Absence, Self-Reference, Disputes and Tomorrow: ‘Graphic Design 2005–2015, Seoul’
Recent days have seen a significant rise in the number of exhibitions on the topic of Korean graphic design. Last August, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Seoul branch hosted the exhibition ‘Graphic Symphonia’, to commeorate 50 years of diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan, featuring graphic design works from the two countries. Following this event was the ‘XS: Young Studio Collection’ hosted at the alternative art space Post Territory Ujeongguk in October, curated by the quarterly Graphic. Kim Kwangchul (publisher, Graphic) described the exhibition as an opportunity to witness the present state of the latest contemporary graphic design along with a chronological feature of ‘extra small (XS)’ graphic studios. Finally, from Mar. 25 to May 29, Ilmin Museum of Art hosted the exhibition ‘Graphic Design, 2005-2015, Seoul’. While this exhibition was the latest to open to the public, Ilmin Museum of Art had come to terms with hosting the exhibition by early 2015. Hence, the exhibition was far from an event that had been planned suddenly, having been motivated by its predecessors. If that was the case, then what did this exhibition, with an awkward title that simply lists its genre, period and venue, mean to convey?
reported by Harry Jun | materials provided by Ilmin Museum of Art
A Summary of New Trends Since 2005
‘This exhibition does not equally represent graphic design produced in Seoul. In 2005 and 2006, the genre saw the emergence of an unprecedented and completely different format of graphic design, that was so different from what came previously that it could be described as being ‘isolated’, as at the centre of this trend were a number of small studios that were active in the field of culture. Our sole interest was their accomplishments.’ This is how the joint curators of the exhibition, Min Choi (Sulki & Min) and Kim Hyungjin (Workroom Press) describe the exhibition. For the two designers, Min Choi who returned from the Netherlands in 2005, and Kim Hyungjin who founded the graphic design studio Workroom in 2006, the answer to why they chose the year 2005 was very clear. ‘2005 was the year that Sulki & Min returned to the domestic scene and worked on the ‘MODAFE’ poster, while Kijoside created the ‘BGBG Record’ logo. The following year saw the founding of studio FNT and Workroom. While these activities did not seem to have any significance at the time, in retrospect it has become apparent that the movement that has prevailed to this day began at this point in time. Na Kim also commented in an interview in the 369th issue of idea that 2005 and 2006 represent a turning point for graphic design in Korea.’ According to the two curators, such tendencies were most apparent in the cultural fields of theatre, photography, art, publishing and architecture. The field of graphic design had begun to change significantly after collaboration between the former minor fields in culture and the arts and small graphic design studios became more perceivable, yielding greater influence, to the point that today, this has come to be considered as the inception of XS studios and independent publishing houses that are flourishing today. Hence, the curators felt that now would be a good time to provide a summary of this movement through an exhibition.
The Dress Code: 101 Indexes
The topic of the exhibition is graphic design, yet the exhibition does not feature any actual graphic designs per se. Instead, twelve teams of artists were asked to produce new works that were re-interpretations inspired by the works produced in the past decade by such unique and minor graphic designers. Here, the two curators, Min Choi and Kim Hyungjin worked within loosely defined roles by not only curating the exhibition as a whole, but also working as artists to convey ‘a narrative framework as well as a common reference for both the participating artists and the audience.’ From a pool of 200 to 300 graphic design pieces from the past decade, relative and absolute conditions were taken into account to select a catalogue including a total of 101 works, which were chosen on the conditions of not only the work’s inherent qualities, such as the formative characteristics of the work or its relative freshness, but also external factors such as the significance of the actual project, personal or institutional characteristics of those who have helped of commissioned the design, as well as personal taste. While 101 Indexes represented a yardstick for artists to produce new designs, the project was nevertheless flexible in terms of artistic license, and as such the indexes did not function as absolute standards. ‘The artists all utilized the indexes in their own way. They either faithfully fulfilled them, or lightly referred to them, or in some cases absolutely rejected them. It would be easier to understand this from the perspective of the indexes functioning as a ‘dress code’ which has been announced for a party, which in this case would be the exhibition.’
