Critic's Note: Choi Jeong-Hwa’s Plastic Paradise
Jeonghwa Choi, Vernacular and Pop Art
Since the mid-1990s, Jeonghwa Choi has been working as an interior decorator, installation artist, and art director. In Motel Cactus (1997), the first film that Choi worked as an art director, the major backdrop of the film “Room 407” was decorated with inexpensive objects such as a red light emitted from a nearby butcher shop and cheap plastic red flowers. In the first episode of the film, a woman(Jin Hee-Kyung) ticks his boy-friend(Jung U-Sung) off by asking him why he values the painting of waterfalls “in the style of Ibalso” so much. “The style of Ibalso” refers to the art work of cheap and vulgar taste, commonly displayed on the wall of a barber shop. The waterfall painting inside the Motel Cactus contradicts to the original name of its building as the name “Motel Cactus” resonates with the image of the desert, and more interestingly, the painting is filled with sedated tones, which are reminiscent of the traditional Korean painting. However, spectacular scenery of waterfall in the painting can be rarely found in Korea. The wide waterfalls stretching horizontally rather remind the audience of Niagara Falls in the United States or Canada than anything typical to the natural landscape of Korea.
The setting for Motel Cactus effectively illustrates particular direction and sensibility that the artist has been pursuing since the late 1980s; he made his first shocking appearances in the Korean art world as a member of an experimental artist’s group “the Museum Group” in 1987. Room 407, for instance, is replete with not only cheap products but also with things that do not have any clear cultural origins in their artistic styles and themes?as noted in the example of an “Ibalso” type painting. The title of the film, “Motel Cactus,” has such odd foreign association, and the red neon-sign of the Motel Cactus blinking outside of the motel, to properly speaking, neither represent mass consumer culture, often imported from the United States, nor traditional Korean culture. Kobena Mercer, author of Pop Art and Vernacular Culture (2007), coined the concept of “vernacular” to describe cultural products under the influence of Western Popular culture and Pop Art in non-Western societies. Originally, “vernacular” refers to the culture of 'indigenous slaves', opposite to refined foreign language of aristocrats, for example, Latin in Europe or Sanskrit in India. However, as Mercer notes, “vernacular” in the post-colonial period indicates a culture that occupies a somewhat vague area--between 'mass consumer culture’ after industrialization and westernization and traditional culture or crafts.(1) For instance, imitations of folk cultural products for tourists can be said to be occupying this intermediary area between these two poles, being neither mass consumer culture nor traditional culture. Choi's Ladies and Gentlemen (2000), indeed, combines elements of shamanistic religion, Western popular culture, consumerism and traditional crafts altogether.
Considering the hybrid nature of Choi’s work, there might be controversy as to whether his art can be considered Korean-style pop art or not; in so far as the artist has integrated fragments of ordinary life into the realm of fine art, one can argue that his artworks is a type of Pop Art; yet, the culture of “Sijangtong,” literally meaning the old marketplace, upon which Choi primarily drew his artistic inspirations, clearly differs from mass and popular culture for Pop Artists in Western Europe and the United States. What Choi has been lauded as the beauty of the old marketplace culture is, in fact, the opposite of the media or “supermarket” culture that Andy Warhol appropriated for his artworks during the 1960s. The culture of “Sijangtong”--unlike mass consumer culture of affluent postwar Western society--has an aspect of lower culture as the result of creating cheap and sometimes fake consumer products from non-western, developing countries. Moreover, Choi's interior decoration of the “Ssamzie” Sport Building in 1998, in Seoul, for which he borrowed many design elements and details from the tent of “Pojangmacha,” snack stalls on the streets, and “Chirashi,” a Japanese expression of scatterings or leaflets of advertisement flyers, and Plastic Paradise (1997), made of piling up plastic baskets, are a mere passe-- in the artist’s description, “the culture that we should miss if it disappears,” and “unsophisticated, yet familiar vintage culture.” If the image of Elvis Presley in Warhol’s silk-screen in 1962 were an icon of mass culture in the late 1950s, the plastic baskets in Choi’s Plastic Paradise similarly represent the obsolete type of consumer culture that belong to previous generations in Korea. Choi seized upon his exhibition in Bangkok as an opportunity and ordered plastic baskets from Thailand, where sophisticated mass consumer culture is not yet fully developed, especially compared to mass and consumer culture in South Korea. For plastic which symbolized “Shingara,” a new trend of consumer products in Korea during the 1970s, have become considered “vintage” that has no longer occupied the main stage of Korean consumer culture since 1990s.
