Culture
Educated at Hongik University and Yale University, Hyungkoo Lee (b.1969) gained recognition as an artist who created a space resembling a secret laboratory for biological experiments and strange optical devices. While participating in the SSamzie Space Artist Residence Program in 2003, Lee began to actively exhibit his works. And firmly establishing himself as an artist with a solo exhibition at the Sungkok Art Museum in March 2004, Lee has been gaining a growing number of fans in Korea and abroad, as his work is in the process of moving in a new direction.
After successfully completing his MFA thesis show in 2002 at Yale University, Lee acquired a studio and began working in Brooklyn, New York, using funds he received as a winner of a Joan Mitchell Foundation grant. Fortuitously, Lee heard about the SSamzie Space residence program and returned to Korea in November 2002, spending a year at SSamzie Studio building up his portfolio. Participating in exhibitions both small and large, Lee began to achieve recognition, even gaining coverage in the media. Lee’s solo exhibition in 2004 at Sungkok Art Museum took place without a hitch, as he secured his image as a “bluechip artist”. In 2005, Lee signed on with Arario Gallery, his conversation-making career still rather brief. Then what is the logic and development of his work? Let’s start by looking at the works presented in his first solo show.
The Beginnings of a Quasi-Experimental Science
Lee’s first solo show, ‘The Objectuals”, at Sungkok Art Museum, was seen as a distinctive exhibition that revealed a new way of arranging the order of objects, in a way that moved away from a humancentered understandings. As a new adjective derived from the word “object”, the title of this exhibition, roughly translated, suggests “object-ish things” or “object-like things”. (As it is commonly known, the adjectival form of “object” is actually “objective”. However, in contrast to its original meaning, “objective” has foremost come to suggest “empirical” or “factual”, hence making it seem that all objects today are this kind of “objective”. Thus, a current group of aesthetic theorists and philosophers coined the new word “objectual” as a new adjectival version of the word “object”, to stress a different way of observing and understanding objects, where they are not simply seen as being objective. Roughly translated, objectual means “the object-ness or thing-ness of an object or thing”.) Lee’s exhibited works can be divided into roughly two categories. The first is photos and videos that documented wearable devices that changed the body’s proportions using visual or physical means. The second is the laboratory where the devices were located and developed.
At the exhibition, Lee transformed into a mad scientist/doctor who stood guard at the frightening laboratory, which seemed as if it emitted the scent of formaldehyde. Yet looking closely at the optical instruments contained within this quasi-medical research facility, these apparatuses had less the feeling of terribilita (a horror-inducing sublimity) that would instill fear in viewers’ hearts, and more the quality of a laughter-inducing black comedy. For example, <A Device (Gauntlet1) that Makes My Hand Bigger, 1999(p12)> is an optical device for the arm where, when water is poured inside, the right hand appears enlarged while the fingers resemble those of a Disney cartoon character when placed inside three sockets. This device resulted from the male inferiority complex that the artist felt while he was living in the U.S. (<A Device (Gauntlet2) that Makes My Left Hand Bigger> was produced in 2002 for the left hand.)
It appears that while in the U.S., the artist experienced feelings of masculine inferiority, as an East Asian man of comparatively smaller stature. But in truth, those kinds of feelings of frustration are generally experienced by most Korean men at least once or twice in their lives. Compared to white and black men, East Asian men are shorter, their arms slenderer, their legs shorter, their bodies flatter and their penises smaller. Therefore, in Europe or the U.S., they are often treated as invisible beings with no sexual allure. Although East Asian women often receive meaningful looks from men of different races, by comparison, East Asian men, with the exception of those sitting in a gay bar, really do not so much as garner a glance. Even East Asian women who study abroad, with the exception of those who are looking for a man to take back home to receive their parent’s “official stamp of approval”, do not look at East Asian men. Thus, for the macho-inclined, real man Lee Hyungkoo, life in the U.S. must have presented a difficult situation. However, even for physically inferior men, there are survival tactics, achievable with the weapons of “confidence” and “humor”. (There may be some male readers who will not readily agree with what I have written. However, let us take a moment to look at some examples. When it comes to a man who gained recognition as a “sexy man” with confidence alone, Jean-Poul Belmondo is of course a successful case; a man who succeeded with humor is Woody Allen. What do you think? That they gained popularity among women with their looks alone? In terms of examples in the art world, there is of course Picasso and Jackson Pollock; however, even today these kinds of ridiculous sex symbols exist. In today’s art world, there is Damien Hirst, who is rumored to have had love affairs with Kate Moss and other beautiful women. If male readers caught a glimpse of his physical features, they would probably let out a cry of righteous indignation.)
