Curator, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea
When we travel to unfamiliar places, we tend to find the highest place or a viewing tower where we can look at the scenery around the city. Every city has a high place where people can look down at the city, such as Taipei 101 in Taipei, Mori Tower in Tokyo, Eiffel Tower in Paris, Namsan Seoul Tower in Seoul, and Prague Castle in Prague. Why are people fascinated by viewing towers? For one thing, people can see the whole city at a glance from a viewing tower. But they can also see the city through a different perspective and at a distance. The same might be the case for our fascination with the scenery seen from airplanes and why people like higher stories in high-rise residential buildings.
Choi Sung Rok's Scroll Down Journey (2015) and A Man with a Flying Camera (2015) overlook the cityscape as if the city is seen from a viewing tower or airplane. Since the artist generates a fictional map by transforming footage shot by drones and satellite photos into digital paintings, we can see the city from the height and perspective that we cannot usually experience. In particular, the camera respectively traces a car in Scroll Down Journey and a man in A Man with a Flying Camera for 60 kilometers per hour. Such development is similar to the movement of the screen in computer games that track the main characters. In the works, the screen tracks the car/man at the center of the screen while no particular event happens, which leads the viewers to pay attention to diverse scenery around them. Once the car passes through a construction site with tower cranes and bulldozers, swimming pools, and a road filled with cars, it disappears in no time. The screen than traces an airplane. In the end, the airplane disappears and the car reappears. The car passes an apartment complex with playgrounds and gardens, high-rises equipped with helipads at the top, and disappears into darkness. When we look up the buildings from the ground, there are 'differences' in the height and size of the buildings. Seen from above, however, the buildings look flat without any difference. A small and flexible object called drone leads us to overcome the bodily limitation and enter the new world with new perspectives. Since the landscape created by the artist is based on the real landscape, it looks as if one has seen it or is capable of identifying it. At the same time, it resembles any landscape, which makes it difficult to specify. For example, advertisements for new apartment complexes or redevelopment plans boast how they would be new and special. In reality, however, they resemble each other since they are planned by similar construction companies with similar techniques and standards. Different cities – Seoul and Busan, Incheon and Daegu, and Bucheon and Gwangju are becoming similar to each other. Even the new cities labeled 'Innovation Cities' also refer to each other, not the local history of their locations. We are immersed in the competition toward difference. However, from a little distance, the very difference indeed becomes futile. In his digital paintings that employ drones, a practice that continues in I Will Drone You, Choi draws a landscape painting that does not only stands in the tradition of media art but also manifest a contemporary version of landscape painting of German romanticism, which is represented by Caspar David Friedrich. While the German romantic landscape painting took note of humans as feeble existence in the face of magnanimous nature, Choi Sung Rok's landscape 'painting' highlights the meaningless competition created by humans and humans trapped in such a bleak situation. In one interview, the artist said, "I am interested in how people use new media or technologies, how they change because of them, and what are the new senses that they experience through them." The landscape created by Choi Sung Rok is meaningful with regards to our new experience and the expansion of senses and thoughts through such experience.
Choi Sung Rok has been collaborating with scientists and employing new media in his work since the early 2000s. This has made interpretations of his work often focus on 'media' or 'technology' – mostly the particular medium he used in his works. It was because the artist had been showing interest in early media such as movie and consistently been using metaphors related to science and technology, as in his variation of NASA's Mars exploration robot titled Rocver Project (2005), in both direct and indirect manners. However, such an approach of interpretation misses certain points in reading Choi Sung Rok's art practice. Choi had such interest only because science and technology have been dramatically changing many parts of the world and he was influenced by the environment where the digital technology rapidly changes our thoughts and behavioral patterns. Firstly, works such as Daedong River Slayers 1866 (2011) shows his particular interest in the relationship between the rapid social and historical change and individuals. We tend to think about the initial encounter between Koreans and the Western civilization through the result that happened afterward. In Korean history textbooks, the French campaign against Korea in 1866 is indifferently described and depicted as the initial encounter with the Western civilization. The artist created an animate pencil drawing and layered the sound of commands in computer games in Korean and English. The artist also organizes the story of three generations in his family - who lived through the Japanese colonial period, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War - along with the chronology of Korean history. In Landscape of Chois (2010), the history of three generations conveys the complicated modern history of Korea that is also the history of individuals. The artist's grandfather was born in 1910 when Japan started ruling Korea; his father was born in 1945, the year when Korea became independent from Japan; and he was born in the 1970s when the country took part in the Vietnam War. In particular, the video that shows the three generations in consecutive order makes it possible to assume rapid changes occurred in Korean history and the shock invoked by such changes. The video displays portraits of three disparate figures: the grandfather wearing the traditional hat and clothing with his face showing heightened tension; the father with a solemn face who is also a professional soldier; and the artist with long and bushy hair. Choi did not meet his grandfather since he was beaten to death by North Korean soldiers during the Korean War. However, he composed paintings and videos through the stories he had heard to present the histories that his father and grandfather respectively experienced. In these two works, the artist intentionally uses drawings and paintings that look as if they were effortfully created by novices. They are not detailed drawings nor sublime documentation painting. They look as if someone without sufficient information drew them based on vague memories. As there is an enormous and complex world that one cannot comprehend as a whole, individuals cannot help but experience colonialism, wars, dictatorship, and other atrocities without even knowing what events really occur and what changes are made. Thus, it is possible to consider Choi Sung Rok's use of visualization methods of folk paintings and non-professionals as a visualization method that corresponds to the real situation of ordinary people.
In the artist's recent works Operation Mole-Endgame (2016), Savior's Road (2016), and room xx (2016), different events occur at the same time as if they are related to each other. In certain cases, the very event happening in the image is also magnified and showed in a huge electronic sign that also appears in the same image. Pointless scenes such as a flying bird and intense images like cruel torture scenes are randomly mixed and generated. Such is our life. Although cruel and brutal accidents happen, our everyday lives of eating, sleeping, and resting also continue. At a certain moment, shining and pleasant moments emerge. A huge complicated world that cannot be comprehended at once exists, and the world continues regardless of whether anyone is hurt or agonized. The screen, with the help of added sound, even seems to be cheerful like a world depicted by computer games. According to the artist, "The military combat drone operators are in the same mental state with computer gamers." They see the bombing sites as slightly blurred images. If they see the bombing sites right in front of their eyes and people falling to the ground, will they be able to release bombs?
Although the landscape images created using drones and portrait pieces look different from the outside, they share the artist's effort to understand and recognize himself and the world around him from his own perspective. Further, they show the process of visualizing such effort. And the world, which the artist tries to comprehend and recognize, is callous and apocalyptic.
Press release courtesy Gallery Chosun.