Sung Neung-Kyung

Korean Culture and Arts Foundation

Sung Neung-kyung has made deliberately marginal, semiprivate photo installations and performances since the late '60s. The thread that links his works of that time to those of the present-from the land- mark, frequently reconstructed installation Newspapers: From June I, 1974, On, 1974, to Shadows of Distraction 2001—is his consistent memorialization of minute experience in the very process of dismantling his own, always increasing artistic authority. In other words, Sung has deflected attention onto anything and everything, accumulating vast archives of newspaper clippings,bad photographs, and down personae to avoid reifying the cultural categories of art and artist.

Almost all of Korean art criticism refers to Sung as an outsider. but he's managed to achieve massive credibility and a magisterial body of ephemeral, difficult work, much of which was reconstructed for this sprawling, lovingly curated retrospective. Early on, Sung made tautological performances like Counting Money, 1976, in which he took bills and coins from his pocket, counted them out, put them back in his pocket, counted them out again, and so on. More recently, he has assembled Paul McCarthy-like taxonomies of exaggerated self-expression. For instance Aluminum-Foil Man, 2001, had the artist dressed in underpants and sunglasses, wrapped in skimpy swaths of aluminum foil, and striking silly martial arts poses. He wears his heavy syntax lightly.

For years, Sung's basic materials were systems, scissors, and newspapers. Newspapers: From June I, 1974, On was first made for a 1974 group exhibition, for the duration of which he carefully removed each block of printed text from newspapers, attaching the damaged leftovers of each page—the margins, the advertisements—to panels on a gallery wall. On the one hand this was an oblique commentary on the period's repressive military government, mimicking the process of government censorship. On the other hand it literally evacuated meaning from discourse. This was a direct challenge to the assumption that truth can be read between the lines, and an implicit riposte to the argument that art can have a political effect. In 1979, Sung took a museum catalogue, cut the eyes from each participating artist's portrait shot, removed the artists' names, and replaced them backward. His aesthetic of damage—in other works, he systematically masked off and cut out faces and eye—didn't win him many friends, either among the minimalist monochrome-painting establishment or, slightly later, among Minjung (or People's Art) socialist realists of the '80s.

I disagree with interpretations of Sung's work that see his documentation as transformation of the personal into the political; rather, he has presciently mapped the removal of the political from the personal. He is much tougher and less sentimental than his peers, and at least on the evidence of footage tracing his quotidian existence as a high school teacher and family man in A Day in the Life of S., 2001, made in collaboration with Park Yong-soek, he seems fairly uninterested in the usual trappings of art-world success. The survival of art (an imperative particularly oppressive in culturally conservative regional centers) in the everyday seems not to have been as important to Sung as the refusal to represent any traditionally understood “content” at all. Sung Neung-kyung produces a highly original but crazy amalgam of austere conceptualism and autobiographical archivism.

Charles Green