Optical Helmets 1-10
Lee also used objects of humor to simultaneously make life more amusing and to add the finishing touch to his works. Following the arm-enlarging device, <Helmet-1, 1999(Cover2)>, a helmet that magnified the eyes and mouth was created. Convex lenses were attached to a piece of globular, transparent plastic cut into the shape of a helmet. As this equipment magnified the mouth and eyes, the character of the person wearing the helmet was dramatically transformed, which achieved an effect of surprise that instilled wonder in viewers. Following the completion of the first optical helmet, a total of 10 were produced, and the phases of their variation are also interesting to note. <Helmet-2, 2000(p3)>, the second one created, is similar in shape to the first one, but had a small fan that was added to prevent the helmet from fogging up. To make the helmet look simpler when it was worn, the helmet supports were placed on the shoulders instead of on the head. The third <Helmet-3, 2000(p32)> was further enhanced, with the entire helmet becoming a convex lens. When worn, the entire head was visually blown up to a large proportion, making the wearer resemble the cartoon character “anpan man.”1
The optical helmets were presented in photographs and videos, and within these documentation works, the artist and models commemorate the moment when these interface apparatuses are put into action by striking poses in outfits that match the helmets. In <Self Portrait-H1, 2000(p47)>, in which <Helmet 1> was shot, Lee wears a white suit and sits in a chair, the helmet fixed to the crown of his head as he smiles brightly. In <Self Portrait-H2, 2002(p48)> where <Helmet 2> was documented, the
artist’s face is shown with his stare fixed directly ahead, a sky blue background behind him. In the case of the technologically much more developed <Helmet-3, 2000(p12)>, the artist wore the third helmet as he walked around Manhattan. New York City and enjoyed a new form of interfacing with the world; this process was recorded in a video coiled <Helmet, 2001>. In the video piece, viewers could directly witness peoples’ immediate reactions to the artist as he roomed the city, and these reactions were actually more fascinating to watch than the artist. Viewing as the subway riders steal glances at the artist wearing the optical helmet that makes his head look enormous, or the reactions of city-goers as the artist entered a bookstore, or viewing diners laughing inside a restaurant as they watch the artist enjoying a cigarette through a special smoking device outside a restaurant window, the artist gives double enjoyment to the viewers within the video and to those watching the video.
The fourth helmet, <Helmet-4, 2001>, which makes the eyes, nose and mouth look disproportionately smaller, was damaged and had to be reproduced. The ninth one to be made, <TH4, 2004(p59)> is the reproduced version. (The T seems to stand for “transparent”) The fifth helmet was given the name <Device-H5, 2002(p50)>, while the sixth one was designated as <Pink-H1,
2003(p12)> (The transparent helmet has a slightly pinkish color.). The seventh and eighth helmets were created in a pair for a man and woman, and were each called <BH2> and <RH5>. <BH2(p81)> was created as helmet for a single man to be photographed with a block background, hence the “B” standing for black, while <RH5(p87)> was created for a single woman with a red background, with the R as the initial of the red background color. As the tenth one was made with the purpose of including it in a gallery performance, its wearability was improved upon and included a feature that allowed the wearer to drink through the helmet. This tenth helmet, <WRH1, 2004(p94)>, was worn during a fourhour performance/installation piece called <HK LAB-WR, 2004(p90-97)>, and received favorable reviews.
The Optical Unconscious and the Moss Gaze
In addition to the 10 helmets, Lee developed several other apparatuses, including <A Device for Walking Backwards, 2001(p108)>, for people who walk backwards, and <Satisfaction Device, 2001> and Satisfaction <Device2, 2002>, instruments that make the penis appear much larger, and <Eight. Eye Goggles, 2002(p37)>, which optically turns two eyes into eight. In the case of A Device for Walking Backwards, the artist wore the contraption and went about his daily life, experimenting with how the apparatus would change his own perceptions and how he would adjust to the device. The results are recorded on an as-of-yet unedited video. Amazingly, the video shows the artist almost completely adjusted to the device, running backwards from his dormitory to class at Yale. When he finally took off the device and started walking forward in a normal way, the artist said he felt nauseous, comparing it to the feeling of riding on a boat for a long time and having the sensation that the earth is undulating when you finally reach land. This piece also served as a kind of experiment, proving how the human body could be fine-tuned and adjusted like a piece of organic equipment.
On the other hand, since the two versions of the Satisfaction Device would look rather pornographic if the artist was photographed wearing them, these objects were displayed in the laboratory at the exhibition. It will probably take some time before these pieces can be viewed in action. If the Satisfaction Device is a little hardcore, then Eight-Eye Goggles is softcore. As goggles, their natural function would be to serve as a tool “for seeing”, but ironically, the Eight-Eye Goggles are tools that
are meant “to be seen”. A device that increases the singular left eye to five eyes and increases the right eye to three, it is both very poetic and visually very beautiful.
