|Candida Hofer's 'Kunstmuseum Basel IV' (1999) / Courtesy of MMCA and BILD-KUNST, Bonn - SACK, Seoul, 2021|
By Park Han-sol
There is no doubt that COVID-19 is a major catastrophe of the 21st century. More than 17.4 million confirmed cases and 3.7 million deaths worldwide have been reported as of June 10. It is becoming harder and harder every day to spell out all of the social and perceptual changes the virus has inflicted on humanity ― from fear of basic human contact to the mosaic of social inequality exposed and exacerbated by different ways governments have dealt with the pandemic.
In Korea, over 500 days have passed since the first reported case of COVID-19. Since then, many galleries here organized exhibitions that naturally take into account this reality in their curatorial themes ― usually aiming to comfort weary viewers and help them escape from the suffocating reality for a moment and immerse themselves in art.
Against this backdrop, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA) has instead chosen to confront the unforeseeable pandemic head-on in its exhibition, "Catastrophe and Recovery." As the title clearly indicates, it aims to navigate the current "catastrophe" from the eyes of 35 contemporary artists here and abroad with the goal of uncovering paths to sustainable "recovery."
Although COVID-19 vaccinations have started to bring noticeable changes in a number of nations, addressing the ongoing global crisis that seemingly has no end in sight through an exhibition proved to be a difficult task, according to curator Yang Ok-kum.
"On a personal level, curating a pandemic-themed exhibition while my life was caught in the middle of this very pandemic was a source of great melancholy at first," she told The Korea Times in a recent interview at the museum.
What added fuel to the fire was the news of some of the MMCA's own staff members getting diagnosed with the coronavirus, causing the temporary shutdown of an entire department and eventually, the weeklong delay of the opening of the exhibition itself. It was a chilling reminder that the danger of the virus lurks behind every corner, even inside the museum.
Should viewers be made to encounter works that remind them of the very catastrophe they are living through right now, even inside the gallery? Is an exhibition really the right way to address the ongoing pandemic? Such questions lingered in Yang's head throughout the months-long period of preparation for the show. But she noted that such doubts were ultimately what contributed to the decision to show a wide range of artworks, each with different focuses and messages.
"There are pieces that speak directly to COVID-19, while others simply suggest or imply its presence in a poetic way. Some pieces, instead of focusing specifically on the ongoing crisis, suggest to viewers new topics to muse about that have become especially relevant in the pandemic era," she said. "So, in the end, we tried to turn the exhibition not into a place that fatigues visitors, but allows them to take a moment to contemplate on the fundamental aspects of our reality."
|Installation view of Seo Seung-mo's "Vanishing Line. Sea." (2021) / Courtesy of MMCA|
Upon arriving at the site of the exhibition, viewers will first note that the 60 artworks, especially large-scale murals and installations, are displayed not only within the confines of the gallery space, but are also scattered throughout the museum lobby and other common spaces. One installation, Seo Seung-mo's "Vanishing Line. Sea.," extends beyond the building's interior and continues to the museum courtyard. The layout of the pieces itself reflects our sobering reality, in which the virus cannot be contained in a single, enclosed space.
The number of featured artworks and digital pieces that speak directly to COVID-19 reveal different aspects of human lives amidst the pandemic, including those that have previously remained under the public radar.
Chinese artist Liu Wa turned her eyes to the new surge of internet culture as people, stuck in their homes during lockdown and quarantine, turned to online platforms to escape from the sense of existential crisis and "apocalyptic" anxiety.
In her video tower installation, "2020 Got Me Like," Wa combined footage from films, social media and her own life into memes to convey the roller coaster of emotions she experienced amid this unprecedented disaster caused by the 21st century's first pandemic.
At one point during the 9-minute video, top trending searches in the form of questions during the year 2020 appear and fill up the screen. In addition to hard-hitting ones such as, "How many deaths today?" and "How to file for unemployment?", there were also perfectly ordinary and innocuous questions: "How to change background on Zoom?" "Where to find toilet paper?" "How do I cut my own hair?" These banal questions have taken on a whole new meaning in the age of the coronavirus pandemic.
Another concept that came to be understood in a significantly different way in the ongoing crisis is none other than that of numbers. From daily new cases and deaths, the duration of quarantines and the stages of social distancing levels, numerical figures have become a new barometer to judge a nation's success or failure in virus containment.
|Two diagrams from 'The Unequal Pandemic' series (2021) by Lee Ji-won (archetypes) / Courtesy of the artist|
Graphic designer Lee Ji-won concentrates on these numbers in her "The Unequal Pandemic." In this series, she focuses not on the figures that measure virus containment efforts, but on those that expose social inequality, discrimination and hate speech exacerbated in Korea as infections soared.
