One of Asia’s most female-centric corporate headquarters has taken the bold step of showcasing the work of an artist whose works are notable for their edgy, anti-consumerist, feminist angle.
“Forever” is the first-ever Asian exhibition of Barbara Kruger’s works, 44 of which are both hung in and plastered over the vast gallery spaces that make up Seoul’s AmorePacific Museum of Art.
New Jersey native Kruger is a pioneer in the synchronization of images with text. “Forever” includes her most representative works from the 1980s to the present. Kruger’s signature style – of adding colored, boxed text onto (predominantly) black and white photographs – is instantly recognizable, having had a massive influence on both editorial and advertising design.
But her works also challenge societal norms, employing caustic wit and weapons-grade irony to deconstruct contemporary paradoxes.
“Forever” is visually gobsmacking.
The exhibition leads viewers down a concrete stairwell into a small introductory space with explanatory placards, some of Kruger’s most famous magazine covers and editorial designs, and a TV intro to her work.
After digesting this, the viewer proceeds through a potral into the most striking space in the exhibition – and the most immersive piece of art this writer has ever experienced: A giant rectangular chamber in which the floor and walls are branded with Krugman’s massive work Untitled (The Latest Version of the Truth).
The room-wrap installation – specially redesigned to fit the AmorePacific space – comprises a series of texts. These include quotes from Virginia Wolf and George Orwell to make up Krugerian messages that read like a philosophical rap: “War Time, War Crime, Gang War, Civil War, Class War, Holy War…”
The design of the installation lures the eye to its central core message: “You know that women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size!”
Ruminate on that, males, and despair.
Beyond lies another huge – but more conventional – gallery, with Kruger’s works hung on the walls. In these, the artist plants a size-10 boot painfully into the groin of multiple targets.
Fashion victims and die-hard viewers of Keeping up with the Kardashians, for example, may not appreciate some of the subversive messaging. What looks at first glance like a series of ads for a piece of apparel with the font “Face it!” emblazoned across it in large letters features sub-messages such as, “This luxurious garment won’t make you rich or beautiful,” and “This fantastic ensemble is really ridiculously overpriced.”
More broadly, modern American life has provided Kruger with a target-rich environment.
“How come only the unborn have a right to life?” one work asks. A 1950s photo of a pony-tailed lass checking the bicep of a chubby lad is texted with, “We don’t need another hero.” And the text over an image of a drop-dead gorgeous blond reads, in part: “Look at me. Look at me and know, you’ll ever be me….but you still want to be me, and who can blame you?”
Kruger’s work has expanded from paper to celluloid. The last major chamber of the exhibit is blacked out: It features film running, in intermittent sequence, across all four walls.
It’s clever stuff.
One segment features a man and a women, on opposite walls, engaging in vapid conversation. Another sequence features a woman’s hair blowing, while on the other wall, a blow drier does its thing. Yet another sequence features, on one wall, the view from the driver’s seat of a woman’s car, as she holds a telephone conversation while driving; the other wall shows the view from the front seat of an infuriated male driver behind her, fuming and cursing her for her slowness.
“Forever” is visually dramatic, funny, thought-provoking and unsettling – all in one package.
AmorePacific takes a risk
In Seoul, home to such A-list galleries as Leeum – the museum owned by the Samsung’s Lee dynasty – the prestige of the location is significant. The museum’s huge exhibition spaces cover much of the basement of the AmorePacific headquarters building.
The 2018 landmark, designed by renowned British architect David Chipperfield, dominates the cityscape of Seoul’s Yongsan district, an area known both for its vast electronics market and its even vaster US Army base.
Hosting such a feminist and anti-consumerist artist may be considered a risky move by AmorePacific. The corporation, which owns such cosmetics brands as Edute House, Laneige and Innsifree is exclusively focused on the beauty industry.
The majority of the visitors on the afternoon Asia Times visited were 20- and 30-something females. That may be explained – in part – by the heightened visibility of feminist issues in Korea in 2019.
The country has been shaken by high-profile “MeToo” court cases and a campaign of demonstrations against spy-cam pornography. Meanwhile, the most talked-about movie of the year was the feminist bombshell Kim Ji-yoon, born 1982 – itself based on the 2016 novel by Cho Nam-joo that has become a bestseller across Asia.
“Many people in Korea think this is kind of feminist, and some are quite uncomfortable with it,” gallery staffer Hye-yoon Jung told Asia Times of “Forever.” “But also, Korean females seem to visit more museum and art galleries than males.”
Regardless, Kruger’s provocative works fit the museum’s mission.
For modern citizens who “…live in a state of increasing anxiety and uncertainty, Kruger’s consistent messages would provoke questions we have forgotten in ourselves and allow us to think about who I am ad how our desires are constructed within the given society,” AmorePacific Museum of Art Curtator Kim Kyoung-ran told Asia Times via email. “This will eventually lead us to look at ourselves and our society in different views, which is concordant in that our museum aims to broaden our perspectives and discover a new sense through various kinds of creations.”
On exiting the exhibition via the gift shop, visitors may savor a final irony as they glance back at Kruger’s text emblazoned across the museum’s exterior: “Plenty is more than enough.” In a nod to localization, the artists has also created a version of the work in Korean Hangeul letting.
However, beyond that one piece, the universality of Kruger’s messaging suffers from a cultural limitation created by the very medium she works in.
“So much of it is in English,” a female visitor told Asia Times after viewing the exhibition. “I only got about half of it.”
“Forever” runs at the AmorePacific Museum of Art through December 29. Hours: 10:00-6:00. Closest subway: Shinyongsan. The museum’s next exhibition will feature historical Korean artwork from the AmorePacific collection.