Most of Lee Hyungkoo’s optical devices utilize tools used for seeing to create devices that are meant to be seen, and consistently transform the body’s normal composition into abnormal forms. Yet who are these efforts and devices intended for? For theorists who have a penchant for quoting Walter Benjamin, they would hold up Lee Hyungkoo’s work as a “manifestation of the optical unconscious”. Benjamin, who early on wrote that “it is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis”, described the optical unconscious in the following mariner.
“It is another nature which speaks to the camera rather than to the eye: “other” above all in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious. Photography, with its devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals the secret. It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis.”2
To put it simply, this means that “In contrast to the period when the eye was kept in mind when speaking, because we have reached the stage where we speak with the camera in mind, we have discovered the optical unconscious through photographs”. Therefore, with Benjamin’s observations in mind, Lee’s optical devices can be seen as an ironic response to the age-old problem of the “objectivity of mental end instrumental images”. If we really acknowledge the existence of an optical unconscious that controls us, then it is possible to assume the existence of an anonymous mass gaze that accompanies it, on overreaching, immense “Gaze” that endlessly disturbs us. If we accept these kinds of suppositions, then there is the possibility that within a “politics of the gaze”, Lee Hyungkoo’s laboratory is a distinctive kind of psychiatric hospital of a troubling posthuman era, where operations end corrections of the self take place. If that is the case, then Lee is a quasi-Mr. Hyde of the posthuman era, while the man with the strange expressions covered with these optical unconscious apparatuses is the posthuman quasi-Dr. Jekyll. (Responding to this, the artist said that “the word that best describes my quasi-scientific work is ‘yamae’”.: 3)
However, Lee Hyungkoo’s works do not function in an optical manner alone. There are some pieces that veer away from “using devices for seeing to create devices to be seen, and change the body’s normal composition into abnormal forms”. <Enlarging Breasts, 2002(p43)> and <Six Cuppings, 2002(p45)> actually change the body, instead of creating a visual distortion. These half-optical/halfphysical transformative instruments draw on the unique social and cultural class that is traditional Korean medicine together and quasi-gadget products, to turn the mole into a feminized version and seemingly transform the human body into that of an animal. (Strangely enough, whenever I see <Six Cuppings>, I somehow think of Romulus and Remus, the protagonists of the founding myth of Rome, sucking on the teats of their wolf mother.)
The Historical Location of the Posthuman Mr. Hyde
Then, what exactly is the art historical significance of a “posthuman Mr. Hyde”? Where is his place within the expansive ocean of contemporary art? In order to determine his place, it is necessary to first discuss the genealogy of the posthuman. As is widely known, contemporary art was lead by a new trend fueled by the development and spread of new scientific technology (in particular digital technology) that crystallized after a certain point in the 1990s. Certain people attempted to categorize it under the name “posthuman,” while others adopted “skin” as a keyword to explain the new phenomenon. Below is a brief summarization.
When the ambitious, 1992 traveling exhibition organized by Jeffrey Deitch titled “Post Human” began, the new trends that it captured—-including the emergence of new, self-based, selftransformation and self-modeling practices created through bodily reconstruction techniques found in plastic surgery; the extensive influence of hypermedia; and the appearance of virtual spaces-would soon become a reference point for defining the character of the present generation of art. Additionally, the artists who participated in the “Post Human” show—Matthew Barney, Robert Gober, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Domien Hirst, Mike Kelly, Jeff Koons, Paul McCarthy. Yosumoso Morimura, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, Jeff Wall, etc— became the defining artists of their generation, signaling a clear break with the 1980s and marketed as the new star of the 1990s. However, the “posthumanism” of the 1990s was not just interspersed by this variety of sophisticated art alone. There was also a more
hardcore and shabbier world included within the name ‘posthuman.”
In the hardcore section of the posthuman is the “Exo-Skeleton” series, where Stelarc, mobilizing a B-movie-like imagination, experimented with the mechanical expansion of the body, and there is Mark Pauline’s robotic-mechanic performance production group. SRL (Survival Research Laboratory), which employs a fantasy-cartoonish imagination. In this vein, self-formed groups would take up their respective positions, and every now and then the mainstream art world would receive a transfusion of energy from this low-class cultural trend. Regardless of high or low class, as time passed, these edgy trends became more commonplace. Thus in the late 1990s, everyday, posthuman products began to appear, with the British theorist and designer Anthony Dunne (b. 1964) leading the way.
