SEOUL — Noh Sangho’s solo exhibition, The Great Chapbook II, contains more than 1500 works. Hundreds of plastic ziplock bags containing Noh’s watercolor drawings hang on 11 chrome garment racks affixed to the brick walls of Seoul’s underground gallery, Arario Museum in Space. The drawings are the results of the artist’s daily digital activity: Noh collects images from social media and search engines, prints a dozen every morning, traces them using carbon paper, often merging two or more source images, and “colors” them. His sources include Instagram posts, mostly from fashion or commercial photography; video chats; stock photos of people at the beach or posing in bathing suits; anime or manga characters from Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball, and Crayon Shin-chan; covers or scenes from sci-fi and horror novels, cartoons, or films; Tarantino films such as Jackie Brown and From Dusk Till Dawn; and Google image search results of the word “happiness.”
These drawings foreground the notion of the screen as the mediator of a picture— not the back-lit, digitized, glossy screen, but the modality of experience morphed by prevalent digital platforms. The drawings often have a split screen or multiple windows, sitting next to or atop another, and they do not hide the encapsulating Graphic User Interface (GUI). For instance, the drawing of the screen-capture of a movie also shows the movie player window and its play-and-pause button, sliding bar, and subtitle; an Instagram screenshot — complete with a little heart, speech bubble, and paper airplane icon, which signify a quick, ostensible, and minimal engagement, a comment, and the act of sharing — is drawn next to another image in a full-screen mode; and a set of images are drawn as they appear in the iPhone photo album grid or FaceTime layout, with the caller’s video window above one of the four corners of the receiver’s full-screen video window.
The sense of discord in seeing a hand-drawn GUI as the embedded part of an image reminds the viewer of the fundamental, subliminal paradigm shift that GUI design and its mechanism have brought to how one produces, accesses, and responds to visual information: the original square format and filters of Instagram have spawned and disseminated a certain aesthetics and sentiment of envy: “fear of missing out”; the Instagrammable; the semi-automatic scrolls, swipes, drags, drops, and pinches that keep the user afloat in the deluge of imagery; the voyeuristic specter of YouTube leading us to a mesmerizingly recursive experience of watching someone watch someone watch an Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) of licking ice. This is all only a fingertip away. Thoughts and emotions are readily available in icons and appropriation and self-reflexivity are built-in tools.
As a translator of digital culture, Noh compares himself to a carbon paper — a material he places between a printed source and his drawing paper. Flipping through the hundreds of plastic-encased drawings of appropriated pop culture images on garment racks mimics the endless scroll, like, share, and save for later. Both the quantity and the installation of the works make registering of everything impossible, but more importantly, unnecessary. Noh’s reference to chapbooks in the title of this and his previous exhibition (The Great Chapbook at the West Warehouse sponsored by the Seoul Museum of Art) is enlightening in this respect. Not meant to last but to disseminate as quickly and widely as possible, and above all, to entertain, a chapbook — a form of inexpensive, mass-produced publication of folklore, tracts, almanacs, and historical or political stories, made by folding a single printed sheet into folds — may be one of the first written (printed) forms of popular culture catering to those who could not afford books with bound covers. That chapbooks were usually anonymous publications, and that their illustrations often had little to do with content but were elements of arbitrary visual entertainment bear an uncanny relevance here: the terms of eye-catching, short-lived virality may not have been so different in the 16th century as they are now.
The drawings in the plastic ziplocks are recombined into larger pieces: in middle of the gallery four unstretched canvases (106 x 87 inches each) hang from the ceiling to a foot above the floor. Four stretched canvases (three of them 35 x 28 inches) are hung on the wall. “Mobilis in Mobile” is stretched on a device that Noh constructed, a type of a rotary print machine where one can turn the wheel and move the plane of the viewing area. All works, except for the aforementioned piece and a 20 x 79-inch painting called “How to find True Love and Happiness,” are titled “The Great Chapbook II.”
Hundreds of small figures fill mural-sized canvases, producing a sense of kaleidoscopic excess. They lack a central figure, unifying ground or space, hierarchy, and pictorial or narrative tension among figures. Their omnibus construction is exemplified in the only painting with a central figure: a man, seen from behind, in his swimsuit at the beach. The background is divided horizontally into the sky, the sea, and the sand, painted in watery, translucent layers of blue, dark green, gray, and sienna. The man’s shadow is painted in black, closely following the outline of his right side, as if he is lit from behind against a wall. The shadow turns the beach into a backdrop. The artificiality of figure-ground relationship may be the future (or the present) that Noh points to, a backdrop of appropriation, overabundance, and visual and cultural percolation that we carry, like having our own permanent green screen for every projected experience.
The exhibition also includes two small rooms where every inch of the walls is covered with drawings in cheap, glossy golden frames. While several drawings depict recognizable stock images from fashion, music, anime, or film, most are markedly less photographic and more obscure. Motifs of twins, triples, and a group of people wearing uniforms and/or 3D glasses are repeated. Some images are explicitly gory, like a drawing of a female model with blood pouring out of one eye socket and a dab of watery pink seeping out of her white brazier at her nipple.
Dissimilar to all other works in the exhibition, where images bear the signature of being frozen in time and space (such as incorporating digital display layouts, treating the ground as a backdrop), these drawings show the passage of time (as in a group of men playing soccer), different scenes of the same event, or both, like a storyboard. Noh also begins to abstract the drawings by limiting his palette significantly, repeating neon pink and green, flattening the color, and often removing the background. The space is less articulated, and the faces of figures are rarely drawn, making one indiscernible from another. All of this turns the installation of these drawings into a nondescript virtual landscape in which figures seem to float and extend beyond their frames, invoking amorphous, phantasmagoric narrative threads and psychological suspense. Noh’s non-linear, ever-expanding, self-generating approach to a narrative is similar to the mis-en-abyme inside a mirrored room, where the illusion of an infinite universe comes from the reflexivity of all the components. The experience is like watching a horror movie with the sound off: half-convinced. The clear distinction between the source and re-invented, the appropriated and personal, the real and fictive starts to blur in these two rooms, however, and we begin to question the criteria by which we divide these territories.
Noh’s work as a reflection of the frivolous, erratic manner with which images are “consumed” in the digital era is half the picture. While he confesses that he sees his works as purely digital, that he deems his process complete once the drawings are scanned into jpeg, like his sources, and that the “original” drawing on paper is more of a byproduct than the other way around, there is something doggedly idiosyncratic in the process of freezing digital images that fleet across a screen and making them material, in the slightly impressed lines made by tracing against a carbon paper and the unforgiving stain of watercolor. The drawings in plastic bags, canvases hung like shiny banners, and golden frames covering the walls become souvenirs of digital ephemera. We don’t buy souvenirs from the place where we live but from the places where we are tourists, where our existence is temporal, just as souvenirs are only precious as they symbolize and reconstruct our experiences. The irreconcilable discrepancy between this reassembled memory from a keepsake and that place where we once were may be the other half of the picture.
Noh Sangho: The Great Chapbook II continues at Arario Museum in Space (83 Yulgok-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea) through February 10.
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