Dossier | The Ruins of a Day: The Disposable Art of Koo Jeong-A

The Ruins of a Day: The Disposable Art of Koo Jeong-A
By Vanessa Morisset

Since it includes cookie crumbs, aspirin-capsule powder, and wrapping papers, the work of Korean artist Koo Jeong-A can be situated along the lines of an aesthetic recycling of waste. Initiated by the avant-gardes of the early twentieth century, this practice perpetuates itself from New Realism to Christian Boltanski, under whom Jeong-A studied in the 1990s at the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris. Nevertheless, a world separates her from the western artistic tradition. In the hands of Man Ray or Brassaï, for instance, the debris changes scale. In Élevage de poussière or Dust Breeding, (1) the filth caught on Duchamp’s Large Glass transforms itself into a field of ruins. In Brassaï’s Involuntary Sculptures, (2) the subway ticket stubs found inside pockets look like relics. Likewise, in having been cast in bronze to endure, Giacometti’s Disagreeable Object (To Be Disposed of), a useless and repulsive work that one would trash as if it were garbage, is only refuse metaphorically speaking. It continues in this way until Boltanski, who, with the Les archives de C. B. (1965-1988), enclosed everything he found within his studio, from the most precious to the most trivial object, inside 646 used cookie boxes, which he then stacked up against an imposing wall of iron. Spanning the twentieth century, these works all associate art with monumentality. They present refuse as a relic that should to be preserved. Conversely, in Jeong-A’s work dust remains dust, and the swept up pile of litter remains a heap that will end up in the trashcan. Her productions make no pretence of becoming fossilized for eternity and of thus rising to a superior dimension. It is precisely the use of refuse that permits her to shrug off monumentality by denouncing it henceforth as an obsolete practice. (3) In doing so, she participates in the emergence of a new kind of artwork committed to destruction without pathos.

Among other items, an old flowerpot, the carcass of a water-heater, and bamboo pieces were the objects presented by Jeong-A during one of her first exhibitions in 1997. There she laid the foundation for her future work: the production of installations that, with firmness and subtlety, stand in opposition to the monumentalization of the past. In a windowed room of the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris called “the aquarium,” the artist stored objects found in the basement of her studio, located on Aqueduc Street. Aquarium and aqueduct: the proximity of these two words linked to ancient Rome was enough to incite the unseemly moving of these items, which thus came out of the shadows. Then, prior to the exhibition, Jeong-A classified them following an impenetrable logic, as though she endeavoured to discover and appropriate each article. As underscored by Hou Hanru, the artist proceeded by means of a kind of archaeology, (4) albeit not in the proper sense since in the work of Jeong-A none of the items brought to light has any conceivable use. In a situation where one would expect to discover objects that bear witness to a past which concerns our humanity, the artist exposed instead the effects of anonymous former tenants as the only possible relics of contemporary civilization, which itself buries and exhumes its own ruins. Neither monuments nor documents, the items found in the basement bore the marks of a recent, singular past devoid of fundamental stakes, thus providing evidence that, today, no past can constitute itself as a universal heritage. (5)

Following the idea of the meaninglessness of contemporary ruins, Jeong-A created a similar installation two years later in the window of the Yvon Lambert Gallery in Paris, and it featured a small heap of white dust, crumpled papers, and an empty bottle of drinking yogurt. In this case, however, the objects scattered in space were almost immediate traces of the artist’s activity, of the time and the attention she devoted to preparing the exhibition. The work could not be distinguished from its own facts and gestures during this period of time; it was simultaneously produced and destroyed, moreover, making itself known to spectators merely through the handful of waste objects it generated. With this installation, the past referred to is increasingly recent, more and more singular, and ever more indecipherable, to the point where what the garbage reveals is the artist’s immanence in her work. Resulting from an activity about which we know nothing, yesterday’s ruins remain wholly enigmatic to us.

