In this digital era we live in, where we are constantly surrounded by technological advances and the enticing charms of social media, it is often easy to lose touch with reality, and neglect what is truly important. South Korean artist Yaloo makes use of the digital medium to bring awareness and open the dialogue regarding issues like identity, belonging, heritage, and new ways of understanding the world and ourselves.
The artist and her work
Yaloo (얄루) is a South Korean conceptual artist who uses digital media and technology to create interactive works of art. She lived in the United States for a long time, where she received her Bachelor and Master of Fine Arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). In recent years, she has spent a great part of her time in Seoul, which has given her the chance to re-explore her heritage and identity, and incorporate them into her work, through the use of symbolism and making a subtle criticism of contemporary consumer culture. Her art presents many questions about daily life and our society, but leaves to the spectator the task of finding their own interpretation and drawing their conclusions about the covered topics. She often also explores and questions how ‘Korean-ness’ is reflected in today’s world through the popular products that South Korea exports to the rest of the world, and on which its economy is primarily based. One of these products, to which Yaloo dedicates an exhibition, is red ginseng, known for its great health properties. In the exhibition Red Ginseng Machine (2018), the artist represents, through a video, an industrial perpetual motion machine that manufactures red ginseng incessantly, and a humanised version of the root, that shows its resignation to being exploited through the recital of a part of the lyrics of the BTS song ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’. The work makes it clear that, even though these products contribute to the country’s wealth and longevity, they are rather a representation of the current prevailing socio-economic nationalism, than that of the true essence of Korean culture.
Another recurring element in her work is K-Pop, which has become one of the most representative aspects of Korea. Korean pop is a phenomenon that has had a huge impact around the world, and fan culture has raised the status of idols to almost godlike levels. In the context of concerts, support and adoration for the members of a K-Pop group is shown through the use of merchandising and banners, but above all through lightsticks, the hand lamps with specific designs for each group that fans wave in the air to cheer for the idols. In her project Magic Wand for Your Mind (2013), Yaloo fuses the representation and functionality of a lightstick with that of a traditional magic wand for transformation. The latter, often seen in animated series, gives the character that bears it the power to transform and reveal their secret identity, in an autonomous way. By contrast, in the case of lightsticks, the roles of active agent and receiver are switched, thus giving fans the power to change the image of pop star to something else.
However, the element that is perhaps the most characteristic in her work is seaweed. It has always been very present in South East Asian cultures as food and also, especially in South Korea, as an ingredient in cosmetic products due to the countless properties and benefits it has. In fact, there is a story that says that, during Korea’s Goryeo Dynasty, some people observed whales eating seaweed to recover after giving birth, so it started to be associated with childbirth and was given to new mothers to regain all the minerals lost during labour. Consequently, it has become a tradition to eat seaweed soup on birthdays, to honour the person who brought us into the world. Inspired by this, and later on by a seaweed gathering ceremony in the Fukuoka Prefecture in Japan, Yaloo has produced various artworks where seaweed plays a central role.
Her project Seaweed Pond (2011) shows a birthday land where the centre is a big pond of seaweed soup; and Seaweed Soup, boiling VR womb (2019), which was developed during one of her residencies in Canada, presents a virtual reality immersive seaweed soup with animated pieces of seaweed dancing K-Pop choreographies. In 2019, she presented two other larger-scale exhibitions themed around seaweed. One of them is the aforementioned residency in Japan, in the towns of Mojiko and Hirokawa, entitled Seaweed Adventures: Why wakame? Yes, wakame!, where she collaborated with local artists to create a variety of artworks ranging from video projections to good luck seaweed amulets and a reinterpretation of work clothes with a seaweed pattern. The other exhibition, titled Garden of Seaweed, immersive futuretale, brings together some of her previous projects and concepts, and delves deeper into the symbolism of the Korean cosmetic facemask. Both of the main items in the exhibition, seaweed and cosmetic facemasks, are some of South Korea’s most important export products, but while the latter represents a more superficial and commercial aspect of modern Korean society, the former symbolises tradition and constitutes an element of nutrition, both in the literal sense and cultural level, that better illustrates the essence of Korean identity. Yaloo uses these two extremes to draw a bridge between superficiality and depth, using the inexpressive cosmetic facemask as a base and filling it with imaginative, futuristic ,and rich projections, populated with algae of different shapes and colours, which constitute worlds in themselves.