Jeonghwa Choi and Nostalgia
Why, then, has Choi begun finding inspiration for his artwork in outdated, vintage culture during the late 1990s? His works emerged, for the most part, within the historic context when younger generations of Korean artists appropriated ready-made 'objects' coupled with the advent of post-modernist discussion in the Korean art world. At the same time, the 1990s saw Korean mass consumer culture began to rapidly diverge, as best exemplified in the film Chilsu and Mansu (1989). Choi began working as an art director, overarching the total visual representation of particular brands and projects throughout the 1990s, and successfully launching his initial minimalist design concept for fashion boutiques (Yun-Su Park's “All Style” and “Botticelli”). Stylistically speaking, these interior shops were complete breaks from his object-based artworks with the Museum group; it was, however, due to Choi’s ability to utilize many artistic and cultural styles and tastes that had recently become available to his disposal, with the increasing diversification and polarization of consumer preferences in Korea during the 1990s. After a series of legal restrictions regarding international Korean travelers and taxing system were lifted in Korea after the 1988 Olympics, more international consumer products and popular culture become readily available in Korea during this time. Choi’s vintage culture, thus, represents his nostalgia for unsophisticated and “vernacular” consumer culture of 1970s and 1980s; is a tower built of simple plastic baskets, a common type of inexpensive household goods that were produced mainly for low-income families during the 1970s. With it, he also expressed his own concepts of time and history. But for Choi, the vintage materials become significant less for understanding the artist’s desire to preserve and recycle past cultures alone. In classical cultural theory, to associate plastic with the concept of paradise remains paradoxical. According to Mythologies (1957), a seminal account of popular culture by Roland Barthes, a French literary theorist and philosopher, plastic, in his dystopic vision, is regarded as a symbolic material that clearly evinces cultural characteristics of post-war consumer society lacking its stable identity. Plastic can be made into any kinds of object just by imitating appearances, be it either natural or unnatural. In this context, the original materials that were once essential to particular objects become undermined.(2) In addition, plastic is generally classified as the most environmentally hazardous material.
However, Choi interprets plastic differently. Looking at plastic baskets, he imagines a paradise. The artist, of course, does not think that plastic baskets at the old Sijangtong can manifest affluence. He rather seems to enjoy building installations composed of cheap household items because such work reflects the nature and habits of the people in old marketplaces: “They stack everything because they are too poor to throw anything away." Here the material called “plastic,” which renders everything made from it cheap, is meant to create an illusion of “affluence.” In this regard, Choi's work of plastic baskets embodies the hard life of the old Sijangtong people, not only for its lack of refined visual effects, but also for its symbolic meaning associated with its basic material and method of installation. What is more, Choi transforms plastic into an environmentally friendly substance. From Whoever, Whatever, In Whichever Ways (1994-2004), a collaborative project that Choi developed along with director Jae-Yeong Lee and photographer Hyeong-Geun Oh, he evolved Happy Happy or Happy Together projects. These projects invited viewers to bring plastic waste to an art museum or a specific place, as designated by the artist, and were on view in different parts of the world (Kagoshima, Shanghai, Belgium, and the United Kingdom) for almost a decade. Audiences brought waste household items they had not been used for years at home and hung on metal structures provided by “Gasum Visual Development Laboratory”, a design firm run by Choi. The Happy Together project was finally introduced to Korea during the Seoul Design Olympiad in 2008. In the Happy Happy series, plastic was accorded with a new, positive meaning; it was no longer a symbol of an obsolete consumer culture. It was used to deliver even a message about environmental issue. Thus, plastic as a symbol of consumerism of the bygone era was reborn as a material ushering in a utopian future; plastic was well adapted to Choi’s core concept of art?its open and viewer participatory nature. For nostalgia, as Andreas Huyssen notes, brings in a specific utopia in a past, expressing its serious longing for the bygone era; simultaneously, it involves with a longing for a future that has yet to be realized.
Choi's work can be looked upon as both easy and difficult; this is not just because his artistic resources such as familiar flowers, robots, and baskets are too banal and sometimes unpredictably vulgar. Instead, the idealistic messages imbedded in his artwork are allegedly too simple and straightforward for the audience to accept at face value. Particularly, the too-good-to be-true message behind the cynical appearance of his artworks discourages his audiences from perceiving exactly what Choi's work aspires to communicate. Encountering Plastic Paradise and Super Flower (2000) in exhibitions, the viewer may wonder and ask a question: What actual relationship do old marketplace people and Choi have if cheap tourist goods and plastic baskets are adopted to symbolize an outdated, vernacular consumer culture? In an interview with EBS(Education Broadcasting System, Seoul) TV aired in 2004, Choi appeared to be a man with a sense of mission to uncover the hidden aesthetic values of second-hand items in run-down antique shops in Jongno or an old low-income apartment complex in Dongdaemun built in the late 1960s. However, I am doubtful about how closely Choi's real life experience can have some real connections with the lives of those junk shop owners or residents of shabby apartments. To put it bluntly, these junk shop owners and apartment residents are merely those that have been left behind, those who have not received the benefits of mass consumer culture in Korea with rapid development over the last two decades. Choi's artworks comprised of plastic waste might appear to be no more than an arty event that regularly occurs inside art museums or design fairs. (Of course, he can promote the impact of public relation on environment issues through these events.) After all, Choi's will most likely become the target of criticism: Choi idealized mixed vintage cultures while disregarding the economic situation of those people whose consumer culture and living condition as outdated as ever. Nevertheless, I remain ambivalent about the future of Choi's on-going projects as I cannot entirely give up either my expectation or doubts about the artist’s idealism for now.
Dong-Yeon Koh (Art Critic)
Artist's Education: Hongik University, Seoul, Korea. B.F.A. Painting