(Past work before ISKAI) Choi Jeong Hwa

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Choi Jeong Hwa 

Choi Jeong Hwa’s remarkable career and striking appearance may at first appear contradictory to the “power and spirit of ajumma (older ladies, married women)”, a matriarchal figure that he claims inspires his work. When some label his art as stereotypically “Korean”: encapsulating the energy of street markets and scenes from ordinary life that have become the hallmark of Choi’s artistic practice, the artist shrugs and asks “really?” Choi Jeong Hwa’s compelling installations galvanise the spectator through their fresh, spontaneous and unexpected approach. After spending four months preparing the exhibition with Choi, I came to discover a little more about his view of life and art.

The Real Choi Jeong Hwa

Though some might compare Choi Jeong Hwa with the artist-turned-businessman Andy Warhol, or compare his visual language to that of other pop art icons, Choi’s materials are, on the contrary, unfashionable and unyielding. While Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans are marked by their distinct elegance of commercial design and Jeff Koon’s balloon art works have a kind of refined industrial extravagance, Choi prefers to be regarded as a ‘male ajumma’; swaggering across the globe without a mobile phone and making beautifully hand-crafted baskets whilst sitting in a squat position all go some way to reinforce this image.

In conversation with him, one discovers that he speaks more like a philosopher rather than an artist, as if reciting from a Taoist manual. However, if you try to probe deeper, he dispels any potential conversational weight with the disclaimer: ‘just kidding’. When he met with around 30 students from SOAS University and Sotheby’s Institute, he deflected their intellectual questions with a charming counter-question: ‘how do you always come up with the correct answer? I’ll learn those answers for next time’. Choi consolidates his artistic compositions as if he were merely ‘playing’ with seemingly worthless objects.

However, as those who work closely with him can attest to, he adheres to a strict methodology, experimenting endlessly until his installations take on a magnificence that can be seen from every angle. Although appropriating the Animation character Ultra man’s mask and placing it on the statue of Jesus can be seen as a joke, it was not however, a pop cultural artefact simply chosen at random. The artist originally experimented (fig 1) with different masks, including Hello Kitty’s. The result may again look unexpectedly careless; however it is the crystallization of what has now been commonly referred to as ‘the society of the spectacle’. From a Western standpoint, his works evoke an Eastern sensibility as an iron hand in a velvet glove. Like a Zui Quan, a drunken pugillist, his art throws a fierce punch to an unsuspecting audience.

The Common Denominators between Ajumma and Trips to South East Asia

Choi Jeong Hwa attributes the fundamental elements of his art to his mother and grandmother. A more profound explanation of his “Ajumma discourses” was unexpectedly found in the forum held at the KCC: he revealed that he had ‘learnt survival tactics whilst travelling through South East Asia in [his] 20s.’ A region in which he sees distinctive similarities with the ajumma: for both have a strong sense of survival and resistance to the negative forces of life and nature. Growing up in the 70s, Choi observed the ajummas around his family circle and saw them to be women who were born survivors. His “survival tactics” and maximising the potential of what’s available is reminiscent of his everlasting affiliation with ajummas. He had come to understand the energy behind “kitch” objects’ and it was here that Choi’s art took its seismic shift. He saw this in the rough façade of the ajumma and in the cheap and tacky nature of their wares an unchanging and simple beauty; a beauty that was enhanced by the knowledge that it was successfully surviving.

Free Spirit

Another reflection of Choi’s artistic practice can be seen in his choice of titles. Though most artists would take pride in naming their creations, Choi asks his spectators for suggestions and then chooses the simplest interpretation of his work for the title. <Bubble Bubble>, <Fountain> and <Rainbow> were chosen spontaneously. In totally detaching the authorial intention from the finished product, Choi questions the rhetoric of judgement and authority and their subsequent imposition on artistic practice and reception.

When Choi does choose to title his own works, it often belies a certain trans-cultural awareness. The title <Shine a Light> came from Choi’s desire to bring sunshine to the U.K, and in this case, his choice of topic was site-specific. The Chinese title for the movie is read as “a flash of lightening” and it differs in its nuance to “Shine a Light”. His intention was to express the permanence of the existence of light: from light produced naturally, via reflections or through ultra modern LED’s. The world he aspires to is hinted at in his scribbles: “freed from an analytical, dichotomised view of the world and return to the big circle”. Rather than a dichotomy of action that fundamentally separates the principle body and the object, the eastern-thinking of finding art in an act of unification is a step towards understanding Choi’s Way(道).

Secondly, although he is drawn to kaleidoscopic colours, he shuns overt embellishment or artificial beauty, particularly any plastic beautification (again in solidarity with the natural beauty of the ajumma). In a reverse of this ‘plasticity’, Choi proposed to exhibit tree decorations of recycled plastic bags to be hung on the trees right next to the KCC. The preparation for this waste-landscape was strenuous: November involved the completion of various pieces of paper work and meetings to persuade the Public Art Committee to accept the project. Though it was finally permitted to be installed in December, ultimately the KCC’s neighbours were against the idea and the scheme never came to fruition. Choi likes public art that everyone can enjoy; not for the sensationalism nor for the sake of beauty, but for public enlightenment.

Last but not least, Choi does not fear criticism. <Bubble Bubble>and <Happy Happy> with their reference to the speech of children, may correspondingly reflect an artistic simplicity and naïveté. However, Choi is unconcerned. In fact, the repetition of the word makes the weightless vocabulary stand out in its added emphasis. His final concept of ajumma is also based on the notion that art is not so serious.

Since the opening of the <Shine a Light> exhibition, the number of visitors to the Korean Cultural Centre rocketed to on average 150 to 200 per day. Among them, there have been many mother and child pairings. At first, I thought they had come because the exhibition coincided with the half-term holidays. However, when they spoke to me, it was apparent that these children had been involved with the workshops and wanted their families’ to see their contribution.

Although the notion of the ajumma does not exist in the UK, every society can understand and relate to how the Ajumma’s way of being is geared towards the happiness of the family unit and an instinct for survival; Choi also manages to translate this tendency into an artistic form. Even when Choi’s works generate the discourse of ‘kitsch’, he is indifferent to this criticism. He will always play down his success and influence and by doing so present an affinity with the ajumma. Yet his art ‘shines’ and feeds the eyes of the public with the bright vibrant, dazzling colours and its neon glow.
His art looks like him.

Stephanie Seungmin Kim, Korean Cultural Centre UK

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