Interview: Jongwon Bae

1. First, because your paintings are so complex, we might need your artist statement to decipher them. What is the “techno-utopian dream” of the Korean military regimes? Are you talking about South or North Korea? Or both? During what time frame in history was this propagandized and inculcated among the populace?

JWB: During my childhood, approximately between the 1970s and the early 80s, the South Korean military regimes had been putting a great emphasis on education, science, and technology as the fundamental elements for their series of five-year national economic development plans. At the time, many sci-fi Japanese animations were aired every day with a catchphrase like “giving hopes and dreams to the children.” It was the decision made by the military regimes for specific economic, political, and educational purposes. Those animations were conveying implicit messages that were well suited for the military regimes’ propagandistic ideas. They were imbued with the ideas eliciting the worldview as a simple dichotomy: good vs. evil, South Korea vs. North Korea, democracy vs. communism, etc... They were also likely to instill a belief that a techno-utopia or a panacea, could be built and attained solely by the scientific, technological, and economic progress, ignoring and overlooking other necessary elements for a democratic society.

2. What are some of the bittersweet memories that you have of being manipulated, disappointed, made awkward and anxious, and having mixed feelings? Can you share some of these things with the audience?

JWB: When you realized you had lived a decade of your life in a world where the government had deceived and manipulated you, all the news media had covered up the facts and misled you, and your school had been run like the corrupt government, and your teachers had connived at the wrongdoings and misguided you, how would you feel about that? To be specific, I was saddened and disappointed as I found out those infamous communist and anti-government rebellions in my childhood were, in fact, civil movements toward a democratic society and human rights movement and, as a result, so many people’s lives had been destroyed and lost. I was and am deeply appalled by it but, simultaneously, amazed and fascinated by the susceptibility of our perception to illusion and deception. Indeed, during the period, I had been living in a fictitious world created and projected by the military regimes, news media, and others and thoroughly believed it. Unfortunately, I think this type of manipulation is still happening, deceiving, and misleading us. And that is why I think the ideas of many great thinkers in human history is still resonating and relevant here. As it is suggested constantly throughout the human history in the concept of the Allegory of the cave, Cartesian skepticism, Nietzsche’s ‘the veil of Maya,’ the teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and recently Simulation theory, and even the films like The Truman Show, and The Matrix Trilogy, we may have been being imprisoned and disoriented in the multiple layers of illusory systems that function as a cave or a maze, conspiring to hinder us from finding the truth and seeing the reality.

3. Also, you mention that the Allegory of the Cave might apply to the people in the first world. What are some of the examples of brainwashing and confined ways of thinking that might happen in the first world? How are they different from the experiences of the people in countries such as North Korea?

JWB: I think everything that prevents us from finding the truth and keeps our existential crisis at bay is to be a type of a cave, a layer of illusory systems. For example, in a capitalist society in the first world, I think money is one of them. We know it is a mere commodity, a means, and not an end. Nevertheless, we have lost ourselves in making money, spending it, even killing and dying for it while completely ignoring and forgetting things that are fundamental and essential to our life.

4. If we indeed live outside of the Allegory of the Cave, how would we know this? Would you be happy and satisfied if everyone including yourself were freed from the Cave?

JWB: Living outside of the cave and freed from it means we can see the reality and find the truth. Honestly, I am not sure I would be happy and satisfied though. It depends on what the reality and the truth would be like and what kind of person you are. I hope and want to believe it is liberating and enlightening experience, but who knows? It could be the choice between blissful ignorance and grim reality.

5. What is the definition of uncanny? How do they manifest through your image-making in your paintings? Are you talking about how the past, the present, and the future repeat in disturbing or unsettling ways? Or are you talking about the fact that the images of reality itself, and, in particular, the technological aspects such as the cyborgs and the atom bomb, are unsettling and intriguing, and you are trying to reflect such unsettling images in your art?

