Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sun Dried Boys (Red Pepper Found Installation), Paul Clay, 2009

Presented in conjunction with (but not associated with), the 2009 Incheon Women Artists Biennale, Incheon Korea.

Multimedia work. Text description, digital photos of storefront installation with red paper-covered windows, television set, red plastic wash basin, flattened cardboard box, two black nets, drying red peppers. Dimensions variable.

Project Description:

There has been a tradition in the arts of holding associated contrapuntal events all the way back from the Salon des Refus├ęs in 1863, to Jeff Koons's huge flowering Puppy listed as the best thing at the 1992 Documenta even though it was not even in the show. At the 2009 Incheon Women Artists Biennale this idea was explored in an official capacity by the Tuning Exhibit, which was an augmentation of the main exhibit, and by the work of artists such as Jason Eisner and Jason Balicki, who added ephemeral works beyond the site designated for them by the Biennale.

Curator Hengil-Han introduced the idea of male artists in a women's biennial into the Tuning Exhibit, and artists such as Jose Ruiz and Chad Stayrook also extended this notion through the creation of a series of additional "boy" style artworks. These rapid one-offs held a magnifying glass to the social networks of the contemporary art scene of the biennial, yet were not part of the sanctioned works by the event creators. Still other artists such as Xaviera Simmons brought references to earlier art events and scenes though presentation of performances such as Yoko Ono's Cut Piece. In addition, due to the geographically dispersed nature of the artworks, and the fact that there were multiple curators and exhibits, it was sometimes hard to identify what was art, who the actual creators were, and where exhibits were located.

All of these elements fed into the making of Sun Dried Boys, text and photos of a little noticed installation just down the block from the Incheon Art Platform, the main biennial site.

Chili peppers have been a part of the human diet in the Americas since at least 7500 BC, and were domesticated more than 6000 years ago. Christopher Columbus was one of the first Europeans to encounter them.

Red Chili Peppers have been used in Korea for hundreds of years. While references to the making of kimchi can be found as early as 3000 years ago, the use of red chili peppers To make the now ubiquitous spicy baechu (cabbage) variety of Kimchi dates back to the 16th century. Kimchi is the most common banchan, or side dish, and many dishes and condiments in contemporary Korean cuisine employ chillies.

As a result, red peppers are everywhere in Korea. They are dried for easy storage, with air drying most effective on hot summer days. In one to two weeks, chilies lose their brilliant hue, changing to a deep, glistening red. They will feel smooth and dry to the touch, and are sometimes dried in shade to prevent excessive colour loss. They can be seen everywhere on street corners, on the floor in subway entrances, on benches, mats, and low tables, and even on the sidewalk.

Capsaicinoids are the substances that give chili peppers their intensity when ingested. They bind with pain receptors in the mouth and throat that are normally responsible for sensing heat. The brain responds to the burning sensation by raising the heart rate, increasing perspiration and releasing endorphins. As a result eating chillies can actually be mildly addictive.

A single dominant gene transmits capsaicinoids. Bell peppers taste bland because they lack that gene. There is debate whether or not men and women sense capsaicinoids similarly, and some research suggests the effect of capsaicinoids is elevated in the conjunction with testosterone. Thus men may be more affected than women.

Peppers have long been used in folk art and medicine, and even today chili peppers are used for decoration, with some varieties grown solely for ornament.

In Sun Dried Boys the drying peppers themselves and the red plastic bowl suggest undervalued daily activities commonly the preview of women and the disadvantaged. Yet they also makes reference to important cultural heritage and to the diffusion of cultural practice between Korea, Europe, and the Americas. This same cultural mix is reflected in the diverse ethnic neighborhoods and architectural styles which make up this harbor town.

The installation also has a variety of elements which can be seen to make reference to the happenings and sculptures of the 1960s and 70's which commented on commodity, and commerce. The site evokes east village storefronts such as Claes Oldenburg's The Store, and ABC No Rio's The Real Estate Show. The cardboard box can be seen as a reference to Andy Warhol's Brillo Soap Pads Boxes, but in this case folded up, suggesting the love affair with commodification has been put on hold.

The television may bring to mind Nam June Paik, who's work with the physical objects associated with media, especially television, first helped to propel Korean art onto the world stage, and to inspire widespread Korean support for the arts. Today, this, (along with a certain Korean competitiveness between cities) has resulted in more biennials based in Korea than in any other country in the world. In the case of Sun Dried Boys however, the TV set is unplugged and suggests traditional media's loss of effect on, and control over, the current social media and information society. TV (rather than painting) is what's dead right now.

The work can further be seen to have sexual references. Internet porn sites hawk "Spicy Kimchi Girls", hoping to capitalize on the sexual stereotype of the exotified and erotocised "other". Peppers are a blend of spicy and sweet, and volumes of literature have been written about the effects of artificially cultivated and projected sweetness or cuteness in contemporary Asian society.

Male sexual reference also abounds, with the phalic symbolism of the pepper. In Korean culture peppers are used as a decoration on a families' front door to celebrate the birth of a boy child. The preference for boys is so extreme that it is said that are currently three quarters as many boys as girls born in Korea. The problem of prenatal sex determination and abortion of female offspring is so extreme that it is now illegal in Korea to divulge the sex of a baby before it is born.

Additionally, in the USA the term "boys" can also be a reference to the testis, and the idea of being "hot" is commonly associated with the notion of sexual desirability. Thus Sun Dried Boys can also be seen as displaying a kind of playing field or pitch of way too many little penises taking up all available space.

Lastly, by being an artwork made by a man, and produced in conjunction with, but not in association with, a women's biennial, it explores a common fallacy about prankster art. The bad boy aesthetic on the one hand suggests freedom and independence from traditional power structures in that it rejects and mocks "authority" in some way. Yet it can also be read as a manifestation created by the newest members of the next old boy network. Bad boy art being excused or even encouraged because it is done by, and reflective of, men.

Sun Dried Boys thus explores the social network around the 2009 Incheon Women Artists Biennale, acknowledges folk art and undervalued women's practices, rips-off or riffs-on, the exploration of other artists work during the exhibit, and acknowledges the gendered power structures that still exist in society and in the contemporary art scene.