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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Gu Yeun Kwon: Heavy Industries, Web art, and Culture

Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries does not build ships nor buildings. Instead, they produce web art or internet art. It posts its works on their webpage for open access for everyone. Using the “core” of the internet, which is text, it presents the audiences the flood of provocative and sometimes absurd stories with very casual tone. The texts that synchronized with the music and the bits are flooded and poured onto the screen without giving the audiences time to even understand what they are seeing. Through the stories, it criticizes the relationship of the power, capital, and an individual; most of the time the power and capital is a Korean company. Even though its works are translated into many other languages very nicely, they do not allow the audiences from other cultural background feel the same as Korean audiences because Young-Hae, who is Korean, uses a lot of cultural references in her works. However, despite the fact that the Korean-ness of its works is a big obstacle for people in other cultures, it firstly made a success outside of Korea and is globally famous.

Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries series is a strange name for an art group, especially when the artist produces the arts online. With humor and satire, the works are very provocative and enjoyable as the flowing texts tell you stories to the bits of the music in them. The raw humors and the intriguing stories are very enjoyable but within then there lies, most of the time, a deeper theme. However, the background culture or knowledge about a certain culture of every audience creates difference in understanding its works thoroughly because the subject matter and nation-specific words keep foreigners away from fully familiarizing to every scene. It is always best to be a part of the culture of the artwork. However, its works are widely enjoyed by people from many other cultures because of its simplicity and clarity as text form and raw and strong unexpected words used.

Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries series is a seoul based web/net art group founded in 1999 in South Korea by Mark Voge, C.I.O. and Young-Hae Chang, C.E.O. Again, it is not a heavy industries company that constructs gigantic buildings, bridges, or rode. Instead, it provides its online website where it presents its web art.
Web art is also called net art or internet art. It is art or cultural production which uses internet as the primary source of medium or inspiration. Many of them are to have interactivity but not all of them do. One of the most obvious characteristic that differs from other forms of art is that the expression is rather uninterrupted. Since most web artists present their works online through their website and do not need a physical place like a museum or a gallery, they do not need the least bit of caution not to get rejected by the theme, expression of their works, or the subject matter of their works. For these reasons, many times, web arts tend to be very raw and provocative, many times, consisting of slang.

Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries can be referred as minimalism in the web art field. There is only text and some brilliant primary colors to see in its works. It also lacks the interactivity which most of the web arts has. “I hate interactivity. It’s just a joke. My works are the fundamental of internet. Get rid of graphics, design, banners, colorfulness, and the remaining stuff. What remains? It’s text.”1) Their texts are highly synchronized to the musical cords during the playtime of each work. The audiences are to passively accept what they see like movies that the audiences are to sit and see what is already destined. With very cynical attitude, they pour out the bold and raw messages about capital, power, and desire of this century. The way the texts appears and disappears very fast on the screen means “death of an individual by a larger society or an absolute power.”2)

The name, “Heavy Industries”, is is very ironic name for this web art group. Web art is mostly very anti-material because it needs minimal material to create something but the name, “Heavy Industries,” creates a completely different aura. It gives it the feeling of importance that makes people to want to care about it just like Samsung Heavy Industries does. In an interview Young-Hae says how they chose their name. “It’s pretty evident. YHC for Young-Hae and HI for Marc. We changed Marc into “Heavy Industries,” because Koreans love big companies and Marc doesn’t mind being objectified and capitalized on.”3)

According to the background of the audiences the understanding and interpretation can differ. Like most of web arts, their works are also very cultural. Sometimes they are very western, especially American; many of web arts tend to be this way, and sometimes they are very Korean. When they are rather American, the audiences, no matter where they are from, would find it pretty easy to understand and draw the scenes in their heads and enjoy them. However, in the latter case, the audiences from cultures other than from where the culture the artists and the works come they would find it rather difficult and somewhat vague about the story and imagining the scenes.

