09 Permeating into the City

Chuyoung Lee
Curator, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea


Park Sang-hee permeates into the city. She roams, discovers, draws, and engraves. From a new perspective, Park Sang-hee has been observing the hidden side of the artificial, confusing, and exaggerated landscapes presented by unidentifiable modern Korean metropolises; cities that were constructed in a disorderly manner, disconnected from the past in the vortex of rapid economic development. The cityscape of Korea has often been negatively defined by many as a space where the widening gap between the rich and the poor, as well as alienation, competition, and desires often clash with each other under the dark shade of industrial capitalism. Yet Park Sang-hee has presented the city as “a treasury of novel sentiments and attachments to life”. From her early to mid-2000s artwork featuring ordinary urban alleys and streets filled with signboards, and confectionery and dolls piled up in gigantic marts up to her present series of ‘Nightscape’, the artist has continuously focused on urban landscapes.

The assorted collections of signs and shops scattered around city centers are essential elements that portray the individuality and diversity of modern cities. Attentive to the forms of patterns and texts on signboards in her early career, the artist was enraptured by the various calligraphic styles that were completed with color sheets and sheet cutting: the main materials of signboard production. The internal fluorescents lights permeate through an amalgamation of sheets cut into the shapes of numerous images, to bodily reveal its essence as a signboard. Unlike certain European countries boasting of beautiful and scrupulously maintained urban landscapes that host modern architecture coexisting with buildings hundreds of years old, Korean cities are overgrown with signboards that have sprouted haphazardly out of the economic-priority policy. Such signboards are an embodiment of an unnamable cultural chaos. They are part of a unique landscape that fittingly embodies the cultural characteristics of a Korea that is sensitive to change and boiling with energy. These signboards have been the culprit criticized for disorienting our sights and destroying aesthetics.
The beautiful (?) festivity of street signboards straining to have the purpose of their existences heard is replete with multifarious and captivating visual elements, quite different from their silent battle of wits and survival. Her early works are typical in that they are rendered in brilliant eye-catching colors and purpose-oriented design just as if they were cut scenes from color animation. Examples of such works include Buy the Way cvs (2003) depicting a local convenience store, Good Restaurant (2003), a signboard piece with a huge Rose of Sharon that indicates a fine restaurant certified by the city hall, Jouju Doll (2005) depicting a pink princess doll showcased at a mart, and Toy Story (2005) with a stuffed elephant toy. In particular, works like Korean Scenery—E-mart Shopping Mall (2005) and Snack Nacho (2008) show tragicomic spectacles of products such as ‘Ojing-eo Zham-ppong’ instant noodles and ‘Son Kalguksu’ noodles, ‘Corn Chips’ and ‘Nachos’ stacked on the shelves of hypermarkets, waiting to be chosen by consumers. These works superbly disclose the artist’s intention to capture ‘novel sentiments’ dissolved within daily urban life by further exaggerating the already overblown packaging of blatantly stereotypical mass-produced products with cartoon-style images.

Park Sang-hee has continuously been painting urban nightscapes since the mid-2000s. Unlike the quotidian scenes of daytime, the nighttime landscape of the city unveils a peculiar charm of its own. Urban nighttime is splendid and showy. If the urbanity exposed under midday sunlight is a naked face devoid of make-up or shade, the city of the night that is illuminated by intense artificial lighting is a clear countenance contoured by heavy make-up. Anyone who has learnt to draw still life would have experienced that the model plaster figures require good lighting for its features to be properly accentuated. A strong light struck upon a plain white bust gives it a distinct character by exposing the three-dimensionality of deep eyes, a prominent nose, and compressed lips. The form of the city is similar. The indiscriminative daylight pouring evenly upon everything exposes too many things at a time. It is difficult to wholly concentrate on the tangled landscape of buildings, vehicles, signboards, and crowds. On the contrary, night views of the city clearly emphasize what should be seen, and conceals what is dirty and ugly. The urban nightscape desires to show only its attractive scenes. As the city changes from its cold daytime grayness into the flowery self-adornment of night, people come aglow with the city’s hour of transformation. They dissolve into the other half of day that yesterday’s humankind had not the privilege to enjoy.

