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MMCA's mask-centric exhibition takes on new meaning during pandemic

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Kwon Jin-kyu's
Kwon Jin-kyu's "Mask" (1960s) / Courtesy of MMCA

By Park Han-sol

Throughout the more than two years of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, what has become perhaps the most intimate part of all of our daily lives is ― you guessed it, face masks.

Once a common tool of disguise and pretense in classic fables, masquerade balls and even the virtual-reality space full of avatars, masks have transformed into an essential means of safety and protection.

The exhibition, called "Masquerade," being held at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA) Gwacheon in Gyeonggi Province, brings together the museum's international collection of 41 pieces that show a breadth of visual interpretations associated with these masks.

From pioneering sculptor Kwon Jin-kyu's primitive terracotta masks, inspired by traditional Korean "tal," to Zach Blas's "collective digital masks" that resist any biometric facial recognition in security cameras, the exhibition presents contemporary artists' diverse explorations of the symbolic meaning of covering up one's face.

Lee Hyung-koo's
Lee Hyung-koo's "Altering Facial Feature with H-WR" (2007/2009) / Courtesy of MMCA

Lee Hyung-koo's "Altering Facial Features with H-WR" is one of the images inside the gallery that immediately grabs viewers' attention.

Inspired by his desire to "make up for" his undersized frame and build compared to his American peers while studying in the United States, Lee conceived of a series of unique, eye-catching devices. He enlarged ― quite grotesquely ― the size of his eyes, mouth and hands using magnifying glasses or glass tubes and fish bowls filled with water to build helmets and gauntlets. He calls these inventions "the objectuals."

"Altering Facial Features with H-WR" features the artist himself wearing a helmet he constructed. The large image was hung inside the Korean Pavilion located within Venice's public parkland, Giardini, for the 2007 Venice Biennale.

Kim Ki-ra's
Kim Ki-ra's "Super Heroes_Monster Mask" (2009) / Courtesy of MMCA

Another installation with an intriguing backstory is presented by Kim Ki-ra. In his "Super Heroes_Monster Mask," the artist built wooden sculptures that fuse the shapes of traditional Chinese and Indian masks with contemporary masks popular in the West.

According to Kim, the concept of a "hero" is different in Eastern and Western cultures. While Eastern cultures endow with power human beings who wear masks and perform religious rituals to connect the gods and humans, Western cultures tend to designate special characters already born with supernatural powers as heroes.

In order to give birth to much stronger superheroes, the artist combined what he referred to as Eastern masks with the likes of Batman's head and Wonder Woman's golden armor. But the result seems ironically like the misshapen monsters that the heroes are usually tasked with defeating.

Throughout its run in Gwacheon, the exhibition will also include an interactive performance that resembles an actual masquerade ball. It will be directed by Cha Jin-yeob, choreographer of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

"Masquerade" runs through July 31 at the MMCA Gwacheon.


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