WHAT’S UP DOC?:
LEE HYUNGKOO AND THE ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES
The Punch Line
A black room frames the installation, which is dramatically spot-lit. A presentation of two skeletons, not unlike what one might see in a museum of natural history; a predator chasing its prey. Then the dawning – it’s Wile E. Coyote and The Roadrunner! Reduced to a science exhibit! Brilliant, clever and very, very funny.
Once the laughter subsides, something very interesting begins to emerge. The work is not merely clever or amusing in the way that Cattelan’s taxidermy animals are. There’s a whole new bit of forensic activity at work and the viewer is drawn into an exploration of the process behind this reductio ad absurdum. First of all, cartoon characters are not real; they are two-dimensional exaggerations of human behaviour. Yet, over time, they have entered the pantheon of global popular culture and are more recognisable than the real personalities that shape our world (Just consider the multi-national empire that is Disney). Our own predisposition to anthropomorphise furry (and feathered) creatures allows us to endow them with personalities that reflect our own and to place them in situations that mirror the trials and tribulations of our daily lives. So, if these cartoon figures can represent us in a simplified, yet extreme form, it follows that this form can be deconstructed and analysed.
Lee Hyungkoo’s approach eschews the pop psychological approach to deconstruction. What he is doing is actually physical deconstruction – more pop palaeontology – and it is detailed, thorough and completely worked through.
This was Lee’s original idea for the title of the exhibition. As a play on ‘family tree,’ he was looking to describe the evolution of his creations and to evoke the empathy we all have with these animated characters. This new body of work began with Homo Animatus of 2002–2004. This was an homunculus – Latin for ‘little man’ – a cartoon exaggeration of human form (think of Elmer Fudd as a skeleton). The original homunculus was a creature with magic powers that medieval alchemists claimed to have created. Considering that Lee’s studio looks more like a laboratory than a typical artist’s atelier, the connection is even more easily drawn. Plus cartoon characters do possess incredible strength, resilience and resourcefulness: how many times has the Coyote fell off a cliff, only to rebound fully-intact in the next frame?
Homo Animatus was an extension of a series of earlier pieces where the artist physically sought to alter – to reduce to cartoon simplicity – his own anatomy. Using plastic forms, enlarging and reducing lenses, Lee created a variety of body costumes that altered both one’s appearance and one’s vision of the real world at the same time. Homo Animatus is, for Lee, the ‘Origin of the Species;’ in a peculiar and devolutionary way, of course, and in keeping with how animated creatures serve as stand-ins for their human counterparts. Canis Latrans Animatus (Wile E. Coyote) and Geococcyx Animatus (Roadrunner) followed and are now joined by Lepus Animatus (Bugs Bunny), Felis Catus Animatus (Tom), Mus Animatus (Jerry), Anas Animatus (Donald Duck) and his three nephews, Animatus H, D and L (Huey, Dewey and Louie).
‘Familiar Tree’ remains an appropriate description for this body of work. These are the ‘skeletons’ of characters/personalities that are as close to us and as instantly recognisable as our own inner frames.
Stories of any kind usually require a build-up before offering the denouement. The joke involves a narrative before providing the punch line. Lee Hyungkoo works backwards. Merely seeing the work gives no clues to the complexity of its creation. Visually, the work can strike a chord and delight, amuse or bewilder, but examining its origins and development frames it properly.
Lee’s studio is a laboratory and could not be further removed from a scruffy artist’s garret. With a white-coated, masked team of technicians working in ‘clean rooms,’ the space is unlike any other. Bones of real animals sit on shelves alongside those of the works in progress. Clay constructions of skulls of imaginary characters provide a reference to those reconstructions of our fossilised ancestors. The walls are adorned with drawings of the anatomies of both real animals and their animated renditions. The tools and working methods are more akin to the procedures seen on the Nature Channel than the usual brush and paint-pot strewn environments one usually associates with the creation of contemporary works of art.
The adoption of Latin names to describe the individual creations underscores the faux-scientific approach, utilising the classifications associated with ‘kingdom, phylum, genus, species’ that categorise every living thing on the planet. Fans of the Roadrunner cartoons will recall that schoolboy Latin was often used to describe the characters, e.g. ‘Coyotus imbicilus.’
The work itself, while sublime, delightful and amusing, requires an in-depth understanding of how all of this came to be in order to be fully appreciated. Observing the creation of this various works does provide the modus operandi behind Lee’s work, but where does the origin of the Origin of the Species lie?
Lee has cited Rodin and Giacometti as sculptural artists to whom he has responded within the development of his own work. Rodin was a breakthrough artist who sought to imbue the natural human form – warts and all – with a heroic sense of space, rejecting along the way the idealisation of the body that was previously the hallmark of Western sculpture. Rodin changed the way one could look at the human figure much in the same way that Lee’s optical helmets and body-distorting devices create alternative physical realities.
Giacometti’s own work passed through a number of critical stages – representational, cubist and surrealist – until he reached his apogee in Post-War Europe and sought to render the human form in all its existential angst. Giacometti found the inner reality of man.
Lee has spoken about the ability of these two artists to create a new sense of sculptural space. ‘Space’ is a concept that all artists working in three-dimensions must come to terms with. With this new body of work Lee has gone from the virtual space defined by his Objectuals series and has made the virtual a reality.