2022 9월 30일 | review

Last March, India recorded a heatwave which reached up to 50 degrees Celsius. Death Valley in Southern California of the U.S.A. also marked 54.4 degrees Celsius, which was the hottest temperature recorded in history.1) Along with the bush- fire crisis in Australia, extreme weather conditions such as floods and droughts are constantly happening throughout the world within an unspecified period of time. Whilst the world calls for carbon neutrality, the main indicators connected to climate change are not improving at all. Rather, experts note that it is steadily going downhill.
On 18th May 2022, WMO (World Meteorological Organization) released a re- port (WMO State of the Global Climate 2021 report) which stated that humanity is currently facing a severe climate crisis. With its record of 413.2 parts per mil- lion(ppm), the global average atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased by 49% compared to the pre-industrial era, which was the highest record of all times, and along with the melting glaciers, sea level also recorded the highest within history.2)
According to the ‘World in 2030’ public survey carried out by UNESCO during May to September 2020 which collected the thoughts of 15,000 respondents from all regions of the world, ‘climate change and loss of biodiversity’ ranked as the top challenge (67%) which should be solved by 2030. It reflects how climate change is no longer recognized as an abstract notion, but rather as the most threatening element within our daily lives.
In light of the situation, many institutions and organizations have worked on countermeasures such as improving awareness of climate change, investing in green solutions, educating on sustainability, and expanding international cooperation to find joint resolutions. With the goal of meeting a safe and prospering future beyond the climate crisis, they are seeking for innovative resolutions to achieve net-zero emissions, knowing that the most imperative task is to put brakes on the changes in the natural environment.
The art world is also taking actions over mourning. While setting up new definitions of ‘environment’, and aiming to bring practical changes by delivering public participatory movement, there is the shared understanding that a wider perspective on climate action is needed, which focuses on finding ways of living that can coexist with earth. Public art campaigns encourage individuals to take climate actions, and more institutions deliver exhibitions which raises awareness of the possible calamities of the climate crisis. Not overlooking the connections between the climate crisis and art, the art world is actively taking actions.3)
Awarded the Gold Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2019,4) Sun & Sea (Marina)5) shown at the Lithuanian Pavilion is one good example of such actions. The work staged a scene from daily life where around 20 performers were out sunbathing on the makeshift beach, which was built with sands spread out within the exhibition hall. It showed how ordinary days with sun and sea can always change with the consequences of climate change.6)
Presented at the Sculpture Projects in Münster 2017, After A life Ahead by French artist Pierre Huyghe has taken a much direct approach in delivering awareness on climate change. Huyghe turned the long unused ice rink into a gigantic ecological set to explore the various interdisciplinary connections between architecture, civil engineering, biology, geology, etc., and also emphasized the power of purification and healing in nature, the great resilience of nature, and coexistence of humanity and other species; animals and plants.7)
Other examples include Ice Watch8) by Olafur Eliasson9), an installation of 12 glacier ice sculptures in Paris which was delivered in time for the 2015 UN Climate Summit (COP21); Minimum Monument by Nele Azevedo, which discussed the issues of melting glaciers and rising sea levels with installations of hundreds of hu- man sculptures made of ice installed in every city that was met with crisis brought by climate change; a public art project Breath With Me10) by Jeppe Hein who collaborated with Art 2030, an NGO art group to deliver the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) set by UN. Such works show that art practices concerning the climate crisis are still ongoing long-standing matter. Perhaps that is why as we look at Earth today, which has lost its self-purification capacity and has entered a state of ‘anthropogenic extinction’ due to decrease in biodiversity and rapid changes in the earth’s environment, we are all making sad faces.
However, humanity has met each era with a crisis of its own, and again called for art to respond to the challenges of today. Responding to the call as always, art approached the problem in a behavioristic attitude and took part in making the efforts to solve problems of climate crisis. Perhaps, art may have not only designed solutions for contemporary issues, but it also looked in-depth into the links be- tween art and reality, such as consumerism, which is linked to excessive production within capitalism, and also the sustainability of art existing outside the frame of capitalism.
