A World of Contradictions

By Choi Hong-cheol, Curator of Seoul Museum of Art

Choi Chong-woon is a young artist whose work shows tension through a dramatic correspondence between heterogeneous elements such as matter. Choi is like a strange chemist meticulously trying to modulate one’s sensibility. There is no fixed form in his highly sensitive work that moves and changes itself by the natural forces and principles of matter under the influence of gravity and surface tension. Choi’s work is similar to Process Art in that it deals with immateriality, phenomena, and the implementation process, as the artist demonstrates the three states of matter in a chemical reaction by arranging heterogeneous objects or blending fluid materials. However, we witness in his work a dramatic scene where an incident takes place.

This type of artist is very rare in Korea. They are often seen as outsiders who address unfamiliar, difficult materials, departing from the trends of the established art world. Despite the influence of conventional sculpture education in the 20th century, such elements as space, physical properties, and movement are also considered significant even today. However, quite paradoxically, it is hard to find artists like Choi who have started to work with immateriality. We can find some familiar names if looking for artists in a wider sphere. Included in his list of predecessors are Dan Flavin (1933-1996), who deals with fluorescent light; Anish Kapoor (1954), who shows empty spaces and distorted niches; Hans Haacke (1936), a problematic artist who addresses the circulating state of matter; and Olafur Elasson (1967), who is rapidly becoming renowned in the art world to be an artist who deals with time, light, and natural phenomena from the perspective of a scientist.

In this context, I realized its true value when I first saw his work at the studio of the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 2006. At that time, Choi had arranged his pieces in the studio upon completing his studies in London. The first work he showed me was A Storm in a Teacup (2006), an installation made up of a teacup with the sweet scent of milk tea placed on a small, round table. As if stirring a mixture of red tea and milk with a tea spoon, a swirl was made in a bone china teacup.

As he once stated, this demonstrates the phenomenon of the increase in tension that arises when serenity coexists with movement. This work can be considered an epochal turning point in his art, expressing his realization of a daily phenomenon and the instant awakening of a more microscopic state.

Since then, Choi’s work has been linked to the expansion of the perception of phenomena. He searches closely for the moment of coexistence between phenomenon and matter, intending to present the inner tension hidden behind them. It can be concluded that his conversion from a sculptor who deals with hard materials to one working with the world of transient, fluid, and immaterial objects has required further inquiry into science, the study of the world based on human reason. In particular, Choi acquires knowledge of chemical reactions and dynamics by addressing materials in a fluid state such as beverages, cosmetics, detergent, glycerin, and medicines. Like an alchemist, he represents a phenomenon or a scene in a limited space by blending materials and objects, experimenting with our sense perception that often relies too heavily on our eyes.

Since the Age of Enlightenment when mystery science and alchemy disappeared, Goethe was one of the key figures of the Classicism and Romanticism. Along with his passion for literary, Goethe was also keenly involved in studies of natural science. He wrote several expert works on botany, mineralogy, and anatomy. Goethe was also keenly interested in art and studied Newton’s theory of optical science and criticized it, based on objective optical theories. He established the theory of color, criticizing the uncertainty of color definition. His efforts and studies to figure out the greatness of nature were eventually resulted from his respect and love for humans.

Many artists today are deeply involved in the discovery of universality in nature and establishment of subjective perception. Few persons can keep up with their interests in matter and fundamental elements. Although even scientists study matter, they have limited interests in a few specific fields. We are unable to analyze and elucidate relations between the concrete and spiritual, based only on any scientific theory. In contrast, artists cannot practice magic if they lack scientific knowledge on the law of nature and technology. They may proceed to a more profound stage if they can exploit these two elements.

At the Gallery Kimi exhibition, Choi’s first show in Korea, he presents several wall-hanging pieces including The Last Desert, in which he pours a peculiar liquefied matter into an extremely narrow and long water tank-like acrylic frame alongside the video, Sad Landscape. The video features the change in layers of a slightly slopping liquid that looks like a plain whose horizontal line disappears in the distance or in the mountains. In these pieces, the elements of Romanticism forming the basis of his work stand out. Choi’s pieces are particularly reminiscent of the magnificent paintings of William Turner (1775-1851), who was often called an alchemist of light by his depiction of object’s movement using the vibration of light, not the movement itself.

Meanwhile, Choi shows his sharpness by also paying attention to macroscopic global phenomena. His liquid work that might be itself a material that could cause environmental destruction ironically conveys an ecological message in opposition to environmental destruction and global warming. Despite its expression of regret for Mother Nature and a slightly pathetic feeling, his artworks resemble abstract paintings by Mark Rothko (1903-1970), who employed areas of bobbing contemplative colors infiltrating the inner self. His work suspended the intervention of all heterogeneous concepts and gazed at the world from a religious perspective. All this accounts for his paradoxical aesthetics through such contrast.

Choi also presents an installation that blends matter with language as a new material, extending the scope of his working methods. This is Hot, a work that uses pipes from a refrigerating facility, brings about an irony between the signifier and the signified by allowing viewers to touch and feel the coldness of the pipes, quite different from the title of the work. In another installation, It’s so Sad, he confines language to paraffin melted down like the leftovers of dried tears or body fluids when a candle light gradually separates the lines between brightness and darkness. In the traces of candles, symbolic of religious meditation, the feelings of grief and tension are realized inside us in a type of strained balance, as if recalling our past emotions.

Choi’s attitude to art shown in this exhibition is away from a representation or imitation of nature that relies heavily on deception. The confrontation between phenomenon and matter generates new relations in a psychological density, moving beyond original physical properties of matter. It underlines what we see appears different every minute. Exposing the Oedipus Complex, his messages arousing our attention to the environmental destruction of nature make us realize the harsh truth of coexisting contradictions.

His initial intention is eliminated from he result of a mixture of cut-and-dried chemical materials. Unexpectedly, literary, dramatic elements such as religion, nature, tension, and emotion are left behind. I expect Choi’s art to take up its own domain in our society and to be more active in the future. To do this, I hope his art could be away from any serious philosophical themes and be more lighthearted, flexibly reeling off his opinion about political and social issues.