‘Come Back Alive Baby’: multimedia artist Song Sanghee wins Korea Artist Prize 2017

Amsterdam-based artist Song Sanghee receives the Korea Artist Prize 2017 for her new video Come Back Alive Baby, on view at the National Museum for Contemporary Art (MMCA), Korea.

In collaboration with the SBS Cultural Foundation, the conveners of the prize’s sixth edition nominated four contemporary artists who explore budding technologies, lost futures and alienation. Art Radar looks at the 2017 nominees and their contributions to the Seoul art scene.

Portrait of Korea Artist Prize 2017 winner, Song Sanghee. Image courtesy the artist and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul.

Portrait of Korea Artist Prize 2017 winner Song Sanghee. Image courtesy the artist and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.

Following MMCA’s annual ‘artist of the year’ exhibition series (1995-2010), the museum has teamed up with the cultural unit of the Seoul Broadcasting System, SBS Foundation, to highlight the country’s most prolific contemporary artists – an alliance which has led to one of Korea’s most sought-after art awards. To discover and promote artists who have “ardently persisted in paving their own way to artistic success”, the Korea Artist Prize provides a prestigious avenue for the advancement of artwork that challenges societal norms, questions tradition and explores personal paths of innovation.

The 2017 prize’s judging panel included the director of MMCA, Bartomeu Marí, the director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York Jessica Morgan, art historian and curator Kim Hong-Hee, and Philippe Pirotte, Director of Staatliche Hochschule für Künste Stadelschule and Portikus in Frankfurt. The jury unanimously selected four artists to present their recent work for the Korea Artist Prize exhibition at MMCA. After first-round evaluations, each of the four received KRW40 million (USD37,200) from the SBS Foundation to fully realise their installations before the elimination process. The final winner, Song Sanghee, was announced after a second deliberation round, providing her with an additional KRW10 million (USD9,300).

The Winner

Come Back Alive Baby: Song Sanghee

Upon entering the MMCA exhibition, something alluring unfolds that is too enigmatic to speak of as a crisis, yet the crisis is clearly present. A lost space opens up in Song Sanghee’s latest three-channel video installation, Come back alive baby (2017), combining archival footage, text and surreal drawing.

Song Sanghee, ‘Come Back Alive Baby’, 2017, 3 Channel video installation, 16’ (installation view). Image courtesy National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Korea.

Song Sanghee, ‘Come Back Alive Baby’, 2017, three-channel video installation, 16m:00s (installation view). Image courtesy National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Korea.

Come back alive baby deals with the end of all things, with death, salvation, apocalyptic conditions and the return of the impending disaster. Through references to the Korean folktale, Agijangsu (‘Mighty Baby’), the artist illustrates the birth of a new life force that is born out of despair and extinction, whether conjured by natural or manmade sources. She comments directly on the price of individual sacrifice for political, economic and ecological stability – specifically regarding eugenics and the global rise of fascist movements.

Fragments of video footage from World War II and other manmade disasters connect different space-time images with a present in which they have not yet arrived, or may never arrive. As many theorists before her, Song suggests that there is no post-war, post-trauma or post-narrative; there are only pauses. Wrapped in a desire to illustrate this ‘eternal return’, the artist offers a transcription of a future that evolves form an image arriving from the past, an image that is not evident and not necessarily visible. It is not so much about reading or deciphering the video, but about discerning how its echoes may reach viewers. Present time comes into the image through direct sound, and while the image and sound are technically disconnected, they merge in the visitor’s perception.

On the other end of the exhibition gallery is the installation This is the way the world ends not with a bang but a whimper (2017), which is composed of wall-mounted, blue-and-white ceramic tiles with hand-drawn depictions of different explosions. The Delft tiles, she states, are reminiscent of a “torcher room”, their texture reminding her of human skin, “the skin of history”. Also embedded into the museum’s walls were speakers playing a recording of greetings in various languages. In a public statement, the jury said:

Song had delicately presented the tragic histories of modern societies with fables and careful arrangement of multi-layered research and interviews.

Song Sanghee, ‘This is the way the world ends not with a bang but a whimper’, 2017, Tile-wall installation 8 in-wall speakers, Dimension variable. Image courtesy National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Korea.

Song Sanghee, ‘This Is The Way The World Ends Not With a Bang But a Whimper’, 2017, tile-wall installation, 8 in-wall speakers, dimensions variable. Image courtesy National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.

The shortlisted artists

The Korea Artist Prize 2017 exhibition also features the work of the three shortlisted candidates: Kelvin Kyung Kun Park, who works with video and large-scale installation; the musician and multimedia artist Bek Hyunjin; and painter Sunny Kim.