Without a doubt, this is the case in another exhibition, held at the Vienna Secession in 2002, where Jeong-A takes up the principle of -dispersing refuse mixed with other items by specifying the rule that unites them. In Korean, 3355, the title of this exhibit, designates a means of assembling things in small groups, halfway between order and chaos. (6) Nevertheless, it could also be a date, a period of time during which she executed this spatial distribution of items. Both the space invested by the artist who installs her objects in constellations and the suspended time of the exhibition that temporarily preserves them merge in this number. For instance, consistently piled cigarettes on the surface of a large table gave one the impression of patience and time; on the other hand, the swept up heaps, papers, and cookie crumbs found below the table, the residue of a night’s work, expressed the same thing in an open, liberating manner. The letter for the catalogue penned by architect Cedric Price insists on the fact that the bringing together of opposites (i.e., clarity and doubt or order and disorder) marks Jeong-A’s work, which offers “a multidirectional galaxy of choices” in its own time-space continuum. In other words, rather than leading to a nostalgic evocation of a past forever gone, the use of dust and crumbs by Jeong-A presents a dynamic cosmic design: in the world things are done and come undone or are assembled and become separated. Everything is ephemeral. Far more than pointing to the past, the works of Jeong-A extend forward towards a perpetual becoming.

This is why installations such as Crapule, created for the exhibition Club Koo in 2004 at the Centre Pompidou’s Espace 315, often resemble sites of work in progress. The grouping together of a huge ladder, almost bare shelves, and a handful of tools scattered about the floor of a white-painted environment call to mind renovation work. This installation reminds us that in the oriental tradition inherited by the artist, ruins are not maintained; everything is ceaselessly refurbished. Temples and palaces are repaired, repainted, and reconstructed to suit contemporary life, wherein anything worn out, however lightly, is thrown out and replaced. One can therefore understand that there can be no cult of the old for Jeong-A. Neither monumental ruins nor relics, the past knows only a brief respite in her work; it is there to disappear.

Contrary to her predecessors who incorporate waste into their work, Jeong-A purposely fails to provide a framework that would guarantee its endurance after the exhibition. Her installations are not designed to be preserved. (7) One can even say that this question is of no interest to the artist, insofar as the durability of components seems ill-suited to the contemporary world: in an urban mode of life, where living spaces are scaled down and where we move about the city as though traveling to the other end of the world, how and why should we retain cumbersome objects? (8) Our current mode of life compels us to trash things, and art does not escape from this predicament. Jeong-A keeps only photographs of former installations. Moreover, if she happens to save some of her works from destruction, it seems to be only temporarily and by chance. She mainly keeps drawings since these occupy little space. She held on to a 2003 project titled Emptying Out, comprised of a ensemble of small soap houses created for the group exhibition Open Garden (Watari-Um, Japan), for the same reason. She stored them in a cardboard box where they have remained, without worrying about whether or not the soap melted in the meantime. The same goes for works acquired by museums, which must reconcile the artist’s procedure with their mission of establishing an artistic heritage. This is the case in Untitled, an installation presented at the Yvon Lambert Gallery in 2001 and later acquired by the Musée national d’art moderne du Centre Pompidou. It contains a shelf holding a multiplicity of small objects, toys, a teapot, neon lights, not to mention sheets of paper and wrapping papers with Korean writing scattered about the floor. The artist made a careful inventory of the shelf’s contents and mapped out the placement of each item, whereas, as has been the case until now, the papers littering the floor could be arranged freely and reused from one display to another, or they could be replaced by similar items provided by the artist upon a buyer’s purchase of the work. In fact, the Korean merchandise wrappers are essential to the installation’s display. In adopting this strategy, however, does the museum actually manage to preserve the work of Jeong-A without adulterating it?

Likewise, at the Centre international d’art et du paysage de Vassivière, (9) Jeong-A recently created an installation that peacefully self-destructs: a chandelier holding roughly 1,000 perfumed candles created for the occasion, which burned throughout the entire duration of the show. Their flames generated a black smoke that progressively covered the room’s walls, while the melted wax accumulated on the ground. In this installation matter reclaimed its right over form and imposed its own rule, in contrast to the quasi-religious spectacle of the countless lighted candles. What could have been seen as a sentimental return to monumentality—and homage to Boltanski?—made possible through this large illuminated chandelier, crumbled as it slowly melted. Nevertheless, with the prospect of enabling the relocation of this exhibition to other venues, the chandelier’s metal structure and the candles’ wax were recovered. Is it possible, however, to seek out a second life for such a work?

