By Annie Chung
Jean Gallery, one of South Korea’s oldest and most established first generation galleries, broke taboos in the most irreverent way possible with Be Silly, Be Honest, a bold and playful breast-themed exhibition that was on view March 14th to April 16th.
The exhibition showcased works by KITSCHS, a collective comprised of six young South Korean artists who are known for their quirky and decisively low brow approach to art. Members include Dopamine.C, Lee Changho, elly’s, FORI, Yang Eunbin, and Hwang Taewon. The artists work in diverse mediums, but speak the visual language of their generation — the language of cartoons and animation — and employ that symbology extensively in the exhibition.
Curated by gallery director, Shin Min, Be Silly, Be Honest took a lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek approach to a taboo subject and was conceived out of a desire to de-stigmatize, de-sexualize, and re-beautify women’s breasts. The exhibition theme and the collective’s visual language were well-matched, as the artists’ works are subversive in their silliness. From a giant inflatable breast in the courtyard to robots sporting Jean Paul Gaultier's iconic cone bra, artists used the agency of humor and childlike nuances to disarm a taboo and induce a healthier dialogue around breasts.
With almost sixty works in two buildings, the ambitious exhibition was well-organized and managed to display diversity in perspectives within a cohesive visual framework. From the cheeky use of slang in the exhibition title (“Seumga” is a quasi-anagram of the Korean word for breast) to the choice of hot pink walls and bubblegum pop, no stone was left unturned in the gallery’s commitment to the artists and the exhibition’s creative vision.
In particular, special consideration was given to details that would create a truly immersive, interactive, and enjoyable viewer experience. Instead of entering a contemplative white-cube gallery, viewers were transported into a (very pink) no-holds-bar world where they could enjoy light-hearted fun as they interacted with over-the-top works. This was a magical world where visitors could try on cartoon breasts, admire whimsical paintings, and relax on a sofa adorned with kitschy breast pillows. In this feel-good world, guests could literally have their cake and feel good too, as their purchases benefited a breast cancer surgery fund.
For all their cuteness and quirky humor, the works should not be taken at face value, as their unreality “softens” negative perceptions about women’s breasts. This, in turn, creates a relaxed environment where viewers can engage the topic in a way that is not possible in reality. Indeed, many of the whimsical works address difficult social realities. For instance, in the painting YASSIN (2017), Dopamine.C explores the fine line between happiness and sexual addiction by depicting the mind of an addict. In this colorful brainscape, Dopamine.C paints a portrait of a comical monster that, as the artist explains, “only comes out at night.” Its frenzied expression and symbolic bra and blazing torch seem to suggest that the character has lost all self control.
In Outside, Inside (2017), elly’s juxtaposes two halves of a woman’s torso that she fashioned out of dazzling sequins and exquisite embroidery work. The left canvas depicts the beauty of a woman’s breasts and form, while the right version depicts internal anatomy with textbook accuracy and precision. Both versions are stunning in their brilliance and technical skill, but the inner version re-humanizes breasts by serving as a reminder that breasts are only one part of a living being. Ultimately, though, the viewer is left to choose what to see.
In Annie the Robot (2017), Hwang Taewon takes a cynical view on human nature and suggests that people exploit advances in technology to discover new ways of abusing others. In the series, the artists paints a world where robots think and feel like humans — and even fall in love with them. Unfortunately, the life-like quality of these robots makes them vulnerable to abuse, as people use them as objects for sexual gratification. Annie, the robot, is a victim of this experience and bears her pain on her expressionless face.
Be Silly, Be Honest was irreverent, loads of fun, and meaningful in its efforts to address taboos and in its support of emerging artists in South Korea. It was refreshing in its bold approach to unpacking the stigma surrounding an uncomfortable subject — and did so in the most surprising way. Jean Gallery also merits special recognition for its dedication to supporting talented young artists, as the exhibition was a bit of a departure from the gallery’s history of exhibiting blue-chip artists, such as Warhol and Yayoi Kusama. The collaboration was both a popular and critical success, and it will be interesting to see what creative directions Jean Gallery and the KITSCHS collective will take in future exhibitions.