Proposing a new form of practice called “design noir”, Anthony Dunne emphasized the secondary functions of today’s electronic and consumer appliances, and succeeded in using the psychological/cultural/historical dimensions of products as resources to discover a new kind of interfacing. And of course, more artists were included in this category. The pioneers of parasitic functions pointed out by Anthony Dunne include Kenji Kawakami, who founded the Chindogu Association for “unuseless inventions”: Meiwa Denki, a small enterprise that produced consumer appliances in the form of gadgets that were composed of strange functions: the architecture duo Diller+Scofidio, who through Para-site become famous for a profoundly significant interface mixing; Krzysztof Wodiczko, who effectively reached the top of the art world with trash, using it to create
transport devices; and James Auger, who debuted with his social remote-presence and other eccentric designs. Yet the subject of posthumanism becoming widespread was excessively repeated, thus it lost its early reflective qualities, and turned into an “interface mixing art” which, in shows like the 2002 Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum’s “Skin” or the 2003 Walker Art Center’s “Strangely Familiar: Design And Everyday Life” clearly confronted its limits. (The 2003 show at the Whitney Museum of American Art titled “Scanning: The Aberrant Architectures of Diller+Scofidio was another significant point. This marked the first invitation to a major museum show for the team that freely used “interface mixing art”, but the reviews of the show in the U.S, were quite bitter and cruel.)
Thus, among major curators and theorists today, it is a commonly held view that the interface mixing art in the posthuman category is now “post its prime.” And it is precisely within this stagnant position and stage that Lee has managed to maintain ideas of the posthuman, and reclaim an individual genre that, through low-tech means, is worthy of being called “on optical interface mixing”. This is why I feel that his position can be seen as being remarkably unparalleled, Especially as he continues to make his parasitic-function devices, and uses these devices to create a game of illusion that opens up a kind of quasi-science fiction dramaturgy, his works have a relatively wide space for developing in new directions.
A Newly Emerging Limb from the Body
Presently, relating to the idea of visually changing the body, Lee has developed the medico- horrorcomedy aspect of his work through what he calls the skeletal structures of cartoon characters, and by showing a drama where the passage of time is reversed, he is moving in a new direction. The origin of this new direction is a piece titled <Homo Animatus, 2004>. In this work, a skeleton is made from analogizing the skeletal frame of cartoon characters, whose particular body parts are enlarged and minimized to make them appear cute. The skeletal frame was reconfigured to capture the figure in an enthusiastic running motion. This new work brings forth several interesting questions. By making sculptural illusions of obviously non-existent things, and by making them resemble fossils or the skeletons of dead creatures, this work confirms and strengthens the idea of a post-modem reality of cartoon characters (thinking from the perspective of considering cartoon characters as actually existing
Additionally, cartoon characters are designed by imagining and making conjectures about their skeletal structures (The reason why the best character designers, when looking at Korean cartoon characters, say “Hm, is his neck broken?” is because the basic body modifications were not done correctly) Therefore, a work that turns a skeleton into a finished sculpture moves backwards through the formation process of a cartoon character, while it also becomes a work that inspects that very construction process. Accordingly, people who have seen <Homo Animatus> will probably momentarily think of the skeletal makeup of famous cartoon characters. How cute would the bones in Betty Boop’s legs be? Are there neck bones in a wascally wabbit? How many bones would there be inside Mickey Mouse’s hand?
In an extremely fascinating way, Homo Animatus had its origins in <A Device (Gauntlet1) that Makes My Hand Bigger, 1999(p25)>. Initially, the device for visually making an arm with three fingers started from a cartoonish imagination. In an untitled work from 2001, the artist began to imagine the kind of bone structure that a cartoon character would need to have in order to be able to fit its hand inside the device. The next thing to be produced, <Character, 2002(p108)>, would become the study for Homo Anmatus. The famous American art critic Dave Hickey, who caught sight of it a number of years back, deemed that it would become a strong, fruitful project…. Thus, <Homo Animatus> is not a completely new work, but appears to have been a latent idea within the closely-related optical devices, waiting to be hatched. It remains to be seen just how much of a new Mr. Hyde will emerge. One fascinating thing is the fact that although it started off from a cartoonish imagination, this new work is less of a black comedy and is closer to a terribilita. And what a strange turn of events it is.
Bravo, Mr. Hyde! Bravo, Dr. Jekyll!
1 Translator’ s Note: Anpanman is a Japanese cartoon character whose head is a gigantic, sweet red bean paste-filled steamed bun, from where his name derives. In Korea, he is known as Jjinppangmaen.
2 T.N.: This passage was taken from the English translation of Benjamin’ s little History of Photography (trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter) in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2 1927-1934 (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge and London: 2001), pp.510-512.
3 T.N.: Yamae,” a Korean adaptation of the Japanese word ‘yami, is used to suggest a black market or acquiring prohibited goods through illicit means. The root of the word is the hanja character “am (). See Lee Chungwoo. An Abnormal Narrative of Doubleness Germinated in Seoul, in D.T. 1 (Sizirak Press, Seoul: 2005), p. 25.