101 Indexes is a narrative framework as well as a common reference for both the participating artists and the audience.
An Exhibition ‘About’ Graphic Design
The exhibition begins with a database, or catalogue, of 101 Indexes that is installed at the entrance by the first floor, followed by 33 by Optical Race. By aligning different statistics on social and cultural events in Korea, Japan and the US, designating different generations from 1965 to 1975, 1985 to 1995, and 2005 to 2015, the works here exhibited are based on the designer’s intention to use statistics to represent the motto that a designer is a child of the times. Yet, the fact that a whole two decades are missing from a period of 50 years, and the fact that the main events were chosen on unclear grounds, as well as the fact that the timeline from 2005 to 2015 seems to have been filled arbitrarily with cultural events surrounding the artist, seems enough to incite a sense of hostility from the audience. Of course, the curator, Kim Hyungjin draws the line, emphasizing that ‘the series of events that have been represented were selected based on what the artist deemed as important. Hence the question should be whether these events can indeed be deemed as significant, not whether they existed in relation to the artist.’ Nevertheless, it seems unavoidable that the audience may feel surprised to see events that do not seem to serve any other purpose than to pat oneself on the back. Compared to this, An Incomplete List, which is a work that is closer to the act of complementary archiving by collecting ephemera of one-off commercial event publications such as pamphlets, postcards, invitations and brochures that were produced from the early 2000s to recent days, seems to be clearer in conveying on what grounds the 23 designers were chosen (works were accepted based on those already in possession or handed in voluntarily). Moreover, it is more interesting as the work is complete in and of itself, and it was planned separately from the exhibition. SGHS, an architectural design firm, has integrated the material of books, paper, with concrete, the material of architecture, placing each layer upon layer to reach up to the third floor of the exhibition hall, constructing an unique structure entitled Building. The giant print work by Sung Kim which mysteriously binds together nebulae, aurora, the Yosemite, the Antarctic, a desert, a forest, a snowy mountain, a lion, a leopard and a flamingo is a work that has combined the visual characteristics of the desk pictures included in the various generation of Mac OS X. While the work itself can be seen as a grandiose and surreal work of graphic art, it seems that the concept itself may have been flawed, as the sources were chosen based on an inquiry into the images that designers over the past decade have seen the most. However, all graphic designers do not use Mac, and we don’t know how many graphic designers would maintain their background screens on default.
Sung Kim’s A Maverick Leopard Jumps Over the Snow Lion and the Capitan Tiger in the Mountain Yosemite
The Second Floor: 101 Indexes Begins to Actively Emerge
The second floor is unique in that its works utilize 101 Indexes more readily than works on the other floors. The artist collective Kiljong Arcade’s Three Dimensional World Replies, and LaLiPo’s features/// Emanated records by the cumulative manifest appear on paper in a physical way have both utilized the sub-theme of ‘device/technique’ as their main concept, and thus can be more easily described through comparison. Kiljong Arcade has used the filters of ‘centring’, ‘monochrome’, ‘repetition’, and ‘object-resembling letter/letter-resembling object’ to create two large-scale installations and 101 smaller artefacts. LaLiPo, which is a Korean based realisation of the 1960’s French Experimental Literature Group OuLiPo, has selected five designers from 101 Indexes, carrying out a literature experiment in which words are gathered and erased based on pages from select works, visualizing this by using the designer in question’s main method of expression. If the former may be seen as having responded to the task at hand three-dimensionally, the latter is two-dimensional. In EH (Kim Kyoungtae)’s IMG, the focal point is delicately transferred on each page to produce hundreds of photographic images of books, which have then been carefully photoshopped together, realising the piece as a huge printed work and featuring the experimentation of tension between material and dimensions. Based on 95 images, Corners and Manual has produced G2S, Riso Print Shop, which is an experiential work that creates its own narrative through the printing of Risograph. Sasa  and Chae Lee’s One Hundred One Letters is also based on 101 Indexes, in which texts from 101 works have been sampled to create posters, bags and badges, to be later distributed to a limited number of people at a certain fixed time. Only Jeon Eunkyung and Won Seungrak’s (Out of) Focus is not related to the indexes, in which information has been collected regarding the backdrop, clothes and personal effects of graphic designers from interview photos in monthly Design. By blocking out the facial features of each person with colorful acrylics, the work thought provokingly delivers the tastes and styles shared by designers.