Koh Sang Woo is one of such artists. Ranging from his experimental pieces from New York during his student years up to his current practice, Koh’s works can be recognized within the same context with his unique sense of aesthetics. He has continued his research on the changes in the earth environment and has developed his own counteractions on climate change. Now by working with public institutions such as WWF and Savina Museum, he is expanding his practice beyond giving visual inspiration into embedding his out- look on nature and ecological ethical sense.
Taking place from 15th June to 11th September, his solo exhibition at the Savina Museum of Contemporary Art, Koh Sang Woo: Forever Free-The Animal That Therefore I Am, displays series of work on animals which calls for interaction with the social and political transformations, points out art and culture is exactly part of the problems within climate change, and that art practices make valuable statements on its chosen subjects. In the era where biennales, institutions and groups continue to explore the subject of climate change from various angles, it can be said that Koh’s exhibition has been put together ‘just at the right time’.
The eye-catching blue colored animals are presented with Koh’s unique negative techniques, which is the core to this exhibition delivering the message on co-existence of humanity and animals.13) Although tigers -soon to be extinct- are re- born and brought to life in the exhibition space, each work gives a rather sad but resolute impression. (Strictly speaking, Koh’s animals are somewhat depressing and detached, but at the same time, there is a light and hopeful resonance about them. Such sentiments are aroused by animals and symbols including butterflies, birds, flowers and hearts, etc. Butterflies which either are depicted alone, or ap- pear sitting on the head of animals symbolizes freedom and spirit. Heart(symbol) refers to the heart(organ) and revitalization of souls.)
Beneath the state of serenity which the works portray, the message on catastrophe and apocalypse is hidden. Amongst the animals, lion, gorilla, wolf, and tiger paint- ed in blue on the black background hold a rather blank face. However, the eyes – highlighted in the shape of pink hearts ‒14) are observing what is in front of them, which somewhat triggers a profound feeling. (The reason he only paints animals facing front is to make connections. We can only make true conversations when we come to an eye-to-eye level with the animals and such actions come from longing for a society where animals and humans coexist.)15)
Eyes will be caught on works depicting two elephants twisting their nose together, two tigers affectionately rubbing their heads, or three owls fondly sitting side to side. The work where a deer with beautiful flowers and birds on the head makes eye contact with the viewers is also remarkable. Entitled ELEPHANT KISS, EMPIRE ROAD, WE HAVE A PLAN, and BLACK PEARL, each work is part of a series. The simplicity of the figures and titles allows for easy interpretation and connection. (Despite being wordless, their intense eyes seem to be telling a lot of stories. Here, rather than finding them piteous, I face my fate as a human being to feel apologetic towards the subjects.)
In Koh’s works, there is an awareness of the lack of action on climate change, which is due to ignorance despite experiencing and understanding its causes and consequences. Although the exhibition at the Savina Museum can be understood as a consultation or an extension of the direction that art should be heading in the times of climate crisis, he hopes that his works will show that art can not only guide people to more easily accommodate the serious environmental changes of the time, but will expand its influence the methods of social practice.
Through the beings who gradually disappear, Koh calls for mediation on the relationship between human and nature. Each of his works is engraved with his contemplation in finding solutions for protecting the finite environment. The subjects of such contemplation allow room for others within their presence (Exis- tence does not make an exception on the otherness. Nature is a part of it.) which ultimately comes down to ways human and nature can coexist.
Through his works, Koh shows how animals including tigers and many others are not free from the challenge of survival brought on by climate change, and BLACK STAR, effects the reality where one cannot move forward beyond the barbed wire fences. Elephant and earth depicted in COSMOS16) raises awareness of environ- mental pollution by contrasting the image of clean earth of past and the polluted earth of today. For BLACKPEARL series Koh overlapped photographs of flowers and butterflies onto the photograph of a deer, painted heart shapes on its eyes and printed them in negative, which is his unique artistic language of resistance.
