The Hanmi Gallery’s latest exhibition – “PHOBIA” – explores the concepts of anxiety and fear. At a time when, unfortunately, global relations, economics and social experiences are driven by fear, it seems fitting that art should be exploring fear on a more personal scale. The exhibition may be about phobia and fear, but its artists delve daringly into the recesses of a wide range of anxieties.
The exhibition’s curator, Yovi Jisun Song, was inspired to put on this show by her own aquaphobia (fear of water.) Even the exhibition’s inception, then, is rooted in fear. This connection between Song and her exhibition gives it a personal touch which is reflected in the profoundly personal and subjective approaches to phobia and anxiety presented by the various contributing artists. Indeed, there are times when it is hard to see how certain works in the exhibition fit under the heading of “PHOBIA”. However, as the exhibition brilliantly explores, fear is not homogeneous or fixed. It is a fluctuating entity, and can mean different things to different people.
Fear is no less powerful for its subjective qualities. As the exhibition shows, phobias wield enormous influence and demonstrate the mind’s ability to colour one’s surroundings in wildly different ways. Defying our rationality and objectivity, they completely alter our worldviews, behavioural patterns and moods.
Nowadays, we approach phobias as illnesses or mental malformations that need to be treated. There are indeed a number of phobias which do amount to a serious problem that can seriously threaten health and happiness. In fact, however, most phobias are common, to one degree or another, and are simply a part of most people’s everyday existence. Being afraid, sometimes seemingly irrationally, is an important dimension of our emotional lives. It is an intense, deeply human emotion, as this exhibition brilliantly conveys.
One of the most appealing aspects of this exhibition was the intriguing interaction between the theme of the exhibition and the gallery space. I saw one viewer ask the curator whether the space – which was evidently in the process of construction and so it a raw, unfinished state – was specifically designed as a part of the exhibition. This was something I had wondered myself. Though the space was not designed specifically for the exhibition, it was certainly fitting: an open, raw space to match the exposed, vulnerable, raw feeling we have when we’re scared. This gave the exhibition a feeling of a happening – a live phobia-themed event unfolding in the moment, rather than a traditional, static exhibit. The space was thus a kind of unconventional canvas upon which to portray these artists’ work.
At times the exhibition didn’t display a definitive, dominant narrative framework, with much of the art stretching the definition of phobia.
The space allows you to look at phobia in a different light. When you enter the exhibition, you walk through Sangjin Kim’s metal machinery sculpture Dog Sounds(2010). On first sight, it just looks like a metal drum. The metal drum stands, physically, in the middle of the exhibition. As such, you expect that it might be central to the exhibit’s overarching phobia narrative. However, its relation to the theme of phobias is not immediately obvious and, once one has digested it, does not conform to the conventions of phobias or being frightened.
However, when you press a button, there erupts a perplexing collection of dog sounds made by humans in different languages. Superficially, this was more humorous than frightening. But, as a Korean living in London, I could easily relate to the sense of fear that this subjective, multilingual babble evoked. Being immersed in a sea of different voices and languages in a foreign, multicultural city can be a bit like standing in the middle of a restless, noisy kennel. The sounds offer an insight into subjective interpretation and, when the different languages merge together, actually amass into something similar to the actual sound of dogs barking.
In a three dimensional wall structure, Cheese Louise (2013) Erik Bendix, who has a fear of mice (suriphobia), presents a gigantic mass of cheese on the floor with the familiar cartoon character Mickey Mouse as his own private terrorist. Normally, if one with suriphobia does not encounter mice, no actual distress or impairment is ever experienced. However, in his case, even seeing something associated with mice – cheese – triggers his phobia. For those without suriphobia, it would be an enjoyable, fairytale-like place. Indeed, the curator’s baby daughter was freely wandering around it and doing hide-and-seek game in this installation. But for the artist, it would be a traumatic experience in which he was forced to dance with “the creepy mouse” and do the Hockey Pockey with it, which is enough to give him shock, nausea and fear jolted through his body, a feeling of violation. It is a situation that suggests it is possible for us to develop a phobia over virtually anything in our everyday life only with our own imagination.