The challenging of the notion of durability is neither of secondary importance nor an afterthought for Jeong-A; instead, it concerns the very nature of her work. As noted by Elisabeth Lebovici in a text about the 2001 exhibition at the Yvon Lambert Gallery in Paris: “We do not see ‘pieces,’ ‘sculptures,’ ‘drawings,’ ‘paintings,’ ‘frames,’ or ‘pedestals,’ none of these... but a breathing or a circulation of things placed here and there.” (10) If the artwork consists of a kind of breathing, how can it be preserved? Furthermore, to what extent can we still speak of an “artwork”? (11)

Far from passively facing the constraints that compel her to rid herself of her exhibit pieces after their display, Jeong-A acts without regret and certainly without the nostalgia born of the Romanticism that often still marks contemporary European artistic creation.

Her installations challenge the monumentality to which art is bound and all that links it to the celebration of the past, compelling a reflection that runs counter to one of the definitions of art: a world of objects that endure around us. Nonetheless, is this definition, which makes durability an essential quality of art, universal? Robert Morris had already said that he “always rejected the notion that art lasts.” (12) With regard to the work of Koo Jeong-A, it brings us to question whether or not durability is a distinctive feature of a certain way of making art: the modern, occidental way that believed itself to be universal, yet which today no longer stands as the dominant model of artistic creation.

[Translated from the French by Vivian Ralickas]

NOTES
1. Marcel Duchamp’s Élevage de poussière or Dust Breeding was photographed by Man Ray in 1920 and was published by André Breton in Littérature in 1922.
2. Photographs published in Minotaure, nos. 3-4 (1933).
3. In his text Présence distraite that situates Koo Jeong-A in relation to conceptual art and post-modernity, Philippe Vergne is the first to speak of her artwork in terms of anti-monumentality. He even qualifies her as being “anti-Richard Serra”… He is also the first to make a connection between her work and post-colonialism. See the catalogue Koo Jeong-A (Paris: Espace 315, Pompidou Centre, 2004), 18-23.
4. “Quelques remarques sur le travail de Koo Jeong-A,” Aqueduc exhibition catalogue (Paris: ARC, Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, 1997).
5. In the same year she produced a similar work in an old garage at 28 Rousselet Street in Paris. By invitation of the collector Jean Chatelus for the exhibition Too, Koo Jeong-A united and sorted through all of the dust, debris, and other refuse that had accumulated in the abandoned locale.
6. See the catalogue Koo Jeong-A: 3355 (Vienna: Wiener Secession, 2002). Once she had chosen the drawing for the cover, the link between the number 3355 and the question of spatial distribution was thematized.
7. There exists a previous example of an installation designed only to be destroyed: Continuous Project Altered Daily, a work produced by Robert Morris from March 1st to the 22nd of 1969 at the Castelli Gallery (Warehouse) in New York City. Made up of diverse materials such as earth, water, paper, and a variety of metals, the work was modified every morning by the artist, and photographed and shown to the public in the afternoons. On the last day, a truck came to clear out the gallery. The artist taped this operation, but admits even to having lost the recording. The work of Koo Jeong-A can be located within this perspective, minus its giganticism. Morris’ work actually grouped together more than a ton of materials.
8. Interview with the artist, London, UK, March 2008.
9. Koo Jeong-A, Oussseux, Centre international d’art et du paysage de Vassivière, from November 4th, 2007 to February 3rd, 2008.
10. Elisabeth Lebovici, “C’est là, c’est Koo Jeong-A”, Tentations supplement, in Libération, T8 (1-7 June 2001).
11. The work of Koo Jeong-A builds on the trend of an “art without an artwork” described by Stephen Wright in his essay “Vers un art sans œuvre, sans auteur, et sans spectateur,” XV Biennale de Paris; see www.biennaledeparis.org.
12. This citation is from the introduction to Continuous Project Altered Daily, a collection of Morris’ essays published in 1993.

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