Koo Jeong A | Scapelling the Void, A Thin Slice of Silence 

Via Issue 191, Fresh Cuts

Written by

Filip Jakab

Photographed by

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KOO JEONG A. KANGSE SpSt, 2024. Bronze, plywood metal, pigment paint, scent diffuser, sensor, 317x74x162cm. Courtesy the Artist. ©️ KOO JEONG A

It’s February and I’m on the 62 sitting in a dusty White Toyota heading to Joshua Tree. Bewildered by the clash of the dull hum of AC, the radio, the dusty interior and the aroma of a large Americano, I leave the sun blazing on my right hand for a while through the car’s window in a doubtful sensation, as if to test my limits. While doing so, I’m reflecting on the words of Koo Jeong A that “new realities can arise from instances of discomfort,” by which they refer to the notion of “untouchable elements” incorporated in their work. I’m examining my temporary discomfort, there’s a soft twitch in my right eye.

When the car stops, I step out and observe the landscape—the Mojave desert, Joshua trees, and caramel-colored bare rocks broken up into loose boulders on the horizon. Their distant shapes blunt in a soft scenery. Then a tiny whirlwind begins to rotate slivers of sand a few steps ahead of me. It feels rare but real. With the quiet, cooling breeze and almost ancestral scent—the shift urges my ruminations on the sensorial and subliminal—a few core instances of Koo’s body of work.

Koo Jeong A, a South Korean artist known for their immersive, multi-sensory environments will represent Korean Pavilion at this year’s 60th Venice Biennale with the project, ODORAMA CITIES. Koo intends to “engage viewers on multiple sensory levels by the use of light, sound, smell, and digital technologies that can transform into large-scale sculpture and painting, as well as film and animation, to reinvent architectural spaces and create site-specific environments that envelop viewers in a unique atmosphere.” They want to stimulate senses at their most abstract registers, to evoke unfamiliar emotional responses through an exploration of the boundaries between reality and imagination. “This approach allows for deeply personal and intersubjective phenomena to arise—[with] each individual’s experience of the artwork shaped by their own perceptions and sensations.”

Born in 1967 in Seoul, South Korea, Koo Jeong A finds life and work globally. Described as notoriously reticent, the artist’s conceptual work revolves around objects with the capacity for transformation, incorporating ungraspable elements such as scent, silence and luminescence. Their subtle installations and sculptures trace into the histories of performance and conceptual art while drawing interest in the subtlety of mundane objects. Their sculptures, which often resemble miniature landscapes or suggest enigmatic narrative tableaux, are created from tenuous and often unlikely materials: crumpled paper, discarded children’s toys, or hundreds of cigarettes neatly stacked in rows. Noticing one of their works might, for example, be contingent simply upon registering the sudden change of illumination in a room.

KOO JEONG A. Diamona, 2010. © Koo Jeong A. Photo: Cathy Carver.

Humpty Dumpty was one of the first works significant with intangibility and traces that Koo created for the Unfinished History exhibition at Minneapolis’ Walker Center in 1998. The artist formed a shelter in the corner of the gallery, where they hid during the exhibition installation. After the team removed the shelter, the artist filled the corner with crumples of paper-mâché as if to allocate, replacing their absence. 

“It’s often what is hidden or nearly absent that we find most compelling,” wrote Meghan Dailey about Oslo (1998). As Koo describes to me in our conversation, they created Oslo in an NYC hotel room over five days grinding aspirin tablets bought from the local Duane Reade pharmacy into a powder for a group exhibition, Vertical Time, curated by Francesco Bonmi at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York in 1998. At the exhibition, the artist’s work, consisting of heaps of crushed aspirin, was displayed on a thin wooden plinth. Illuminated by the blue light, “the snowy-white silhouettes seem like the mountain peaks beneath a cold, northern light.” The work is part of the Guggenheim Museum collection. Allured by the concealed, obvious, obscure, and overlooked–Koo Jeong A augments how we perceive and reinvent reality at large by altering the dimensions, ambiance, and contents of a given space into a lasting quietude. 

