Art and People
Choe U-Ram's Little Ark: Undeniable relationship between human desire and machine
Jan 20, 2023
In early September 2022, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Seoul opened a Hyundai Motor Series exhibition Little Ark, which features an important corpus of works by Choe U-Ram, a Korean artist with over 30 years of experience in dealing with the relationship between humanity and machines.
The exhibition was as successful as ever from the very beginning: not only the dynamic and kinetic artworks presented were both uncanny and thought-provoking, but also because the whole leitmotif of the show was so timely ironic, that it left visitors with a newfound thirst for more questions on where we are headed from now, as humans.
The symbols of this subtle irony are all around the exhibition. With Little Ark, we are invited to jump on an ark which is on a road to nowhere. We navigate through the guidance of a lighthouse which points everywhere and nowhere, two captains pointing in opposite directions, and two reproductions of NASA’s James Webb telescope, the ultimate tool given to humanity to explore deep space. But where do we want to go, and where will our desire take us to, further and further again?
Proceeding through the exhibition, we encounter one of the center pieces, Round Table (2022), and again we face an everlasting problem, the one of responsibility: a series of beheaded mannequins fight for conquering (or avoiding) the one head that moves across the round-table. With the head, comes power, and thus responsibility. We are invited to think whether those figures are seeking for it, or rather escaping from it. The irony sometimes comes from immediate visual references played by symbols: a round-table often stems from a democratic approach to all kinds of matters, where choice, decisions, and responsibilities are shared.
Yet, when speaking with the artist about the historical approach between humanity and machines, Choe tells us that it always comes to the same problem: we point the fingers at our creations because they embody both our desires and our fears of consequences. If a machine fails, if technology goes too far, it’s not really our fault. Perhaps the question of the anima (the soul) becomes pivotal. In science fiction, and in all utopian imaginations produced in literature and popular culture are created by extension the discourse that surrounds advanced technology, we introduce the question of machines’ sentience. By doing so, we lift ourselves by it in the moment we accept the remote idea that machines could act on their own.
In the end, Little Ark as an exhibition as a whole is a constant nudge at how we have dealt, and we are dealing with the byproducts of our progress. It’s a gentle one though, as it comes without judgment, but an irony that comes from thinking about something in depth and seeing it in a refreshing lightness.
“The further a device is removed from human control, the more authentically mechanical it seems, and the whole trend in technology has been to devise machines that are less and less under direct human control and more and more under their own apparent will.” – Isaac Asimov
eazel: Movements and narratives are the main concepts that are mounted on the “anima-machines” that you have been creating. In Latin, anima means soul, so correlating these two words - anima and machines - could be considered an oxymoron. Yet, in your work the human aspect is profoundly bound to the kinetic structures of your sculptures and installations. How do you develop your artistic practice and interest in the relationship between humanity and technology?
Choe U-Ram: It is important for me from which perspective the machine is being viewed from. Machines are not separate concepts from human life, they are part of it. All objects are made by human hands, and they reflect the thoughts of the creator and further, contain human desires. Although humans have the ability to walk and run, we invented cars and airplanes to go beyond our physical limitations. Now we can fly to the moon! So I thought that the machines that are considered artificial are also part of us, and that extension of the idea led me to produce the “Anima-Machines” series.
The attitude towards separating humans from the machines stems from the shift of responsibility. Even though machines are made by humans, when there is a problem, it is easy to place the blame on the machines, while humans free themselves from feeling guilty. Machines ultimately pay for the price for uncontrollable human desires. As a prime example, we can talk about the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. During this period, textile machines were introduced, making the British cotton production increase significantly. Many people lost their jobs as a consequence, and the workers started to vandalize the machines in anger as they firmly believed the machines took their jobs away, despite the fact that it was all humans who led the Industrial Revolution and replaced the workers with the textile machines.