In her 2009 solo-exhibition, Park Sang-hee released pieces portraying night scenes in the port cities of Asian countries such as those of Incheon, Hong Kong, and Yokohama. Governed by international standards, contemporary cities are occupied by similarly-shaped windows and buildings of steel structure. Their streets are occupied by signboards for globally-selling vehicles, electronic, and fashion brands. Nevertheless, the urban nightscapes in Park Sang-hee’s paintings meet the spectators with seemingly similar yet different faces. She roams the night streets with her camera to take images that capture her attention. She then applies layers of color sheets onto the canvas to realistically depict the night scenes of the city. Usually a painting is finished at this stage. Yet Park Sang-hee peels the surface of the canvas layer after layer with a sharp knife following geometrical patterns. Just as a skilled surgeon incises the skin of a patient lying upon an operating table, the artist slices away the integuments of the ‘landscapes’.

Due to the traces of sheet cutting on the surface of canvas, the spectator’s eyes trained on the work cannot fully concentrate on the ‘landscape’; instead they are bound to float over the surface of the picture. Immersion into the visual illusion is delayed, and a sense of tactile perception is awakened. The thickness of the sheets spread on the canvas and the pigments applied onto it form a thin and hard multitude of layers on the surface of the work. Hence the canvas obtains solid weight. Signboard sheet cutting, a favored method for creating patterns that cover the urban landscape, has solidified as the distinctive style and established method of the artist. The sheet cutting, first used for movie posters, signboards, and images of mass-produced goods in her early career as an artist, now extended into her urban landscapes in a more mature and elaborate dimension. The technique has been developed to the extent that the painter is now adjusting the depth of cutting, considering layers of color sheets and the cross sections of acryl paints. However, although such technical peculiarities may draw the viewers’ attention, they are bound to become a burden when continued for an extended period of time. And more often than not, a stubborn form of framework places limitations on the potential for more diverse expression.

The significance of Park Sang-hee’s work becomes clear when we focus on the conceptual interpretation of her work and the earnest gaze of an artist who views the city from a new angle, rather than focusing on the formal peculiarities of her methods. While the conventional landscape painting draws the viewer’s gaze deep into the world of the canvas by its created illusions, the landscape of Park Sang-hee instead obstructs the viewers’ immersion into her work and induces them to remain on the epidermis of the landscape. Due to the meandering layers that have been carved out like the surface of a woodcut, the painting of an urban nightscape brimming with illusory elements is seen anew as a physical surface with thin overlapping skins. The moment the viewer, lost in the pictorial representation of glamorous appearance, attempts to delve into the landscape, the deeply carved curves that cover the surface block the immersion of gaze. The depth of the surface, which is all the more prominent due to the light in the exhibition room, transforms the artist’s landscape paintings into ‘fragmented landscapes’ or ‘fragments of landscape’ with solid and hard surfaces.

Unlike canvas or paper, the vinyl signboard sheet does not take in paints. Since most painters attach importance to the reaction of the surface that absorbs the paint, they rarely use materials like signboard sheets that separate themselves from paints. Through a series of processes overlapping color sheets on the canvas and painting over them, Park Sang-hee formed artificial membranes reminiscent of geological strata and then again cut away the films. With this execution technique, she combined painting and carving. This formal characteristic gives viewers the sensation that they cannot be fully absorbed into the beautiful and gaudy landscape of the city. This corresponds to the lifestyle of the people in the city. Humankind has lived innumerous lifetimes in the very city they have built, experiencing the moments of joy and sorrow of life as well as birth, old age, sickness, and death. Yet they struggle to feel that they are one with the city. Although humanity and its cities are pressed together, they cannot fuse together, like two souls sharing one body. Having observed the essence of the ‘city’ for a long time, Park Sang-hee now impressively exposes the presence of the ‘city’ as a physical entity that has been buried under a blindingly extravagant surface. People and their cities will go through continuous changes in their coexistence. I can only wonder at the cityscape of tomorrow upon which she will walk, discover, and carve.