Korea is infused with paradox.
Past and present. North and south. Reality and fantasy. Beauty and ugliness.
You don’t have to travel across the world to see for yourself. Just take a trip across the county line to the Seattle Asian Art Museum.
“Paradox of Place: Contemporary Korean Art” will be on display through March 13.
The exhibit showcases works by six Korean artists who take the social and historical paradoxes of their country and add a personal slant.
The artists are Jung Yeondoo, portrait photography; Lim Minouk, mixed media; Yee Sookyung, abstract sculptures; Lee Yongbaek, video installations; Noh Suntag, black-and-white photography; and Yang Haegue, ceramics.
Each artist has a separate room in the show, which makes for a tour of paradoxical emotions. For visitors, it is an experience happy and sad, quiet and noisy, troubling and promising, somber and whimsical.
The life-size photographic portraits in the “Bewitched” series by Yeondoo are, well, bewitching. The title is from the American sitcom that was popular in Asia. His subjects, under the magical spell of his camera, are transported from their mundane daily lives into fantasy.
Yeondoo, 45, lives in Seoul, and came to Seattle for the show’s November opening. He talked about his search for diverse subjects for the series he started with slide projectors in 2001 and is still a work in progress.
“As an artist I approached them and asked them their dreams and then I made their dreams come true in portraits,” he said. “One from their normal life and one from their dream they supplied me.”
It all began with a small sense of wonder.
“One day I was at the gas station and I saw a girl in her roller skates and she was trying to sell window wipers to the drivers and I thought, ‘What kind of thoughts does she have and what is her background?’” Yeondoo said.
“It’s a simple curiosity, and one day I lowered my window and asked her, ‘Hey, what is your dream?’”
He didn’t take her photo, but it inspired the series.
“A few months later, I asked a gas station boy and it turned out he liked motorcycle riding and then he had a car crash and he was hospitalized for six months,” Yeondoo said. “After that he was afraid of speed but then again he loved speed. He had this love and hate situation. He said he wanted to race, so we got some cars borrowed and we went to the racing track and photographed him.”
So far, he has traveled to 14 different countries to seek out his subjects.
“They were strangers,” he said.
Did anyone say no?
“Some people said no,” he said.
The exhibit has four sets of his portraits of people in real life and fantasy. An example: a young woman in a pink apron mopping the floor at an ice cream shop is juxtaposed as her dream as a dog sled racer.
Yeondoo, who is married with two children, relies on funding sources for “Bewitched.”
“I do this project only when I get the sponsors. I’ve only made 28 of them. When I started I decided I was going to make 40 people’s dreams come true,” he said.
Why 40 people?
“A slide tray holds 80. The media has changed, but still I’d like to finish 40.”
Art as a career isn’t always an easy pursuit in this country of paradox.
“It is interesting with my parents and me as an artist. Korea has a very strong bond between the families. My father wanted me to be a pharmacist, as he is. He wanted me to follow in his footsteps,” Yeondoo said.
“My father actually grabbed a crystal ashtray and threw it at me when he found out I wanted to go to art school. He was not really aiming. In the beginning he thought that being an artist in Korea I might suffer from not making money and have a different lifestyle,” he said.
His mom was a willing accomplice. “My mother sent me to art school secretly.”
His dad came around.
“One day I realized that he came to my show on the second day. He came in to see it when I’m not there. Then my mother showed me any reviews he got he put in a small file,” Yeondoo said.
“He likes what I’m doing now.”
So, too, will those who visit this exhibit.
If you go
Now showing: “Paradox of Place: Contemporary Korean Art” continues through March 13. Also on view is “Colored Vases,” a 2010 work by Ai Weiwei.
Upcoming: “Journey to Dunhuang: Buddhist Art of the Silk Road Caves, March 5 through June 12.
Mood Indigo: Textiles From Around the World,” April 9 through Oct. 9.
Asian Art Museum: 1400 E. Prospect St., Seattle; 206-654-3100.
Closed Monday and Tuesday. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Open Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
For more, go to www.seattleartmuseum.org/visit/asian-art-museum.