Korean Artist Sungsil Ryu Rises up from Tragedy
In partnership with Korea Arts Management Service
The distinct, internet-kitsch aesthetic of Sungsil Ryu relays an ever-expanding fictional universe that in many ways parallels contemporary Korean society, where hyper-capitalist forces and traditional Confucian values collide.
Sungsil Ryu, Big King Airlines (2023) (detail). Courtesy the artist.
Ryu's multimedia practice is one of performative marketing, where an artist is not only a brand, but also an agent for the enterprises of others. The Seoul-born artist's videos, performances, and installations are grossly ironic, swinging from the satirical to seductive and hilarious to absurd.
In 2018, the year she graduated from Seoul National University, Ryu made her YouTube debut as a vlogging personality and scam artist named Ms Cherry Jang. In the six-minute video BJ Cherry Jang 2018.4 (2018), Ryu plays a dolled-up Korean woman who announces an 'emergency broadcast' in a distorted, high-pitched voice.
With a countdown timer strapped to her forehead, Ms Jang recounts her dream containing what she initially believed were lotto numbers but turned out to be a coded message about an impending nuclear missile launch by North Korea. The young woman's expertise in Feng Shui leads her to deduce the missile's target as South Korea. Foreseeing the extinction of the South Korean population, she assertively offers the services of her 'great oppa' [big brother], who, for a price, can move your assets into heaven.
The chaotic energy of Ryu's video, which is enhanced by the intermittent collaging of disparate images and background sounds of emergency sirens and barking dogs, masks with comic urgency the troubling nature of Ms Jang capitalising on the fear of death and the unknown. With the guidance of her great oppa and herself, she reassures her followers, they will safely go from being 'citizens of Seoul' to 'citizens of heaven'.
The concept of death in a capitalist society further evolved in The Burning Love Song, Ryu's solo presentation at Atelier Hermès in Seoul last year following her commendation as 2021 laureate of the Hermès Foundation Missulsang.
Central to the exhibition was an installation of an imagined pet crematorium founded by a Mr Dae Wang Lee, an entrepreneur who makes a profit off the grief of wealthy pet owners. An excessive quantity of large standing funeral wreaths decorated the space, while a kitschy video tracked funeral processions on multiple screens. Here, even death is a dressed-up pantomime for the rich—a comic pitch wrapped in shrouds of irony in the space of Hermès.
In a country brimming with luxury brand art partnerships, Ryu's work playfully parodies a culture of consumption, revealing consumerism's hold on a wide spectrum of emotions and life events from public displays of grief to apocalypse-induced anxiety. The viewer can never be certain where Ryu draws the line between reality and fiction, spiritual and secular, or high and low culture.
Ryu's 'Cherry Jang' series (2018–2021) ended in 2021 with Ms Jang's tragic death, but the artist swiftly moved to reincarnate Mr Lee ('aka Mr Big King') as the president of Big King Airlines. Mr Lee's airline company, whose primary destination is the mysterious country of Ching Chen, continues the blurring of the real and imaginary in Ryu's latest solo exhibition Big King Airlines New Engine Fundraising Drive at CYLINDER TWO in Seoul's Yongsan district (2 September–1 October 2023).
The show follows from the artist's 'Big King Travel' series, a narrative that debuted in 2017 in the form of a digital collage series inhabiting the vernacular of tourism promotional photography, stock imagery, and propaganda.
Since then, Big King Airlines has experienced a grave public relations crisis. According to the exhibition poster, which leads with the line 'Rise up from Tragedy, Fly with Hope', the company was accused of breaching health and safety regulations when a staff member was sucked into a plane propeller. Ryu, presenting as an employee of Big King Airlines, pitches her exhibition as a fundraiser to fix the broken engine and resume flying valued patrons to Ching Chen.
At CYLINDER TWO, three physical works—a video and two painted plane parts—are complemented by a cryptic QR code web link (directing to bigkingair.com) and social media posts.
Ryu's video, a promotional propagandist sequence by Big King Air on Ching Chen, profiles 12 figures significant to the country including General Cindy (798–845), 'who protected Ching Chen even after becoming a ghost'; Ding Ding Mo (1830–1900), 'a talented diplomat'; and 'Michael the Caucasian', a foreigner who made a map of Ching Chen in the 17th century.
Alongside the video are two mixed-media paintings depicting these 12 figures, executed on the broken propeller and another large part of the plane.
On Instagram, the gallery provides updates to the fundraising operation, stating such lines as 'Big King Airlines' engine restoration process is progressing smoothly. Thanks to your support, good people from Ching Chen visited Seoul...'; 'If you would like to actively contribute to engine restoration at the fundraising exhibition site, please come visit CYLINDER TWO ... you can contribute and receive rewards faster when you visit us.'
The motives of the corporation with a questionable track-record of workers' safety elicits suspicion, until realising that the show is another in Ryu's string of lavishly narrativised imaginary companies and commodities. For the artist, media and online platforms become havens for envisaging parallel worlds, where dead pets are elevated to idolatrous status and corporations care for their workers.
Ryu is currently an artist in residence at Singapore Art Museum (1 July–30 September 2023), where she is researching social media ecosystems and experimenting with online outlets for the circulation of media. On 27 September, Ryu will expand on the Big King Airlines New Engine Fundraising Drive in an online performance entitled A Lifestyle of Casual Scamming. Until then, we eagerly await developments in the comeback story of Big King Airlines. —[O]