What makes art art?


Sabina Yeowoon Lee
/ Curator at Total Museum of Contemporary Art



Bona Park’s works appeal to viewers with its unkind charm. People are drawn to works not because of the provocative or interesting appearance of them but because of the ambiguity or curiosity as to what to look and how to see it. Facing her works, people are confused and lost not knowing where to direct their eyes. ‘Unkindly’ enough, her works are ordinary in their form and subtle in their presentation, urging people to take ‘as you wish’. For that reason, it seems careless at times. Then, why did Bona Park choose to take that somewhat risky way in presenting her works?

In the present art world where eye candy works are overflowed, Park asks fundamental and critical questions on not just ‘see’ art but what it is presented there to see it and in what way it is supposed to be viewed. By minimizing the visual elements which might distract viewers, she makes them experience and focus on different layers of contexts such as patterns of behavior, exhibition space, and even the institutional framework. In other words, viewers get to reflect upon in what context the artwork is produced and what is the institutional system that maintains the work as art. This is a very sophisticated approach of suggesting the viewers to find their own interpretation of the long time question of ‘what makes art art?’All she does is pose a question and leave the matter to the viewer. If so, is there really such a thing called answer? Maybe she does not know herself. Her artistic perspective is well presented in the <<X>>, the first version of the X series.

“I. didn’t like. your. 60’s. thinking. I am tired. of your. minimal style of 70’s. I. am. just. bored. Everything. that. you do. was like. something. that. I’ve. seen. before. I. was fed up with. your. cliché. lacking. uniqueness. There. is. no. imagination. or interesting. twist. in. you!”      
 – Bona Park, <X>, 2007

This is what the ex-boyfriend who dumped the mysterious protagonist X three years ago without any explanations showed up and said one day. He said he just didn’t like her and got bored. Art is much the same. When the world is changing fast and the technology develops in every minute, every second, it doesn’t make sense to follow art of half a century ago. Then, what is it that she wants to do in the 21st century?       

In general, viewer pays a certain amount of entrance fee before they get into the exhibition space full of excitement to see ‘the great’ work of art. And after few hours of walk and pause, he/she leaves the space feeling artistic fulfillment. But, what if what he/she just saw was nothing but a fire extinguisher of hygrometer installed only to protect the other artwork?

WHAT: What are you doing there?

Expecting to see something called 'art', people pay money and enter into the exhibition space. And in Bona Park's exhibition, what they get to see as art are casually placed telescope or pile of crackers that she intentionally installed to take the role of canvas and brush. In other words, those objects that she carefully placed inside the exhibition space are not an aesthetic object to be looked at but a means to complete a work which is left to the viewer. Her work is undone before the viewer reacts to it. What if you became a work of art before you know it?  

Bona Park is a situation maker. She creates not a new physical material but a 'situation' which requires behavioral patterns of the viewer within that context in order to complete her work. There is no set of rules or directions for the viewer and even one does not know that what he/she does is a part of her work. <<Déjà vu (Buy 1 Get 1 Free)>>, 2007, is an example showing her typical practice of creating 'a situation' within 'a given situation'. When she was asked to prepare some snacks for the artist seminar, she bought buy 1 get 1 free snacks from the store and placed them in and out of the exhibition space in the same way. As the viewer takes those snacks, they become a consumer and subject at the same time experiencing dual context of appreciating and creating artwork. Her creative practice is done as the viewer responds to the given context independently.  


WHERE: where are you?

What made the viewer mistake that fire extinguisher and hygrometer for an artwork? What is the difference between the fire extinguisher installed inside the exhibition space and the one in one’s home? This boring yet grave question recurs with ‘Fountain’ (1917) by Marcel Duchamp or the ‘Untitled’ (1991) pile of candies by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. What is it that makes the multicolored candies inside the museum an artwork while you can have the same candy from the store in front of the museum?     

Bona Park denies not just a medium or subject of an artwork but also a very institutional space that generates art. But what makes it interesting is that she is doing it still within the institutional framework of museums or galleries. Wittily enough, she goes into the institution and uses it with the intention of refuting it. Take the series <<Rediscovering Flowerpots>> (2004). As she states, pots are everywhere abandoned on the street. She took a photograph of that mere waste and brought it inside the exhibition space presenting it as art in various forms. By juxtaposing the origin of the object and its current position in the exhibition space, she calls attention to the matter of context. Among them, the forth pot is placed outside the exhibition space as if it is thrown away, but as she frames it by taping the window in between, it became an artwork. Facing the window, the viewer gets to experience in and out of the exhibition space recognizing the system, not the object. This is like Daniel Buren’s taping work <Watch the Doors Pleas> (1980-82) in that the artist intentionally placed a work outside of the exhibition space. The stripes of tapes appearing on the Illinois Central commuter trains were to be viewed from the Norton Stair Hall window at The Art Institute of Chicago. While the commuters on the train might consider the colorful stripes as graffiti or an advertisement, the viewers at the museum might regard it as an artwork given their physical position. Both Daniel Buren and Bona Park do not create something anew from a raw material but draw attention to the system that generates an artwork. What matters is not an object itself but the context that acknowledges it as art.

WHEN: What are you doing there now?

Why do people go to the museum to see art? Though Google is providing an art project service enabling everyone to see masterpieces online at high resolution closer than the museum, people still pay and go to the museum with the will to experience the ‘aura’.    

Many of Bona Park’s works are temporal and one-off thing created for a specific place at a certain time. In other words, the work cannot be reproduced as it requires particular context for each work. For instance, the X series is a work reenacting a story that she wrote for a given exhibition space. The third story <<X2>> was meant to be reproduced at the Total museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, facing the Gana Art Center. If there is neither Total Museum nor Gana Art Center, <<X2>> becomes nothing but the words in her catalog. Only the documentation of work is left. Once again, she denies typical notion of exhibition itself. There is no work without a context whether it be a physical or ideological. As Donald Judd tried to realize in his Chianti project, a context of an artwork should be taken into consideration in its creation so as to provide perfect appreciation of it. This is to state that creating an artwork requires not just a visual elements but a context surrounding it. In that sense, Bona Park is a ‘kind’ artist respecting both a work and a context of it.

The artistic practice of Bona Park is questioning framework or system that makes art Art. Though it is too subtle that could be missed sometimes, it is interesting to discover what she has hid in various layers. A dilettante looking for an easy and visually charming artwork might criticize her work for being unkind. But that ‘unkindness’ is worth experiencing.