As science recognizes that humans have become primary agents of geological change, science-fiction films and the media weave the dystopian outcomes of that fact. In light of such growing environmental concerns, Koo Hyunmo’s solo exhibition, ‘Acquired Nature’, sheds a very different light on the contemporary landscape, in which eye-catching biomorphic sprawls and phantasmagorical crossbreeds of natural and manmade materials abound. Shown next to each other, Koo’s large installations reveal similarities in how they combine sliding variations of organic and industrial elements. Artificial Forest (2018) resembles a grove of trees, consisting of long, thin, wire poles and piano strings balanced delicately on top of 14 varieties of stone and two metal discs daubed with specks of gold paint. Positioned at the other end of the gallery, Macrantha (2018) is an abstract rendering of a bay tree that looks extremely convoluted. Just over two metres high, the sculpture mimics scaffolding built of thin brass poles, which bend and twist so that simple lines are countered by soft, curvy waves, making the structure seem slightly off-balance. It stands on a flat piece of hexagonal plywood that functions as a platform. Resting perpendicular to this base are two spindly, brass sculptures of tree branches – titled Forest (2017) and Ilex Serrata (2016) – which appear small and fragile beneath the giant, metal frame that shelters them.
In Koo’s other microcosmic sculptures, something as tiny and insignificant as an insect undergoes a unique makeover. Cicada (2018) is a small sculpture in which the actual bug has been cast in brass – with its torso caught in a web of wires, the insect achieves a spider-like hybridity. This kind of metamorphosis – no matter how sinister and eerie – shows us that such a delicate, trivial entity is also a living organism, worthy of being turned into an art object. Likewise, more than a dozen A4 sketches, pencil drawings and small acrylic paintings are shown side by side, illustrating the artist’s ruminations on nature. These render bountiful dreamscapes, uninhabited by humankind, which contain freewheeling, biomorphic forms. Untitled (2013) depicts a surreal hybrid of a tree and abstract geometric form set against the night sky in an empty desert. In this drawing, Koo’s interest in dreams and atypical entities manifests and grows into the shape of a monstrous tree.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, the imagery in Koo’s drawings has been converted into fluid structures made of inexpensive materials, such as Planet K18-2/Fixed Moon (2016–18). The sculpture comprises a small, Styrofoam globe coated with layers of chalkboard paint mixed with plaster and achieves a highly polished surface with white acrylic. A flat wash of dark, spotted patterns resembling the surface of the moon transforms this plain sphere into something otherworldly. There are other surprising details, too. Koo tells me that, if you look closer, tiny fragments of walnut and brass pierce the sculpture, evoking the craters on the moon.
The most captivating piece in ‘Acquired Nature’ is Cloud (2016–18), which was made by pumping out copious amounts of polyurethane foam sealant. The foam’s cream-like swirls mime the fluffiness and sinuous contours of a cloud. While the material is stripped of its utilitarian function in Koo’s work, it does carry sentimental value for the artist, who used to delight in staring at the foam trail along window frames as a child. The viewer, perhaps, is reminded of the ways in which ordinary, manmade materials can gesture towards the extraordinary and transmutable powers of nature.
Koo Hyunmo: Acquired Nature was on view at PKM Gallery, Seoul, from 20 June until 3 August 2018.
Main image: Koo Hyunmo, 구름 Cloud (detail), 2016-18, urethane, epoxy, acrylic, 36 × 40 × 25 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul
First published in Issue 198