Jeon Eunkyung and Won Seungrak’s (Out of) Focus
Kiljong Arcade’s Three Dimensional World Replies
The Third Floor: Where Quality Overcomes Quantity
The final third floor is made up of only two works. These are Kim Kyuho, Lee Chungwoo, and Jo Eunji’s What a Masterpiece!: Graphic Design, 2005-2015, Seoul (What a Masterpiece!) and Wonyoung So’s Small World/ Graphic Designers. First What a Masterpiece! is a work in which the art and design critic Lee Chungwoo has selected several works that he believes to be representative of the design field over the past decade, and has recorded a series of lectures stating the reasons behind and significance of these works, after which the designers Kim Kyuho and Jo Eunji have added the subtitles and visual effects appropriately to complete three episode. Plans have been made to install a set on site, to help create a further three episodes during the exhibition period, so as to complete the design masterpiece lecture series with a total of six episodes. 101 Indexes were originally selected by the curators who wished to be free of the boundaries of subjectivity and objectivity, and hence, the curators, who were aware of the limitations of such a mindset rejected acting in reverence of past landmarks or barometers. What a Masterpiece! uses the same method, yet with a totally different approach, to the point that the lecturer seems to have adversely taken on the role of complementing and advocating artist groups that have been underrepresented in 101 Indexes. The final piece of the exhibition, Small world / Graphic designers is also a work that shows how Wonyoung So has established ties and extended the scope of a community with Korean graphic designers and collaborators over the past ten years. The main subject of the work is the visualization of networks, in which a variety of credits for different works are gathered together, recording how different artists establish relationships with others and by observing how these artists have further matured in reference of each other. The piece has provoked much discussion, as it is being compared with the highly debated work Art Solaris in the domestic art field today, with some concluding that it clearly shows the culture of nepotism prevalent within the ‘minority graphic designer network.’ To such criticism, the artist has responded that ‘the main objective was to observe how networks have changed as time passes by’ and that it is important to be wary of overthinking things.
Kim Kyuho, Lee Chungwoo, and Jo Eunji’s What a Masterpiece!: Graphic Design, 2005–2015, Seoul
A History Constructed from Repeated Self-Reference
‘Graphic Design, 2005-2015, Seoul’ has become an exhibition of great contention. The greatest reason is that the exhibition is a repeat performance of self-referentiality. Small studios and the main actors that have so-called led the ‘new trend’ over the past decade were in fact in charge of the whole curation of the show, and as such the fruits of such a network became the sub-themes of the exhibition, with those in association with this network participating in the exhibition as its main artists and further retranslating these works. Such a situation can be deemed to be as bizarre as the specter of the Uroboros, the mythological creature that eats its own tail. a design writer Kay Jun (publisher, Aprilsnow Press) has sharply commented that ‘those who most deem themselves to be ahistorical are most likely to set out to write a history of their own’, and that ‘in a society in which everything eventually fades from memory, it must be taken for granted that grandiose funerals cannot help but become a necessity for one to remain remembered.’ Min Choi and Kim Hyungjin have actively countered such opinions. ‘When we began curating, we did feel a sense of doubt over leading a summation and evaluation of our own story. We predicted that people would criticize it as a “members only club” style exhibition, and we are aware of this accusation. Yet, are there any external critics or curators that can look closely into the matter and evaluate graphic design in our age? We judged that it was right for us to take this task on if the answer was no.’ Kim Sangkyu (professor, Seoul National University of Science and Technology) has said that ‘what is most important is that such a large-scale design exhibition has actually been realised. Unlike the fine arts, the design field rarely has the chance to present itself. Rather than taking into consideration the expectations and anticipation of all, then using this to evaluate the exhibition, it is more important to consider how the genre can profit from such an opportunity.’
What did this exhibition, with an awkward title that simply lists its genre, period and venue, mean to convey?
Greater Dispute Needed
Another point of contention was ‘the evaporation of criticism.’ Kim Sangkyu said that ‘having no evaluation is a sad, tragic and lonely thing’, and sharply said that ‘it is also farfetched to require perfection from the evaluations of individuals, just like it is hard for a curator to satisfy the interests of the majority. While parts of the exhibition may seem unkempt in parts, it is also significant in that the exhibition honestly reveals the parts that the curators have missed. It cannot be denied that opinions must be freely expressed.’ SNS exchanges played a big part in guaranteeing that a great number of people involved in the exhibition joined the mainstream discussion of the graphic design field, and it is the reality that this can divert mainstream opinion in the field through the actions of opinion leaders or those taking advantage of “starship”. Unlike the art field, which seems almost like a battlefield when it comes to disputed opinions, it was regretful that those in the relatively younger graphic design field, perhaps due to a sense of self-consciousness, composed a more formal atmosphere by choosing to respond with metaphorical comments or remaining silent. Nevertheless, the curator revealed his opinion by stating that ‘exhibitions have always been characterized by a sense of self-congratulation. There is nothing we can do about whether the audience will enjoy the exhibition, or whether they will evaluate it harshly. Opinions exchanged on SNS are the same. Nevertheless, I do wish to respond dutifully to criticisms made by official media outlets.’ Kim Hyungjin otherwise concluded the preface to the exhibition catalogue with the words, ‘Today is 2016…All these now belong to the past; and as always, we have tomorrow’. He reflected that ‘After the ball is over, the most important fact is that tomorrow will start again.’ What will the sunrise be like in a world where the field has become a lot more layered than before, and young designers are sprouting up across all areas with surprising and exciting ideas. Would it be too ambitious to anticipate greater diversity in the days of tomorrow with a more insightful sense of direction, spurred on by increasingly heated debate?