Hidden or concealed, it comes to my mind how in her compelling monologue, Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (played by Glenn Close) in the adaption of Dangerous Liaisons from 1988, which I watched recently, claims fascinating introspection of her reality explaining: “When I came out to society I was 15. I already knew that the role I was condemned to, namely to keep quiet and do what I was told, gave me the perfect opportunity to listen and observe–not to what people told me which naturally was of no interest—but to whatever it was they were trying to hide.” 

The aspect of the hidden may envelope various reactions, from curiosity and playfulness to detachment and aloofness. But above all, according to Koo, “it is storytelling [which] can unify a world, it can transcend the boundaries of an agreed reality. One cannot create new knowledge without a foundation of memories.” 

In their body of work, Koo constructs a spectrum of delicate realities, “guiding principles” as they pointed out, like a mirror for the awakening of our underlying senses in the surrounding space. Perhaps to disrupt our comfortable viewpoints, perhaps to erase the ennui with which we may observe some forms of art and life that just sustain its system, perhaps unlock the unfamiliar we may not see there is. 

KOO JEONG A. ODORAMA CITIES, Korean Pavilion 2024, La Biennale di Venezia, Installation view, Courtesy of Pilar Corrias, London, and PKM Gallery, Seoul, Photo Mark Blower.

Koo’s work actuates the ephemerality and as they unfold, “[The work] is more about relationships between elements than being in a stochastic landscape.” It revolves with and around specific velocity, towards reflection and dynamism of astral orbs, expanding the depth and meaning of Koo’s long-term fascination for the void—concepts omnipresent in the higher stratum, allowing perpetual becoming that remains oscillating, trembling and inquiring. 

Thus, when sensing what Koo’s art is, one may wonder that even in today’s “info-core” era—not everything is knowledge (although as stated by McKenzie Wark: “information is the commodity of the vectoralist class”). The sensorial oeuvre of Koo Jeong A channels precisely the merits of impalpable and unsaid, ethereal and unspoken—a thin razor-sharp thread of ungraspable haze. Koo’s are the realms of a premonition—stark yet fragile. 

It’s not only that which is hidden that the artist harnesses as enigmatic but also the unseen and untouchable—like the scent—one of the oldest senses. Koo defines smell and aroma in their own vision throughout our interview as “one kind of material, which like minerals or fabric, needs to become immaterial to be an artwork.” Besides olfactory, their work incorporates temperature and sound. For instance, in the work entitled South (2000) Koo Jeong A created an overheated room and a stack of red soil assembled on a table. For Dreams and Thoughts (2003–08), hoards of unwrapped sticks of gum were stacked ad infinituminto small mounds in the gallery space, as reminiscent of the cigarettes they orderly amassed in a corner for 3355

However, it was OTRO—a luminous skatepark project first introduced in 2012 on Vassivière Island, France, that brought the artist widespread recognition in the art world. Vassivière, mostly a greenbelt area, was a backward region with dark, deserted streets after the sun went down. By creating the glow-in-the-dark skatepark, Koo emphasized the visual experience of the park, experimenting with the brightness of the day and night and the way light spreads through time and space. Besides placing importance on physical interaction, the work enhanced imageries beyond the viewpoints on the public spaces occupied by “shadows and light” in far more ambiguous terms. Off-setting the skatepark, turning it to collect and emit stored light energy at night.

In fluorescent hues of aurora-like and matrix green, and cerulean, azure blue on the surface contrasting the dark figures skating through them, one can think of friction created by switching the positive into negative (area) and vice versa. In this belief, conceptual subjects that Koo turns into their arena seem to oppose familiar as if to create the possible parallels—like Jackyl and Hyde—reality and AI—emission and flux; fiction and truth. The work asks you to imagine, participate and ultimately feel.