Based on statistical data analysis, Lee graphically visualized the stark difference of the unemployment rate between full-time and irregular workers, the spread of hate speech related to COVID-19 and the steep increase in the numbers of reported child abuse cases in the greater Seoul area, turning them into ten black-and-white diagrams.
"After the pandemic is over, these kinds of works will be remembered as pieces that recorded an important part of our history," curator Yang explained.
|Hong Jin-hwon's 'Injured Biker' (2020) / Courtesy of the artist|
While the background audio plays deadpan public announcements of the need for social distancing in the form of COVID-19 emergency alerts, a limping red-suited biker onscreen is forced to overlook these warnings in the continuous struggle to move forward, with his destinations left unclear and in the end, meaningless.
Of course, not every work showcased in "Catastrophe and Recovery" directly addresses the topic of the virus. The exhibition's aim, as Yang noted, is not to overwhelm the viewers and be a constant reminder of the disaster, but rather to provide a space to reflect on the fundamental changes in our perception toward human connection and contact.
As a result, some pieces on display were produced long before the COVID-19 era, but have become imbued with new meanings at the present.
One noteworthy example is Yang's curatorial choice of placing two photographs side by side: Candida Hofer's "Kunstmuseum Basel IV" and Thomas Struth's "Audience 11 Florenz." The former captures an empty space devoid of life inside the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland, in 1999, while the latter shows a swarm of awestruck visitors in a museum in Florence, Italy, in 2004.
|Thomas Struth's 'Audience 11 Florenz' (2004) / Courtesy of MMCA|
Even though experiencing a moment of emptiness inside a popular museum like the one captured in Hofer's photograph would have been almost unthinkable in the year 1999, in the age of the pandemic, it has become a sobering reality.
"Last year was the first time for the MMCA since its founding to have so many days of closure," Yang stated. "A museum without an audience remains alone and without purpose. So when I saw Hofer's work, I had that feeling of emptiness that comes from the vacuum of human civilization."
And as Hofer's work is placed next to Struth's photograph, whose primary focus on a huddle of museumgoers gives contemporary viewers a strong sense of nostalgia of the mask-free days of old, the two create a striking contrast that is seared into one's memory.
|Gillian Wearing, "Your Views" (2013-present) / Courtesy of Maureen Paley, London; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles and Regen Projects, Los Angeles|
Another work that has been newly interpreted amid the global crisis is Gillian Wearing's "Your Views." This ongoing project that began in 2013 calls for worldwide submissions of clips of different scenes taken from one's window in less than 30 seconds. Hundreds of clips have been compiled throughout the years, and the project currently stands as a 162-minute-long video.
From a thundery night in Sao Paulo, Brazil, to a tranquil city scene in Mbarara, Uganda, to a donkey farm in the U.S. state of New Jersey, the captured landscapes present no dramatic spectacle whatsoever.
But amid lockdowns and quarantines, which turned international travel into an impossible luxury, these urban and rural landscapes seen from the windows worldwide provide viewers with a renewed sense of escape and healing.
Ultimately, "Catastrophe and Recovery" urges its audience to take a moment while everything is at a standstill to reflect on our lives and realities beyond the official discourses of COVID-19. In many ways, while the constant forward movement of our societies and economies has temporarily come to a halt, it is a good time to ponder humanity's co-existence with other living beings.
With the vaccine rollout, a glimpse of the post-pandemic era has begun to emerge. Against this backdrop, the exhibition encourages thoughtful contemplation about the present as a way to uncover a road to a sustainable future and recovery.
This message of sustainability is seen not only in the art, but also in the interior design of the exhibition, most notably in the screening room featuring Jonathan Horowitz's 20-minute video, "Apocalypto Now."
At the request of the activist-artist, the MMCA constructed the outer walls of the screening room out of the discarded partitions and panels from an exhibit in its Gwacheon building earlier this year.
Moreover, with the featured video playing in a loop throughout its running time, the exhibition is bound to use a significant amount of electricity that in turn contributes to the carbon footprint. This situation led the museum to purchase certified emissions reduction (CER), or carbon credits, as a measure of the environmental impact of the project, with the goal to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the show.
Apart from concerning ourselves with daily updates about the virus, Yang emphasized that it is necessary to have a macro platform like "Catastrophe and Recovery" ― one that gathers together a wide spectrum of social and philosophical issues presented by the pandemic and exhibit them in a single setting.
"It was a surprise to me that that the exhibit turned out to be a space where both viewers and artists here and abroad can discover numerous specific points they can relate to, without needing a larger explanation from the museum. I came to think once again that in many ways the pandemic is truly a universal phenomenon, and that we are standing at an important moment of history because of that," she said.
"Catastrophe and Recovery" runs through Aug. 1 at the MMCA.