Centuries have passed and things have not changed. In science fiction films for example, machines are portrayed as something completely different from us, desiring not the same things; but it is undeniable that machines and humans are from a single entity. Humans don't use an object only for its purpose, but continue to inject human-like life into it and project their desire. I began to think that the objects that were expanded by greater desires could gain the same life force as humans, and questioned what would happen if they could have the ability to think for themselves and build new relationships with humans.
eazel: Could you expand your thoughts on "human desire" more in the socio-cultural context, which nevertheless implies thinking about philosophy and religion?
Choe U-Ram: In the past, human desires were rather simple. We were satisfied with possessing objects we couldn’t have or gaining knowledge of subjects that we lacked expertise in. As our perspective and scope of vision expanded, the world that surrounds humans has all been filled with desire. There is no doubt that humans have accomplished astonishing things by developing technology. Socio-cultural, philosophy, and religion stemmed out of human characteristics, especially desire that cycles throughout history. Regardless of how much technology advances and the society becomes sophisticated so the speed of absorbing information gets quicker, what remains unchanged is human desire. You would think that as civilization develops, we progress forward, but the immutability of human desire pulls us back to square one.
eazel: Broadly speaking, people might understand your work mainly in the context of kinetic art. Could you share your thoughts on this categorization?
Choe U-Ram: Firstly, I disagree that my practice as a whole is referred to as kinetic art. As you can see in the exhibition, not all works have elements of movement, and the body of work is produced with various methods. Artists transfer emotions through their choice of media, such as painting and sculpture, and in my case, I try to follow through the inspiration exactly as it is, as much as possible. My inspirations are more often than not, dynamic. Red (2020) for example, although it is hard to capture to the tee, I wanted to express how I felt when I saw a red flower bloom and wilt, as closely as possible. So, kinetic is one of the many tools that I use to realize my work, but not a keyword to comprehensively describe my practice in general.
eazel: Based on the kinetic technology that was available when you first started to make work like we see today, do you think it would have been possible to produce a solo exhibition similar to Little Ark at MMCA?
Choe U-Ram: I probably couldn't have. Considering the level of technology, the applied concept, and the budget, I wouldn't have been able to do it then. The space of this size and the budget for the materials were only imaginable to me at the time. In terms of technology, I think we could have envisioned an exhibition like this in the early days, but it still would have been difficult to design - because I design everything myself. It might have been possible if I asked another expert to do it instead.
In the process of making Little Ark at MMCA, I collaborated and took advice from design and engineering experts for the first time. Through this process, I learned that the way I have been producing my work for over 20 years not only shows the engineering knowledge, but also contains my sensibility and taste. My own mechanical way of expression came naturally to me after dealing with works that involve mechanical engineering. So, I realized that it is almost impossible for someone to design mechanical parts of the work for me with only the knowledge of engineering.
eazel: In the current solo exhibition at MMCA, it could be said that you show our (human) desire, chaos, disintegration, and hope for the future, in a rather poetic way. Could you tell us a little bit about your inspiration for creating the body of works shown in the exhibition?
Choe U-Ram: As I mentioned earlier in the first question, for me, the inspiration for making work comes from the cycle of human history. For example, in the past, when the means of transportation were limited, you would walk for months to see your parents in the provinces, you can now get there in a few hours by train. Now it only takes a few hours to get to a different country, where it took for months on a ferry before. Although we have saved a lot of time due to the development of transportation, we don’t spend the time to relax or use it to figure out how we can live a happy life. Instead, we create new and further problems.
eazel: One of the central pieces is Little Ark (2022), which is also where the title of the exhibition comes from. Although audience can see the religious elements, it is not directly derived from the theme alone. What the work represents go beyond the limited meaning of religion or mythology, and extends to human history as a whole. What was the process of realizing this particular work?
Choe U-Ram: I think religion and mythology are created by people. The same goes for politics. Even if there are only two people, one of them becomes a leader. Different temperaments and personalities make one of the two more pro-active and willing to lead, and the other more passive and happy to follow. In the meantime, there are people who are forced to do things they don't want to do because they don't belong to either category. I think humans made God responsible for what we can't do, making religion another result of human desire.
