South Korean artist Kyungwoo Chun challenges perceptions through thought-provoking artwork

His latest solo exhibition, “Songs Without Lyrics”, is a unique blend of photography and performance art. 

Published : Sep 12, 2023 08:37 IST - 4 MINS READ

Kyungwoo Chun

Kyungwoo Chun | Photo Credit: Sunaparanta 2023

“Did you have a happy childhood?”/ “Have you ever cheated on your spouse?” / “Are you honest with yourself?” / “Do you have children?” These probing questions are posed, not by a nosy neighbour or at the psychiatrist’s couch, but rather, by an artwork at South Korean artist Kyungwoo Chun’s latest solo show at Goa’s cultural centre, Sunaparanta. The performance-installation “100 Questions” is part of the exhibition titled Songs Without Lyrics (from August 18 to November 11), a group of in-situ, photographic, video and performance works exhibited for visitors to view and engage with in the various gallery spaces that wend through the charming Indo-Portuguese casa-turned-arts centre.

A view of the exhibition space.

A view of the exhibition space. | Photo Credit: Sunaparanta 2023

Chun’s experimental works are located at the intersection of photography and performance art, with human interaction—usually engagement through simple, everyday acts—at their heart. If “100 Questions” invites visitors to read, and listen to, the questions written by a hundred people from diverse cultural backgrounds that were used in a live performance where 10 participants responded through action, then “Seventeen Moments” is a moving image and sound piece that seeks to dispel the notion, through the varying length of one’s breath, that one can easily define a moment. Chun captures the instant when 17 dancers pause their breath and exhale after having worked the same moves, comparing the length of every individual’s breath to contemplate temporality.

Use of sound and visuals

The highlight of the exhibition, “Songs Without Lyrics”, from which the show derives its title, is an experiment in artistic interpretation using sound and visuals. Here, children from Goa’s Ektaal Children’s Choir were asked to interpret and give voice to picture scores; the scores in themselves were visual representations of songs created through colour, pictograms, and numbers by individuals with speaking and hearing disabilities in Korea. While the children’s singing—each child’s interpretation her own composition, captured on film by Chun—plays in one of the gallery spaces, the pictorial scores and six installed bells are displayed in an adjacent space, inviting visitors to make their own sound interpretations.

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Chun’s performance art involves unlikely cultural and human exchanges, depicting communication in unusual ways. In “Travelling Faces”, a performance documented in film and photography, a hundred people were invited by the artist to create portrait sculptures based on selfies sent by people residing in other countries, whom they had contacted.

“Resonance”. Work in progress. 

“Resonance”. Work in progress.  | Photo Credit: Sunaparanta 2023

Chun started out as a photographer, but found the act of taking a photograph and capturing the moment too fleeting and static. “I found it boring,” he shrugs. “It was the interaction with my subjects that I enjoyed more and I wanted to go beyond the act of taking a photograph. I wanted to capture the invisible,” he adds, describing his art as a “participatory process”.

Blur of moments

Chun began experimenting in the realm of human interaction—unsurprising, given that he comes across as an affable man and a people’s person. His participatory works or live performances have included multi-sensorial engagement with the public in numerous cities across the world including Barcelona, Berlin, Seoul, Mumbai, New York, Liverpool, Zurich, and Bremen. The performances, initiated and facilitated by him, become collective in a sense, although in controlled conditions where he decides the bounds. “I’m a photographer,” he is quick to remind you with a smile, implying control of the final composition.

“Songs without Lyrics II”. Work in progress.

“Songs without Lyrics II”. Work in progress. | Photo Credit: Sunaparanta 2023

As a photographer, Chun is known for his blurry portraits that seem to resist stillness; it is as if both his live art and long exposures seek to define movement in a more dynamic human context. In the photographic work “Resonance”, the artist engages differently with the children of the Ektaal Children’s Choir; each child is asked to sing to nature. Through his characteristic photographic technique, Chun captures the act as a blur of moments to signify the child’s relationship with trees. Playing in the background are traditional songs in Konkani, Marathi, and Malayalam—abhangs of Tukaram and odes to nature, sung by young members of the choir.

Chun’s work, “1000 Names”, 2009, Van Zoetendaal Collection, Amsterdam.

Chun’s work, “1000 Names”, 2009, Van Zoetendaal Collection, Amsterdam. | Photo Credit: Bernhard Knaus Fine Art, Frankfurt am Main

Poster of “Songs without Lyrics”

Poster of “Songs without Lyrics” | Photo Credit: Bernhard Knaus Fine Art, Frankfurt am Main

“Singing to a tree was exciting for the children. I told them that trees could hear, and also feel love,” says Nayantara Mascarenhas de Lima Leitao, trainer and conductor, Ektaal Children’s Choir, adding that singing in a choir is all about harmony and coming together, and prescribing it as an antidote to divisive times. Meanwhile, the interpretation of the picture scores, for the children, was an exercise in imagination, empathy and understanding the struggles of others. “Kyungwoo Chun has expanded their capacity for hearing and visualising sound,” says Mascarenhas de Lima Leitao.

“Does music pull at the strings of our heart?” is among the 100 questions posed to visitors by Chun’s installation. The children of the Ektaal Children’s Choir opened Songs Without Lyrics with a soulful rendition of the song, “Colours of the Wind”, to ensure that it does.

Janhavi Acharekar is an author, a curator, and creative consultant.

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