My Garden, My Sanctuary: Birthday Garden
One of Yaloo’s most recent exhibitions took place from July to October of 2022, at FACT Liverpool, UK, in conjunction with fellow digital media artist Sian Fan. In this project, they try to tell stories of their origins, their ancestry, and self-discovery in a hyper-connected world. As the influences of media and new technological advances collide with our traditions and customs, our identities glitch, forcing us to rethink and redefine ourselves. In My Garden, My Sanctuary, Yaloo and Sian Fan create underwater worlds where they reclaim their cultural identities and remake their coming-of-age stories. Through animated installations and interactive environments, and using commercialised and globalised symbols of East Asian culture, such as seaweed, K-Pop choreography, hypersexualized female avatars, and spiritual figures stripped of their religious relevance, the artists also critique the stereotyping of their culture in the eyes of the world. The exhibition’s curator, Carrie Chan, describes the project as challenging the conventional ways we define our origins to embrace more fluid identities.
The part of the exhibition created by Yaloo, entitled Birthday Garden, continues to develop the themes and ideas previously explored in her other artworks, keeping the symbolism of the seaweed and the cosmetic facemask as focal points. Submerging us in an unknown archaeological space of the near future, the work tells and links stories of three generations (grandmother, mother, daughter) of a fictional Korean family with aspects of current Korean culture. Each one of the generations is represented by an element of the exhibition: the grandmother with a kind of temple gate, imitating the monument that was built for war widows; the mother with a pond, symbolising the royal ponds in the palaces, in which an underwater forest of algae is projected; and the daughter with a shrine/altar, represented by a huge cosmetic facemask surrounded by guardian fairies made of seaweed, that dance a K-Pop-style choreography in keeping with the three generations. As a member of the University of Liverpool’s K-Pop Society, I had the pleasure of collaborating with Yaloo to create the choreography, as well as taking part in a podcast organised by the FACT learning team, where we opened up the dialogue on how East Asian identity is perceived from the point of view of the East and the West, how these perspectives change as we interact interculturally, and how cultural symbols shape our identities and our sense of belonging.
Homo Paulinella: the next step in our evolution
Motivated by her exceptional ability to create imaginative, immersive worlds, and the daunting prospect of the decline of our world and our species due to the Anthropocene (our current geological age, the human age), Yaloo has embarked on an artistic journey to playfully predict what our near future might look like. The exhibition, called HomoPaulinella, Photosynthesizing Post Human Scenario (2020), hypothesises the self-preservation of humanity through becoming seaweed-human hybrids and presents a speculative scenario of a post-human species called Homo Paulinella, which has the ability to self-produce oxygen and energy through photosynthesis, in an apocalyptic dystopian/utopian world. This follows a narrative about what essentially defines a being as human, and is the introduction of a reflective quest of celebrating humanity.
In 2022, Yaloo expanded this project with HomoPaulinella the Lab in the submerged city, where she questions the need for an anthropomorphic body to be considered human, and poses the Homo Paulinella as an organism with an organ-like ‘external body’, serving as a boundary between the inside and the outside, where the inside is the emergent effect of various substances, and the previously mentioned discourses of the earth and humanity. The exhibition also reflects on the effects of the pandemic that has paralysed the world for two years, like the levels of ruthlessness humans can reach in the face of difficulties. By breaking the assumption of classical humanism and questioning the definition of the body, Yaloo attracts other people who do not fall into the classical ‘human’ category into the body of a post-human, and sends a hopeful message of the possibility of a new human being with new ethics for a prosperous global community.
If you want to experience Korean culture and identity from an interactive, original perspective, be sure to check out Yaloo’s existing and upcoming projects on her website yaloopop.com, and her Instagram @yalooreality; they will surely give you many things to think about!
Written by: Anna Franco Ucar
Revised by: Luisa Quintero
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