by Bada Song (writing for ‘Cash or Smash’)
Early on the Saturday morning of my weekend event at Mokspace, having been tired and made hot by cycling fast through rain, I turned into Museum Street from where I could see the neo-classical columns of the British Museum. I remembered an early spring day back in 1997, the moment when I had first seen the museum’s enormous construction, and entered its space, where the indecipherable sounds of so many languages echoed around me.
That was just a few weeks after I first came to London. I had wanted to visit the British Museum by foot, and, starting out naively from my accommodation in North West London, I had a kind of whim as I passed my local tube station. I wanted to practice one of the English sentences I had learned the previous day in English School: ‘Excuse me, Can you please tell me how to get to…?’ So I passed right by the tube station that morning, carried on, and started asking the strangers passing by: “Can you please tell me how to get to the British Museum?” I repeated the question every time I became uncertain of my direction and finally, after several hours of this strange way of travelling, I made my way into the museum late in the afternoon, thankful for the help of twenty or thirty who had guided my way.
Eighteen years later, on first morning of Cash or Smash, the museum’s stone columns, seen through its iron railings, looked unusually grand and powerful again. I was here again, continuing the story of my relationship with the great institution, a place where the art of the world’s values are established, organised and maintained.
The title, Cash or Smash, had come to me quite naturally while looking for a solution to the problem of storing my own art works, accumulated over the past twelve years of studio practice. I was suddenly required to move out of my studio with a short deadline of mid-March 2015. The building, where hundreds of artists had, like me, been working for several years, was due to be demolished and the land redeveloped (a result of the recent property boom in South London).
As the studios came under threat, and the artists came to accept that we all soon had to leave, we often chatted nervously in the corridors of the building. We usually talked about the possibility of finding affordable new spaces and how we might archive our works. These conversations inevitably led to discussion of the economy, politics etc. Everyone’s stories and prospects were slightly different but most were, like myself, in a difficult position. One artist also had to lose his ‘home’ as he had already moved out of his flat to sleep in his studio as the rent on his flat had recently doubled.
I thought about all the great art works made by all these artists and how they could well be valued in millions of pounds, and so save us all. If only their prospective or speculative value could have been cashed right there and then.
During the two months ‘notice to quit’ the contents of two specially hired skips in the yard grew higher and higher. Many of us would, at least temporarily, have to quit studio practice and relocate both our work and our archive to our homes. There was a nervy, slightly resentful atmosphere among the artists and during this time I often heard the word ‘smash’. Perhaps clearing our studios and destroying large parts of our archive even became a kind of therapy, an outlet for our anger, frustration and sense of powerlessness.
Coincidentally, at this time, Mokspace, a well-located gallery for which I had sometimes thought of creating a one-off event, became available for the second week of March due to a cancelled show. I asked the owner if I could use the space for the weekend of that week, which was precisely when I was scheduled to move out of my studio. So on the Saturday morning of 14th March, the spring tourists pouring out of the museum, having seen the priceless wonders of civilization, came to focus their eyes on some less prestigious objects nearby as they hunted for some affordable gifts, souvenirs, or for somewhere to eat in Museum Street.
Back in 2005, I had taken some leftover sawdust (initially to fill small gaps in a wooden floor) to the studio. I developed an interest in the possibilities of the sawdust as sculpture material and attempted to mix it with all sorts of other substances. One morning I noted a surprising outcome and I repeated the process, hoping to confirm it would be the same. During the following days I repeated it again and again, and the more I saw the modules that multiplied as a result the more excited I felt.
I became immersed in this repetitious daily activity for months and the studio gradually became full of the new modules, which I called Cornflakes. I searched out different wood shops in the South London area and asked for variations of tones and colours and textures of sawdust. The woodshop keepers could not understand why I needed so much, and so many different kinds, but one of them led me deep inside a huge warehouse and told me “here you are, you can scoop out and take away as many different kinds of sawdust and take as much as you like”.
Just before this process all began I had been asking myself some serious questions about making art, like just why and how did make it, how could or should I make it? I wanted to clarify what I was doing everyday at the studio. Now I found that making these serial modules, despite their uncertain, wholly speculative value, could motivate and justify going to the studio everyday, just to produce these objects and take part in this repetitive process. By the time they became the centre of my Cash or Smash event ten years later I realized that these Cornflake modules had always been bound-up with the tradition of the artist’s studio – having one, using one and losing one.
