View of “Choi Byungso: Sens et Non-Sens: Works from 1974–2020,” 2020–21. From top: Untitled, 2019; Untitled 016000, 2016.

View of “Choi Byungso: Sens et Non-Sens: Works from 1974–2020,” 2020–21. From top: Untitled, 2019; Untitled 016000, 2016.

Choi Byungso

Even the most discerning eyes might initially have mistaken Choi Byungso’s recent four-part drawing, Untitled, 2019, for a monochrome painting. Filled to the brim with markings in ballpoint-pen ink and graphite, the work’s surface shimmered ever so faintly under the dim light, embodying the sensuous gestures of dansaekhwa. Yet the support is not canvas or even hanji, the traditional handmade Korean paper utilized by some of Choi’s contemporaries. Instead, the chosen medium is folded newsprint; other works by the artist are made with actual newspapers.

Banal as newspaper may be, in the age of social media, disinformation, and fake news, one could not help but to feel a tinge of melancholy in the presence of this emblem of the bygone public sphere. This peculiar forlornness pervaded “Sens et Non-Sens: Works from 1974–2020,” which provided a glimpse into Choi’s extensive practice in drawing, photography, and installation over the span of his career. In the newspaper drawings that were on view, all from the past five years, the ink and graphite marks are sensorial gestures as much as they are, as the artist puts it, erasures of the support. The pressure of the pen and pencil tears the paper, even as it imparts soothing rhythmic cadences. What emerges in these works is something like a representation of mourning. This solemnity was compounded by Untitled 016000, 2016, an installation comprising more than eight thousand twisted white metal hangers sprawled across the gallery floor. Together, the drawings and the installation seemed to ask: What is the purpose of this vicious cycle of disinformation? Does it merely feed into its isomorphic cousin, the ruthless production of capital and waste?

These works may speak to the present, yet it behooves us to recall that when Choi began the newspaper series in the mid-1970s, dictator Park Chung-hee had declared martial law (the Yushin system) and suspended constitutional rights. Freedom of the press was also curtailed, engendering a searing skepticism of the media among the public. Perhaps the erstwhile public sphere that we so yearn for was never there in the first place. A flood in Choi’s studio in the early ’80s destroyed most of his works up until that point, including the early newspaper pieces, but luckily two photographic works from this period survived and were on hand here. One is Untitled 9750000-2, 1975, a group of four photos, each showing a different everyday item set on a chair, with the object’s name, in English, at the top: UMBRELLA, NEWSPAPER, BOTTLE, SUITCASE. A doorknob appears at the top-left corner of each image—almost as a trompe l’oeil device, pinning the work to the wall. Though clearly miming Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, 1965, the work does not ruminate on representation so much as collapse the referent and the signifier into one single image. All we see is the image as it stages and constructs our world.

Likewise, Untitled 9750000-1, 1975, reveals an image from National Geographic portraying two birds in flight, along with the words SKY, CLOUD, WIND, BIRDS, FLYING, and MEETING. At first, the piece cleaves to the sort of interrogation of linguistic and visual inscriptions typical of American Conceptual art. But the choices of the magazine and language (English, not Korean) are telling for another reason: It was a National Geographic map that the US State Department used to draw the border between North and South Korea; this division, in the words of then US colonel and future secretary of state Dean Rusk, “made no sense economically or geographically.” In 1969, the magazine ran a headline on the “success story” of South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953; at that very moment, the American government was fully aware that the country was plunging further into authoritarianism. Not only does Choi’s work telegraph the pretensions of the liberal world order, it also points to representation’s greater machinations. A gentle reminder emerges: Representation has always been inextricable from power and violence, and that power reverberates differently depending on one’s geopolitical and socioeconomic position.