JWB: As Freud acknowledges, the term ‘uncanny’ is difficult to define, although it is generally assumed whatever evokes fright and fear. However, he points out, the reason it deserves a special name is that it possesses an inherent peculiarity that enables us to discern it from the broad and general category of fear and dread. One of the most distinctive features of the Freudian concept of uncanny is the convergence or conflation of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Margaret Iversen in her essay, In the Blind Field: Hopper and the Uncanny, argues paintings that are dealing with repressed childhood experiences and dreams are destined to be perceived as uncanny. In that sense, my work is to be deemed uncanny because it involves the return of something very familiar in my childhood but made strange, distorted, and unfamiliar by repression. To put it differently, dreaming techno-utopian future was the silver lining in my childhood. Something that elicited familiar, homely, and optimistic sentiment. Yet, it was a rude awakening to discover that this naive belief and vague longing were mainly induced by indoctrination and manipulation. Irrespective of my intention, however, these damaged and repressed memories seem to keep returning, almost compulsively, in my work as motifs. Correspondingly, they no longer appear familiar, optimistic, and comfortable. Instead, they seem rather strange, ambivalent, awkward, and perhaps, unsettling.

6. There is a “utopian” or dystopian characteristic to your images, all of which share the aesthetics of an amusement park or the Jazz Age of the 1920s and 30s. Why did you choose this style or aesthetics, rather than from another era, such as the 1990s?

JWB: Besides the excitement provided by its dynamism and visual spectacle, namely color and drama, I am fascinated by a circus that our life is analogous to it and that is why I use the theme in my work. Aren’t we all similar to those circus performers who play routinely and repetitiously their roles on the show to entertain the audience while undergoing solitude, alienation, and precariousness of life? Hence, to speak in metaphors, our life is a circus. In my work, implicit viewer’s space, stage-like setting, texts, and refresh or power symbols suggest the classic notion that our life is a show, circus, illusion, or simulation that can be reloaded, refreshed, or is repeatable. Accordingly, it presumes the implicit viewer such as an impresario, audience, god, or simulator, and the show that is supposed to provide the viewer with some type of pleasure, perhaps voyeuristic.

7. You mention automatic drawing, which comes from the Surrealists. How do the organic, curvilinear forms of Salvador Dali contrast and relate to the technological and mechanical forms of your art? Is it correct to say that you exaggerate and comment on the disturbing aspects of technologically-based and technologically-transformed reality through the dream-like imagery in your paintings? Was Salvador Dali’s works also a commentary on reality itself, using the dream-like super-reality as a vehicle for the metaphor regarding reality?

JWB: I start my painting, using brushes, palette knives, and others, applying and scraping paint in gestures. So there is no preliminary sketch or preconceived images. While applying paint, at a certain point, some unbidden images start emerging. Similar to the symptom of pareidolia, maybe my brain projects images to the surface from the unconscious. From that, I construct the painting as I go along. The organic and curvilinear forms are probably from my gestural motions.

8. In many of your paintings, a large technologically-sophisticated vehicle or construction is moving forward in space, often at the viewer. Is this the metaphor for the progress towards a utopian future that is promised by the “techno-utopian dream”? What is the significance of an object moving forward in an infinitely big, dark space?

JWB: I intend to suggest that the implicit viewer’s space is to be an unknown precarious future.

The vehicles or other machines depicted in my work are generally metaphors for technological advancement. Some of them are moving forward and toward the viewer or the future, or trying to escape from the world they are confined.

9. What are some of your color concerns? What are you trying to tell the audience by constructing a chaotic, disorienting array of colors and patterns? How does the concept of circus relate to your goal of depicting the illusion and deception of the techno-utopian dream?

JWB: In terms of color, I want the colors of the animations I watched during my childhood to be reflected in my work. They are mainly prismatic colors and could look harsh, but I usually do not want to tone them down. Creating a luminous, vibrant, dynamic, and vivid atmosphere in the painting is crucial for me. I think a circus provides a pertinent theme for my work in terms of its metaphorical meaning and vibrant primary colors.

10. Some of your works depict cyborgs, which by definition are machine-like humans. How do you relate to the Cyborg Manifesto? How do your work and attitude contrast the Cyborg Manifesto?

JWB: By definition, a cyborg is an organism, often a human that has certain physiological processes enhanced or controlled by mechanical or electronic devices, especially when they are integrated with the nervous system. In my childhood, many sci-fi TV movies and animations, which were concerned with the concept of cyborgs such as The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, and others were aired and very popular. I was particularly interested in the idea that our body parts could be replaced and even could acquire enhanced capacities and was able to thoroughly empathize with the hybrid characters since I had been a cyborg for a while wearing an electronic medical device at the time. I think these experiences and memories are returning to my work but not as optimistic or positive as they were. I think, although my work has certain common ground with the Cyborg Manifesto, it is not specific about feminist post-human theory or identity politics.

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