Dakota is one of the most American works of all. Even though there is some reference to Korean culture in the back, most of the words like Elvis Presely, Marilyn Monroe, ham and cheese sandwich, Cindy, Ed, bourbon, and the title itself are not even close to the pure Korean culture. Certainly, most of Koreans find the scenes in the story, with foreign names and foods, as those scenes in one of the Hollywood movies and not their part of lives. However, as the western culture flooded into Eastern culture in early 20th century, especially in the age of Elvis Presely and Marilyn Monroe, these cultural codes are not the total strangers to Korean society. The word “globalization,” brought the whole world together and made these regional cultures not regional. People living in the other side of the globe can be familiarized to foreign cultural products such as movies, music, television series, video games and books. As a result of the globalization, when Koreans face with this kind of foreign culture (especially American Hollywood), they are certainly aware of that they are not the part of their lives in Korea but they are pretty familiarized with them and do not find it uncomfortable and difficult to understand what the work is talking about. There is no clue that the cultural aspects in this and some other works are due to the nationality of Mark, who is from U.S.A. or due to the convergence of the two cultures of Mark and Young-Hae can be in this form only.

However, most of their works like “Jongno” and “Samsung Means to Come” tell totally different. The subject matters, the use of Korean word without translation, Korean names of city, building, road, or people, and the presentation of Korean culture without explanation make them very cultural to Korean. Despite there are captions explaining the meanings are also included in the scenes but still it is not something that foreigners would understand. Moreover, these captions disrupt the whole flow and make the foreign audiences have different experience from the Korean audiences get from the Korean versions of the works. The reason why there are some words without proper translation is that they cannot be translated into English; there could be in other languages but it is clear that not all of them can be translated into any other language since some have very cultural meaning. The nationality of the audiences becomes the most important ever for better understanding of the pieces. Unlike the worldwide culture of the U.S. Korean culture is very domestic and limited to some people who either experienced or learned about it.

Examples of cultural and linguistic references. First three deal with Korean culture and the black ones deal with language. The last one is both cultural and linguistic because the old Japanese house means something more to Koreans.
There is an interesting exhibition that contradicts one of the characteristics of web art to the reality. Samsung is notorious for buying and secretly keeping expensive art works in their private storage they built. In a gallery, which is built specially for permanent installation of “The Gate of Hell” by Rodin that they purchased, that is on the first floor of one of its office buildings there is an exhibition by YHCHI. Commonly, the works exhibited in the gallery needed to be related to The Gate of Hell but now unrelated pieces are exhibited. Ironically, in this gallery, the title of the exhibition is “Bust Down the Doors,” which is pretty clear that the Door means the Gate. The pieces of the exhibition are even bolder. They mocked Gate of Hell by stacking nine white Zipel refrigerators (each in same size with the Gate) next to Rodin’s Gate of Hell; the contrast in color is more obvious because the Gate is made of black marble. This piece is called “Gate of Hell composed of 9 Zipel ‘Internet’ Refrigerators (2004)’

Left is Rodin’s Gate of Hell and right is the 9 refrigerators.
This piece not only mocks the Action of Samsung buying Rodin but also it criticizes women’s social position. This Zipel internet refrigerator is mean to allow women who spend most of their time in the kitchen to use internet. However, they criticize that it instead isolates and buries women socially. Another interesting aspect of this piece is that Samsung not only produces this blameful refrigerator and sponsors the exhibition.

