Haneyl Choi’s sculptures defy easy categorization; the range of materials, methodologies and motifs he deploys in his practice inspires viewers to question assumptions about contemporary art and gender identity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her recent solo exhibition, “Tae”, presented jointly at P21 and Gallery2.
Comprising some 40 works installed in two gallery spaces in Seoul, it is the most representative survey of his expansive practice to date, tracing the trajectory of his irreverent engagement with the human form and new approaches to dematerialization through the use of photography and digital AR filters. .
The title of the exhibition reflects Choi’s active engagement with nuanced meanings and interpretations throughout his work, adopting the Korean word “tae” (태) and its corresponding Chinese character (態), along with an English approximation of their meaning. “It’s really hard to translate into English,” Choi said. “The Chinese character means ‘form’, but I think the most similar word is ‘manner’.”
When pressed to explain the difference between the two definitions, Choi became reluctant, preferring instead to use the word in context. He described an idiom in Korean, “tae-ga nanda (태가 난다)”, which means to look good.
“If there’s an item of clothing and two men are both trying it on, one person can look good wearing it while the other doesn’t look good,” Choi said. “‘Tae’ means appearance in this sense, but of course the word also includes so many other meanings due to its Chinese cognate.” Through this trilingual nomenclature, Choi invokes elements of attitude, ambiance and character as corollaries of “form” and qualifiers of “manner”.
These nuances are central to Choi’s ongoing investigation into the nature of appearance itself and how perception is moderated by social mores and conditioned responses to visual signifiers. Indeed, images are central to her sculptural practice, both in terms of construction and consumption, in conjunction with an abiding interest in queer identity and representation. It rejects, however, any singular definition or embodiment of gay sexuality, proposing instead pluralistic abstractions that resonate on a varying spectrum of queer wavelengths.
As an openly gay artist living in a conservative country like Korea, Choi is acutely aware of how images are used to perpetuate stereotypes. But he also believes in the power of images to alter perceptions and perhaps even lead to meaningful change.
“Korea is a really famous and rich country, but life for gay people or minorities is not good here,” he said, noting that “there are so many gaps between real life and reality. ‘art”. Anti-LGBTQ discrimination is widespread in Korea, which lacks legal protections for gender and sexual minorities, with repeated calls for law reform having gone unheeded by the National Assembly for more than a decade.
In the Korean art world, it’s rare for artists to publicly affirm their sexuality through their work, although it’s something that motivates Choi, according to his dealer Soo Choi of P21. She views his practice as a form of activism, explaining, “With that kind of purpose in mind, I think he’s more motivated than other artists — or motivated for different purposes — as a gay person. and also as a sculptor.” In doing so, he “associates being a sculptor with being a minority in society and the art world”.
In 2020, Choi explored the duality of being a gay sculptor in Korea in his P21 gallery debut, “Siamese”. For this exhibition, he appropriated the iconic forms of pioneering abstract sculptor Kim Chong Yung (1915-1982), “destroying it with my queer sexuality,” as Choi described it. The exhibition proposed a bold revision of the non-objective approach to the representation of Kim, introducing the dialectic of queer formalism to subvert the canonical identity of art historical objects.
“No other commercial gallery had shown anything like this before in Korea,” Soo Choi said, recalling her own initial apprehension at the idea of showing such overtly sexualized work. But sales were strong, with about half of the works sold during the fair and the rest placed with collectors after the exhibition closed.
After the success of “Siamese”, Choi quickly became one of the most sought-after artists in the Korean contemporary art world. The following year, he mounted his first institutional exhibition at the Arario Museum in Seoul and took part in 14 other collective exhibitions, both in his country and abroad.
When P21 presented a set of new works by Choi in a solo booth at Art Basel Hong Kong 2021, they were picked up by collectors from China, Japan and Indonesia, demonstrating the wide appeal of his work in the international market. and validating his rapid rise within the Korean contemporary art scene. Another result of this strong interest was Choi’s growing confidence in his dealer, especially regarding his intensified calls for him to stop destroying his unsold works.
“I don’t care if I throw my work away because every time I finish a sculpture, it’s not mine anymore,” Choi explained when asked about it. “I make the sculpture for itself, then it leaves the studio and meets a new owner.” Given the size of his works, which are usually executed on a human scale, Choi struggled for a long time to find storage space that would allow him to keep any unsold inventory.
One of the ways he has sought to remedy this in recent years is to pursue a dematerialized approach to sculpture that adapts photography to his creative purposes. According to Choi, since a photo can exist as a digital file rather than a physical object, there is no material to throw away and no physical waste generated. So, by combining photography and sculpture together, “it became like a game” for Choi: he usually creates a sculpture first, then adds or removes clothes or other layers before presenting the object and the side-by-side image, which raises questions. on the definitions of the sculpture itself.
In addition to his exhibition at P21 and Gallery2, Choi recently opened an exhibition for two at the Ilmin Museum of Art, “The Other Self”, a collaborative project with sculptor Osang Gwon. It’s a natural partnership between the two artists, each of whom has come to prominence for actively expanding the parameters of their medium and interrogating common beliefs about the physicality and structure of sculpture.
Since 1998, Gwon has developed a body of work he calls photography-sculptures, reconstructing subjects by modeling their three-dimensional forms with lightweight materials, then covering their surfaces with hundreds of individual photo fragments. In many ways, Gwon can be seen as Choi’s conceptual predecessor, although this exhibition is the first time their works have been so explicitly linked in a public setting.
“The singular point of Choi’s practice is his belief that sculpture will abandon its physical properties and gradually move towards the trend of non-materialization,” said Regina Shin, who curated the Ilmin Museum exhibition. She added that “Choi’s exploration into other dimensions and the future form of sculpture as a standalone medium creates a colorful web of meanings.”
Rejecting any monolithic definition or embodiment of sculpture, Choi’s pluralistic abstractions offer a subjective analogue of queerness itself, something he calls its “duties of life.” Rather than tackling this subject head-on, however, it does so in a way that allows for an inclusive affirmation of queer sensibilities by avoiding any social context.
“I want to show that gay artists can talk about form,” he said, “I want to add something to the story.” By all accounts, Choi’s contribution to the mainstream narratives of sculpture and homosexuality is his defense of ambiguity in an increasingly non-binary world.
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