REVIEWED: 2013 Arko Art Center Representative Artist Exhibition - Byungboc LEE: Act III, Chapter 3

By Tiffany Chae

Top left: Stage costume for Birds Flying Beyond the Sunset, 1992
Top right: Installation view of Gallery 2 - representation of Byungboc Lee's atelier
Bottom: Stage costumes for The Prince Hodong (left) and Hamlet (right)
Courtesy of Arko Art Center

Functioning as memories of acclaimed theatre scenographer Byungbok Lee (1927, Yeongcheon, South Korea), Arko Art Center’s current exhibition Byungboc LEE: Act III, Chapter 3 invites viewers to its two “stages”. One serves as a reenactment of Café Theatre, a French-style culture salon founded by Lee and her husband, artist Ok-Yeon Kwon in 1969. Until its closure in 1975, the space’s teas and performances attracted artists, poets and playwrights alike. The second “stage”, a collaborative affair with young artists, includes Lee’s old and new works. As the founder of the Jayu Theater and responsible for its costumes and props, Lee established “stage art” in the Korean theatre scene. The exhibition is thus an attempt by Arko to embrace scenography – and consequently theatrical performance – bringing them into the visual arts.

Installation view of Gallery 1 - representation of the Cafe Theatre in the 1960s
Courtesy of Arko Art Center 

Passing through the door of the 2013 version of Café Theatre, a black wall stands in the viewer’s way, forcing one to follow a written chronological record of Lee’s trajectory on the right as video interviews with Lee’s artist friends are played on the left of the space. After going through the black wall passageway, in the centre of Gallery 1, the reenacted stage of Café Theatre presents commemorative pictures of the artist and the staff of the Jayu Theater. Gallery 1 itself acts as Archive: The Afterimage of Memory and the viewer encounters extensive archival material of Lee’s work-related activities. Placed within mirrored cabinets with translucent pink material, the works include Lee’s figurative journals made during her stay in Paris in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a sketch of a costume for Hamlet, and a stage floor plan for The Prince Hodong

Installation view of Gallery 2 with Strange Character, 2013, film by moojin_bro
Courtesy of Arko Art Center 

Gallery 2 is staged as Life Is a Drama That Is More Dramatic Than a Performance. It brings to life the memories of Gallery 1 via an installation of costumes and props used in plays at the Jayu Theater. The space also includes works previously unseen by the public – such as The Death Angel and Three Gods Mother (1997) which Lee created apart from her duties at the Jayu Theater. The exhibition manages to slip out of being a retrospective through the inclusion of works by young artists. The media collective moojin_bro’s Strange Character (2013) filmed Lee practicing in her atelier and the sound artist Jimmy Sert added a sound installation in Lee’s new work, The 108 Buddha (2007-2013). Lighting is also devised to focus on Lee’s works in the centre of this stage. Her costumes, stage props and other installations ultimately stand as independent artworks within the contemporary art space.

The 108 Buddha, 2013
Courtesy of Arko Art Center  

Lee’s works are seen as re-interpretations of western drama with Korean style; traditional Korean attire is transformed into costumes from western theatre pieces. The Jayu Theater often played tragic dramas in Korean traditional style - an exorcism and a traditional Korean funeral is represented in Hamlet. Given her continuous creation, even after the closure of the Jayu Theater, the exhibition itself reveals an element of endurance and resilience in Lee’s artistic career.

Consequently, ACT III, Chapter 3, can be seen as the third chapter of Lee’s life and art. At the same time, the exhibition’s collaborative element revives Lee’s “stage art”, presenting it as a contemporary practice. The exhibition also pushes the feasibility of hybridisation across different art genres, something I approve of in the Korean art scene and expect to see more of in the near future.

3 May - 30 Jun