LOS ANGELES — In the days leading up to the April 2018 inter-Korean summit, K-pop girl group Red Velvet was one of several South Korean bands that performed at a concert in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. Among these cultural envoys were multiple generations of pop and rock legends, but it was Red Velvet’s earworms that proved decisive in flexing the south’s soft power in the region, with none other than the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, singling them out as the reason for attending the concert in person. The thousands of Angelenos attending Red Velvet’s sold-out concert in Pasadena this Thursday have at least this much in common with the North Korean leader, whose fondness for the K-pop quintet is shared by millions of fans worldwide.
Political spectacle, corporate influence, and state power are some of the themes of Take My Money / Take My Body, an exhibition by curators Narei Choi and Nicolas Orozco-Valdivia at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE). Using the global phenomenon of K-pop as a critical lens for popular media and consumer culture, the exhibition makes a case for the ways in which K-pop fandom itself is a contested battleground for cultural affinities and political ideologies.
Pop groups and their fan bases have been weaponized and made to conform, making K-pop seem like as much of a vehicle for social control as it is for soft power. Jiwon Choi’s artwork “Parallel” juxtaposes personal reenactments of K-pop personas, historical news footage, and interviews with her grandfather, a survivor of the Korean War, as a way to suggest connections between K-pop, militarism, and the ongoing division of the Korean peninsula.
In Levi Orta’s “Singing Alone,” leaders across the political spectrum perform songs in front of adoring audiences; in one video, Russian president Vladimir Putin sings Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” at a charity fundraiser. In this installation, musical performance creates the illusion of vulnerability, making sometimes ruthless heads of state out to be sympathetic and accessible. Even the Dear Leader’s admiration for Red Velvet is a signal to the world that he is, like many of us, unable to resist the saccharine charms of “Bad Boy” and “Red Flavor.”
Other works point to the ways in which technologies and networks further alienate individuals from lived political realities. The animated reenactments of the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict in Peggy Ahwesh’s “Lessons of War” are drawn from actual newsreels from Taiwan in which violence and suffering become memes to be circulated across social media. Gelare Khoshgozaran’s ongoing work “U.S. Customs Demands to Know” leaves a glowing trail of Iran Post parcels that make visible the transnational exchanges between the artist and their mother during a time of economic sanctions that leave them vulnerable to government surveillance.
In an untitled work by Olivia Campbell, cardboard portraits of K-pop stars and fans are interspersed with those of the artist’s friends. Portraits of black men signify not only the presence of black K-pop fans, but also the often uncredited influences of African American musical traditions like hip-hop and R&B in K-pop. The exhibition’s title seems especially germane in this work as it asks whose bodies and cultures are at stake and who gets to profit from their taking.
At its most cynical, K-pop is designed to put forward an “idealized Korean modernity” that has proliferated at the expense of social goods like fair labor conditions and mental health. It is, not unlike the art market and other culture industries, governed by corporate interests and a hunger for global audiences. In spite of these issues, or perhaps because of them, K-pop and contemporary art have shared affinities and antagonisms that the show’s curators take pains to explore. In Take My Money / Take My Body, the radical and reactionary possibilities of K-pop, an ostensibly apolitical genre operating in a politicized sphere, reside within the audiences who shape its meaning and significance.
Take My Money / Take My Body continues at LACE (6522 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles) through February 24.
Special Edition: 🖌️Artists’ Signatures ✍️
In this special edition, we investigate what artists’ signatures actually mean, and the fascinating results reveal the multifaceted history of this curious phenomenon.
What Is a Signature in the Internet Age?
As a cryptographic unit for record-keeping, an NFT can be seen as analogous to a signature or an autograph.
The Public Theater Explores the Hurricane Katrina Diaspora in shadow/land
Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza and directed by Candis C. Jones, this lyrical meditation on legacy, erotic fugitivity, and self-determination is on view in NYC.
The Meaning of Ancient Greek and Roman Artisan Signatures
What did a signature mean in the ancient world, and how much can we trust what they seem to tell us?
Michelangelo’s Signature and the Myth of Genius
Michelangelo served as a stellar example for future artists who sought status and economic independence.
The Rubin Museum Presents Death Is Not the End
Tibetan Buddhist and Christian works of art made across 12 centuries explore death, the afterlife, and the desire to continue to exist. On view in NYC.
Uncovering the Photographer Behind Arshile Gorky’s Most Famous Painting
As we pursue photographer Hovhannes Avedaghayan a fascinating picture begins to emerge of him and the world of which he was part.
100 Years of Artist Signatures in a Detroit Club
The beams in Detroit’s Scarab Club act as a guest book of sorts, carrying a wealth of stories and history, including signatures by Diego Rivera, Marcel Duchamp, Margaret Bourke-White, Isamu Noguchi, and others.
When I Am Empty Please Dispose of Me Properly
Ayanna Dozier, Ilana Harris-Babou, Meena Hasan, Lucia Hierro, Catherine Opie, Chuck Ramirez, and Pacifico Silano explore the myths of the American Dream at Brooklyn’s BRIC House.
The Myth of Agency Around Artists’ Signatures
In an art world built on shifting sands, artists’ signatures become symbols of agency for some, and relics of the past for others.
The Women Artists Commemorated on an NYC Sidewalk
The signatures of Rosa Bonheur, Mary Cassatt, and six other historical women artists are engraved on a small stretch of sidewalk on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
Met Museum Repatriates 15 Objects to India
The sculptures were all at one point sold by the disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor.
Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova Placed on Russian “Wanted” List
Tolokonnikova has long been a thorn in the side of Vladimir Putin’s regime.