Chung Seoyoung's sculptural improvisation alters perceptions of commonplace objects


The title of Chung Seoyoung’s current exhibition at Tina Kim Gallery, With no Head nor Tail,could strike an association with the English idiom "cannot make heads or tails of” i.e. the totalising inability to make sense of something. While the show includes an array of familiar objects that have been altered, hybridised or decontextualised beyond immediate recognition, Seoyoung’s title is more a gesture toward absence than confusion. In March, during a talk at the gallery with Chief Curator of the Hessel Museum of Art, Lauren Cornell, the Korean artist explained, “[The show’s title] is assumed as if the tail was there, but it’s not there anymore. I am trying to make myself...into an entity that I do not know completely.” For Seoyoung, the omission of “head or tail” deprioritises an expected chronology, implying a more fluid and mutable presentation of a long period of work.


Born in 1964, Seoyoung has remained a foremost figure in the Korean contemporary artscene since the 1990s, after completing her studies at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart in 1991. With no Head nor Tail is Seoyoung’s first exhibition to follow her major retrospective at the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA), What I Saw Today (2022). This exhibition and the retrospective capture the contemporary artist's past and present while avoiding tidy chronology. Instead, Seoyung's sculptures and drawings are positioned firmly in the context of today, reflecting her continuous focus on momentary, fleeting perceptions.



Beyond the entrance of the gallery is Sink (2011), which Seoyoung sourced from an abandoned model apartment in Seoul where she held her 2011 exhibition Apple vs Banana. The sculpture at first resembles a simple kitchen furnishing symbolic of upward mobility, including a wooden countertop, cabinets and a sink basin, but without the faucet or handles necessary for it to function. Too short for the average person to comfortably access and with one corner propped up by three sizeable stones, the common object feels oddly out of balance. Although Seoyoung has not drastically interfered with the original sink, subtle adjustments have stripped away the essence of what the sculpture claims to be—leaving it to appear as an unattended, defective vestige of everyday life.


Other pieces in the exhibition suggest a similar ghostly effect. Untitled (1994) features a pair of identical floating wall shelves, one installed in the gallery’s front room and the other in the back. Two disembodied plastic hands appear to hold the wooden pole protruding vertically from the shelf, posed as if to twist the pole up and down. That phantom presence of motion contradicts the precise stillness of the fixture. Seoyoung’s newest piece in the exhibition, Red (2024), was inspired in part by her encounter with Charlotte Bronte’s dress at the Morgan Library in New York. This red jacket hangs on a thin wire hanger suspended from the ceiling, moulded as if to echo the invisible shape of a body. Peculiar in scale and position, Chung recreates the sense of misalignment she felt between her image of the body and that of Bronte’s dress.



A close observer of objects, one of Seoyoung’s ongoing artistic concerns is the shift in the status of consumer goods and ordinary items under the pressure of a rapidly developing society. In her conversation with Cornell, she remarked on the lost “density” of objects she’d been incorporating in her sculptures for a long time. In preparation for her retrospective at SeMA, she drew a connection between the shed shells of cicadas and the flimsy, thinned-out forms of familiar objects. A vacuous space beneath the surface emerges on the reverse side of the cast bronze piece in Trousers Peel (2024), which resembles a scaled-up, fragmented pair of pants, unravelling across a plywood table. Where one part of the sculpture is deconstructed and negated, another has been altered by excess: one leg of the table has been piled on with additional, mismatched legs.


Language, too, is another everyday tool pulled into Seoyoung’s careful consideration. A series of twelve A4-sized ceramic tiles from 2023 are arranged on a low platform in the centre of the gallery’s back room. Some feature text in Korean or English, inscribed with glaze pencil using a ruler, offering enigmatic statements or questions in an unsteady, smudgy hand: “Nature Has No Goals, Right?” or “In the deep past we wandered without a home and didn't work so much.” Others are drawings made with gold glaze, titled with loose associations to their images: Bear? or Run Back? For her nearby piece Deep Sea and Thick Wall (2024), the artist has placed large white panels silkscreened with text alongside a standing wooden pole, trailed by a string of artificial leaves. Written in a Korean schoolhouse font, the text reads vertically: “staring into the deep sea and a thick wall is the same? the.” The last word spills onto the floor, pushed down by a panel bearing the question mark as if another superfluous device. The artist’s open-ended analogy unexpectedly juxtaposes two disparate images, an idea she explores often, both in her sculptures and in her titles. It also indicates Seoyoung’s preoccupation with perspective and perception, particularly our ability to align mere images with reality.



Road (1993), located in the gallery's back room’s farthest corner, came to Chung after she read an article about how the brain initially processes three-dimensional objects as two-dimensional. The artist drew flat depictions of roads on wooden spheres and placed them in plastic containers affixed with wheels. Like the stones in Sink and the wooden legs in Trousers Peel, the containers in Road offer the inner components of this sculpture unconventional support—in this case, enabling the “road” images to roll around and move, reinstating the road’s essence of transportation, dimensionality and function. And yet, like many of Seoyoung’s other objects, there remains a fundamental instability.


“There are many of my works in which the material and structure are not stable or several parts are temporarily put together to make a piece,” said Seoyoung in a conversation with artist Sung Hwan Kim, noting the importance of finding a place for a sculpture within an exhibition space, even if the sculpture never returns in the same state after it is de-installed. Seoyoung has referred to her work as “sculptural moments,” a fitting phrase, as their components are pieced together with both spontaneity and intuition. Relying on spatial conditions and the visual perspectives of viewers, her sculptures’ mismatched parts coalesce in an unexpected state of belonging particular to the present moment. Stripped of function, “with no head nor tail,” Seoyoung’s objects ascend from their concrete past lives. They challenge our passive observance of the material world, compelling us to actively reexamine what we see and know. 


‘With no Head nor Tail’ will be on view at Tina Kim Gallery, New York, until April 20, 2024.

April 12, 2024
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