Over the rainbow

by Sunghui Lee

June 2019

『Brave New World』(1) a novel by Aldous Huxley published in 1932, contrary to its title, depicts a pessimistic future to be faced by mankind absorbed in the materialistic society and scientific and technological progress. This so-called sci-fi or futuristic novel looks ahead into a moment in the future that is, 2019, the year we are living in, and Huxley’s anti-utopian view of the world - ultimate progress achieved by human civilization ultimately instrumentalizing humans and turning them into slaves - has indeed prevailed the world we live in, just like the air we take for granted. So many media filling up our lives, even more than the air we need, is the reason and proof of a dystopian future of human civilization. Chaeeun Rhee has tried to ‘pack and fill’ her paintings with such situations through montages of different icons inspired by diverse media and art historic references. In other words, Rhee fills up the canvass based on the "reflections on the current social conditions with inspirations from many things happening around us, on the news or social media.”(2)

Rhee compares her way of constituting a canvass image to a cinematographic technique of an intellectual montage. Rhee attempts to “create a three-dimensional intellectual montage aided by non-visual elements such as mise-en-scene created by the story’s characters, objects, backgrounds, and space and arrangement, the relationships among these elements, but also the added texts.”(3) Characters or situations from classical or popular films are referenced in combination with today’s dystopian situation by using media. For example, Spiegel Im Spiegel(2019), a 259 cm-wide huge painting is divided up into the main characters from Caravaggio’s <Doubting Thomas>(1601-1602) and Hitchcock’s film <Bird>(1963), taking up important positions within the canvas composition. Surrounding them are collages of images of Seoul’s urban landscapes, police, the public sphere, or daily events: figures that have become familiar to us through media. On a folded banner in the middle of the painting reads ‘It is (the past and) the future’ and nothing more. The word ‘future’ contrasts with the word ‘demolition’, coarsely written in black and red letters on the left shutter as well as all the other images on the canvas, contradicting a hopeful narrative. In particular, an anxious face of a woman (attacked by a flock of birds) without knowing why, or a fingertip of Jesus’s disciple casting a doubt on Jesus’ rebirth’...suggest the uncertainties and anxieties geared towards our contemporary society that the artist continues to project onto the painting canvas.

Rhee’s paintings are filled with references and nuances. The artist repeatedly quotes not only the greatest painters who left indelible legacy in art history like Hieronymus Bosch, Caravaggio, Caspar David Friedrich, but also includes the diverse artistic references like novels of Borges, <The Wizard of Oz> starring Judy Garland, Hitchcock’s <Bird>, etc. Moreover, Rhee brings onto the canvass, intrigued by the new challenges that could be regarded in human civilizational history like filming the shadows of a black hole by scientists or events taking place in all corners of the world seen through media. The references the artist uses involve numerous allegorical elements as well. For example, one of the Twister series (2017), Twister I(2017), makes a reference to the film <The Wizard of Oz> and Bosch’s <The Conjurer>(1502). We often know <The Wizard of OZ> as the adventure of Dorothy who goes on a fantasy journey, but 60 years after publishing the original novel by L.Frank Baum (1900), one researcher actually found that this novel is not purely a fairy tale but is simultaneously about the political history surrounding a monetary policy at the end of the 19th century.(4) That is, the people Dorothy meets or places she visits are in fact allegories of the powerful figures and regions that controlled the U.S. economic policies at the time, and unlike the capitalists who adhered to the gold standard back then, the original author was more convinced of the silver standard, which led him to adroitly hide his political statements and satiric elements in the novel. Rhee, rather than integrating the original novel, brought onto the canvas, the image of Judy Garland in her red shoes given from the witch.(5) Judy Garland, once a little star beloved by so many American children, was now playing a naive village girl, Dorothy, and was indeed played a charming lead role as a typical American girl of her age. Rhee places ‘Dorothy’ at the background rather than the foreground (Twister I) or repeatedly shows a part of her body with red shoes (Twister III), or conceals the face (with birds attacking)(A Garden with Endless Crossroads). This implies an underlying doubt cast on the story’s character, which explains why the artist enjoys using Bosch’s <Conjurer> together with Dorothy. In this painting, one may think that that main character is the high official engrossed in the pearl beads held by the conjurer, but the fact is that the character is so captivated by the Conjurer’s techniques that he is not even aware of being pickpocketed. This high official takes up a small and big portion in many of Rhee’s paintings and refers to the things that can happen when we naively view the world or are carelessly blinded by it.

Rhee’s paintings also feature a series of crowds. That is the case with her new works A Song for the Disappeared (2019) or girls singing in Chorus(2019), athletes in April102019(2019) and Twister II(2017), and soldiers in At Boundaries(2018) and Twister III. In My Land(2018), there are girls who are engaged in group choreography. They show a collective gesture in one part of the canvas space and do not create a very serious ambience, but remind us of the mannequins or robots in the surrealism works of the first half of the 20th century. Hal Foster believed that the mannequins and robots belonging to the surrealism era showed the uncanny about machines and products that were triggered by then capitalism and the industrial revolution. Therefore, it reflects the fact that war in the first half of the 20th century, socio-economic crisis, mechanization of labor and standardization of manufactured goods have all managed to infiltrate the human psychology.(6) Rhee once said that a series of crowds in her works suggest collectivism or totalitarianism of some sort. Figures are lined up with expressionless faces, and their movements are as if engrossed in something, seemingly more mechanical and insensitive and less humanlike. In particular in My Land the dance movements of girls lined up at the bottom of the picture (as if doing a mass game) and the diagonal composition, and the direction of their eyes gazing from bottom up, arouse a sense of psychological anxiety. How could this be inMy Land, a theme park in Wolmido known for its romance and memories!

When filming <The Wizard of Oz>, Judy Garland, who was although at the time a minor, is known to have suffered through great mistreatment, such as sexual harassment by her production crew, as well as drug abuse. A Hollywood's promising actress who achieved stardom with her sweet voice in <Over the Rainbow> in fact had an unhappy life in which her personal life was sacrificed by a large collective group, that is, Hollywood. However, the song she sang was passed on to the next generations for decades and is now one of the most remade old pop songs, because there as so many in this world who long for that beautiful place somewhere over the rainbow that would bring us happiness. In any case, Rhee’s Dorothy does not sing over the rainbow. In fact, Dorothy in Rhee’s paintings has yet to return home and is still standing in A Garden with Endless Crossroads, not knowing who is going to guide her safe back home.

  • 1 Aldous Huxley, Translated by Dukhyeong Lee, 『Brave New World』(Seoul: MOONYE PUBLISHING), 1998.

  • 2 Quoted from Chaeeun Rhee’s portfolio(2019)’s my work note

  • 3 Quoted from the aforementioned portfolio.

  • 4 https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/populism-oz.

  • 5 In the film, Judy Garland wears red ruby shoes, but in the original novel Dorothy wears silver shoes, and she knocks her heels together three times to come back to the Kansas home in the end, which suggests the original author’s conviction in the silver standard.

  • 6 Hal Foster, Translated by Juyeon Cho,『CompulsiveBeauty』 (Paju:ArtBooks),2018.Pg185-221.