Ryu Sungsil’s expansive and satirical universe is captivating the Internet and the art world | Artistic


Hayoung Chung

Again from Ryu Sungsil, BJ Cherry Jang 2018.4, 2018, single-channel video, 6 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.

This article was produced in collaboration with the Korea Arts Management Service (KAMS).

In 2018, a six-minute video titled BJ Cherry Jang 2018.04 (2018) was uploaded to a YouTube account. In the beginning, the words Emergency Broadcasting System flicker in banal font on a flashing yellow and blue screen. Over the sound of a time bomb, a young Asian woman calling herself BJ Cherry Jang appears and speaks rapidly, announcing that North Korea has launched a missile towards Seoul and that the apocalypse will occur at the end of the broadcast. Viewers can only survive by depositing money into his sponsorship account.

As with the broadcast jockeys (BJ) on AfreecaTV, a popular peer-to-peer streaming service, his performance is set in someone’s personal home space. The props, including colorful artificial flowers in soju bottles and a calendar commonly found in Seoul restaurants, simply indicate her nationality. Despite the absurd storytelling, its persuasive dialogue makes the pseudo-apocalyptic announcement intriguing. Before you can determine whether the mentioned account actually exists, however, the video ends.

This was the famous first work of Korean multimedia artist Ryu Sungsil, who herself appears in thick makeup like Cherry Jang. This work debuted around the time of her graduation from the sculpture department of Seoul National University, where she explored traditional media, yet deviates from the conventions of art.

Through the multimedia series Cherry Jang (201821), Ryu borrows exaggeratedly from the grammar of commercial online content, especially social media. The next video, BJ Cherry Jang 2018.09 (2018), promotes dubious first-class citizenship that promises a better life, including a life of first-class travel. Cherry Jang later becomes an environmental activist who uploads a pretentious vlog and eventually succumbs to overwork. She even monetizes her death by presenting her funeral as a performance and sending a sing-along video titled Christmas carol singing first class (2020) who sells tickets to heaven, where he supposedly rests.

In Ryus’ expanding universe, each character constructs satirical narratives that poke fun at Korean capitalism. As Cherry Jang explores one-person media that caters to an audience with low digital literacy, another character, Lee Daewang (Big King in Korean), takes the spotlight as Cherry’s protégé, who becomes the president of BigKing Travel , a specialized agency for the elderly which embodies a distorted manifestation of filial piety.

The BigKing Travel-Ching Chen Tour (201920) series includes poorly edited video footage of unidentifiable vacation destinations, as well as installations that loosely borrow from those images. The story is simple: an old man takes an all-inclusive trip to the imaginary Ching Chen and returns home lifeless. The absurdity reflects the unique format of package tours in Korea, where groups quickly visit affiliated tourist spots and is accentuated by mobile, interactive, single-channel video, Big King Travel 2020 (2020). In this work, Ryus’ other persona, Natasha, a local tour guide, willfully sexually objectifies herself, using exaggerated gestures and excessive kindness to greet the elderly, revealing the impure purpose of the journey.

Again from Ryu Sungsil, Bigking Travel Ching Chen Tour – Mr.Kims Revival 20192019, single-channel video, 25 minutes.

Value for money is why Ryu has chosen online exhibition and dissemination spaces as the main channel for his narrative, instead of traditional galleries. Cherry Jang’s first video inspired an explosive response, garnering nearly 323,000 views and 442 comments. By comparison, Ryus’ solo show in an alternative gallery space attracted just 300 visitors. These might be mere statistics to some, but Ryu saw the potential to reach an unconventional mass audience with equal effort.

Its bold choice of distribution channel has had a greater impact than expected, recalling predecessors such as the online response to Amalia Ulmans Excellences & Perfections on Instagram or Jayson Mussons THOUGHT OF ART on Youtube. YouTubers who encountered Ryus’ work with no background on the artist reacted raw and unfiltered, appreciating the absurdly crafted and impeccably crafted video not as fine art but as the work of a typical content creator. A viewer who claims to be a true fan of Cherry Jang even produced a spin-off video commemorating her death, reminiscent of viral memes spread online.

Ryus’ 2022 solo exhibition at Herms Atelier in Seoul, titled The Burning Love Song, reaffirmed his visual language, which is reminiscent of Hito Steyerl’s notion of shoddy image. Through the exhibition, Ryus’ intentional lo-fi online images took physical form.

Under the premise of What if Daewang promotes his achievements?, the exhibit showcased the aforementioned character Lee Daewang’s successful transition from the travel business to pet memorial service during the pandemic. Visitors to the gallery were invited to participate in a meticulously staged ceremony to mourn a beloved pet dog, which incorporated elements of a regular funeral.

The Burning Love Song, 2022, mixed media with video, variable installation, 10 minutes. Courtesy

Ryus’ previous sculptural works, such as BigKing Travel-Go straight (2021) a dog-shaped object suspended from the ceiling of the SongEun Art Space with a QR code for a video served as a gateway to its virtual world. This project, however, within an institution located in an upscale commercial district, allowed it to make full use of the physical space. Taking center stage was a room-filling installation reminiscent of Richard Serras Inclined arc (1981). However, Ryus’ focus wasn’t on sculptural form or materials. Instead, printed digital images resembling images from his earlier works covered the surface, presenting a repetitive and mundane aesthetic similar to a monumental or propaganda-themed park.

Ryus’s images draw elements from the internet, which she (apparently) collages using an editing tool that only allows you to copy and paste, an approach that transcends simple kitsch. She attributes this method to her own personal experience: My father had me create promotional materials for her bar, she recalled. Though he carefully arranged them according to the traditional aesthetic I learned in school, my version generated significantly lower sales than my father’s flashy version with primary colors and bold type. It was an amazing experience. The harsh reality that the aesthetics of capitalist society is determined by monetary value inspired Ryu to reproduce this aesthetic through stark images of her.

The artist explores a new dimension in his upcoming exhibition at Cylinder gallery in Seoul in September, titled The Fundraising for BigKing Air Engine Restoration (TBD). In this show, Lee Daewang’s new airline BigKing Air seeks funding for its relaunch after a temporary suspension following an accident involving a mechanic getting sucked into an engine. The shattered engine parts will be turned into recycled artwork to display and sell at the gallery, but Ryus’ goal is to investigate the life cycle of memes.

The exhibit’s structure strategically places clickbait in obscure online communities, such as Telegram, by linking community users to a shopping website where Cylinder’s physical artworks can be purchased. Ryu aims to appeal to a non-traditional audience beyond the conventional art crowd, possibly by creating a social experiment that leads them into the offline realm of art sales, distribution and appreciation.

Ryu’s next challenge is to approach a non-Korean audience without explanation that lacks an understanding of Korean society. For example, what is the missing word in the term citizenship, used in BJ Cherry Jang 2018.09? For the Korean viewer, the phrase American citizenship naturally comes to mind, ironically exhibiting the subconscious toady prevalent in Korean society.

Ryus’ work is deeply rooted in a meticulous analysis of his sociopolitical context, so his upcoming projects during residencies at the Singapore Art Museum and the ISCP in New York, where he will engage with different environments, will mark another significant step in his voyage.

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