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Los Angeles, and California at large, is often viewed peripherally, as a fiction borne of a privileged right to the land of the American West, lingering still in the movie studio fantasies which hold a one-sided mirror to the variant cultures within. It’s Snowing in LA, curated by Amy Kahng and Mary McGuire, examined the relationship between Los Angeles and Korea, as interpreted by Korean artists who have lived in both places. Yet Korea, presumably South Korea, is not merely a city; the comparison of one Western cosmopolis of 4 million people to a country of over 50 million was disorienting, and further confused by a noticeable absence of work bearing any evidence of a “lived” experience of Korea. Much of the work on view relied on the idea that Los Angeles has no inherent culture, devaluing its sites of interest and likening the city to that blank, absorbent theater screen, a surface on which to project.
Minha Park’s video, A Story of Elusive Snow (2013), opens with the artist driving on the 101 freeway, longing for the snow of her homeland. She turns to found footage and fake-snow supplier videos, searching for seasonal comfort (“Hollywood’s special magic” as she calls it) amongst her new surroundings. Going so far as to produce the fake snow herself, the artist’s sincere yearning for that particular ethereal comfort discards openness to time anew. Instead of availing herself to new experiences, she reduces the city to its weather and industry. “It’s confetti, refrigerated,” Alfred Hitchcock gesticulates at a snowperson in a found clip in Park’s video. “For realism.”
Borrowing Art from Ikea (2018) by Sejin Hyun, a glib take on the already timeworn ready-made, presented a dining room tableaux: the Swedish retailer’s faux-Modernist furniture set against a pink swath of paint on the otherwise white gallery walls. Referring to the largest Ikea stores in the world, in Seoul and Burbank respectively, Hyun’s installation insinuated both as transitional places devoid of personality, their aspirational “modernization” indicated only by “affordable” and supposedly ubiquitous, European, bourgeois furnishings. Akin to the cheap trick of fake snow, Los Angeles becomes nothing more than the slushy remains of generic simulacra, complete with a full refund.
Dahn Gim’s sound installation not so muffled (2014), a soft, epidermal-esque veneer of stitched upholstery stretched around a car muffler, recalls Robert Morris’ Box with the Sound of its Own Making (1961). Veering from the conceptual to the literal, the sculpture plays a dampened and markedly “female” voice impersonating a car muffler, a device which is designed to reduce engine noise. An allusion to traffic congestion, the object reproduces a cross-cultural trope: virile automobiles sold via “feminine” allure. Similar to Min ha Park’s semi-abstract oil paintings of glaring skyscapes, Gim’s sculpture situates Los Angeles (to say nothing of Korea) as a locale polluted just as much by disposable objects as it is by light and smog.
Kang Seung Lee’s somber Untitled series (2017) draws from the L.A. Times’ photographs of the 1992 L.A. Riots. In one image, police chase a Latino man; in a second, grafiti reads, “la revolución es la solución!” Etching the archival image by hand before transferring to print, Lee explores the site of violence through the representation of othered bodies in the gray interplay of graphite and ink, a nod to both mass media and early mark-making. These captivating cenograph prints gracefully navigate the eruption of the discriminatory housing and business policies which contributed to the establishment of K-Town proper and played out in the Riots. Despite these subtleties, the editioned takeaways which accompany the framed prints read more as commodified souvenirs, too tranquil in their re-representation of turmoil, too faint to impose a future solution.
While participants in the exhibition were not bound to the West’s understanding of Cold War legacies (or the opinions of this white author) it seems odd that nothing is said of the Reunification Summit last April, or nothing of Korea’s emergence as a major Capitalist economy following colonization by Japan, America, and the Soviet Union. Each artist’s relationship to L.A. does not feel realized either, leaning too much on Hollywood conjurings, news footage, and take-out menus, broad impressions gleaned from screens afar and moving cars.
The exhibition focused too much on the aura of the urban—as if Korea is simply Seoul and Los Angeles just a city of émigrés who relocated solely to pursue graduate degrees at various Southern California institutions. Perhaps the solace of the movie-set snow or the frozen impression of ink are exactly the sensorial minutia which constitute the feeling of being “in-between” country and city. Yet despite the broad-sweeping theme, none of the work directly called on Korea itself or attested to a “felt” resonance of place, disregarding the vibrancy of either country or city beyond the timely, quarter-century anniversary of the L.A. Riots. Instead, like the movies, It’s Snowing in LA appreciated the city solely for its capacity for ready-to-assemble, cosmetic transformation. For realism.
Originally published in Carla issue 13.