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Issue 239

‘Eros’ Raises the Stakes of Love

At P21, Seoul, a group show of intimate mixed media works draws on Byung-Chul Han’s revolutionary The Agony of Eros (2017)

BY Wong Binghao in Exhibition Reviews | 14 SEP 23

In The Agony of Eros (2017), philosopher Byung-Chul Han avers that ‘Eros manifests itself as the revolutionary yearning for an entirely different way of loving and another kind of society.’ For Han, Eros – in its embrace of unknown and elusive Others – is transformative: a necessary antidote to society’s prevailing narcissism and consumerism. ‘EROS’ – a group exhibition at Seoul’s P21 gallery that presents paintings, works on paper and installations by seven artists – revisits the gravitas and ideals of Han’s non-materialistic theory.

Installation view of what looks to be slabs of rock, parts of bodies, abstract shapes, mostly in grey, white, and black tones
Haneyl Choi, Physically: Slender, not husky, 2023, expanded polystyrene, urethan resin, urea resin, epoxy resin, acrylic board, bronze pipe, stainless steel pipe, 3D printed pl, silicon, Korean traditional folding screen (Byeong-poong), 2.2 × 3.2 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and P21, Seoul

The exhibited artworks all obscure unfurling scenes of intimacy, spoiling what Han calls the ‘display value’ of amorous bodies, which he likens to purchasable commodities. Works such as Eunsil Lee’s Midnight (2017) thwart prying, voracious gazes to prompt a more intent spectatorship of intimacy, sexuality and corporeality. Thin, angular lines of light-blue ink on Korean paper barely adumbrate the architecture and furnishings of an otherwise-dusky room in which equally nebulous and bristly figures appear to be entangled in a sexual pose. Displayed in a corner of one of P21’s two gallery spaces as a circumspect companion to Haneyl Choi’s sprawling, three-metre-long, biomorphic installation – ironically titled Physically: Slender, not husky (2023) – Lee’s poetically gloomy palette and subtle touch nonetheless enchants.

A canvas: a suggestion of a couple fornicating (via shadows); a block of light; a drawing of a hand clasping another superimposed atop
Suyeon Kim, SP45(TOU), 2023, acrylic on canvas, 117 × 91 cm. Courtesy: the artist and P21, Seoul

Presented in a similarly de-spectacularized manner is Suyeon Kim’s painting SP45 (TOU) (2023), which underscores her abstraction of sexual narratives and representations. The title is an acronym for her series of ‘Spring Paintings’ (2018–23) – an English translation of the traditional Korean erotic art of chunhwa. Her black and grey rectangular composition is interrupted by two irregularly shaped blocks of luminance, presumably from a nearby window. A foot, ostensibly jutting out from the gentle undulations of a body, is silhouetted in the light: this is a coital act that viewers can decipher through Kim’s canvas-as-aperture. Just above the carnal scene are the outlines of two clasped hands – but whether one is gently caressing or forcefully holding down the other remains unclear.

A wood carving of two figures with interlocked tongues
Birke Gorm, IOU, 2021, wood, 33 × 11 × 8 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Croy Nielsen, Vienna.

The stakes of love are further raised in Birke Gorm’s trio of wood sculptures, one of which is displayed next to Kim’s painting. Sharing the title IOU (2021), each sculpture consists of a pair of vertically positioned wooden sticks onto which small morose faces are carved, their stiff tongues locked in kisses that are agonizingly conditional: only one stick is mounted on the wall, while the other hangs on precariously by its paramour’s lips and tongue.

Love, returning to Han, should be necessarily destabilized by risk and contingency, not indulged solely in tepid and ‘pleasant feelings’. This is a sentiment that might resonate with Xiyadie, an artist whose Chinese pseudonym translates to ‘Siberian butterfly’ – an apt metaphor for his dyed papercut works that convey both delicacy and fortitude. Gate (Tiananmen) (2016), for instance, sees two male-bodied nude figures embracing in front of Tiananmen’s open gates. Ornate flora in bright fuchsia and green hues invigorate the lovers’ bodies and encircle the historical site, transforming it into a phantasmagoria. Meticulously cut from a single piece of paper with scissors and folding techniques – a more sophisticated method than using a knife – Xiyadie’s whimsical works are modelled after papercuts that typically decorate thresholds, such as the windows and doorways of houses, to usher in good fortune. Just like the open gates depicted in his work, Xiyadie projects political and historical possibilities through love’s allegories.

Installation view: canvases on the left and back, a large woodcut on the right
‘Agony of Eros’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artists and P21, Seoul

Han predicts that, without the fantasy and mystery of such liminal spaces and transitions, we will experience the ‘agony of eros’ – the domestication of love into a generic ‘object of consumption’. On the contrary, the artworks in P21’s exhibition are intentionally ambiguous and non-formulaic in their portrayals of closeness and eroticism. Arrogating nothing to themselves, they exemplify the gambit that is love.

Eros’ is on view at P21, Seoul, until 7 October. 

Main image: Eunsil Lee, Midnight, 2017, colours and ink on Korean paper, 58 × 120 cm. Courtesy: the artist and P21, Seoul

Wong Binghao (Bing) is a writer, editor and curator.