Gu Bon-ju was once described as the "rising star of the 21st-century sculpture field" Photo courtesy Jia Min Tan
Gu Bon-ju is a highly talented artist in figurative sculpture who was described as the ‘rising star of the 21st-century sculpture field’.
He passed away in an unfortunate accident fifteen years ago at the age of 37. The Arario Museum Dongmun Motel II is currently holding a special solo exhibition in his memory from Sept. 1, 2017 to Sept. 30, 2018. It features around 30 of his sculptures.
When I first saw the promotional poster for the exhibition, I was very excited to see Gu Bon-ju’s work. The wooden artwork featured on the poster, “The Springtime of Dad I”, shows the surprising skill of the artist through the vividness of the figure’s expression - weary and drunk while peeing on an electric pole on the way home after drinking with colleagues.
On the right side of the man’s face, the wood looks as if it had crinkled up because of the man leaning against the wall instead of having been cut and carved by the artist.
'I'm home' tells the story of a man called Mr. Lee Photo courtesy Jia Min Tan
The overall exhibition is designed in a way that tells the story of an anonymous man called Mr. Lee, following his life at work, at home, and in society. The title of the exhibition is “I’m Home”, which are the words that fathers usually say the moment they return home from work. The exhibits start on the second floor with the sub-theme of “What is Life”.
Continuing the exploration of “What is Life”, “To Eat a Person’s Salt for 30 Years” (“눈칫밥 삼십년”) demonstrates the difficulties that our fathers face at work, and reflects the reality that we also have to go through today.
Imagine having to constantly read the countenance of others and having to carefully guard your own actions for thirty years. Gu Bon-ju cleverly shows this through a bronze casting of a man’s head peeking up through the floor, showing just the top half of his face atop a round bronze plate.
The third floor continues with a second sub-theme, “What Protects the Flags of Labourers” (“노동자의 깃발은 무엇으로 지켜지는가”). Here you will find three sets of figurines titled “Strike”, in different sizes.
The center of the hall is the stage for “Strike 2”. Foot-tall figurines of different individuals in a strike either sit in anguish, stand in indifference, or squat in oppression.
The anonymous Mr. Lee is seen as a laborer “shouting out bitterly his rights to protect his loving family.” No matter if it’s life-sized sculptures in “Strike 3”, or tiny bronze figures in “Strike 1”, many different kinds of human facial expressions and feelings are captured in Gu Bon-ju’s human figurines.
Different kinds of human facial expressions and feelings are captured in Gu Bon-ju’s human figurines. Photo courtesy Jia Min Tan
I was so captivated observing all the faces of these little people, that it was almost like watching a period drama unfold before my eyes in the form of Gu’s sculptures.
Proceeding to the fourth floor, the visitor is whizzed into a magical cosmic world. A thousand pieces of little sculptures hung on the ceiling make up a luminous Milky Way spanning the whole exhibition space.
"On the fourth floor the visitor is whizzed into a magical cosmic world. " Photo courtesy Jia Min Tan
These little sculptures of salary men made out of polycoat mixed with luminous paint were mostly completed through the combined efforts of Gu Bon-ju’s loving family, students, and colleagues.
He only managed to create three pieces before he passed away, making “Stars, Beyond ‘I’” his posthumous work.
The last floor returns to the theme of family, with sculptures of married couples, of a man watching TV on a Sunday in Seoul, and even a steel sculpture of a pair of adult shoes and a pair of kid’s shoes that signifies the happy homecoming of the father.
In the last room at the end of the hall, two super-enlarged versions of the salarymen from the cosmos downstairs are found hanging one behind the other. One of them is “Mr. Lee” and the other is “The Story Manager Lee Wants to Tell His Son on His 40th Birthday”.
Both of them are desperately running after and reaching out for something, what do you think is the story that Mr. Lee is trying to tell?
Gu Bon-ju’s sculptures are amazing, whether they are made from wood, bronze, or clay. He molds them according to his will to portray all the different curves and nuances of the human expression, which is always the most difficult to express in art.
His humorous style of showing the joys and sorrows of life is like painting a picture of life itself, celebrating life while acknowledging the hardships and struggles it brings. “I’m Home” thus aims to “sympathize” with the youth of our fathers that has gone by, and to deliver “comfort” to the youths who are facing hard times today.
Arario Museum Dongmun Motel II is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., from Tuesdays to Sundays. Tickets are 10,000 won each, and half-priced for Jeju residents.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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