A collective exhibition by some of South Korea's top artists has opened at the Venice Biennale. Inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, 'Who is Alice' takes visitors on a journey to unreal and fabulous worlds.
Imagination, surrealism and fantasy run wild in this exhibition created by Chuyoung Lee, the curator of Korea's National Museum of Contemporary Art. Located in a 14th century Venetian palazzo, tucked down an alley away from the swarm of tourists, visitors immediately feel like they have stepped into an enchanted world. The sensation continues as they are invited upstairs to explore an array of mixed media pieces that provoke, inspire and amuse.
Grotesque and oneiric
From the stunning panelled wood ceiling at the entrance hang strange glowing lights, swinging back and forth at random, as if possessed by some mystery force. Two rooms further, a pair of giant wings made of severed human hands hangs down for visitors to use as a photo backdrop - a morbid variation on the seaside cardboard cut-out photo boards of the past. A crazed miniature merry-go-round sits in the centre of one room, noisily contrasting with depictions of a sinister, desolate amusement park. In another room, Bugs Bunny's skeleton hangs in a display case - his front teeth instantly recognizable.
But many of the exhibits are joyful and sentimental. Haegue Yang's "Female Natives" look like trees made of multicoloured knitted wool, hanging light bulbs, artificial flowers and dried mushrooms. There's a montage of photographs of real people in their daily lives dissolving into photos in which they are dressed up to reflect their childhood dreams. A petrol pump attendant is transformed into a racing driver, a girl working in an ice cream parlour into an Arctic explorer. Watching the screen, Chuyoung Lee recalls that, as a little boy, he wanted to be a bus driver.
“I hope people who visit this space and see Yeon-Doo Jung's video "Bewitched" will remember their dream when they were young.”
"If you are looking for art with a political message, you won't find it here," says Chuyoung Lee. In spite of the differences between North and South Korea, Lee says his selection is about showcasing Korea's creativity, not about making statements.
"Here in Venice, I wanted to show the international aspect of contemporary Korean art rather than offer a political theme." While Lee thinks that today's art audiences are familiar with contemporary Chinese and Japanese artists, he believes Korean artists are largely unknown outside their country.
"These days, many people know Korean pop culture, like Psy's Gangnam style and that kind of K-pop," says Lee. "Korean contemporary art is also very genius and creative so I would like this exhibition to be a kind of stepping stone for the international art audience to discover Korean contemporary artists and their spirit."
East meets west
"Young Korean artists take all kinds of information and inspiration from London, New York and many other places." Lee hopes the exhibition will prove that there's no boundary between east and west. "Many students go abroad to study international art; so they like to pursue international subjects."
This explains his choice for the universally recognized story of Alice in Wonderland. But he says the character of Alice was not only intended to be the artists' inspiration. "Visitors can come here to this space for a very special kind of contemporary art experience. It's simple: Who is Alice? You (the visitor) can be an Alice."