Koh Sang Woo has a taste for controversy. His images may look beautiful, but the stories beneath needle away at the unspoken do’s and don’ts that tie us up in social and cultural obligations. His last exhibition in his hometown of Seoul, South Korea, was almost pulled at the last moment due to a call from KBS, the Korean equivalent of the BBC. It featured one of their presenters, with her husband, in a state of undress and, more importantly, without their permission. Another show picturing a mixed race couple was simply avoided and mothballed, to avoid offending ‘cultural sensibilities’. And yet it’s hard for us in the West to believe by just looking at the work.
Koh’s art is part painting, part performance, documented in photography. Carefully choosing his subjects for their personal stories, he paints directly onto their bodies as he works, and then reverses the colours in the final exposure to give his photos an unmistakeable electric vibrancy. In one way, he is an artist that paints photographs, and sees the world in reverse. But this reversal is also a social statement, a means of subverting the way society can push people away from their ideals, and make them compromise and change to accommodate social pressures.
In True Stories, all his photographs probe the kind of subtle conventions that restrain and limit their subjects – be it corporate control, racial prejudice, or the pressure to “be the best” as in his Portrait of a Girl / Portrait of a Woman” series. The works thus become a kind of release and defiance, beautifully rendered. And it’s his Eastern form of kicking against the system that makes Koh’s work so interesting. Not in the obvious punk aggressive way, what the West is used do, but a more discreet and suave manner of counter-culture, balancing Korean values of discipline and respect with the need to make a point.
Koh is typical of why there is a current swell of international interest in Korean contemporary art. Moon Generation, the spotlight exhibition for Korean Art at the Saatchi Gallery in October 2009, received superb reviews, and Koh been selected to exhibit at the Korean Art Show, a similar show timed to coincide with the 2010 Armory Show in New York. Having been overshadowed by the booming Chinese market, increased investment and activity is helping Korean art make serious inroads on the contemporary scene. Given that Korea is currently the thirteenth largest economy in the world (predicted to become the 3rd largest by Goldman Sachs), and already has a massive cultural presence in Asia through its films and music (known as the Hallyu wave), it is only a matter of time before, as an ArtTactic report recently stated, “the Korean art market and its collectors .. play a very important role in the Asian and international art market in the future.”