During the first phase of the Cornflake project the late Japanese-American artist On Kawara’s daily, repetitious ‘date paintings’ and others of his serial works were a great reference and a kind of support. I greatly valued all those days spent devoted to the repetitive, production of the Cornflake modules. There was something pure, simple, beautiful in a way, about knowing just what needs to be done every day, and about making objects that are not weighed down with complexity and meaning.
Soon after this first phase of producing the Cornflake modules I had a chance to exhibit them as a work. I chose to display hundreds of them organized a bit like files but also looking like the output of a busy bakery. This was part of a group show titled Thy Neighbours’ Ox II (2006) at Space Station 65 gallery (Cornflake 2006).
After that show I began to document the modules in a series of photographic ‘portraits’ that now stressed, not their uniformity and repetition but their individuality, each one being also unique, different, hand-made. Now they seemed to allude to identity (Cornflake 2007). I started to think about the way that people of a less familiar culture can appear ‘all the same’ to people of another culture, until that is, they take the time and trouble to start getting to know another people and another culture a little better and then begin to recognize individual differences.
My plan to take individual photographs of the hundreds apparently identical modules was not carried through as comprehensively as I’d hoped because I lacked funds and was still using expensive ‘analog’ photography at that time.
In 2010 I deployed the Cornflakes again, this time as an installation for a solo show titled Stoned in a pop-up space in Brixton Village market. I combined them with individuated cardboard and tape supports that made them look more mushroom-like or fungal as they proliferated across the gallery floor (Cornflake 2010). I also made an application to East International 2009 with this work, planning an ambitious installation in which the process, the modules and individual photographic ‘portraits’ of the modules were all on display, like a strange factory tableau, but the application didn’t succeed.
Many people who came to Cash or Smash asked if the Cornflakes were edible, and one, apparently homeless man almost took one of the Cornflakes into his mouth. The modules had always looked like something you might eat and from the first time they appeared I had always referred to them as Cornflakes. They looked like a giant version of the famous breakfast cereal, and this, in turn, made me think of other banal, low-value, near-identical things.
The famous cornflake breakfast cereals were something I had become accustomed to in daily London life and I noted that they had made a big contribution to modern, Western life. In fact, according to a little research I conducted, the invention of cornflake cereals as a breakfast might just be one of the most successful capitalist and consumerist products, paying a part – along with canned soft drinks, Hollywood movies, cigarettes, cars, refrigerators, hoovers etc -. in homogenizing global lifestyles and habits of consumption. From the moment you wake in the morning, the kind of breakfast you eat plays a big part in determining your culture, your economy, your identity and way of life.
On the very first morning after arriving in London from Seoul in the spring of 1997, my first landlady spread out all sorts of inviting food on her small kitchen table. There was tea, coffee, milk, bread, butter, biscuits, juice, margarine, marmalade, Marmite, muesli, and cornflakes. She told me she did not know which I might prefer.
It was exciting to be offered all these new flavours and I felt as if I had just spent a night in a grand hotel, but I didn’t realize that this would become the norm for every day’s breakfast in the UK or that I would soon begin to yearn for the rice-based breakfast I grew up with. I initially compensated for this change and this longing by visiting the local Chinese take-away for cooked rice. But later in my London life I became increasingly conscious of a deep feeling of loneliness. I was not just missing my family and familiar food but also made sad by always eating alone.
Years later, when collecting materials to make the Cornflake modules, I thought about how the Korean word for sawdust sounds like “top-bob”. The ‘top’ sounding part of the word means ‘saw’, and the ‘bob’ sounding part means ‘rice’. ‘Bob’ is also equivalent to what Western society might think of as ‘bread’ or carbohydrates, i.e. in Korean ‘bob’ means not just rice but the staple, basic, central element of a commonly shared diet. As a result many other words exist that are related to ‘bob’ in Korean language and culture. ‘Bob culture’ could then define, in a way, how I, or we, become Korean. Also, according to this translation of ‘top-bob’, the English word for ‘leftovers-from-sawing-wood’ is ‘dust’ while Koreans think of this as ‘rice’. It interested me that one seems valueless (dust) while the other seems valuable, a kind of food (rice).