Ideally, politics should be about sacrificing oneself for others. It is to create a more peaceful society by doing what others don't necessarily want to do, but as the social system became more complex, people with more greedy tendencies began to play politics. The division of borders between countries is a way to draw a line in representation of negotiation of each other's desires, but eventually humans go to war to break the agreement and take more land than they agreed. In that sense, religion and mythology and politics are all in one mass, and they continue to circulate together.
Seeing how this cycle of human desire continues to remain in the same yoke, regardless of technological development, we try to solve the imperfections of reality with an ark, just as the Great Flood required Noah’s ark. Everyone has their own circumstances that they want to run away from and if we say that is a common phenomenon for all mankind, and therefore a task to solve, an ark is needed in any era. There are things you want to load on to the ark, and other things you want to throw away, or burn the things that are left behind. Between the thought of, how the problem will be solved only when something is created to satisfy our desires, and the fact that no ark satisfies everything, Little Ark was shaped as you see it today.
eazel: On Little Ark, there are elements of other works: Lighthouse, Two Captains, and James Webb (all 2022). The reference of NASA’s James Webb telescope is particularly intriguing. Could you say a bit more about this?
Choe U-Ram: In the case of the James Webb telescope, I think this is also a religion in science. Humans marvel at this, and NASA promotes it, as we observe a more distant primordial universe than what we could see through the predecessor, Hubble telescope. The scale of the promotion is incredible, as it is connected to continuing funding to keep the telescope running, which is NASA's exclusive property that needs to be well-publicized. A lot of things are definitely sacrificed to satisfy human curiosity, but nevertheless, they have to show how financial resources are being used, including the taxes.
In a different context, a church may not have any scientific evidence of anyone who has actually met the "God", but in order to create, preserve, and continue the narrative, people need a physical building where they can come to every week to talk about how God makes the world a peaceful place. The same goes for NASA. It's important for them to promote how crucial it is to understand our past and to know the origin of the universe. But for some people, this might be a field of no interest, and the James Webb telescope is, in that sense, a symbol of the legitimacy of tax expenditure, even if not everyone is interested in the subject.
The scary thing is that the capitalist economic system runs our society, and from some point on, we've come to think that if we don't crave and pursue new things, it [the system] would collapse. So even if something is not necessary, more new products and services are invented for consumption. A person may not mind walking to places, but you show them a sports car and drill into them how it is important to have one for social status among other things, all of sudden that person is obsessed with the idea of possessing the car. Eventually "an ark" is created, which was not necessary, and encourages even more materialistic indulgence for the sake of maintaining the economic system.
eazel: Continuing on, could we talk a little about the lighthouse element? Especially how it symbolizes hope and safety as it would in real-life at sea, even though the two captains and their James Webb telescopes are facing away from each other.
Choe U-Ram: Earlier I briefly talked about how humans rely on each other, but also shift responsibilities to each other. The relationship between the lighthouse and the captains shows this very well. Someone takes responsibility, leads the public at an appropriate price, but we blame them when the journey the 'captain' or the 'lighthouse' takes us is not satisfactory; whether that leader figure is a parent, a school, or a government. This phenomenon may be inevitable, as we look back on history, it is extremely difficult to achieve a perfect harmony with a singular goal, due to the conflicted dreams that individuals desire. I wanted to describe this in Little Ark, in which the wings of the ark are first neatly arranged then gradually begin to shake in the storm. A certain being then emerges and saves us from the disaster, and leads us as a group, but in the process, the wings gradually break down one by one, and eventually everything stops; but over time, each wing rises again on its own, trying to create harmony again, expressing the cycle of human history through the repeated process of our behavior.
eazel: Another work that is at a center stage at this exhibition is Round Table and Black Birds (both 2022). At first, it looks like the 18 headless figures made of artificial straw tirelessly move up and down, in an attempt not to let the head on black table fall to the ground; but after talking with you earlier in the exhibition space, it may portray more of a personal attitude by individual figures. Above that, three black birds hover around looking down at the Round Table, which adds another dimension to the situation. How did you come about conceiving these works and what symbolic meanings do you take from these two works?