For better understanding of the works specifically regarding to Samsung and the general theme of capital, power, and desire in Korean culture, understanding what Samsung is, is essential. The Samsung Group is one of their most versatile subject matter that they criticize, mock, and satire in most of their works. Samsung is a great importance to Korean society and culture as being the biggest company in Korea that leads several industries and affecting greatly to its economy. It also brings foreign currency, mostly U.S. dollars into Korea through their international businesses and services all around the world and supports its economic structure; the businesses around the world include Samsung Electronics, Samsung Heavy Industries, on of the world’s largest ship builders, and Samsung Engineering and Construction. Also in domestic level, it is a leader in financial, chemical, retail, and entertainment industries. The Samsung Group and is known as “Chaebol”. Chaebol is a Korean word that has dual meaning. According to wikipedia, it means, “a South Korean form of business conglomerate… each is almost always owned, controlled, and/or managed by the same family group.”4) However, as the role of big business extends to political arena, the word Chaebol became inseparable to its notorious way of keeping its wealth and privileges through tax evasion, handing bribes, lobbying, making false representation of themselves, misinforming people and etc. For most Koreans Chaebol like Samsung is both a patriotic company that supports the economic structure internationally but at the same time a social evil that selfishly seeking its own benefit.

The language it is in also affects the impression because for web artist “language is the essence of the Internet, the real gateway to using the Web.”5) Since Young-Hae’s first language is Korean and the grammar and structure are different from language to language, most of the works are primarily written and synchronized to the music in Korean version and then translated and then readjusted again for better result. When Korean is translated into English, the length of a word and the structure of alphabets become totally restructured; one Korean character is composed of one syllable in English and it makes the flow and length of the same word different. When synchronizing each word it becomes very important; you cannot write down just one syllable in English language because it is incomplete but you can in Korean language. As a result in Korean version you cannot expect what word would come up on the screen until you see all the syllables of the word. Again, Korean audiences are more to sit and watch what they give them without knowing what is coming up like many advertises on TV that show only what the company want to show.

Korean-English translation of a same word. On one screen English language can contain a full word that has a meaning but Korean language contains only one syllable. Sometimes it contains a meaning like ‘a’ in English but mostly does not.

Moreover, as I already stated above, the additional statements explaining the Korean words that cannot be translated distracts the flow of the whole piece. Even though it does not, just reading the explanation does not give the audiences the ability to feel, understand, know, and experience the word as same as the people who have been living in Korea most of their lives and using Korean fluently. Being exposed in Korean culture and using Korean language as the first language bring a great deal of advantage in experiencing the works since you can fully catches what the artist wants to say.
Ironically, in spite of all these advantages for Korean audiences, Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries and its works got more attention in western culture when it started producing art. Why, in spite of all the disadvantages, they find its works important and interesting? One reason can be that the attention to this fairly new type of art greater in Western culture. The golden age of media art started since 1950s with the invention of ENIAC; however, historically, Korean people were not able to enjoy and study the flood of new technology in those times. Even the most famous Korean media artist, NamJun Paik, started his career in the 60s in the U.S., not in Korea. Another reason can be the casual style of the speeches and the simplicity and clarity of the works. The casual voice telling the story makes the whole piece easier to approach. The simplicity of the works excluding everything except the texts makes the works easier to approach and through the clarity getting rid of the chances that the audiences need to figure out where to look and what to think. Moreover, the raw and absurd humors and slang do attract people’s attention especially in Western culture where many people, who have had the freedom of expression for longer than the people in Korea, find some of the descriptions hilarious instead embarrassing or disgusting.

Examples of humor and absurdity in the works.

If you type in Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industry into internet sites, you would find the analysis and criticisms mostly about the general theme, its aesthetics, its sound, and the texts in Western internet search engines. On the contrary, you would find some of the deep analysis about its relationship with Samsung and how Samsung is symbolized in Korean web sites. There are many differences between Korean and Foreign audiences when they face their works. Sometimes they can be just language differences or sometimes cultural differences. However, whether or not you are Korean or not you can enjoy watching the texts tell you a story for the casual style, provocative words, and interesting storylines.

1),2) Shopaholic, “Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries presents Bust Down the Doors 2004,’ Shopaholic134340,

3) Hyun-Joo Yoo, “Intercultural Medium Literature Digital,”
Brown University engl.htm

4) Wikipedia, “Chaebol,” Wikipedia,

AND INSIGNIFICANCE,” The University of Iowa,

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