For the Cash or Smash event at Mokspace I carefully calculated and drew up a schedule to destroy 450 Cornflake modules, the number that had survived after 10 years of storing, showing, and transporting these fragile objects. I calculated 450 time-slots, dividing into the total time of the weekend resulted in two – minutes slots. In each of these slots a Cornflake would either be cashed (taken away) or smashed. I wrote the schedule out on two long rolls of paper (one list of time-slots for Saturday and one for Sunday), then installed them like imposing scrolls on one wall of the gallery.
I offered visitors to Mokspace the opportunity to either buy one of the Cornflake modules for 99p or pay 99p to smash it and told them that, either way their name would be written up on the scrolls beside the time and number of that particular Cornflake module.
I installed a microphone in the gallery connected to an amplified speaker in the entrance, pointing out at the street. At first I felt shy about shouting like a street trader – “Cash or Smash!” – “Hand-made Giant Cornflakes!” and “Only 99p!”. But I also felt a kind of déjà vu as it reminded me of some familiar scenes in Korean marketplaces, where vendors tout their goods. I had previously used recordings of these traders in my sound sculptures but hadn’t anticipated that I would come to occupy the role of the vendor elsewhere in my practice.
As the day and the event unfolded my confidence grew and the words I shouted evolved into more extended phrases – “Smash your way into art history!” and “Smash your way into history!” Sometimes, friends who visited and assisted me, or even visitors to the gallery, joined in my calls and chants and some took over the mic.
During the weekend, hundreds of people visited the gallery. Approximately 112 Cornflake modules were sold, most to be smashed while a lesser number were taken away like dainty commodities in numbered paper bags. The buyer’s names, written on the timeline sheet, were accompanied by red dots, and any ‘cash’ generated was subsequently offered to the gallery owner for providing the space. The participants were also asked if they minded being documented.
Owing to the Mokspace’s special location in Museum Street the visitors came, not from the art world but from all over the world and had varied knowledge and experience of contemporary art. Almost everyone had a playful response, contributing their enthusiasm, excitement and energy. People of all ages enjoyed either rescuing the fragile objects or exerting destructive power over them. Several children participated, as did a few teenagers. Some visitors paid in advance for certain time-slots, others chose certain Cornflake modules, and one man even asked me to smash Cornflakes for him, in his absence, at particular times, for his own absent friends.
Among the many components of the event, the modules maintained their status as central protagonists. They were always at the heart of Cash or Smash as if the Cornflakes themselves were performing. I also noticed that each Cornflake module reacted slightly differently to each person’s different way of using the hammer. This inspired me to reflect upon the texture and make-up of the modules and I recalled the careful process of making each one individually using various kinds and mixes of sawdust and wallpaper paste.
I knew that the apparently identical Cornflake modules had always had slight differences of appearance (a factor I tried to explore in their ‘portraits’) but now I saw that they each had a different physical make-up too, a different degree of resilience or frailty. This was another unexpected aspect of the event that seemed to bring me into a new relationship with the many different objects I make as an artist whose practice has always been rooted in sculpture.
This physical difference affected the visitors too as the hammer-wielding participants became aware that the apparently crisp and brittle Cornflake they had chosen to smash might not shatter as easily as expected. Then, feeling themselves exposed and ‘in the spotlight’, they altered their approach to hammering so as not to be seen to ‘fail’ in their task. Of course all this just resulted in more laughter all around and further fueled the dynamic, joyful atmosphere pervading the event.
A few weeks after Cash or Smash, while editing some film of the event, I noticed that I was gradually becoming enamoured of all the faces and human spirits of the visitors who had participated. Editing the film I was able to repeatedly see each individual face, with their unique gestures, mannerisms and reactions, either to hammering and smashing or to buying and taking away. This reminded me again of my thoughts of the Cornflakes as individuals, as portraits, despite their apparent similarities and general featurelessness, and of the vulnerability, similarity and difference of ‘ordinary’ people, of visitors, of strangers, of passers-by, people from all over the world.
Then I sent out requests to the participants, asking them to send their memories and evaluations of the event. Some of them appear in this book.