In a central London street most known for bespoke tailoring, South Korean artist Koo Jeong A introduces stern three-headed eagles and clusters of five-pointed stars. The palette of bright yellow and fiery red turns the heat up still further on a sweltering London day. We spoke to the artist, who has been active since the mid 1990s, in advance of the show about the symbols explored, and what we should expect from them next.
TEXT: Nicholas Stephens
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London
Seoul’s Hakdong Park is home to birds of prey, whose all-seeing eyes have borne witness to the joys and tragedies of the rise of modern South Korea. When Koo Jeong A spent time in the city during the pandemic, they learned how human remains had been unearthed during redevelopment in the area—unclaimed victims of the Korean war. So, the three-headed eagle was born, standing sentinel above the park in pensive watchfulness. To the western eye, the god/dog Cerberus may leap to mind, terror-inducing warden of the underworld, or the holy Trinity itself, symbolising omniscience and protection. The images also made me look up a favourite poem of mine, Walt Whitman’s The Dalliance of the Eagles (1891), a hymn to the passions of powerful creatures and the freedom of life in the skies: The clinching, interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel.
In Korean Buddhism, however, the three-headed bird is a talisman of protection, and is worn around the neck. The treble head also alludes to the samjae, or three major calamities of life.
Birds of prey have been of resonance to Koo since the artist’s three-minute animation MYSTERIOUSSS (2017), which involved researching JA Baker’s 1967 non-fiction book The Peregrine. The writer’s obsessive pursuit of the peregrine falcons which wintered near his home in Essex, England captured Koo’s imagination as part of a continued exploration of how bodies and species form irresistible interconnections.
The loose brushwork of the eagles turns every stroke into a feather, while the two-colour, comic-book directness asserts the appeal of symbolism, iconography and talismans over the millennia. Whilst cultural norms may change, the symbols themselves usually don’t.
The non-avian contingent of the show is composed of paintings, also in acrylic, from Seven Starsseries (2019 – present). Here, five-pointed stars, images of vague ubiquity from the Converse All Stars shoes to the US flag, underline the human need to give form to the ineffable, the amorphous and the intangible. Rather than the phosphorescent green of past iterations, the series here is pared down to essentials, congregating in lines of smart red on a white background.
We spoke to the artist prior to her London exhibition to discuss their influences and upcoming projects.
Can you tell us about the title of the exhibition, which translates as “Face of the East”?
The title is a direct translation of the word Yong Dong in Korean, represented by an 80-year-old woman from Korea whom I met whilst I was there and inspired me for this exhibition.
What do the eagles represent?
The eagle combines effortlessness and lightness with strength.
You are known as a citizen of everywhere. Is this a difficult time for global citizens?
Yes, it is, both locally and globally.
You explore correlations and interconnectedness, among other themes. Do you see the world more as a place of isolation, or a community?
I see the world as a community and as a merging of places within individuals and groups.
Are there writers, films or performers who have particularly influenced your perspective or inspired you?
Choi Kyu-il (최규일), celebrated for his engravings of stone and subsequent ink prints, is among those who have influenced my mind in-depth.
What can we expect from you after this exhibition?
New projects include: the magnet stage, public parks, a fountain, and a new public sculpture. I also plan to combine living and working in the Land of Ousss. Ousss can be a word, prefix, a person, a made-up geometry and place and has been present in my work since the late 1990s. At times the ousss reflects the real world in a way that appears virtual.
Koo Jeong A: [ YONG DONG ]
14 July – 20 August 2022
Pilar Corrias, London
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