AFTER YOU step out onto exit number 1 of Anguk station, you will find European-style cafes and expensive “traditional” keychains on the way to the Seoul branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA). Although traces of the old royal promenade are barely visible, the MMCA stands as a modern palace of its own for lovers of contemporary art. This summer, MMCA brings the first retrospective of the globally renowned conceptual artist, Krzysztof Wodiczko to Seoul. Take the long escalator ride to a wide space in B1 to meet one of the greatest living artists of our era.
In Front of the Red Wall, Gallery 7
Wodiczko became an artist not only to explore reality but also to transform it. After graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts in 1968, he briefly worked as a product designer but soon quit. Instead, he joined a new wave of Polish artists who were working to bare naked the Polish state’s totalitarian regime. The repressive state’s strict surveillance stigmatized a desire for new artistic platforms; thereon, Krzysztof Wodiczko explored the unlimited potential of conceptual art to awake the sleeping minds of citizens.
The Personal Instrument (1969) in gallery five is Wodiczko’s first public rebellion. The instrument consists of a microphone, earphones, and two photo receivers. Although it is inaccessible to viewers in the current exhibition, its user may choose what he wants to listen to from the surrounding environment by waving his hands. He may either wave his hands towards a light source to hear all sounds, or wave his hands towards the darkness to hear no sound at all in his ears. Selective listening, which does not require the wearer to speak out in public, served as a demonstration against the forced silence in the oppressive state. Wodiczko knew that the Instrument was subtle enough to bypass the surveillance while conveying a strong message to those alert enough to decipher it. In this way, Wodiczko boldly spoke in the public without being refrained by censorship: “Life became the art of attempting to speak indirectly about having no voice… one was forced to listen directly but not speak directly.”
New York City, Gallery 5
Next to the Personal Instrument, a series of “moving vehicles” show Wodiczko’s efforts to draw eyes to a city’s most invisible population such as the impoverished, immigrants and refugees. The Homeless Vehicle (1988) was designed to be used both as a personal shelter and a transportation method for people in New York city who lost their homes after the city was re-designed for “better surveillance and easier removal.” Poliscar (1991), furnished with its own television and radio, functioned to provide a communication network among different sectors of the 70,000 homeless people. The moving vehicles exposed the irony that homeless people are the most incorporated and the most ostracized population in a city. Although they literally live on the streets, they are strictly marginalized on the conceptual and socioeconomic level. Wodiczko’s vehicles provided food and shelter to its users and allowed them to feel a sense of communal belonging within the urban cityscape.
Projections, Gallery 5
Gallery five accommodates eight miniature theaters for Wodiczko’s famous public projections series, which allowed him to use national monuments as personal canvases. Since 1980, Krzysztof Wodiczko has used the world’s major constructions to screen his documentary subjects. The Tijuana Projection(2001) at El Centro Cultura, Mexico, is the most visually striking. Wodiczko uses a large dome as the face of the speaking subject: the iconic dome opens its mouth, speaks, and cries out to the audience.
A more subtle usage is the projection at City Hall Tower in Krakaw (1996). On the city hall tower, the spectators only see a pair of anonymous hands peeling an apple with a knife or playing with a chamomile flower. The women’s voices bellow from the height of the building and the tower serves as a literal body for the missing torso.
Both the dome and the tower serve as means by which the government promotes its political ideology. By using the state’s power instrument to display the most marginalized, Wodiczko restores the dignity of the subjects using their direct voice. The public projections thereby respect the anonymity of the subjects as well as dignify them in the most conceptual yet visible way.
Back to Gallery 7
In gallery seven, My Wish (2017) is hidden away from the rest of Wodiczko’s projections as if it deserves special privacy. Wodiczko was inspired to create My Wish after attending a candlelight vigil in Gwanghwamun square last December and witnessing the members of the Korean society paint the image of an ideal society.
Beyond the heavy drape, a white statue of Kim Koo opens his mouth and speaks… but he is not Kim Koo. He is a defector from Onsung-gu, Hamkyongbuk-do in North Korea. The next moment, he is a homosexual man thrusting the rainbow flag at the audience. Suddenly, he is a young female artist who was hurt by sexual remarks made at work. Then a mistreated army soldier. A rejected foreigner, a fired worker. They were people everyone might have seen from a corner of a daily newspaper. Now they are fully visible because a prominent artist had put them in a museum.
The MMCA is only eight minutes away on foot from Gwanghwamun square where My Korea was first conceived. The faces from Kim Koo’s statue appear as a mirage on the hot grass- but in reality, they are locked inside a museum and would be seen only by those who have a taste for art museums. Wodiczko seems to wave his personal instrument attached to his hands—waving forward to say, bring art out of small corner-shops. Take them out to the streets to interact with the public, broadcast them on big television networks. Put them in the MMCA for the sake.
Date: July 5, 2017 ~ October 9, 2017
Price: KRW 4,000 (Free of charge for university students with ID’s)
Place: National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul branch