Ohnim is having a blue period, just like Picasso. Over Zoom from a gallery in Seoul, the Korean rapper Song Min-ho, better known as Mino to K-pop fans but Ohnim in the art world, shows me a painting he finished the previous evening in collaboration with artist Choi Na-ri. It depicts a blue crouched figure, like a depressed version of Rodin’s Thinker. It may be still wet but will soon be shipped to London’s Saatchi Gallery for an art fair that showcases work by three of Korea’s biggest K-pop stars.
The meeting of K-pop and K-art is making the art world lick its lips. Businessman David Ciclitira, who set up the StART Art Fair at the Saatchi, says: “K-pop stars have immense reach through their social media. Guys like Mino, Henry Lau and Kang Seung-yoon, whose work will be in the show, have six to seven million followers each on Instagram. In Seoul, fans queue round the block just to see a work of art by any of them. Then they fight each other to buy. I don’t suppose it’ll be quite like that at the Saatchi Gallery, but you never know.”
Ohnim and Kang Seung-yoon, both members of K-pop band Winner, and Canadian-born Henry Lau, former member of Super Junior-M, are effectively multimedia brands, combining singing, acting, making art, fashion, reality TV … and plugging products. Ohnim, for instance, endorses a German lip balm and did his first art show in collaboration with a Korean eyewear brand. He also modelled for Louis Vuitton.
Stars such as Ohnim are part of what’s known as hallyu, or the “Korean wave” in culture, embracing K-pop, K-cinema (Oscar-winning Parasite), K-TV (Netflix’s Squid Game), K-tech (Samsung) and even K-philosophy. Next year, Frieze will launch a Seoul fair, while London’s Victoria and Albert Museum will showcase the popular culture of South Korea in an exhibition. And then there is the K-art diaspora, with artists such as Bath Spa University academic Young In Hong, and Korean-born American conceptual artist Anicka Yi, whose commission at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall opened this week.
Successive South Korean governments have tried to ride the Korean wave, pursuing a strategy of exporting pop culture worldwide following the Asian financial crash in the late 1990s. “Hallyu has been a deliberate tool of soft power,” argues journalist Christine Ro. “Many countries invest in cultural councils and exchanges partly to strengthen diplomatic aims. But the South Korean government’s push for cultural power has had remarkably quick success.”
There is even a crossover between K-pop and K-politics. BTS, the boyband whose collaboration with Coldplay is currently No 1 in the US, were made Special Presidential Envoys for Future Generations and Culture by South Korea’s president Moon Jae-In last month. They performed a prerecorded set at the UN, and made a speech praising the younger generation’s resilience during the pandemic and urging sustainable development.
As I chat to Ohnim, I notice in the corner of his painting his signature motif of a happy-looking girl. “The picture is inspired by the coronavirus pandemic,” he says. “People are depressed, and that’s what the blue figure represents. But the background and the little girl say something different. They say: ‘It’s OK. There will be happiness.’ I try to be a good influencer, you see.”
This is a surprisingly upbeat message for the 28-year-old, whose public battles with his mental health have endeared him to his South Korean fanbase. Three years ago, at the height of his fame with Winner, Ohnim disclosed he had been diagnosed with panic disorder. “Many things piled on and it happened,” he said at the time. “I always need to show a good appearance to the public and always shine, but there are a lot of things I need to deal with.”
Making art has helped him. He told his Instagram followers: “In this day and age I feel that language itself cannot function in its right form. I wanted to create another type of communication, where the remnants of our feelings that are buried and hidden away can be conveyed through simple and distorted shapes. The inability to have real interpersonal relationships and human touch in the world we currently live in has made me realise that I am unable to escape feelings of emptiness and hollowness.”
Art, he says, is proving better than three-minute K-pop songs at allowing him to explore not just his own mental health issues but to reflect on a world gone hideously wrong. In 2018, Ohnim collaborated on an eerie immersive installation called Burning Planet. Visitors to the space in Seoul’s Seongsu-dong district walked down a long dark tunnel to a room where an old man explained that he was a gatekeeper to the Burning Planet, a world located at the edge of our solar system.
Guests then proceeded through a door into a speakeasy where a giant robotic ostrich explained that on the Burning Planet, all organic life is extinct except for humans and ostriches. And then, curiously, guests were invited to eat a dessert made from ostrich eggs, before entering another space depicting human life on this planet. Feeble light installations symbolised scarce solar energy, while performers performed a dull ballet of repetitive movements. Like the Planet of the Apes, the Burning Planet was really an allegory of our own. “So many of us are burned out in a world that we’re destroying,” he explained.
