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"Bright" Stars

The MFAH hosts a masterfully curated show of works by 12 Korean artists.

"Those worthless Democrats are ruining us," rants the cabdriver in Minouk Lim's 2006 video The Wrong Question. But he's not some New York teabagger operating a Yellow Cab. The driver is actually a Seoul cabbie longing for the golden days of South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee. The English subtitles of the video tell the cabbie's version of history, and even if you aren't up on postwar South Korean politics, he pretty much comes across as a Kool-Aid drinker. The two-channel video begins dizzyingly, with dual scenes of a car careening through a parking garage. As the guy's monologue continues, we see him shot from the cab's back seat as the artist's daughter appears on the other screen, mugging for the camera. Declaring herself to be French and Korean and American, the little girl is likely the embodiment of the political changes the driver is ranting against.

The Wrong Question presents a situation that about anyone can relate to — being trapped somewhere (say, Thanksgiving dinner) having to listen to an incensed elderly person you completely disagree with. But it also illustrates the life experiences and generational differences of two Koreans. The video is a part of "Your Bright Future: Twelve Contemporary Artists from Korea" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Organized by the MFAH and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the show is packed with smart, provocative work. It was masterfully curated by the MFAH's Christine Starkman, LACMA's Lynn Zelevansky and Sunjung Kim of Samuso: Space for Contemporary Art in Seoul, with LACMA's Hyonjeong Kim-Han as consulting curator.

Politics and culture are strong themes in the show, and Korea's history in the 20th century was pretty dire. The country was brutally occupied by the Japanese for 40 years. They turned Korean women into "comfort women," sex slaves for the Japanese army, along with trying to systematically destroy Korean culture. Korea emerged from the war divided and impoverished, then suffered through the Korean War and two military coups. It first had civilian rule in 1992.

Amazing: Fallen Star by Do Ho Suh.
Courtesy of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Amazing: Fallen Star by Do Ho Suh.

A rich sense of irony and a dark sense of humor are coping mechanisms sometimes developed by people who live under oppressive or chaotic political circumstances. Those traits are out in force in "Your Bright Future." The title itself sounds like a cruel piece of propaganda, and it's taken from the title of a 2002/2006 work by Bahc Yiso. Walk into Bahc's installation, and the light is blinding. Makeshift wooden stands present a bank of reflector lamps burning what appear to be mercury vapor bulbs, i.e., streetlight lamps. Aimed at the opposite wall, they cast a brilliant but unkind light. There is a strange, nostril-dilating smell to the bulbs, and their brilliance is headache-inducing. When you are walking in front of them to stand in their blinding glare, Your Bright Future is an intensely uncomfortable experience. "Your future" feels like a Gitmo interrogation room.

Bahc's wry humor continues in a series of billboards you many have seen around town. White Korean letters are set against a "cheerful" orange background. The words translate as "We Are Happy," a slogan Bahc apparently appropriated from a common North Korean propaganda slogan. The dark irony of that slogan in that country of starving people living under a nut-job dictator is hard to equal, but in Bahc's hands the slogan becomes a point of philosophical debate. Who is happy? Why? Amusingly, an MFAH logo was added to the work, simultaneously undercutting while unwittingly adding to the piece. The Clear Channel empire logo clearly visible underneath the billboard is the icing on the cake.

Bahc is a wonderfully talented artist who died in 2004 in his late forties. (I'm thinking he would have either nixed or been amused by the MFAH logo; earlier incarnations of the piece are logo-less.)

Jeon Joonho's video The White House (2005-2006) invokes any number of interpretations. In it, the back of a massive $20 bill is projected on the wall. Via digital animation, Jeon seemingly walks into the bill's central vignette of the White House and begins to paint out the windows with a roller and white paint. The building is slowly transformed into a minimalist rectangle, albeit with balustrade and portico. It looks like a bunker. Jeon manages the impossible: commentary that is simultaneously subtle and pointed.

Gimhongsok's politically charged work is far more exuberant, as he blends irony with black humor. One classic example is the sculpture The Bremen Town Musicians (2006-2007), which seemingly shows a pile of people in costumes, dressed as a donkey, dog, bear and bird. In handwritten text on the wall, Gimhongsok seems to express sympathy for the immigrant community by explaining how he magnanimously hired a Mexican family to don animal costumes and pose in the pile for eight hours a day, purportedly receiving the princely sum of $5 a day. The text warns against touching or disturbing the "performers." The pitch-perfect tone mimics patronizing dialogue about immigrants: "Let us applaud this temporarily employed Mexican family."

Kimsooja and Do Ho Suh deal more specifically with culture. Kimsooja's series of Needle Woman videos presents the artist standing perfectly straight, her back to the camera. She stands in the middle of crowded streets the world over, everywhere from Patan, Nepal, to Havana, Cuba, a lone, immobile and almost black-and-white figure with her long, dark ponytail and gray clothing. The brightly colored crowds surge around her, like water around a stone. The inhabitants of some cities stare more than others. Kimsooja drew a lot of somewhat startled attention from the dagger-wearing, old-school men in Yemen, while the glances in Chad were much more amused. The artist becomes a constant, sewing together diverse peoples in diverse places, all going about their daily lives.

Do Ho Suh's epic — and I do mean epic — work, Fallen Star 1/5 (2008-9), is the dramatic standout of the show. For the approximately 11-foot-high-by-25-foot-long sculpture, the artist obsessively re-created, at one-fifth scale, the Providence, Rhode Island, apartment building he lived in as a student. The dollhouse-like structure is cut in half and split open so you can see all the little rooms of the various tenants. It is amazing. Every detail of the apartments is exactly re-created, and you can conjure up the kind of people that live in each space by the telling choices of their possessions. Skate-punk apartments vie with abodes packed with reproduction early American decor. One apartment bedroom features a dead-on replica of a $299 Ikea double bed frame. Closets are packed with detailed clothes and cut in half, as are ovens baking turkeys, their stuffing revealed. It looks like it was crazy-making, but a blast to create.

There had to be an air of the exotic to the building for Suh when he arrived from Korea as a student. One can imagine the reverse situation, studying the homes and possessions of Korean neighbors for clues to their lives and identities. A literal "culture clash" occurs on the left half of one space, where a traditional Korean house, the kind Suh grew up in, has crashed/parachuted into the corner of the apartment building, spewing debris into the rooms. The parachute itself is a lovely, ethereal, fabric version of the Korean house, but it seems a little redundant. No matter; Fallen Star is an engrossing, showstopper work.

But even if you don't mind museum-imposed boundaries, here they are really frustrating. You are barred from getting up close and really inspecting all the incredible detail — the books in the bookshelves, the tiny halved carton of orange juice. It seems a shame not to be able to appreciate all that hard work. I wanted to bring a ladder to better inspect the building's third floor. Binoculars or opera glasses might be a good idea.

There are dozens more great works in the show, some discreetly beautiful, like Koo Jeong-A's almost microscopic mountain landscape created from powdered stone, and some large-scale and dynamic, like collaborative duo Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries' dueling flash animations. It's a show where you can spend a lot of time, but it doesn't feel like a lot of time. Go see it.

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