Choe U-Ram: The making of the Round Table really began around the time after the 18th Korean presidential election in 2014. It became apparent that we were back to square one and kept thinking to myself, "at which point we would be satisfied with life". I imagined headless bodies with no thoughts of their own, therefore soulless, constantly craving a head but never quite succeeding to possess it. Someone eventually gets to put the head on, but the next person severs it to put it on their own head and this thought was repeated in my head. At that time, the scale of the work was more of an abbreviated version than what you see in the show today, as I imagined only three bodies initially. In a system of authoritative power, there are a handful of people who are in charge at the top, and as this idea developed the scale of the work expanded. As the scale grew, the subject matter of the work organically developed to include wider and collective narrative.
The three black birds that are looking down at the headless figures, exist in a different dimension, away from the experience of psychological chaos; so they are set to fly at a slower pace than the movement of the Round Table. I'm not sure if the straw bodies under the table can reach the world where the birds are, or any other world than they are in, but I wanted to suggest that a different world(s) definitely exist.
eazel: Technology embodies our utopian ideals today, enabling humans to have bolder dreams. But as we've discussed before, there's a relationship between the state of our world today and human conceit and desire. Your work at the end of the day, inquires into the nature of humanity and social structure, and in this context, what are your thoughts on the vision of humanity in the present and future?
Choe U-Ram: Just as the countless doors that are constantly opening on the exit side of Little Ark, even if we overcome something like the Covid-19 now, new problems are bound to arise again. Just like the sacrifices caused by sheer violence from wars and other struggles in human history did not teach us enough lessons to encourage us to live in non-violence society. The same goes for science. Even when scientific research is developed, not everyone is guaranteed access to the technology, leading to a phenomenon where those with the possession of that particular technology get an upper hand over those who cannot have it. Nuclear war is a prime example, where conflicts were created for the sake of science's interests, and no other scientific research has resolved it, as human desires play its faithful role in the repeating cycle that takes us back to where it all began.
It is actually a big relief that you and I can even consider the concept of hope and vision for the future. What we really have to ask ourselves is that in order for us to sustain our lives, there coexists a world further down with larger and heavier round tables. The black birds that can be seen from that world could be us. Those reflections are the most contributing factor in making the vision of our future rather opaque. Of course the future will come, but in order for the future we envisage is for every one of us, we must not stop asking questions about our present selves.
eazel: Humans in the past dreamed of conquering land and seas. And then we flew to the moon, and now want to colonize Mars. Where do you think this ark - or the desire in the form of an “ark” - will sail towards next?
Choe U-Ram: As you can see if you watch the Little Ark move from the beginning to the end, the ark at one point looks like it's going to take off, although there is nowhere else to go anymore really. At that moment, I think the ark becomes a refugee ship, and by default the refugees (us) find a new settlement. Broadly speaking, we're already on an ark that is the Earth, floating around the universe. It would be preferable to live in contentment, but the endless desire will never satisfy the needs. On the other hand, we will never be satisfied because we are humans and that is kind of beautiful too, as it is part of life. At the end of the day, it seems that the answer lies in how we accept the world as it is and balance between ourselves and the environment, although finding and maintaining equilibrium is the hardest to achieve.
Choe U-Ram's solo exhibition, Little Ark (Sep 09, 2022 - Feb 26, 2023) at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is supported in partnership with Hyundai Motor Company. For more information about the exhibition, please click here.
*This in-depth interview was produced in collaboration with one of eazel’s writers, Valentina Buzzi, where she contributed questions and the introduction of the article. The original interview was conducted in Korean, then translated and edited by eazel.