Korean/Finnish artist duo


Preface to Exhibition "House of Cards" (Let There Be Motorways) at TEMI Artist Residency (Daejeon, South Korea), 2016
House of Cards, A Precarious Yet Beautiful Allegory

Anna Kang, Independent Curator

The slogan “Dynamic Korea!” was launched as a national brand during the run-up to the football World Cup 2002 (held in Japan and Korea). Compressed in the slogan was a view of a dynamic nation capable of pulling off the incredible economical success story dubbed ‘the miracle of the Han river’ and overcoming the currency crisis of the late 1990´s (involving IMF). Regardless of any recognised achievements brought forth by a decade of government run projects, in hindsight “Dynamic Korea!” seems more to have been a prophecy; 10 years later the slogan looks both affirmative and negative as well as fascinating and mocking all at the same time.
At the centre of this ‘dynamism’ stands a very large-scale construction project initiated by the government. Within half a century, through the various projects (including the regulation of land use, expansion of infrastructure and housing supply) the Republic of Korea rose from the devastation of the Japanese occupation and the Korean War to being one of the richest and most developed countries in the world. However, this modernisation was solely focused on economical growth and progress, with little debate regarding the larger effects on culture and society. The consequences of this neglect of reflection are suffered to this day.

In their project ‘House of Cards’ the artist duo Nana & Felix deal with the very errors and symptoms derived from the leftovers of this project of modernisation. Their works directly engage with large-scale apartment housing developments and the entirely new cities that were built under the government-run programmes. The area of their fieldwork encompasses hundreds of apartment housings in Seoul, Deajeon, Chungnam province as well as the IFEZ (Incheon Free Economic Zone) Songdo in Incheon. Their solo show at TEMI artist residency, also titled ‘House of Cards’, exhibits the results of their artistic research carried out over the last years. The exhibition could be seen as consisting of three parts: Firstly, a city that lacks sense of history and place. Secondly, a city that is interspersed with ‘Koreanized’ versions of westernized aesthetics. Thirdly, a city that is governed by materialist classification based on the value of location.

1. A city without sense of history and place.

Historically, the development of cities is based on (natural) geographical elements and the operation of social capital shared by a group of people with similar cultural identification. In the Korean city of today the ‘natural’ elements have been entirely replaced by political and economical logics. The purpose of a planned city, or a ‘new city’, is to alleviate the pressure of overpopulation directed at the ever-growing metropolis, through providing sufficient housing and dispersing the population. Under this process, many ‘new city’ projects, built in the middle of nowhere, turn into sleepy commuter towns. This is exactly the case for the apartment blocks in Asan (Chungnam) that became the backdrop of the work ‘107-1502’. This was also where Nana & Felix temporarily resided. As Lego-blocks stacked up here and there, stretched into the horizon, these high risers fill the landscape allowing us to spot some patches of hilly lands and small-scale farming fields. One wonders how many mountains and valleys have been demolished and blocked in a country where 70% of the land area consists of mountains. But this is not about protecting the nature. To quote a stinging comment made by architect Hyosang Seung, this is about a ludicrous (터무니 teomuni in Korean) situation of people residing in apartments in ‘new cities’ that are built on the complete destruction of the patterns (무늬 munui) of the original ground (터 teo). In this context, the story of housewife Mrs A, narrated in the work ’107-1502’ – the first piece that the viewer faces when entering the exhibition – has a profound significance. It is not merely a portrayal of the tragic circumstances of one individual; it is just as much about the contradiction and incompatibility of life in a place where the sense of history and place has been completely wiped out due to aggressive development planning. This sort of distancing between city, nature and human is also vivid in the work ‘New City’, a video documentation of the landscapes around IFEZ Songdo. Built on a mud field, this sterile city is currently in the midst of a ‘place marketing war’ in order to lure new residents so that the city could build its own layers of time. According to the praise of the media, this may happen in a near future. However, considering that the physical and functional lifespan of a building is on average 27 years, it is rather pitiable to think of a city that would be in a continuous loop of appearing and disappearing every 30 years; as if Alzheimer’s disease affected its memory.

