Michael Joo

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Buddhism, energy, gender, identity, media, nature, racism, religion, spirituality, technology
Visual Arts (installation art, mixed media, video art)
America, North
United States of America
created on:
May 12, 2008
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Big Brother for Buddhas

Gazing down in meditation, the Buddha statue’s head is braided in a web of cameras, each a staring eye with a black pupil. Buddha has arrived in the present and is being observed by cameras, each of which is recording his meditation for world-wide distribution and replication. Big brother has his eyes on Buddha. This installation by Michael Joo ‘Bodhi Obfuscatus’ (Space Baby) won the first prize at Korea’s Gwangju biennial, which is meant to present Asian art as a whole. Like hardly any other contributor, Michael Joo stood for the whole of Asia with his references to Buddha and Buddhism, though born and living in New York. Likewise at the 52nd Biennale di Venezia 2001 he represented his parents’ homeland, Korea. Joo’s multimedia installations prompt guesswork, play with stereotypes and bring venerable tradition up against pop-art.
Often this Korean American’s work ‘Bodhi Obfuscatus (Space Baby)’ (2005) is said to be surrounded by a halo of cameras. But the web of cameras arching above Buddha’s face has little in common with the halo’s iconography. Joo himself prefers to speak of a space helmet, an isolation chamber and a camera, all at one and the same time. Indeed Buddha in meditation seems to have been tossed brutally into the present, where he is now being kept under observation.

Joo’s ‘Bodhi Obfuscatus’ also recalls works by the video artist Nam June Paik, the ‘Michelangelo of electronic art’. In New York in 1968 Paik put a Buddha statue in front of a television screen. What could be interpreted interpreted as an allegoric meeting of East and West back then, as a deeply religious Buddha gazing at his cheap pop imitation.

Paik’s ‘TV Buddha’, like Joo’s ‘Bodhi Obfuscatus’, is stylish and would look at home in any new-age living-room, but Joo is no longer interested in being serious. Rather he moves playfully on, saying that his title is just meant to be ludicrous:

‘This is a piece called “Bodhi Obfuscatus”. It is a kind of play on the Latin term and the Hindi-term “Bodhi”. “Obfuscatus” is kind of a mutation of the Latin and is meant to be scientific in a way and meant to sound a bit ridiculous, but it is also a kind of play: a ridiculous title’.

What he seems to find ridiculous is the naive contrast of East to West, suggested by the Hindi-Latin title. 40 years after Paik’s ‘TV Buddha’, East and West can no longer be thought of as antitheses and in fact never were from the start. Joo plays with stereotypes and their simple similes but not without turning to quite different questions. For instance the artist is interested in the many identities of individuals and groups and in the myriad interpretations resulting from this.

Joo’s interest is successfully expressed through the two aspects of his ‘Bodhi Obfuscatus’. This installation, shown in ‘ReAsia’, an exhibition curated by Shaheen Merali in the House of World Cultures, is the third of its kind. Once more the artist has provided an object with a hood of cameras, this time robbing a Gandhara Buddha-statue from the third century of its identity and originality. “So in a sense this (installation) has a twin in another exhibition which is the ‘original’, so to speak. But what is the original of that sculpture in the first place?” asks the somewhat shy artist. “I was quite interested and intrigued that it could have a double life in a way to link up with several different types of existence.”

By asking about the original, Joo playfully attacks conventional concepts and reveals them to be stereotypes: An original can be converted into a series and thus acquire another identity. Was the Gandhara statue itself not part of a series of mass-produced Buddhas? In that case, is the boundary between modernity and antiquity not fuzzy? Did folk in antiquity not have, as we do, multiple identities or roles? This is just what the cameras, gazing at this statue like many eyes from various angles and recording its various facets, seem to imply.

In effect Joo’s Buddha is a time-machine inviting us to travel into the past then whisking us back to the present and answering its questions: ‘And hopefully, even by spanning many hundreds or thousands of years, we can ask a similar question in a contemporary sense of ourselves, by looking in the mirrors, as well as looking very closely through new technology at something as positively sacred as the sculpture. Which possibly can bring us back to the contemporary existence at the time when the artist made this work.’

Joo creates a world which, according to the art historian Ken Johnson in ‘Art in Review’ in the New York Times (4th June 1999), is philosophically hermeneutic. His multimedia figures are philosophical riddles, playing with stereotypes. ‘The more you meditate on them the more interesting they become.’

All quotations are comments of the artist on his work in the House of World Cultures, 2008
Author: Heike Gatzmaga


Group Exhibitions (Selected)