This public project was further developed for international audiences. OooOoO (2019) was a development of OTRO that the artist created as the experiential and participatory site-specific installation of the multi-sensory (glow-in-the-dark) skatepark of 2282 square feet in different sizes, angles, heights and spirals turning from 2D,3D and possibly 4D at Triennale Milano. “The skateboarders are balletic in their command of space, speed (velocity) and movement, just like a choreographer, they define the movement of the human body, and like a dance, they achieve remarkable feats of human endeavor and endurance.”

KOO JEONG A. ODORAMA CITIES, Korean Pavilion 2024, La Biennale di Venezia, Installation view, Courtesy of Pilar Corrias, London, and PKM Gallery, Seoul, Photo Mark Blower.

It comes as no surprise that surrounding creative industries are drawn to enigmas like Koo Jeong A. Reserved in an oversized beige coat—Koo appeared along with a community of creatives as part of the Loewe Fall-Winter 2023 pre-collection campaign—in a new iteration of the ongoing collaboration with Jurgen Teller in May 2023. Albeit most essentially, Koo Jeong A’s upcoming multiverse, ODORAMA CITIES opening at the Venice Biennale this April, will transform the cylindrical steel and glass structure of the pavilion into an olfactory journey through the smells familiar to urban centers in South Korea. As Koo reveals in our interview, they created 17 experimental scents with their collaborator Nose/parfumier, NONFICTION. 16 of which are individual scents and one scent is of the Korean Peninsula representing the nation. Through these cities’ scents, ODORAMA CITIES will probe multiple layers of culture, creating a micro-sense of our planet at large. 

In the plethora of sensory information, the installation will echo a multidimensional climate, “A never-before-experienced metaphysical morphology that goes beyond national borders, territories, and conceptions of nationhood. A united, transnational pavilion in the Venice Giardini.” Koo explains. Such multifarious yet subtle agency over the space of the pavilion arises from Koo’s renowned artistic approach. By incorporating interstitial phenomena, digital features and a conflux of time codes, Koo encrypts non-linear histories, traditions and (im)probable destinies into a codex of their own. The various media are usually combined with natural elements of wind or gravity and the electromagnetic field.

Subsumed in the symbiosis of senses, visitors will have a chance to perceive the constellation of Koo Jeong A’s unsurpassable sensibility expressed throughout the exhibition. As Koo puts it, “Untouchable elements can be visible; abstruse immaterials can become an ‘untouchable.’ An understanding of what was previously unknown comes to those who are focused and patient.”

In this way, one may not but contemplate that Koo’s site-specific installations open portals between disparate domains and realities, not only geographically but also in an astral sense, the ones that are yet to be imagined and discovered. According to Koo, “The abstract ideas and questions hypothesized in ODORAMA CITIES convey an unforeseen, yet nonetheless concrete, future.” 

ODORAMA CITIES may permeate the pavilion with works that trigger deeper dynamism and regeneration imbued in the artist’s practice, as well as coruscate the space with frail, abstract entities into a vortex of non-time. The pavilion will be co-curated by members of the Kunsthal Aarhus: director, Jacob Fabricius and curator, Seolhui Lee.

On the horizons of subliminal and correlative elements, the red wells the alchemy behind Koo’s work, echoing the inseparable axis of conscious and unconscious, of singularity and plurality, between fading and reappearing, apprehension and memory, day and night, shadows and light. Koo holds the void intact. We are mere particles of emissions once granted, released by celestial bodies floating in the cosmic constellations of a ceaseless universe. 

The past seems like smoke in the desert...I think while writing this piece amidst thousands of years old rocks. The air feels thick, and it’s seconds before the storm.

KOO JEONG A. "A Reality Upgrade & End Alone" (2003/2010). © KOO JEONG A. Photo: Cathy Carver.

Written by Filip Jakab

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Flaunt Magazine, Issue 191, Fresh Cuts, Koo Jeong A, Art, Filip Jakab, Odorama Cities, Venice Biennale