With a humorous eye, Ole Hagen’s video installation, This is Fear (2011), brilliantly explores the more lighthearted side of the very grave, but very common, fears of everyday life. His sculptural tableaux give a visual, physical form to these fears: fear of sex, fear of others, fear of aging, fear of death, and fear of fear itself. In every episode of This is Fear, the scene starts with an ominous sound, anticipating a fearful event. But it eventually turns out to be a humorous, not serious, event. The tension and anticipation of something to be dreaded is dissipated and our own building fear is disrupted, only to be slowly built up again by the music in the following film.
Joey Holder’s another Installation (Leucochloridium paradoxum, 2012) displayed an interesting process of mixing contrasting ‘organic’ and ‘artificial’ substances with digital manipulations. Even in today’s world where we admire rapid technological advances in the name of innovation in relation to our quality of life, there is a deeply-rooted fear that our humaneness is to be replaced by the artificial. But Holder’s work actually challenges that kind of binary perception by suggesting the playful way of combining it. With multiple layers, we cannot easily define the clear boundaries between the artificial and the organic, which is in turn transformed into an odd, new kind of organism itself.
A number of the phobias which these works of art explored triggered my own fears and anxieties. Joey Holder’s enormous snakeskin painting, with its uncannily realistic texture, sent shivers down my spine. It was not so much the sight of it, but the imagined feel which evoked thoughts of being slivered over by a winding anaconda. Even though I knew it was only a painting, the texture of it catalyzed an immediate, and irrational, mental aversion to the whole area around the painting, as if it might lurch out at me if I walked past it.
In Chang’s video piece, Always Looking for Something Else (2011), we see a woman repeatedly reaching into her pocket, taking out the contents and throwing it away. No matter how much she takes out, or how large the objects, there is always more in her pocket. I was wondering what it was inside which made the pocket wet and emit the crispy sounds of a rustling plastic bag; is it something other than the salmon and fruit she already threw away? The repetitive movement of looking for something and throwing it right away in her pocket was intriguing what is inside like when one unpacks an inexhaustible treasury pot. But everything she pulled out from the pocket eventually turned out to be nothing special; It was indeed the products we consume in everyday life – mundane items such as coins, shortbread, candy and keys etc. As we experience in our everyday life, consuming these seems to make the woman in Chang’s video unsatisfied and thus seeking for something fresh again and again. However, this repetitive behavior actually deteriorates her existence as we see her crisply neat trousers with pockets become wet and dirty in the video. I was stuck in this phobic aspect of our consumer culture which the artist is smartly critiquing.
Alexis Milne’s video, Your Eyes are Dead (2013) explored collective phobias by looking at graffiti. As something illicit which governments and local councils attempt to combat and suppress, graffiti can embody the fears and anxieties held by authorities all over the world. Graffiti is often an act of dissent designed specifically to voice and challenge those anxieties. Graffiti is a way of liberating people from the strictures of an authority’s preferred narrative, a way of signaling to others that dissenting views exist and are bursting to get out into the open. This is why revolutions are invariably accompanied by graffiti, which in many ways is no different from a revolutionary pamphlet, leaflet or slogan – something that confronts an authority and thereby verbalizes and visualizes its fears, particularly the fear of losing control.
Woon Zung’s performance video, The Lowest Land on Earth(2012) was particularly eye-catching. The video captures urban streets in a series of cities, all of which have been flooded in the past. The video portrays the city – its beautiful architecture and pedestrians – going about its ordinary life. While see these images, we hear a voiceover from Woon Zung explaining vital facts about the various cities – including, crucially, its height above sea-level – and their pasts. With the knowledge that these cities have been flooded in the past, and that all these images could so easily look so different if the sea-level were to rise, colours the city and the images we see of it with a sense of impending catastrophe. The artist therefore brilliantly captures the phobia of disasters which have not yet happened, but which could happen at any moment. Indeed, my perception of the city was profoundly shifted by this video. What had seemed so solid and stable to me – the city’s buildings and streets – now seem vulnerable and fragile, as if it could all be destroyed and washed away in the blink of an eye. This feeds into Woon Zung’s overarching interest in the transience of our environment.