Kelvin Kyung Kun Park

Kelvin Kyung Kun Park’s contribution, Mirror Organs: Play of Metonymy (2017), transparently refers to his traumatic experiences in the army. The moving installation is comprised of robots holding guns, which are initiated by a signal coming from an analogue circuit in the middle of the gallery. By skillfully transforming the gallery space into a circuitous machine, Park comments on feelings of collectivity and comradery in the military, though not always in the best light. Dramatic flashes of colour and booming sound evoke some discomfort, alluding to the artist’s feelings of alienation and estrangement from within a collectivised system.

Kelvin Kyung Kun Park , 'Mirror Organs: Play of Metonymy', 2017, 2 channel interactive video, web cam, steel, motor, plastic, Dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist.

Kelvin Kyung Kun Park, ‘Mirror Organs: Play of Metonymy’, 2017, two-channel interactive video, web cam, steel, motor, plastic, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist.

Kelvin Kyung Kun Park , 'Mirror Organs: Play of Metonymy', 2017, 2 channel interactive video, web cam, steel, motor, plastic, Dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist.

Kelvin Kyung Kun Park, ‘Mirror Organs: Play of Metonymy’, 2017, two-channel interactive video, web cam, steel, motor, plastic, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist.

Bek Hyunjin

Bek Hyunjin, an artist who is active as a singer, composer, painter, poet, actor and director, presents his multimedia piece UnemploymentBankrupctDivorceDebtSuicide Rest Stop (2017) as a “multipurpose cultural space”. The arranged candles, restaurant tables and stools and plants create a place of refuge – a meditative rest area that is both a non-space and deeply personal. Viewers are confronted with a theatre-like experience where the artist’s motivations are made clear through spattered poetry detailing the trials and tribulations of a man’s life.

Bek Hyunjin, 'UnemploymentBankruptcyDivorceDebtSuicide Rest Stop', 2017, Graffiti with acrylic spray, ready-made wall-hanging cabinet, plywood, curtains, ready-made restaurant stools and customized restaurant tables, polyethylene foam, leather shoes, withered leaves and withered branches, stones and artificial stones, plastic pot, steel pipe, pieces of wood, wooden shelf, papers with a written poem (open edition) and blank papers, soil, sand, incenses and ashes, candle and candlestick, roll paper and apple, empty frames, LED light; Neon sign for 'UnemploymentBankruptcyDivorceDebtSuicide Rest Stop', 8 paintings for nemploymentBankruptcyDivorceDebtSuicide Rest Stop', analogue synthesizer and subwoofer speakers, Dimensions variable
. Image courtesy National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.

Bek Hyunjin, ‘UnemploymentBankruptcyDivorceDebtSuicide Rest Stop’, 2017, graffiti with acrylic spray, ready-made wall-hanging cabinet, plywood, curtains, ready-made restaurant stools and customised restaurant tables, polyethylene foam, leather shoes, withered leaves and withered branches, stones and artificial stones, plastic pot, steel pipe, pieces of wood, wooden shelf, papers with a written poem (open edition) and blank papers, soil, sand, incenses and ashes, candle and candlestick, roll paper and apple, empty frames, LED light, dimensions variable. Image courtesy National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.

Sunny Kim

The painted installations of Sunny Kim are also on display at the Korea Artist Prize exhibition. Expertly weaving together oil, found objects, videos and sound, Kim builds a platform for what she calls the “perfect image” – that which focuses on the “psychological territory of internal memory and lost things, summoning them into real-world spaces”. The artist’s two contributions to the show, Girls in Uniform and Landscape, both leap into the dark, as it were, approaching lost and unstable memories as part of a transitional journey to symbolic self-awareness.

Snny Kim, ‘Landscape’, 2014-2017, Painted wooden panels, wire, plaster gauze, mirror, Single-channel video loop, 43’41". Image courtesy National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.

Sunny Kim, ‘Landscape’, 2014-2017, painted wooden panels, wire, plaster gauze, mirror, single channel video loop, 43m:41s. Image courtesy National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.

In addition to the monetary grants awarded to each nominee, the SBS Foundation plans to produce a documentary featuring the careers of each participating artist. A particular focus will be held on Song’s ongoing practice, noting her profound research into history, storytelling and patterns of remembrance.

Along with announcement of Song’s award has come the shortlist for the 2018 Korea Artist Prize nominees. The upcoming year’s exhibition at MMCA in August 2018 will feature Koo Minja, the Okin Collective, Jeong Eun Young and Jeong Jaeho.

Megan Miller

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The Korea Artist Prize 2017 exhibition is on view from from 13 September 2017 to 18 February 2018 at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, 313 Gwangmyeong-ro, Gwancheon-si, Gyeonggi-do 13829, Seoul.

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