Tell Me Tell Me

July 22, 2011
U-Fan Lee, From A Line

This is an exhibition that generates a profound sympathy for those critics who had to review art in the 1970s. If the seventies was the decade fashion forgot, it was also a time that lost faith in art, seeing it as a specious commodity that had to be brought down from its pedestal and dragged through the dirt.

It’s hard to imagine anyone could feel nostalgic for those days, but curator, Glenn Barkley, from Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and Inhye Kim, from the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul, seem to fit the description. Why else would they come up with the idea of turning an Australia-Korea exchange exhibition into a survey of all those loveless, pretentious, over-intellectualised tendencies once called “progressive art”?

It’s a paradox that prog rock is terminally uncool, but prog art retains a certain cachet. It may be a bad sign that the title of this show is drawn from a Korean pop song. Tell Me Tell Me: Australian and Korean Art 1976 – 2011 is an historical exhibition that makes us feel good about the present. For its abiding rationale consider the old adage that those who ignore history are forever condemned to repeat its mistakes.

Even though this is an MCA exhibition it may be found off-site at the National Art School Gallery in Darlinghurst, whilst renovations are underway at Circular Quay. The NAS Gallery is of generous proportions, but the display still feels crammed and awkward. This is partly because the show contains a lot of small pieces that have been arranged on boards, on shelves, or clustered on walls.

2011 has been declared the ‘Australian-Korean Year of Friendship’, celebrating fifty years of diplomatic relations between the this nation and South Korea. Tell Me Tell Me is the major art exhibition associated with that celebration, and I suspect that both Australian and Korean audiences will find it a serious disappointment. The problem begins with the curators’ understandable desire to do something different. In the catalogue introduction they write: “we both wanted to work on something that was more than just plonking a group of works from our collective nations into one another’s museums.”

I’m not sure what is meant by “collective nations”. Can two nations be collective? “Rather,” they continue, “we wanted to trace a line along our recent histories and see where out art worlds might overlap, or where they might diverge.”

The year 1976 was chosen as a starting point, being the year of the Second Biennale of Sydney, which featured a number of South Korean artists. It was also the year in which the Kaldor Art Projects brought Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman to Australia for a series of well-publicised performances. As a consequence, much of the work in this exhibition revisits that Second Biennale, which went by the deceptively anodyne title: ‘Recent International Forms in Art’.

The show was in many ways an extension of the Mildura Sculpture Triennials that director, Tom McCullough, had been running since 1967. The Mildura exhibitions were arguably as radical as any art events ever held in this country. With each year, the art object seemed to be  ‘dematerialised’ a little more, as every international tendency in Minimalism, earth art, performance and Conceptual art, found its local echo. Looking back at the catalogue of the 1976 Biennale it has a consistency that is quite exceptional in the history of this exhibition, but it also looks visually famished.

The four Korean artists from that show – U-Fan Lee, Quac Insik, Moon-Seup Shim and Kang-So Lee, are represented in Tell Me Tell Me, but the Australians have been carefully sifted to leave only John Davis, Marr Grounds, Terry Reid, Stelarc and Ken Unsworth. The Irishman, Noel Sheridan, might conceivably be claimed as an Australian artist.

Those omitted include Ron Robertson-Swann, Les Kossatz and Clive Murray-White, who all continued to make sculpture at the highest level. This was obviously why they were passed over, as the curators do not appear to be frightfully keen on objects per se. Their passion is for updated forms of Conceptual Art, as seen in the work of artists such as Robert MacPherson, Stuart Ringholt and Charlie Sofo. There are a number of other contributors whose relationship to the miracle year of 1976 is much harder to fathom.

Foremost among those mysteries are the works of Aboriginal artists, from tiny barks by Yirawala to a canvas by Emily Kame Kngwarreye. It’s possible that one or two barks may have been painted in 1976, but if we discount the tokenism that sees Aboriginal art as an obligatory inclusion in every Australian show, the greater rationale is incomprehensible. Barkley relates “the ‘monochrome’ bark paintings by Yirrkala artist, Nyapanyapa” to the monochrome as “an ‘endpoint’ in western abstraction and a hallmark of Korean modernism”. But, with or without scare quotes, it is a travesty to describe Nyapanyapa’s barks as “monochromes”. They could not be more culturally distinct from modern art’s anxious obsession with the one-colour canvas. Whatever their deeper meanings, they are exercises in pattern-making, not significant blankness.

It is even more confusing to read an attempt to relate a painting by Emily Kngwarreye to text works by Robert MacPherson. This is the realm of curatorial fantasy.

Some works seem to have been chosen because of a neat alignment with their Korean counterparts. Christian Thompson’s video, Gamu Mambu (Blood song), which features a Dutch opera singer mouthing words in an Aboriginal language, is a good match for Yeesookyung’s video, While our tryst has been delayed, which features a Korean singer performing a traditional piece. They are featured on the back and front covers of the catalogue.

Yeesookyung, While Our Tryst Has Been Delayed

As for the works by other Korean artists, they are perhaps even cruder and more willfully inert than the Australian pieces. There is a little razzle-dazzle in Brook Andrew’s wall work, and Louise Weaver’s colourful, kitschified installations, but the Korean artists are less willing to allow even a hint of fun. Only Yeesookyung’s large delicate diptych, called Flame, and Hong Joo Kim’s pale, ethereal blotches on canvas made me feel like I wanted to linger for more than the few seconds it takes to say: “Oh yeah, I get it.”

Some works are almost derisory, notably Chung Seoyoung’s Stain, which involves nothing more than a cup of coffee thrown into a corner.

What is truly disappointing about all this is that South Korea is one of the most dynamic places in the world for contemporary art – second only to China, I dare say. It would have been much better if the curators had overcome their scruples about “plonking a group of works” into a museum. They should have plonked with gusto, sending Australian art to Seoul, and giving Australian audiences a taste of the best recent work from Korea. The idea behind the current show is so poorly sketched out that it never feels convincing. Most contemporary catalogues are groaning with long, tedious essays, but the catalogue for Tell Me Tell Me has only the barest information about the artists or the works. With a show like this a modicum of explanation is a necessity.

Seung_Teak Lee, Godret Stone

Over the years we have seen excellent commercial shows by artists such as Young-ha Park and Kwang-young Chun; Lee Bul has enjoyed a survey at the MCA; and others, such as Soo-ja Kim, Seung-ho Yoo, and Do-ho Suh, to name just a few, have featured in the Sydney Biennale and the Asia-Pacific Triennials. Any of these artists would have been a welcome addition to this show.

It would have been even better if the curators had simply focused on the two senior Korean artists of the modern era, Nam June Paik and Lee U-Fan. Both men have a large, diverse body of work, and are only seen in piecemeal fashion in Tell Me Tell Me.

The good news is that from May this year, the Korean Cultural Office has launched a permanent gallery at 255 Elizabeth Street, in the city. The inaugural exhibition, Korean Art Today, which runs until 16 March 2012, allows a much more comprehensive glimpse at one of the world’s most vibrant art scenes. The time for Korean art was not 1976, when everyone was working through the last rites of Modernism – it is today. At government, corporate and private levels the Koreans are supportive of their own culture in a way that puts Australia to shame. We should be studying all the things they are currently doing right, not the artistic equivalents of flared trousers and nylon body shirts.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 16, 2011

Tell Me Tell Me: Australian and Korean Art 1976 – 2011,
National Art School Gallery, until 24 August.