Giant cyborgs and miniature humanoids: male nudes in South Korean art

South Korea’s growing fascination with the ideal male form is leading some artists to push the boundaries of the possible in their male nudes.

As South Korean men seek perfection through make-up and surgery, the country’s artists are busy turning their male nudes into androgynous cyborgs or dog-headed humunculi, subverting socialised expectations of Korean masculinity in the most surprising ways.

Hyungkoo Lee, 'Face Trace 003', 2012, resin, artificial teeth, stainless steel wire, acrylic, aluminium plate, bolt, 31.5 x 17.7 x 21 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Hyungkoo Lee, ‘Face Trace 003′, 2012, resin, artificial teeth, stainless steel wire, acrylic, aluminium plate, bolt, 31.5 x 17.7 x 21 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

South Korea is, in today’s popular media, known for three things: K-pop, an unfortunate proximity to North Korea and a growing predilection for surgical self-improvement. A hotbed of cosmetic surgery, South Korea is frequently pinpointed by international publications: an article on The New York Times from 2011, “In South Korea, Plastic Surgery Comes Out of the Closet” claimed that, in 2009, one in five South Korean women had undergone some sort of cosmetic procedure. Indeed, media conversations surrounding South Korea’s surgery addiction are frequently critical and is assumed to revolve around the female form. But where does the increasing obsession with physical perfection leave the Korean male?

Nip tuck: not only for the ladies

Korea is the male make-up capital of the world and cosmetic surgery for men is becoming increasingly prevalent. For business or for pleasure, Korean men are willing to augment their bodies through means beyond pumping iron and following a stringent diet. This sea change in attitude towards acceptable masculinity has not escaped national or international critical comment: Sun Jung’s book Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption: Yosama, Rain, Oldboy, K-Pop Idols digs deeper into changing Korean masculinity, as does Stephen J. Epstein and Rachael M. Yoo’s article “Multiple Exposures: Korean Bodies and the Transnational Imagination.”

South Korean society’s intensifying focus on the male body is, implicitly or explicitly, explored by some of the country’s contemporary artists, who include the male nude in their work as well as the female. Reinterpreting the male form in various ways, from gender changes to scale alteration and rebirth, these artists diverge from realism to consider more conceptual concerns.

Lee Yongbaek, ‘Pietà: Self-Death, 2008, 400 x 340 x 320 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Lee Yongbaek, ‘Pietà: Self-Death, 2008, 400 x 340 x 320 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Father Mary

In 2011 Lee Yongbaek represented South Korea at the Venice Biennale. Some of the most striking works included in the Korean Pavilion were the larger-than-life sculptures of Lee’s “Pietà” series.

In Pietà: Self-Death, the traditional pietà scene is peopled with larger-than-life, plastic cyborg-like figures. Instead of being the comforting mother figure, the Mary is a cold, hard figure without visual female qualities such as full breasts or soft hips. Other than the composition, the only reference to the Marian role of mother of Jesus is that the cyborg Jesus resting in her arms was, literally, created from the same mould as the Mary. In Lee’s sculptures, gender signifiers are erased leaving enlarged cyborg-like forms.

Choi Xooang, 'Condition for Ordinary Colonization', 2013, oil on resin , steel, 45 x 52 x 103 cm. Edition of 5. Image courtesy Art Seasons.

Choi Xooang, ‘Condition for Ordinary Colonization’, 2013, oil on resin , steel, 45 x 52 x 103 cm. Edition of 5. Image courtesy Art Seasons.

All tied up

Choi Xooang has spent the last several years crafting stunning and unsettling miniature interpretations of the human figure. Last spring Choi had an exhibition titled “Condition for Ordinary [The Blind for the Blind]” at Art Seasons Gallery in Singapore. Choi says “[his] work explores the individual state both in unity and conflict, and attempts to reveal the real dynamics among society’s diverse forces. [He wants] the public to reconfirm their own capacity for self-awareness and to rediscover our active part in these relations.”

Choi Xooang, 'Condition for Ordinary Colonization' (detail), 2013, oil, resin, steel. Image courtesy Art Seasons.

Choi Xooang, ‘Condition for Ordinary Colonization’ (detail), Image courtesy Art Seasons.

His sculpture Colonization, at just over one hundred centimetres tall, is roughly the height of a large toddler, but with a dog head and a human male body. Despite its miniature size the figure is striking: he seems to be in motion and alert but harnessed by his own skin. The details of the sculpture convey an eerie, non-human, vagabond-like figure fabricated with multiple unmatched parts: the dog head, a mismatched hand, underwear, and laced boots. The most striking of these details is the thick brown stitching that crawls up the dog-headed boy’s back. The chest skin is worn like a vest. Choi disallows the viewer from knowing what truly lies beneath this cobbled figure’s outer layer.

Anxious autonomy

From the same exhibition, Isometric Male is a sculpture of similar scale showing two shaven bald, naked male figures who are intertwined, with one hand from each figure seemingly plunged into the back of the other’s neck. Each figure’s free hand covers the mouth or genitals of the other, the vulnerability of interdependence of the male figures throwing into question the possibility of true autonomy.

