Gift and Exhibition Opening


Hyejin Moon (Art Theorist/Art Critic)


  It is an opening of an exhibition. However, visitors cannot see anything close to a proper objet d’art for an art exhibition. What one can see is instead a table with Kimbab (a Korean finger food) prepared for an opening of an exhibition, ten towels hung on wall and a structure in a shape of a platform put in the middle of rather bare and empty space. A fashion show is followed by on the coarse platform under fluorescent light, which works indeed as a catwalk. A woman wearing a red apron with gloves for rolling Kimbab comes out on the catwalk, while another woman comes out holding a shopping basket with green onion, wearing a sun visor cap, with her lips colored red. A man appears on the catwalk, many caps layered on top of his head, holding a dustcloth and wearing a work vest. With no expression on their faces, the 3 female models and 2 male models walk on the catwalk for two times and disappear. For a short time, awkward silence is pertained. It is when the visitor picks up the Kimbab and eat it, turning the pages of the booklet on the table, that they realize the Kimbab that he or she has been eating is not an ordinary one; the protagonist of the exhibition is indeed the fully stuffed Kimbab, the table on which the Kimbab is put, and the flower-pattern tablecloth beautifully covering the table.

            Bona Park works with ordinary and cheap materials to nudge the given situations, substituting the context or revealing the embedded ironies. For her solo exhibition ≪FREE Flight≫, Bona Park takes the customary event of an exhibition opening as her subject of work. There are countless exhibitions and their openings around the world every year. For artists, exhibition opening is an event to present their work with as much perfection as they can prepare. For curators or gallerists, it is a place for showing off the spectacularity of the exhibitions they have prepared while at the same time a chance to promote and sell works of art. For all parties, it is a great site for networking, exchanging information and building relationship with each other. Light refreshments are a necessary element to encourage the atmosphere of elegant friendship among participants of openings, playing a role of assistant in making the event go flawlessly. That is where Bona Park takes her interest, which leads her to invite the light refreshments, appliances and the producers of such materials at the center of stage, visualizing the entities that had been kept hidden at the back stage of exhibitions.

            To realize the goal of exposing the material base that supports exhibition as institutional practice, Bona Park employs a strategy of (artist’s) anonymity and the naming (of producers behind exhibitions). When giving a new light to the objects that have been marginalized, it is fairly plausible to move close to them with sympathetic attitude, drawing them to the front while emphasizing that they do exist. It is also convenient for an artist to become a kind of an actor in such practice. The former is prevalent in minority art that takes a critical posture to social conditions and directly expresses concerns to such issues. Mixrice’s work is one example of such practice. The latter is frequently used in interactive performances that directly engage audience. Bona Park’s strategy belongs to neither of  the practices. Rather, her strategy is to provide a ground for the formerly marginalized and hidden while stepping back from what she has provided. In this practice, neither the artist or her artistic objects is clearly pronounced in their material existence. It is the role of audience to realize that the customary practice of exhibition is reversed, when they suddenly recognize that the ceremonial props are indeed works of art while eating Kimbab and turning the pages of the booklet.

            The Kimbab, tablecloth and table are only superficial surrogates of what they represent. What constitutes the contents of Bona Park’s work are not household furnitures placed at her exhibition or Kimbab at the opening, but the process of producing the very objects. Moreover, it is the contact, or, the engagement shared by the artist and the producers of such objects that constitutes Bona Park’s work. Working as a catalogue for the exhibition, the accompanied booklet is the only permanent object in the exhibition . It is a photographic documentary that records the whole process of the artist’s incorporating the producers of Kimbab, tablecloth and table, as well as the conversations that took place during the process. While producing Kimbab, tablecloth and table, the producers told a wide variety of stories to the artist. In the process, the intimate histories of the places where their shops are located are narrated, along with the personal histories of each producer, who has gone through Korea’s dynamic modern history. At the center of Bona Park’s exhibition are Kohgane Kimbab, a small Kimbab place located near the presidential residency, with many of its customers coming from a security unit of the place; LA Town tailor shop in Hannam-dong, which has seen many foreigners come and go around the town; Nuha Mokjae, a carpenter’s shop that witnesses the benefits and costs of the conservation policy on traditional Korean houses. Their histories are themselves placed at the center of Bona Park’s exhibition, establishing a transposition of stereotypical theme of an exhibition.

            The reversal of the hierarchy in the custom of exhibition has been practiced since the institutional critique from the late 1960s. What is notable in Bona Park’s practice is that it moves beyond the ideologies or dynamics within the art world and takes a look at the base structure, which has been forgotten within exhibition as an institutional practice. Compared to Rirkrit Tiravanija, who also employs food and the form of opening performance as Bona Park does, the difference becomes yet more clear. In the performance at the 303 Gallery in 1992, Rirkrit Tiravanija took everything she found in the gallery’s office and storage out to the gallery space in order to deconstruct the exclusive hierarchy existing within the white cube. Thanks to the fact that the office furnitures were dragged out to the gallery space, the director of the gallery had to work in front of audience and the artist made curry with kitchen utensils she acquired from the gallery’s storage, which was in turn offered to visitors to the gallery. In the performance, Rirkrit Tiravanija deconstructed the hierarchy among exhibition space and its supporting structure(office and storage), transforming the commercial feature of an exhibition into a field of friendship and gathering. Her practice, however, stays within the category of exhibition and the art world. The space that Rirkrit has transformed is within the gallery that provides support for presenting and selling works of art; the function that she has reversed is conventional roles of audience, dealers and gallery, which is also about the stereotypical positioning within exhibition as an institutional practice. On the other hand, what Bona Park is employing is not the interchange of the center and the periphery: it is the nameless objects that have not been incorporated into the institution from the start. In other words, Bona Park visualizes the non-artistic material base that has long been supporting the superstructure of exhibition. Having been existing outside of the hierarchy of high/low art, mainstream/sub art, the material base comes into play by being given a name through Bona Park’s practice.

