I had my first taste of Korean contemporary art at Mokspace near the
on the 14th October and I have to say it was a good introduction. Situated over two floors, the ground floor showing images of Hell and upstairs describing concepts of Buddhist Heaven, this exhibition aimed to decrypt ideas of death and its inevitable consequences for its audience. Park’s paintings of Hell are based on the works of the Joseon Dynasty and show the Great King Yomna and the other nine kings of Hell judging whether people go to paradise or purgatory. What struck me most about these works was how much they had in common with Western interpretations of the same subject matter. We see customary scenes of torturers with their lines of victims awaiting their fate much like we would see them in works by artists such as the early Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch. They are intricately painted by Park to make us think about our lives and consider the implications of our mistakes. No one wants to meet with these nine kings just as we do not want to be introduced to Satan or Lucifer and his fallen angels of Hell. Dante would be proud of these works. The detail Park employs almost feels like a painterly repenting for her own sins, the creation of realistic images of Hell being a way of the artist relieving herself of guilt. As with Renaissance images of this subject matter, moving from the top of the composition downwards generally means a movement from purgatory or the potential of purgatory to the judgements of a painful, never-ending agony made possible by ‘demon’ types who enjoy their occupation a little too much. I was struck by the manner that Park employs different artistic techniques to situate the action before us. Outside the foreground, nature is shown through a wash technique, whilst the main foreground barometer of pain is made to come forward with more scrupulous painting and subtly stronger colouring. It is as if the natural world is beyond the touch of this world of Buddhist judgement that has opened up before us. Somehow I always imagined the Buddhists would go easy on us. Not so much. British Museum
Upstairs Lyoo paints paradise as a welcome, if not surprising, relief. Subverting the traditional Buddhist paintings of this subject matter, Heaven is created as a festival of drinking and merriment, quite different from Western interpretations of Heaven. It is in this way made by Lyoo to be a very earthly Heaven, ironically subject to the human cravings of living in a modern age. In some ways it is a traditional depiction of Heaven under the influence of heavy marketing and PR: it gives us more of what we love and that we know perhaps is bad for us. Thus this show depicts the difficult relationship of our everyday ills to what will become of us after death. Deep down we hope that Heaven will have more of what we crave on earth but feel guilt over. In other words, we hope simply that it will be an end to guilt. Fascinatingly, Lyoo shows that even Paradise has a hierarchical structure where those who drink at the bottom of the image are drinking the dregs of what those at the top have been bathing, drinking and frolicking in due to its abundance. Sexual freedom and lust is also hinted at with the decorative use of human bottoms often acting as fountains and such like. I would hurry all of you to Mokspace to see this show before it closes on the 10th November. Whilst you are there, decide for yourself which is worse: a Hell that is what you expect of Hell or a paradise after death that, far from being otherworldly happiness, is simply more of the decadence and indulgence of our lives here on earth.