Choi Xooang, 'Isometric Male', 2013, oil on resin, 47 x 61 x 95 cm. Image courtesy Art Seasons.

Choi Xooang, ‘Isometric Male’, 2013, oil on resin, 47 x 61 x 95 cm. Image courtesy Art Seasons.

Dangling and strangling

Dongwook Lee’s sculptures are miniature figures that draw the viewer into his casually violent works. Good Boy (2012) is a small-scale nightmarish scene of a naked man, noose around his neck, surrounded by and tied to various dogs. The arrangement is precariously stacked in a pyramid, with the man at the top and the dogs scattered among and below. Though the male figure’s position seems potentially life threatening and precarious, the human figure and the dogs are codependent, literally bonded to each other with various strings. A press release for one of Dongwook Lee’s solo exhibitions pointed out that the title “’Good Boy’ is a compliment one utters when his or her dog complies with one’s will. However, it is ambiguous whether this ‘good boy’ refers to the dog, or the man tied to the top of the chain.”

'Mermaid', Image courtesy the artist and Arario Gallery.

Dongwook Lee, ‘Mermaid’. Image courtesy the artist and Arario Gallery.

Another perilously placed naked man dangles from above in Dongwook Lee’s Mermaid. At just three by ten by three centimetres this figure hangs with his chest, wrists, and ankles bound by the white rope that is attached above. His genitalia is dark and dangling under the shadow of the figure’s body, hardly noticeable. The figure’s head is strained slightly upward at an uncomfortable angle as though he is straining to hear. Or perhaps he is dead and rigor mortis has frozen his body in this position of struggle and vulnerability. Lee’s sculptures communicate an unmoving violence that seems frozen in time, waiting for an end that is not in sight.

Dissected and obscured

Hyungkoo Lee’s solo exhibition “Face Trace” at Gallery Skape in 2012 included numerous busts of deconstructed and reassembled sculptures of human heads. The announcement of the exhibition in Art Agenda described the artist’s work thus: “the artist captures his own various facial expressions and intentionally fragments [them] into several parts. By reassembling them according to the studies of physiognomy, he composes totally different figures. “Face Trace” is created by overlapping skull structures of several human races and different parts of the artist’s multiple facial expressions. This process follows the method of facial reconstruction used in forensic science.”

The concocted crania dissect and highlight select cranial features using a wide variety of materials such as resin, artificial teeth, wire, aluminium plates, and bolts. Face Trace 004 vaguely recalls the character Two-Face (formerly known as Harvey Dent) from the Batman comics; his nose, lips and right eye are all flesh toned and covered with a convincing skin finish. Surrounding that space a bright, smooth, seemingly hardened, white material covers the rest of the head. The eye bulges out of the socket and the teeth are exposed through a clenched jaw. The ear is disconnected from the figure’s head though it is located in the expected area. The sculptures in “Face Trace” recall the precision of anatomy class, the caliber of the classic bust, and the terror of dreams gone wrong.

Hyungkoo Lee, 'Face Trace 004', 2012, resin, artificial teeth, stainless steel wire, acrylic, aluminum plate, bolt, 29 x 17.4 x 19.8 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Hyungkoo Lee, ‘Face Trace 004′, 2012, resin, artificial teeth, stainless steel wire, acrylic, aluminium plate, bolt, 29 x 17.4 x 19.8 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Shattered but notorious

Kim Joon has created artwork that literally shatters the fragile human body. Works such as Golden-Hour Jesus (2011) and Adam & Eve (2011) are prints of porcelain-looking bodies painted with intricate patterns and rich colours, then shattered and arranged in a scene reflecting the title. In rendering the biblical characters of Adam and Eve, Kim shows Eve’s moderately more feminine body practically inserted into another, slightly larger body, perhaps referencing Eve’s body coming from Adam’s rib. On a plate next to them the female body, headless, stands next to an apple that is black and half her height. A single dismembered arm, about the size of Eve’s leg, reaches towards the plate. The entire scene is splattered with inky black spatters on the porcelain figures, suggesting disarray or the stain of sin.

Kim Joon, 'Adam and Eve'. Image courtesy Sundaram Tagore Gallery.

Kim Joon, ‘Adam and Eve’. Image courtesy Sundaram Tagore Gallery.

The bodies are small and look like they’re all from the same mould, reminiscent of Lee Yongbaek’s “Pietà” sculptures. Gender becomes more ambiguous, but can be determined by observing slightly wider hips or broad shoulders—the distilled human figure—barely gendered, ambiguous and smooth, and without race, class, or economic signifiers. A reflection on masculinity? Not at all, but nonetheless a reflection on the mutability and fragility of the human form and the Judeo-Christian notion that we are all born imperfect, an originary state which South Korean men are increasingly seeking to expiate.

Kate Korroch


Related Topics: Korean art, the human form, fact and fiction blur

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