Exhibition / Installation
2008 ReAsia, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany Red, Sotheby´s, New York/N.Y., USA 2007 New York States of Mind, Queens Museum of Art, Queens/N.Y., USA Shangri-la, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany Timer 01/Intimita/Intimacy, Triennale Bovisa, Milano, Italy Post Object, Doris McCarthy Gallery, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada 2006 In The Darkest Hour There Will Be Light, Serpentine Gallery, London, United Kingdom 6th Gwangju Biennial 2006, Gwangju, South Korea Eretica, Palazzo Sant´ Anna, Palermo, Italy RADAR: Selections From The Collection of Vicki and Kent Logan, Denver Art Museum, Denver/ Colorado, USA 2005 Artwalk NY, Sotheby´s, New York/N.Y., USA Monuments For The USA, CCA Wattis Institute For Contemporary Arts, San Francisco/California; White Columns, New York/N.Y., USA This Must Be The Place, Center For Curatorial Studies, Bard College, New York/N.Y., USA 2004 Art Basel 04 (film/video), Basel, Switzerland Field, Socrates Sculpture Park, curated by Alyson Baker, Long Island City/N.Y. Needful Things: Recent Multiples, Cleveland Museum, Cleveland/Ohio, USA Standing on a Bridge, Arario Gallery, Seoul, South Korea 2003 Black Belt, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, N.Y.; Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica/California, USA Commodification of Buddhism, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, Bronx/N.Y., USA Full Frontal, Contemporary Asian Artists from the Logan Collection, Denver Art Museum, Denver/Colorado, USA Paradise/Paradox, Castle Gallery, The College of New Rochelle/N.Y., USA Short Cuts: Video Art and Photography, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel 2002 Black Mariah Film Festival, Jersey City/New Jersey, USA It´s Unfair!, Museum de Paviljoens, Almere, The Netherlands Manifeste, oder: Ergriffenheit– was ist das?, Galerie Daniel Blau, Munich, Germany The Mind is a Horse, Bloomberg Space, London, United Kingdom 2001 A Contemporary Cabinet of Curiosities, Selections from the Vicki and Kent Logan Collection, California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland/California, USA Translated Acts, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany; Queens Museum of Art, Queens/N.Y., USA 2000 Drawings 2000, Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York/N.Y., USA Juvenilia, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco/California, USA Koreamericakorea, Artsonje Center, Seoul, South Korea; Sonje Museum, Gwangju, South Korea The Korean War and American Art: Fifty Years Later, Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton/N.Y., USA Media_City Seoul 2000, National Historical Museum, Seoul, South Korea Psycho, Art and Anatomy, Anne Faggianto Fine Art, London, United Kingdom Whitney Biennial 2000, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York/N.Y., USA 1998 Matthew McCaslin, Susan Etkin, Michael Joo, PS.1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City, New York/N.Y., USA Nine International Artists at Wanås, Wanås Foundation, Knislinge, Sweden Selections from the Permanent Collection, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA 1997 2nd Johannesburg Biennial 1997, Museum of Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa Art in the Anchorage, Creative Time, Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage, Brooklyn/N.Y., USA Techno-Seduction, Cooper Union School of Art, New York/N.Y., USA Transmission, L´Ecole des Beaux Arts Galerie, Paris, France 1996 Against, Anthony D´Offay Gallery, London, United Kingdom 1996 Joo, Sheward & White, Wigram, The Post Office, London, United Kingdom Patrick Painter Editions, Bloom Gallery, Amsterdam, The Netherlands Urban Structures, Kunsthalle, Munich, Germany 1995 La Belle et la Bête, (Beauty and the Beast), Musée d´Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, France (ARC), Paris, France Better Living Through Chemistry, Randolph Street Gallery, Chicago/Illionois, USA Configura 2: Dialog der Kulturen, Erfurt, Germany Institute of Cultural Anxiety, Institute of Contemporary Art, London, United Kingdom Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju Contemporary Museum, Gwangju, South Korea 1994 Crash, Thread Waxing Space, New York/N.Y., USA Drawing on Sculpture, Cohen Gallery, New York/N.Y., USA Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away, Serpentine Gallery, London, United Kingdom; Nordic Arts Centre, Helsinki, Finland; Kunstverein, Hannover, Germany; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Ill.; Portalen, Copenhagen, Denmark 1993 Across the Pacific, Queens Museum of Art, Queens/N.Y.; Kumho Museum, Seoul, South Korea Aperto-93, 45th Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy Changing I: Dense Cities, Shedhalle, Zurich, Switzerland The Final Frontier, New Museum for Contemporary Art, New York/ N.Y., USA

Solo Exhibitions (Selected)

Exhibition / Installation
2008 PKM GALLERY, Seoul, South Korea Circannual Rhythm, Anchorage Museum of History and Art, Anchorage, Alaska 2006 Michael Joo, Rodin Gallery, Seoul, South Korea 2005 Anton Kern Gallery, New York/N.Y., USA Bodhi Obfuscatus (Space-Baby), Asia Society, New York/N.Y., USA Still Lives, The Bohen Foundation, New York/N.Y., USA 2004 Michael Joo, Palm Beach Institute for Contemporary Art, Lake Worth/Florida, USA 2003 Michael Joo, MIT List Visual Art Center, Cambridge/Massachusetts, USA 2002 Anton Kern Gallery, New York/N.Y., USA Curti/Gambuzzi & Co., Milan, Italy PKM GALLERY, Seoul, South Korea 2001 49th Venice Biennial, South Korean Pavilion, Venice, Italy 1999 Anton Kern Gallery, New York/N.Y., USA 1998 White Cube, London, United Kingdom 1997 Anton Kern Gallery, New York/N.Y., USA 1996 Thomas Nordanstad Gallery, New York/N.Y., USA 1995 Crash, Anthony D´Offay Gallery, London, United Kingdom Galerie Anne de Villepoix, Paris, France Nature vs. Nature at the Glass Ceiling, Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands (with Christiaan Bastiaans) Thomas Nordanstad Gallery, New York/N.Y., USA 1994 Salt Transfer Cycle, Thomas Nordanstad Gallery, in collaboration with Petzel/Borgmann Gallery, New York/N.Y., USA 1992 The Artifice of Expenditure, Nordanstad-Skarstedt Gallery, New York/N.Y., USA


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.


Exhibition, Films, Literature, Dance, Conference

(13 March 08 - 18 May 08)
Bodhi Obfuscatus (Space-Baby)