Bada Song at The Agency gallery, London January – February 2014

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by Paul O’Kane

Bada Song is a Korean artist working in London. She strives to fuse or reconcile elements of Korean culture with the styles and aesthetics of modern and contemporary art. Hence, an ongoing series of drawings uses traditional Korean roof tiles (in a variety of complex shapes) but represents them as a kind of dynamic minimalism. The tiles are drawn as shapes seen as if from sharp perspectives. Transfer to a flat surface renders them ambiguous and the viewer is forced to move eyes, head or their whole body trying to decide whether they are looking at an illusory representation of a 3D object or ‘just’ a flat shape. Such problems of parallax and gestalt are heightened by the fact that Song uses extremely matt and extremely shiny surfaces to distinguish the figures from their grounds and this plays even further with the eyes, making seeing an event as the viewer dances around the gallery denied the chin-stroking certainty of the well-placed and informed connoisseur.

The austerity of Ad Reinhardt may haunt these black-on-black works and yet they are animated and contingent in a way evocative of the more colourful Ellsworth Kelly. But of course this is not simply modern or modernist work, rather we might enlist the theories of Nicolas Bourriaud and address Song’s work as ‘Altermodern.’ It revels in a modernist formalism, reduction and monochrome and yet does so only to draw attention to today’s global realm where new cultures are emerging as leaders as their artists find new uses for an established vocabulary of modernism – itself now warped into a tradition.

In some new, tentatively painterly works Song also make our eyes do the work as we unpack her flat grounds, apparently ripped open by contrasting forms which again derive from the vocabulary of Korean tile shapes. One piece is made of two small, staggered blocks, one juts forward from the wall so that again it is impossible to know exactly where and when this image is complete. Perhaps this rupture, incompletion and division illustrates disrupted and disruptive migrant experience. If so, Song abstracts and synthesizes such cultural and political implications into a colourful and entertaining sound-bite.

Culture and politics nevertheless talk loud and loom large in a digital photographic work, portentously framed as if for a grand museum. This self-portrait shows Song in full traditional Korean wedding dress, set against the backdrop of a traditional Korean house. Every bride, in traditional Korean wedding ceremonies, wears small scarlet circles on their cheeks to symbolize and accentuate health, youth and beauty, but Song has taken the motif and enlarged it into a huge red circle that almost obliterates her face. The resulting image is again split and contradictory, once again we are not sure quite how or where to look. There is much to indulge the eye in the hi-res rendering of the rich and intricate costume, but the central point – the beauty of the bride – is denied us. In its place we encounter a flat, modern, geometric monochrome form. Modernity and tradition once again come into tension. Feminism may be the driving force here, critiquing the doll-like preparations that make a traditional Korean bride into a well-wrapped gift to a husband. Beauty itself may be the target, as the anti-aesthetic traditions pursuing modern art from Manet to DADA, and prevailing today in e.g. the work of Ryan Trecartin, cancel and trump hyper-modern Korea’s lasting love affair with heritage and tradition. But a further contradiction, a contradiction of these contradictions we might say, occurs in the fact that the bride in the traditional wedding ceremony does remain faceless to her husband-to-be until a certain point during the ceremony when she is revealed. And so, Song’s willful obliteration of identity may only consolidate and repeat established, dramatic procedures, with the one difference of course being that this photograph will never change to reveal the actual face of a particular woman – as happens in a real ceremony.

Another series of works represented in Song’s Agency show use the motif of a length of pipe. Again, a modern geometric form and a kind of minimalist, mostly monochrome module grounds the work. Song’s pipes come in pairs and lie smartly parallel, each featuring a distinct surface. One pair echoes the materials in her tile drawings, with alternatively matt and shiny charcoal and graphite skins. Another pair come in vivid reds, one painstakingly peppered with myriad dashes of nail varnish which make an extremely glossy surface, partnered with a deep pink pipe lathered with matt lipstick.

The blackened pair incorporate sound which again harks back to Korea’s accelerated modernity and rapidly evolving traditions. We hear a looped recording of a kind of ‘rag and bone man’ who today drives slowly around the poorer streets of Seoul calling out for broken technologies: computers, refrigerators, TVs and washing machines. The sound player is secreted within one of the pipes, animating its stark geometry. The disembodied voice wails out in a slightly melancholic way, inhabiting otherwise inert sculptural forms with ghostly life. Not only modernity and tradition, East and West, but here and there, now and then are brought into play, and once again we might feel opened-up, split, divided by experience of an artwork that we cannot simply digest or accommodate. Song’s works all remain ‘open’ in this way, inviting or forcing us into gaps, splits, fissures and tunnels of optical, sonic and interpretative experience.

 from: unpublished writing given by the writer (Feb. 2014)