Exhibiting Korea / Project Description
The Collection Context as an Opportunity
The Museum für Asiatische Kunst is home to only a small collection of objects from Korea: 130 artifacts in all. That is not a selection conducive to presenting Korean art in any where near an adequate way. In order to furnish the Korean voice with an appropriate presence within the polyphony of East Asian art, new solutions are being sought for the exhibition displays in the Humboldt-Forum. The fact that most of the objects are not necessarily representative simultaneously opens up an unexpected opportunity and allows for greater creativity in terms of presentation.
The planning for the Humboldt-Forum placed the works of Korean provenance very fittingly at the juncture between China and Japan. However, the Korea Gallery has such a close proximity to “China” that it could easily be perceived as a mere continuation by the visitor. For this reason, an identification of the Korean collection section seemed necessary. My experience, stemming from cooperation with artists in numerous exhibitions for the museum, led to the idea of also utilizing artistic expression here, in order to emphasize Korea – not restricted to the collection’s artifacts, but taking them as a jumping off point – through a special design of the space.
Linked to this idea was also the intention of offering a platform to the members of the source culture, to contribute their own interpretations to the presentation of Korean artworks and artifacts. In the initial phase the project was developed in cooperation with the Korean-born curator Shi-ne Oh, who is active on the contemporary art scene as exhibition designer and art consultant and at present lives in Berlin. With this cooperation the museum surrendered its interpretive authority and integrated experiences that, on the one hand, are rooted in the culture of origin, but on the other, also demonstrate an international background and thus mirror the reality of many contemporary but also historical biographies especially of artists who cannot be unequivocally attributed to a certain location.
Five Contemporary Voices from Korea and the World
For the project, Shi-ne Oh chose artists whose conceptional approaches can be summarized under the headings “Temporal Projections,” “Historical Interpretation,” and “Reconstruction of the Past.” The themes named make a direct reference to the history of museum collections and the objects preserved in them, and can simultaneously create a connection to the reconstruction of the Berlin Palace and the particular history of the place.
In preparation, a workshop was held at the Museum für Asiatische Kunst in September 2014. It served as on-site research in Dahlem and familiarized the artists with the aim of the project, the Korean collection held by the Museum für Asiatische Kunst and the collections of the Ethnologisches Museum, as well as the plans for the Humboldt-Forum. The artists were asked to come up with a sketch of an idea for an experimental, salient “identification” of the Korean area in the Humboldt-Forum and, with their working examples, to show what art vocabulary they would use. The highly varied works being presented approach the question on very different planes.
Jaeeun Choi developed an installation that in its referencing of classical image and song traditions exposes hidden layers of meaning: a darkened room is filled with the fascinating song of a woman’s voice. Searching for orientation, the visitor’s eyes fall on the subtly hung and lit image of a woman in Korean traditional costume, sitting on a veranda next to a lotus pond, holding a pipe and a mouth organ in her hand. The scene seems to be a visualization of the music. The reproduction of the painting by Shin Yun-bok (18th century), a master of realistic depictions of everyday life, references popular traditions and the life of simple folk shaped by Confucian values. To accompany the display, Jaeeun Choi arranged a melody from the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), which she reinterpreted with a poem she wrote herself on the state of the modern Korean nation. The work also creates an arc connecting it to the National Museum of Korea in Seoul where the original painting is kept.
The installation by Inhwan Oh, which until now has only been partially realized, creates a multilayered interpretation of an object from the museum collection and, at the same time, a reflection about the museum itself, due to several translation processes: the iconic representation of Mount Geumgang is initially made accessible via an audio guide, which interprets the painted paths through the landscape as directions for walkers. Led by this audio guide, different protagonists are planned to perform at different locations. The specific local circumstances will probably necessitate a creative interpretation of the audio guide, so that individual performative interpretations of the landscape occur. A multi-channel projection of the thus-created videos in the Korea gallery of the Humboldt-Forum aims to generate an atmosphere of movement for the visitors, allowing them to experience the mutability of spaces and the way we experience them. The art intervention connects the Berlin visitors’ present to the museum and object history in a sensory, tangible way.
With his singular photographic technique, Jae Yong Rhee mounted different views of an object into a literally, as well as metaphorically, spatial and temporal multilayered image. Due to the fact that surfaces and contours become blurred, the photographs allow the association of shifts and movements that each object has gone through, and at the same time allow a comprehension of the depicted object in its very nature – freed of attributions, that have been imposed on each object throughout its history. What is museum scene setting, what is cultural connotation, and what does the true nature of things consist of? For the project Jae Yong Rhee photographed objects in the Korean National Museum in Seoul. The photographs are juxtaposed with works from the collection of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst and inspire you to think about the histories and practices that have distributed such objects throughout the museums of the world.
At first sight, Meekyoung Shin’s object replicas made of soap, seem astonishingly authentic; only on closer inspection does the surface seem too perfect and the marks of the production process, as well as those of centuries of use, are noticeably missing. In this way the vessels provoke questions of authorship, originality, duplication and forgery. Even more fragile than the originals, the vessels also do nothing less than raise doubts about the museum’s fundamental function as conservator: specks of dust alone can damage the surface; cleaning attempts run risk of washing away the entire object. By counterposing her soap sculptures, copies of artifacts from different eras and regions, with objects from the collection, Meekyoung Shin blurs the boundaries between contemporary art and the so precious, as well as historically and regionally meticulously categorized artifact – an invitation to begin a dialog.
The sensitive images by MinHwa Sung, reduced to mere lines, are related in character to classic East Asian painting, but due to their subject matter – work tables in her studio – maintain an emphatic actuality. Only on closer inspection do they reveal varied references to tradition: still lifes showing “scholar’s accouterments,” chaekgeori, were a popular image theme. The precious paper used also references a décor element of Korean handicrafts with its formal structure, consisting of arranged squares, as well as Sung’s modern adaptions of the formats of scroll painting and standing screen. And finally, in the grain of the wooden tablets the artist sometimes uses, the bizarre mountain formations of East Asian landscape painting are referenced. For the space in the Humboldt-Forum MinHwa Sung has two suggestions: firstly the use of curtains or coverings made by Korean artisans for the windows and walls, and secondly the use of a standing screen as décor or room division, for the presentation of images and objects.
An Individual Form of Museum Work
Cooperation with the artists was highly inspiring and opened new vistas onto the collection as well as onto display and presentation options. The works bring preexisting collection objects and their history to life in a multilayered way. They integrate current, also international perspectives into the exhibition situation. In addition, an artist’s perspective, which is of its very nature individual and selective, allows the public to develop their own personal access, one that lies beyond the limitations of didactically dictated concepts.
However, the inevitable individual approach of the artists, unburdened by theoretical museum discussions, also harbors the risk that conservational issues or visitor-oriented interests remain unconsidered. The actual project’s objective – to mark out the Korea gallery in the Humboldt-Forum with its own “identification” – will require an intensive and advanced exchange – for which the present project, together with this evaluation and reflection, serves as an ideal basis. It would be desirable to undertake a re-design of the Korea gallery at regular longer intervals of perhaps every two years, centered on a different artistic concept each time.
Uta Rahman-Steinert studied sinology and art history at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and subsequently lived in Beijing for two years, where she studied Chinese art history at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Since 1987 she has been curator for the East Asia collection at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (East) and, since the merger of Berlin’s museums in 1992, has been working at the Museum für Asiatische Kunst.