In pursuit of solidarity between nature and humans, Joseph Beuys initiated his project, 7,000 Oaks (1982), in Fridericianum at Kassel, Germany, and as a warning on the extinction of forests due to climate change, in Ghost Forest, Maya Lin planted 49 dead white cedar trees in Madison Square Park in Manhattan, United States. Classification of genres is meaningless when facing current environmental issues.
From the paintings like The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, to Hollywood disaster film like The Day After Tomorrow (2004) by Roland Emmerich and Interstellar (2014)17) by Christopher Nolan, and photographs of starving polar bears sent by environmental organizations, regardless of the type of media, they all are in line with Koh’s work in a way all the works investigate the climate crisis of the era and how interconnected all life forms on earth are.
American artist Alan Sonfist, German media artist Dirk Fleischmann, art critic and writer Suzi Gablik, etc., all show works that deviate from the artificial-processed environment and show the activeness of art under an ecological perspective which fundamentally coincides with Koh’s practice.18) In fact, Koh also urges us to change our behavior by voicing climate issues within his visual art. (Therefore, his exhibition can be said to be a campaign and a visual writing.)
However, those who remember Koh’s past works may find Koh Sang Woo: Forever Free-The Animal That Therefore I am very alien. He is well known for his practice of reversing the color and shades of the photographs, which was noted even back in the days when I myself was working as an editor in chief in an art magazine. Koh started to work with endangered animals after participating in the exhibition at the Savina Museum in 2019. Reading Kimio Endo’s book Why Did Korean Tigers Disappear? ,19) he worked with the subject of the last tiger of Joseon Dynasty, and as seen in the following works such as ALGORITHMS where he used tigers to form a shape of heart, tigers have become the core subject of his practice.
The tiger, which has a meaningful position in this exhibition, owes its extinction in the Korean peninsula to the values of Joseon’s minbon (people as the basis) politics with its roots in Neo-Confucianism, and the idea of eliminating what is harmful for the people) of Government General of Korea during Japanese colonial era. (Which led to the elimination of tigers in Korea.) However, Koh’s works of tigers deliver the idea that even if the tigers
Tiger has been set as the core axis of this exhibition for complex reasons; this exhibition is held in the year of the tiger; tiger is the animal which represents Korea; and it is one of the endangered species across the world. Also, studies on tigers by WWF, an organization that deals with key indicators on climate change and col- laborates with the private sector in each country to conserve and restore nature, have been another factor in focusing on tigers in this exhibition.
According to WWF, prior to the 21st century, numbers of wild tigers were record- ed up to 100,000, however since entering the 21st century, the numbers have decreased by 97%, to mark 3,200 in 2010. Consequently, countries, institutions and civic groups who felt the need for tiger conservation activities came together in 2010, the year of the tiger, to hold the 1st Global Tiger Summit (St. Petersburg Tiger Summit) in St. Petersburg, Russia.
In this summit, 13 tiger range country governments and the global conservation community have set up the project ‘Tiger Times Two’ which was aimed at doubling the numbers of tigers until the succeeding year of the tiger, 2022, from what was 3,200 tigers in 2010. Fortunately, there was some meaningful progress seen in the interim evaluation carried out in 2016, as numbers of tigers marked 3,900, increasing by about 700.
For Koh, the tiger is a symbol of solidarity.22) Destruction of its habitats will not only endanger the tigers but also endanger the food chain and the bigger eco- system, and imbalance in the ecosystem will lead to a vicious cycle which in due course will have negative effects on humanity. Koh’s practice is based on the understanding of such consequences and aims to make collaborations with the groups and institutions whose goal is to ultimately reach coexistence of humanity and nature.
Another element to look at within the exhibition is blue. While working in the darkroom, Koh came across how the skin of Asian people appeared blue on negatives and was “drawn to the grotesque and gloomy blue,” which is the color that now dominates his paintings of animals.
His attraction to blue is connected to the racism which he experienced. While studying in the United States, as a resistance against the discriminations towards Koreans and furthermore Asians, he carried out a project where he as an Asian man, the lowest class, dressed up as the blonde, white woman, regarded as the top class, and took public space as a stage to deliver performance and happenings which re-climate change. Therefore, tiger is the subject which raises the practical fear of ‘human-induced extinction which is triggered by decrease in biodiversity and climate change.
