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Officials in the South Korean city of Busan have destroyed a public sculpture by Dennis Oppenheim, claiming that the artwork had fallen into disrepair, was an “eyesore,” and had “no artistic value.” Workers tore it down last month, unbeknownst to the artist’s estate, which found out about it just last night.
The sculpture, “Chamber,” was installed as a permanent artwork on Busan’s Haeundae Beach as part of the 2010 Busan Biennale. It comprises curved and organic forms, the highest of which rise over 13 feet; as with other large-scale works by the late artist, beachgoers were encouraged to interact with the piece by walking between the colorful walls. However, made of steel and plastic, the work had rusted from brine, as a district official told AFP, and it was further damaged when Typhoon Chaba reached the shores in 2016.
“We also received a lot of phone calls from pedestrians and residents in the area demanding its withdrawal as the art work was turning into an eyesore,” official Shi Yun-Seok told AFP. She added that the district office had failed to notify Oppenheim’s estate of the piece’s removal.
A representative of the Busan Biennale told Korea JoongAng Daily that the Haeundae District technically holds the ownership rights to the artwork since it paid for the project, which cost 800 million won (~$755,000 US). It is his estate, however, that holds the intellectual rights. But district officials decided to act on their own accord after deeming “Chamber” worthless.
“When the members of the Biennale committee came to look at the sculpture a year ago, they said that the sculpture looked ugly, and alluded that it should be taken down,” district official Ham Shim-yeoung told the local daily. “Although we didn’t discuss it with the family, it clearly had no artistic value, which is why we decided to take it down.”
Amy Plumb Oppenheim, the late artist’s partner and head of his estate, told Hyperallergic that she learned of the demolition only last night, when her sister sent her a link to a news article about it.
“I immediately wrote to the Director of the Busan Biennale, that they must agree that this action sets a bad precedent for works of art in the public view,” Oppenheim said in an email correspondence. “As representative of the Dennis Oppenheim Estate, it is my right and my obligation to protect all works and the associated rights, to the benefit of his legacy and for those who own his works, for the duration that these rights exist.”
Responsibility for the maintenance of “Chamber” lay with the Haeundae district office, Oppenheim added, although all restoration procedures were to be approved by the estate. She had visited “Chamber” in 2015, after which she wrote to the Busan Biennale as she noticed that steel tubes on the work was browning. Representatives of the art fair replied that they would urge the District to execute repairs soon, Oppenheim said.
But restorations never happened. Instead, district officials sent workers to dismantle the sculpture during the week of December 11, 2017, after which all pieces were discarded.
Dennis Oppenheim himself never saw the sculpture — which was entirely fabricated by South Korean individuals and companies — in situ. One of the last artworks he designed, “Chamber” was unveiled in March 2011, two months after the artist passed away.
“Dennis Oppenheim was deeply touched by Korean culture and society, having worked on several projects, the first in 1988 at Olympic Park in Seoul,” Amy Oppenheim told Hyperallergic. “On an emotional level this news comes at a difficult time, as the seventh anniversary of this death would have been January 21, 2018.”
Update, 1/22: Amy Oppenheim told Hyperallergic that local authorities have decided to build an observatory at the area where the artwork was originally installed.