Michael Joo

Since 1991, Michael Joo has used materials such as urine, natural and synthetic sweat and salt, sprouting seeds, live and dead deer, and transparent plastic deities to explore themes of transformation, evolution, and shamanism in his drawings, sculptures, installations, and performance-based videos. As seen in this first career survey, though there are direct references to Duchamp’s assisted readymade (as in Improved Rack #1, [Moose], 1999) and to Beuys’s ritualized and romanticized sociopolitical ephemeral props (as in Unpack, 2003), Joo also posits his own brand of intriguing and often darkly humorous questions about race, consumption, religion, and metaphysics, proving his shamanship to be far more than tongue-in-cheek.

The New York–based Joo, who represented South Korea at the 2001 Venice Biennale, engages identity politics with minimalist sculptural installations and ersatz science. Slanty, 1992, a well-wrought commentary on pan-Asian stereotyping, is an aluminum pie-graph sculpture that matches the slant of Joo’s right eye with those of Yul Brynner, Imelda Marcos, Mr. Goodwrench, and others and is filled with synthetic tears. In The Saltiness of Greatness, also 1992, stacked blocks of compressed salt chart the relative energy consumption and expenditure of Genghis Khan, Tokyo Rose, Bruce Lee, and Mao Tse-tung during their respective “reigns.” The carefully researched but in the end obviously speculative number of calories is engraved on an aluminum tray below the blocks. Synthetic sweat slowly drips onto each salt stack, gradually eroding it and, perhaps, distilling its historical significance.

In the mid-’90s, Joo began to use his own body as psychologically and metaphysically charged material for sculpture. Mongoloid-Version B-29 (Miss MeGook Paintings #1 and #2), 1993–2003, an image of a naked Joo as a life-size fuselage pinup, is countered by Salt Transfer Cycle, 1993–95, a video of the artist as magical shamanist. This dreamlike eight-minute piece features a naked Joo swimming in two thousand pounds of crystallized monosodium glutamate, performing a parody of evolution (swimming, then crawling, then standing) in the Great Salt Flats of Utah, and serving as a human salt lick for an elk in South Korea’s northern mountains.

Joo tackles religion and cultural mythology with a potent combination of humor and morbidity. God II, 2003, is a life-size recumbent male figure in Inuit-style winter clothing. Below a wolf- and sealskin hood, his clear urethane face reveals a skull. This mordant hybrid of the Visible Man, Nanook of the North, and Snow White rests on a forty-inch-high cube with a refrigerated top; frost from the viewer’s condensed breath embeds and partially covers him. A pack of resin-and-armature coyotes (Unpack), all in different, expressive poses, protect and surround God’s personification of wild, fallen divinity.

Joo’s latest epic is Circannual Rhythm (pibloktok), 2003, a twenty-five-minute, three-channel video projection. Shot in remote areas of Alaska, it features footage of Joo on a four-hundred-mile trek following the Alaskan pipeline against its flow to the Arctic Ocean; images of a group of Inuits interrupted in their efforts to unearth a sod village by someone having a seizure (all staged); and revolting views of a taxidermied caribou stuffed with fresh intestines for bait. What Daniel Birnbaum in his accompanying catalogue essay aptly describes as Joo’s “cyclical economy—an Eternal Return” comes across clearly as surveillance cameras within and around the caribou carcass reveal maggots and a majestic white wolf feeding on the entrails. Although the relationships among the three segments could have been more clearly spelled out, this film is unquestionably part of Joo’s own evolution as maker of objects and medium for esoteric knowledge.

Francine Koslow Miller