            In her strategy, Bona Park’s unique attitude is also prominent in its way of approach as well as in her way of setting her objects of engagement. While Rirkrit Trivanija led cooking and conversation, directing the performance as a show, Bona Park minimizes her intervention except for creating situations for the players of her exhibition. The existence of the artist is indirectly suggested in the booklet, only through answers told by the producers in interviews (in the booklet, only the answers are printed, with questions remaining unknown to its readers). She is not also present in the outcome of the exhibition, which are the furniture and the fashion show at the opening. Such a petty playfulness and anonymous engagement is a consistent attitude observed in Bona Park’s body of works. In this regard, her 2010 work La boîte - en - sac plastique shares many characteristics with the current exhibition. The work also took the opening of an exhibition as its subject: Bona Park took a survey of taste of people who promised to come to the opening, went to a grocery store by herself with the result she induced from the survey, bought foods according to each opening participant’s taste and distributed each participant a plastic bag filled with grocery for dinner. In the work, the existence of Bona Park as an artist is not clearly displayed yet only to be seen in the personalized shopping lists for each participant. It is a kind of parasitic strategy that is used to sneak into an exhibition complete with other works of art. Such seemingly easy and light intervention characterizes Bona Park’s practice: In ≪FREE Flight≫, the strategy is expressed in a form of a booklet with interviews that do not show questions to the readers and in the existence of the skillful producers who become the agents of the exhibition.

            The fashion show, which marks the highlight of the opening, is taking a slightly different lane from the booklet. It is a site-specific performance that embraces and twists the characteristics of the site for the opening, in this case a shop named “Platform Place 629,” which is located at the heart of Seoul’s consumer culture, namely the Dosan Park area. At the downstairs to Bona Park’s exhibition is a clothing store specialized in imported designer clothes; Bona Park holds an anti-fashion show right above the very shop with a collection of luxurious fashion items. In Bona Park’s anti-fashion show, the glittering surface outlook of capitalist society full of ostentatious desire and possessiveness is substituted with a glove used to roll Kimbab, black plastic bags, shopping baskets and work clothes. The selection of ordinary and used objects is a site-specific comment on the fashion shop as well as on the institution of gallery, which is fundamentally not different from the fashion shop in its characteristic of selling luxurious commodities. The fashion show is layered in its meaning with the institutional critique of Kimbab-table cloth-table project. However, it comes with more space for interpretation from the fact that the clothes worn by the models take references from the work clothes of the producers of the Kimbab, table cloth and table that are used in the exhibition.

            Going back to the Kimbab-table cloth-table project, it is rather an accumulated record than a performance that happens only for one time. The time shared by the artist and the producers of each object works as a trace of the encounter and relationships between people from completely different background and context. It is also a point of interchange between the personal histories of the producers and the public sphere of exhibition. Again, Bona Park’s work marks difference from Rirkrit Trivanija: Rirkrit’s work also puts the conversation between the artist and audience while sharing foods with each other, but such communication can easily become rather superficial and temporary. Incorporating the producers behind exhibitions into the process and persuading them to become part of the booklet for the exhibition, Bona Park’s practice requires a long time of establishing rapport and contact with her objects of engagement. Continuing relationship and communication is a precondition to such effort. The engagement in her previous work La boîte - en - sac plastique also requires a continued relationship and communication rather than an instant contact and response: the act of surveying the taste of participants and shopping for them is a part of an effort to become closer to the participants, which itself is a mutual response that is perfected when the participants of the opening is given a plastic bag full of grocery of his or her preference and make foods with them after they go back home. In this respect, the artist’s intervention and engagement in ≪FREE Flight≫ shares certain aspects with Hannah Arendt’s concept of “praxis,” which is defined as a basic activity to discuss the common world that is meaningful to all members of society. Different from a ‘work’ with specific goal or ‘labor’ which is inevitable to sustain one’s living, ‘praxis’ is an exchange and a network that is built by creating relationships with others. Bona Park connects with the very Others that have been existing behind the institution and reminds us of the exclusiveness and customariness of exhibition.

            For Arendt, praxis is ultimately a way of moving away from the mischief of the materialist civilization of the West. As an accumulation of continuous relationship, Bona Park’s intervention is an attempt to loosen the frame and concept of exhibition as an institutional practice in the art world. The objects presented by Bona Park come as a kind of ‘gift‘ to visitors. With nothing required in return, it is a gift in a sense that Marcel Mauss mentioned in his notion of gift economy, which works as an alternative to capitalism where exchange value is regarded as the most important value. The ten towels, with their varying degree of density in colors, remind visitors of the Monochrome paintings; indeed, they are giveaways from various kinds of events such as alumni gatherings and inauguration events. The giveaway towels and an anti-fashion show with worn out and used items are the outside of the capitalist property of exhibition. Provided to visitors for free of charge at the opening, the Kimbab and booklet are also a gift while being as a product and record of the labour by people who exist outside of the institution. By sharing Kimbab made by Kil-hee Lee of Kohgane Kimbab with visitors the opening, the artist’s engagement moves beyond her engagement with the producers. At the same time, audience go through an act of communication with the producers of objects at the exhibition, though indirectly through the provided booklet. At this point, the Kimbab and booklet become not so usual as they are in ordinary exhibition openings, for they are ‘gifts’ that are given a new light by Bona Park. Or in fact, isn’t this exhibition as a whole a FREE Flight?