"Made in Korea. I'm made in Korea," says Choi Jeong-Hwa, breaking into a broad smile that erupts in laughter.
He has a point. Of the dozen contemporary artists from South Korea in a splashy exhibition opening next Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Choi is the only one who was not schooled abroad. The internationally recognized leader of Korea's Pop art movement, he revels in the ordinary stuff of Korean daily life and makes art from huge quantities of cheap, mass-produced goods.
At LACMA, three of his outdoor works will introduce a sprawling show of multimedia installations, video art, computer animation and sculpture in the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. For Choi's "Welcome," he has wrapped upper sections of two walls of the Ahmanson Building, one overlooking Wilshire Boulevard, in strips of bright colored fabric.
"HappyHappy," his eye-popping installation on the plaza between the Ahmanson and Broad buildings, is composed of hundreds of plastic bins, tubs and bowls. They are strung on wires and suspended in flexible columns that twist in the breeze and jostle as people walk through them. For the third project, also called "HappyHappy," he has appropriated a section of the museum's chain-link fence where visitors are invited to hang their own sculptures made from plastic containers.
"Your heart is my art," Choi says, saluting public participation in his work as he repeats a trademark slogan.
But, like much of the art in the exhibition, his work isn't as simple or purely Korean as it might seem. "Welcome" was partly inspired by banners that decorate buildings in Tibet, Thailand and Vietnam, he says. But it also reflects governmental suppression of banners in Korea, except for advertising and commercial enterprises. Plastic containers like those in "HappyHappy" are commonly used in Korea, but -- in keeping with his practice of gathering materials near the locations of commissioned works in other countries -- he purchased the plastic wares at a 99 Cents Only Store in L.A.
"They were made in Vietnam, Israel, China, Pakistan, the whole world," he says. "For me, 'made in Korea' means think globally, act locally."
A man of few words, often assembled in cheerfully ambiguous cliches, Choi sets the stage for “Your Bright Future: 12 Contemporary Artists From Korea.” It's the creation of Lynn Zelevansky, head of contemporary art at LACMA, and Christine Starkman, curator of Asian art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where the show will be presented next.
After several trips to Korea, the team has fashioned a highly selective exhibition intended to shine a strong light on a region that is usually in the art world's shadows. And for many American viewers, there is much to learn -- starting with the catchy, equivocal title.
"Your Bright Future" duplicates the name of a sculpture in the show by Bahc Yiso, who died in 2004. The work is made of 10 electric light fixtures that stand face upward, shining on a gallery wall like "a crowd basking in the glory of a charismatic leader," as Zelevansky puts it. The piece can be interpreted as a witty comment on the artists as rising stars, a hopeful wish for Korea's future or a sharp critique of North Korea's dictatorial "Dear Leader."
The second part of the title, "12 Contemporary Artists From Korea," sounds like a straightforward description, but it raises thorny questions: In an age of globalization, is there any such thing as Korean contemporary art? And if so, how is it different from art of other countries?
"There is a vocabulary that belongs to the art world that we all inhabit," says Zelevansky, a widely traveled curator who will soon leave LACMA to direct the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. "But there always has to be something local, something that comes out of your experience, or the work becomes generic, pallid and weak. It isn't interesting. That's one of the pitfalls of globalization. What I look for is artists who can speak to a wider audience and at the same time retain something of the local in their work."
The artists selected by the curators were born in the 1950s, '60s and early '70s. They grew up amid political turmoil and emerged in an international art scene that offered visibility in worldwide exhibitions and fairs. After studying in the U.S., France, Germany and England, some of the artists returned home, where they participate in a small but active art community.
Others maintain studios outside Korea. Koo Jeong-A, who will be represented by a tiny landscape made of powdered stone, studied art in Paris and now divides her time between Paris and London, claiming to live and work "everywhere."
Further clouding the picture of nationality, the exhibition includes a Seoul-based partnership between Korean artist Young-hae Chang and Marc Voge, an American of Chinese heritage.
They met in Paris and their primary shared language is French, but their art -- edgy digital poetry that flashes to the beat of fast-paced music -- has been published in 16 languages on their website and exhibited in galleries around the world.
The artists don't want to reveal much about "Suckerdom," the work they have created for LACMA. But as a conversation evolves, they say that the piece will appear on facing plasma screens, mounted high on opposite walls of the lobby. Two 18-minute texts will flash on the screens, accompanied by a single sound track.
Voge explains: "The person we imagined speaking the text at the entrance, called 'Please come and play with me, baby,' is a beautiful woman coming out and telling you, 'It will be OK.' The one over the exit is a guy and he's saying 'Please don't thank me' because he is promising the world, which a lot of people have been doing lately."
Visitors won't have to watch for 36 minutes, or even 18 minutes, he says. "We have tested this. We think 30 seconds is enough."
"Fallen Star, 1/5" a huge installation by Do Ho Suh, a prominent artist who lives in New York, depicts a collision between a traditional Korean house and the building where he rented his first apartment in the U.S., at one-fifth of the actual scale. It appears to be a violent merger, but the artist has spoken of his "Fallen Star" works as memory pieces "filtered through the creative process."
Haegue Yang has turned an art-show-in-transit into her "Storage Piece" installation.
A silent comment on the perils of the international circuit, the piece consists of artworks in crates, boxes and bubble wrap, some of which will be unpacked in a performance next Sunday.
Gimhongsok's installation includes politically charged videos, drawings and big stuffed animals portraying a bizarre version of "The Bremen Town Musicians" and a white bunny stretched out on a pink sofa. Kim Beom has transformed an iron into a radio, a kettle into an iron and a radio into a kettle.
For Zelevansky, some of the themes connecting the works are "the use of language and questions about the viability of communication across cultural and linguistic barriers. The state of being Korean and responding to that culture is very much a leitmotif that moves through the exhibition."
"Wrong Question," a three-channel video installation by Minouk Lim, addresses miscommunication among Koreans.
On one screen a taxi driver raves on and on about Korean politics and power struggles, revealing his lack of understanding of the forces at play. On another screen, the artist's little daughter, whose father is French, ponders her nationality. The girl's grandfather tells her she is half Korean and half French, but she insists that she is also American.
LACMA, which has collected traditional Korean art for years, now claims to have the most comprehensive holding outside of Korea and Japan. "Your Bright Future" coincides with an enlargement of the museum's Korean galleries, expected to open in the fall. The exhibition is accompanied by community programming that includes public talks with some of the participants.
For all the artists, commanding a large space at the Los Angeles museum is a high-visibility opportunity. But acceptance of the offer wasn't necessarily automatic.
Zelevansky readily admits that she encountered "a fair amount of resistance" from artists under consideration for the exhibition. "Lee Bul, who is very famous, is not in the show and that was her choice," the curator says. "She is the one artist who refused, but a lot of others express real reservations. They don't want to be pigeon-holed.
"I understand that, but in this world that's not going to happen. The exhibition just provides a platform for the work to be seen by a lot of people. I think that when you have art that evolves at a particular moment in a particular place, that is a valid line of inquiry."
'Just an artist'
Working with Zelevansky, Voge says, "has been a wonderful collaboration for us." But he and Chang say that their L.A. appearance will be their last in a pointedly Korean context because they want to be independent of Korean politics and nationalism.
The danger, Voge says, is that "you can be seen as a piece in the puzzle for the success of Korean culture throughout the world."
"It's a very popular thing," Chang says, "to talk about identity, Korean identity, but I have never thought that I am a Korean artist. I am just an artist, that's all."