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Those who had the chance to peek into curator Yun Cheagab’s Korean Pavilion at the last Venice Biennale might have their memory triggered while visiting Cynical Resistance, Cheagab’s group show currently divided between Nieuw Dakota and Canvas International Art. Upon entering the venue in Amsterdam Noord, Lee Yongbaek's monumental Pieta installation, which featured prominently in the Biennale, is definitely an eye-catcher: two oversized mannequins stand in a plastic pose, one poised to punch an opponent pinned to the ground. For their sheer scale the figures are an imposing presence, yet their mold-cast faces show no tension or feeling at all. The struggle is merely a reminder, or perhaps a satire, of real confrontation. This particular brand of tongue-in-cheek dialectic is the physical and conceptual pivot of the whole show.
In line with its appropriate title, Cynical Resistance showcases a handful of Korean and Chinese artists whose political and social engagement goes beyond the capitalism/communism dichotomy. They venture in the creation of iconic mash-ups that, while packing strong visual punch, only diagonally refer to controversial topics. In addition to Yongbaek's installations – which include a video piece showing a bright-colored flower wall concealing an armed soldier, another Biennale echo – Sim Up's Christ figures also feature this “resisting” mood. The Korean artist has focused on Westernization and the decadence of human spirituality for years. At Nieuw Dakota his packaged Jesus appears freshly unwrapped, still chained to the inside of a big box, with LED lights flashing within his body like a cheap parody of the Godly spirit. A couple meters away, a Mary Magdalene, clad in transparent pink plastic with pants around her ankles, gazes at the savior.
The other guests are less literal, and less ostentatious, in their critique. Lee Saehyun's Between Red series comprises beautiful paintings depicting mountains and landmarks from both North and South Korean landscapes, united – under a symbolic color – by a utopian mnemonic recollection. Kim Kira's collaged monsters clash figures from different mythologies, while Ma Liang's crowded and dimly lit tableaux recall Bosch paintings. Westernization doesn't only come as a depreciation of bucolic values, then, but as an iconic exchange which some of the artists on show seem to be fascinated with, or even benefit from.
As often happens with art coming from the far East, it is tempting to translate the sometimes naïve-looking tendency displayed in figurative work to a zen-infused reclamation of simple gestures and slow living, as “cynical” and resigned as the works might look. The pleasant mysteriousness of Ye Linghan's video, in which giant dirigibles and whales languidly fly through an industrial background, might confirm such an impression. But perhaps “cynical resistance” can also describe our own obstinate attempts to lump together different sensibilities under the “Eastern spirituality” banner, while they really stand for more personal and specific topics. In this sense, I appreciated the relative absence of the East versus West dialectic, which was replaced by a more visually interesting hybridization of style. To understand what the artists invited to the show are resisting, it takes a little more research than reading the titles in our newsfeeds, but that is a good thing.
(All images: Cynical Resistance, exhibition view; Courtesy Nieuw Dakota.)