As Onim sips his drink, from 5,500 miles away, I study the tattoos that ring his throat. They are little circles of weather icons – cloudy, sunny and so on. “I colour one in red to show what mood I’m in.” But none are ringed today? He shrugs, possibly because he doesn’t know which mood he is in.
Onim’s art expresses something the philosopher Byung-Chul Han takes as symptomatic of contemporary South Korea. In his new book, Capitalism and the Death Drive, Han notes that his homeland has the highest suicide rate in the world. In part, he argues, this is because of the IMF bailout that followed the Asian financial crisis. Like Greece, South Korea was, he claims, forcibly subjected to “radical reprogramming” – what Naomi Klein called the “shock doctrine”.
“In South Korea, there is no longer any real resistance to these measures,” Han writes. “Instead, one finds high levels of conformism and consensus – together with depression and burnout. Instead of seeking to change society, people use violence against themselves. The outward aggression that might have provided the basis for revolution has instead given way to auto-aggression.”
Evidence for this diagnosis was clear in last year’s Korean Eye show at the Saatchi Gallery. One piece consisted of an A4 sheet of paper attached to a wall at its lower corners, one side bearing the image of a face drawn with a marker. Artist Kwantaeck Park arranged a fan to make the sheet rise up and down as if the face was bowing endlessly. Eunha Kim made a sculpture called Bon Appetit that looked like a hamburger but was made from discarded clothes. Lee Seung Koo installed a sculpture called Compromise Between Me and Me that looked like a dystopian Jeff Koons inflatable, with a huge gun firing gas-filled balloons shaped like hearts and oversized blood corpuscles across the gallery.
The show’s curator, Dimitri Ozerkov, of St Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, wrote in his catalogue essay that Han was right in his diagnosis: auto-aggression bleeds into contemporary Korean culture and burnout; personality disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity are behind the nation’s creative fecundity. “This new societal condition may be characterised in terms of narcissism taken to the point of religious fervour.”
K-art, then, is in a vexed position, both presenting Korea to the world, and at the same acting as a grenade that, as Ozekov puts it, “could blow the well-managed collective identity sky-high.”
Korean art was terra incognita for westerners (the late Nam June Paik notwithstanding) until David Ciclitira, the chairman of Parallel Media and co-founder of Sky TV, began collecting with his wife Serenella around 15 years ago. Impressed with what they saw in Seoul’s galleries, they set up a programme called Global Eye aimed at developing the county’s arts infrastructure, and arranged shows to promote the arts of Asian countries from Vietnam to Indonesia.
In 2012, Ciclitira set up Live Company, an events business that toured K-pop concerts to Asia and, eventually, Europe. Since then, his business interests have combined K-pop and K-art. On the wall behind him as we talk is the most striking Zoom backdrop I’ve encountered during the pandemic, namely a 3.2m x 2m embroidery called Procession by Young In Hong. “It was the first large embroidery piece I did,” she tells me from her Bristol studio.
She made Procession in 2010, a decade before her adoptive city bore witness to the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue. But Procession is a work no less political. From the English west country, Young In Hong keeps a Korean eye on her homeland, meditating on its history and struggles. Visitors to London’s Royal Academy may remember, in 2017, a group of Koreans lying in the courtyard. This was Young In Hong’s performance piece 5100: Pentagon, memorialising students who were fired on, killed, raped and beaten by government troops in 1980’s Gwangju protests against martial law.
“The performance commemorates a specific event but is also a means of acting out a certain resistance toward prevailing social norms,” she says. “I’m quite a sensitive person to what’s going on around me. Probably that’s one of the reasons I came here, to get a sense of perspective on my homeland.”
Young In Hong’s latest project is a 15-metre long text piece installed last month at the disused Jejin station in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. “I picked this sentence from a book in which a woman is explaining to a lawyer why she wants to get a divorce. It reads: “Our rhythms have been out of sync in the past.” Young In Hong repurposes the text to comment on other things out of sync: North and South Korea, train timetables, men and women, humans and their mental health. Emblazoned in huge type over the entrance to the disused station, it is hardly an example of soft power or a lucrative investment opportunity for collectors, but it is certainly part of the K-art wave breaking both at home and abroad.
StART Art Fair is at Saatchi Gallery, London, 13-17 October