2. A city with westernized aesthetics

Le Corbusier, one of the pioneers of modern architecture, understood a house as ‘a machine for living’ and proposed a ‘radiant city’ consisting mainly of high risers with the remaining grounds to be filled with green areas and parks. South Korean cities, on the contrary, are submerged in, as the artist duo puts it, “a constant strive for progress”. Being trapped in its own hypnotic mirage of ‘progress’, the cities radiate only flashes from the metal and glass that cover the post modernistic buildings; just as the LED display in the exhibition flashes the word ‘Progress’.
The rational technology of the West was not meant to be a suppressive mechanism against cohabitation with the native culture and its nature. Nevertheless, under the justification of progress, the process of modernizing Korean cities exhibits violently distorted aspects of western ideals accompanied with a near eradication of all that is old.
A classic example of modernisation in South Korea can be found in Saemaul Undong. Regarding it as a symbol of poverty, The New Village Movement attempted a complete eradication of the thatched-roof house, a common housing at the time. First off, the thatched-roof was replaced by slates, the houses were then renovated completely, only to finally be demolished and replaced by apartment-housing blocks. Such phenomenon may be regarded as inevitable due to the needs of the time. However, in its foundation lays the cultural toadyism (meaning: to preserve the existence of an entity or nation that bases its unity and power in a total lack of identity) and a false belief that modernisation equals westernisation. In this context, the two dimensional series A.E.O.P.C.A.H. pinpoints our mistaken notions. The artists took close-up photographs of apartment buildings that were decorated with minimalistic colour planes visually resembling abstract paintings. They then placed those images into traditional Korean painting frames. This disparate combination of the image and the frame not only superbly visualises the irrationality of Western aesthetics in Korean tradition, but also calls for a self-reflection on the unconditional accommodation of Western values without realistic demands or appropriateness.

3. A city governed by location-based materialist classification

A few years ago a graphic table called ‘Metropolitan Area Classification’ was the talk of the town. This simple table was designed to show the residents social class according to the price of land value within the Seoul metropolitan area. The table first appeared on an internet community board as a satire for social polarisation due to escalating property values, but the content was too explicit/piercing to be a mere laugh. To explain the content briefly; the classification is divided into 7 categories, starting from Imperial, Royal, Noble, Thane reaching down to Commoner, Slave etc. To attain the status of upper league a property value of at least 30 million won ($26,400 USD) per Pyeong (3.3m²) was required. The lowest limit was 10 million won ($8,790 USD). For reference, people with properties valued below the lowest limit were categorised as livestock. As the most expensive area, Seoul Gangnam district was listed as unequalled Imperial. Seoul Songpa and Seocho districts and Kyeonggi Gwacheon city, worth above 22 million won ($19,330 USD) per Pyeong, were listed as royal. The high-valued apartments depicted in the installation piece, ‘Real Estate’ would certainly fit into one of those upper categories. As 60% of total housings in South Korea consist of apartments, these buildings in fact stand at the centre of this classification. As seen, the location of the apartments is in direct relation to their value. However, the scale goes further. Within any given apartment complex a similar value structure can be found. The economical status of the individual residents can be read through the position of their apartment: the floor level, building and house numbers are all factors that play in. This leads many people to end up with huge debts due to their attempts at reaching higher classification by acquiring large-sized apartment property in highly valued/ranked areas.

In the exhibition, this desire towards ascent of social class based on a residential location is specifically visualised in the installation piece “Lunar Estate”. On the wall hangs a certificate and a location map issued by an American internet-company called Lunar Embassy, which claims the right to sell estate on the moon. The certificate indicates that one acre of moon land was sold for $29.95 to the artist duo Nana & Felix. Surrounding the certificate, hangs photographs of the artist duo’s moon neighbours, including John Travolta, Mick Jagger, Nicole Kidman, Richard Gere and other Hollywood celebrities. As in the catchphrase “You Are Where You Live”, designed by one of the big construction-corporations for the promotion of an apartment-brand, Nana & Felix try to climb the social ladder as high as their stellar neighbours. It is probable that such desire for reaching the higher classes is natural consequence of the capitalist society we live in. As the core of capitalism is money, the scale of money means classification.

As seen above, this on-going phenomenon in South Korea has been reviewed through critical eyes in the series of works that make up the exhibition ‘House of Cards’. Defined by the artist duo as an unstable foundation, an insubstantial plan and a shaky foundation, ‘House of Cards’ shows us the consequence of the combination of these elements. In this vacuum state of history and place, we find the alienation between man and place, a conflict and irrationality between native culture and perceived western values, and a desire for higher class within a deranged capitalist logic. An interesting fact that I found while analysing their works was how every piece carries a perfect aesthetic of its own, and how composition, colour and ambience contrasts the serious weight of its subject. This enables the viewer to extract a piece of work out of its context and contemplate it without a purpose or decisive opinion. At the same time, this quality can easily divert the attention of generations who were born and raised in apartment buildings to their own nostalgic experience, at least until one notices the almost complete lack of human presence in the depicted landscapes. Whether it was deliberate or not, the feeling of alienation that surrounds the landscape, and the uneasiness that follows, exposes the most important issue, which is best explained through the words of sociologist Dr. Chanho Park. He claims that “in order to have a humane appearance a city that has been systematically instrumentalised for economical efficiency during the rapid transformation of modernisation, the city must become a media that highlights the joy in life” and suggests a direction that we must take in order to overcome the present. To recover the humanism that the modern Korean city has lost we must start from the most fundamental principles, reinstalling layers of memory and accumulation of time, developing our original aesthetics, and forming a social consciousness that recognises and considers differences between people. Furthermore, when practical efforts for open communication and coexistence are added onto a place as a mediator, the city will return to us as a media, a media that strives for true ‘progress’.