Following the Industrial Revolution, emission of greenhouse gasses such as car- bon dioxide, methane, nitrogen dioxide has increased significantly. Researchers say that since the 19th century, the surface and ocean temperatures have risen sharply, on which animals, including humans, live on their feet. In particular, the range of change was large in the Arctic and Antarctic, where the changes in the last 20 years have been almost dramatic.
Since the early 21st century, up until 2018, the average surface temperature has risen by 0.93 degrees Celsius when compared to 1980. Scientists say that just the rise of 1 degree Celsius in the future will lead to an apocalypse for humanity. (Koh also addresses the issue of 1°C in his 200-drawing series. This series of drawings are immediately conceivable with a straightforward message.) What is easy to overlook in current reality is the objectification of animals and plants in light of anthropo- centrism. One may overlook the fact that the ‘environment’ that one discusses is an environment as defined by anthropocentrism.
We often conceive of nature or environment as our surroundings. In the word ‘environment,’ a sense of superiority of humanity is inherent, and coexisting with nature is done within the so-called environment which is defined and built by hu- mans for the humans. It clearly stands out within Koh’s work, with his depiction of violations on the natural environment. Of course, animals are also victims of such abuse.
However, in the contemporary era where no criticism has been made towards art that only maximizes product value or consumes and volatilizes, art that prioritizes harmony and symbiosis with the natural ecosystem is meaningful, but the reward in the market may not be great. Despite being adjacent to the ‘real-life problem’ of the natural ecology within human beings, this exhibition at the Savina Museum still relates the function and role of art to the maintenance of the entire ecosystem, which is rare to come across as much as finding art which has become part of social activity.
Where ‘real life problems’ are ignored lies plausible reasons and tangible out- comes. They are either projecting political positions, or getting immersed in commercial and public response. Here, there is no room for art as an institution to deliver intimacy of the natural environment and ecological ethics regarding nature. Therefore, it is often not possible to diagnose the global ecological crisis including the climate crisis, and the value of life that mankind should aim for in the face of environmental destruction, and also the outcomes of pursuing such possibilities. As many exhibitions end as a ‘show’ without discourse, in some natural environment themed projects, it is not easy to witness art playing the social roles regarding ecological aesthetics and enhancing recognition of nature.24)
In this way, relationship and circularity between human and nature, unity in em- bracing all diverse entities to walk the right path, and chŏp-hwa-kun-saeng which embeds existence and vitality seems impossible to be realized for the moment being. However, it is only through some contemporary art- ists that we witness the ‘real life problems.’ They give us an insight on how nature works within the art, a differing approach from art taking nature as a subject to be represented. The same is true of Koh’s work, which differ in the methods and its outcome from the works of Richard Long, an artist who unraveled through art the negligence of nature within a global community where we all live together, or Ayse Erkmen’s On Water which presented the true nature of ecology, but ultimately there lies a shared essence between these works.
Their practices embed aesthetics of returning and embracing the essence. Moving away from the artificial environment that has continuously developed within civilization, offsetting the sense of distance between others, the works are permeated with the words of healing and harmony rather than conflict and confrontation, and filled with hopes for a bright and healthy future regarding climate change. Koh especially focuses on reproducing the modernity of the community by unraveling it individually within his unique reflection. Without the need to bring for- ward Kimio Endo’s theory on extinction of tigers, animals have already become visibly invisible. Through these animals, Koh works back and forth between hu- man and nature, human and environment and anthropocentrism and ecology to constantly deliver meaningful messages.
That said, there is not much time for artists to become familiar with the current crisis caused by climate change, and better actions should be taken right away. In delivering artistic production, it should not be a delivery on abstract notions but a mode of action which may take time to speak, write, recite and perform, and that it should be based on altruism that just as human cares for one another, we should do the same for the animals which are part of the nature.