The people were just not getting B.G. Muhn.
After spending a decade living in the Washington area and showing in New York, the South Korean-born artist returned to his homeland last summer with his largest-yet solo exhibition, “B.G. Muhn: I Love You.”
And the critics had responded, in several papers, by calling the show yeopgi.
“They couldn’t get the meaning out of my pieces, so they used this word,” recalls the Gaithersburg, Md.-based artist and Georgetown University professor, sitting in his studio in industrial Rockville. “It’s a very irresponsible word. Say you have a serial killer: He killed somebody, chopped the body, and kept it in a bag. [Yeopgi] describes that image exactly.”
It’s hardly the image Muhn projects himself: Short and muscular, he wears a DKNY Jeans T-shirt and a long, sparsely graying ponytail. He’s coy about his age: “Very young and very old” is the standard answer, though he looks around 45. Scattered on the floor are the paintings that drew so much attention at “I Love You.” Behind him lurks a hulking insectoid creature he welded together using scrap metal from the auto-body shop next door.
The Ilmin Museum of Art, which Muhn remembers as an exhibition hall for “elderly artists,” asked him to do the show to signal its desire to move toward the avant-garde. “People think I’m kind of outsider,” he explains, “because I didn’t have formal art education in Korea, and the imagery I do is not to the traditional taste, is not ‘sweet’ enough to hang in the living room.”
The museum’s ploy paid off: The exhibition attracted the region’s major dailies and networks, as well as cable news and fashion and women’s magazines. Among the 62 artworks, an acrylic painting of Muhn sitting cross-legged and holding his own decapitated, screaming head drew the most critical attention.
Other pieces drew mostly quizzical stares. There was, for instance, 1998’s Rabbit, a realistically painted bald man’s head locked in a pink cube floating on a sea of pea green. A rabbit perched on top of the grimacing head swabbed its shiny pate with a humanlike tongue. Then there was Undercurrent: The 2001-2002 sculpture mimicked a dead fish and was suspended as if from the hand of a proud invisible angler. Its fibrous skin looked decayed, and a mess of fresh-pink baby-doll heads, sheathed in cheesecloth cauls, spilled from a cut in its belly.
These pieces made the artist the target of a massive viewer inquisition. “Whenever they saw me at the museum, they would ask me questions,” he says. “They were really innocent questions, like ‘Why tongues?’ ‘Why are human heads coming out of the fish?’”
In response, Muhn gave lectures at the museum on Damien Hirst and Andres Serrano. He also presented a performance piece. It was a first for him and, perhaps, for his audienceMuhn says performance art in South Korea typically centers on social issues, as opposed to his subconscious spelunking. “I thought, Maybe because it involves movement, and a sculpture, a performance could help them comprehend the meanings of my expression.”
So it was that people wandering into Ilmin’s exhibition space one Friday in July encountered Muhn, in dim light, stalking circles around a sculpture of a woman he had made days earlier from wire mesh and rice paper. She had a bulky belly, a humongous left foot, and a single silicon breast.
As Muhn stalked, a Korean fashion model entered the room. The artist quickly deprived her of her high heels and long silk wrap, giving these items to her rice-paper counterpart. Then, like Pygmalion blowing life into his marble maiden, he leaned over and kissed the artificial woman’s breast: a wet, open-mouthed smooch, with plenty of tongue.
“I closed my eyes, to show I was concentrating, or contemplating,” he says. He also hummed, “because it was a very significant moment to give vital energy to her.”
Fashion Placenta, as Muhn called the performance, was meant to contrast two concepts of attractiveness: the couture industry’s proposal of slim and slick, and the human animal’s natural tendency toward something a little fatter and frumpier, something more suited to childbearing.
“That was my intention,” he says, “but I don’t know how people perceived it.”
Even B.G. Muhn has had problems understanding B.G. Muhn.
Despite growing up in the same house as his five brothers, two sisters, mother, father, and grandmother, Muhn claims he was a lonely child. Like other kids living in Taegu, a city in lower South Korea, he would pay to watch television in the local comic-book shop. Unlike his peers, he could never get a thrill out of it.
“I was more into going within myself,” he says. “I just had a lot of questions, like, ‘What is the deeper meaning of life?’”
Muhn was mildly attracted to arthe sketched comics from the newspaperbut what he saw around him didn’t inspire his creativity. In middle school, he strolled through a show of figurative and abstract paintings at Kyongbok Palace, arriving at the conclusion that contemporary Korean art was dull, rigid. One paintinga dreamlike arrangement of white birds, clouds, and rosesparticularly bothered him. “It didn’t speak to my spirit,” he says.
Muhn eventually channeled his restlessness into a journalism degree at Sogang University in Seoul. But it didn’t take him long to question his choice of career. “After work, you stop by [a bar] to drink together,” he says. “To say, ‘No, no, I have to go, I have something to do’ is not accepted, and you’ll be left out later. I thought I couldn’t find myself in that society.”
In 1981, Muhn left Seoul for San Francisco, planning to become a fashion designerthe most far-out occupation he could think of at the time. Instead, he wound up attending the California College of the Arts and Crafts and simply “decided to become an artist.”
Muhn produced figurative etchings, then moved into printmaking. His surrealistic black-and-white printswhich, with their fine detail, precise shading, and vague creepiness, suggest long-lost pages from a Chris Van Allsburg archiveforeshadowed his paintings, which he started after moving to study at the University of Maryland in the mid-’80s.
J.W. Mahoney, a Washington-based critic for Art in America, caught one of Muhn’s early shows of paintings in Rockville. “What I saw there were things I’ve never seen before,” he remembers.
There was, Mahoney remembers, a painting of a man, his face gray and drooping, as if molded from soggy clay, with a blue fish stuck halfway into his mouth. “It was a little bit like the person gave birth to another form of life,” says Mahoney. “It was very shamanic, a magical act. Very dead-unexpected.”
Mahoney says the paintings reminded him of dream images, though they echoed something else, too. “Almost anybody can come up with a freakish idea and express it in some medium,” he says. “This is not what he’s doing. It seems to be coming from a really deep source.”
Muhn is, in fact, drawing upon a deeper source: Zen Buddhism. In 1985, at the urging of his Buddhist sister, Muhn flew to San Jose to meet a bald, bespectacled nun named Dae-Haeng, who was visiting from South Korea. “She was a really small woman, very quiet,” he remembers. “She called me ‘an empty can.’”
Muhn didn’t appreciate the comment. “I was kind of disappointed,” he says. “I expected kind of a supernatural ability that she could show to me, but she didn’t say or show anything, just ‘You are still an empty can.’”
Muhn’s mind turned those words over for years until, nearly a decade later, he thumbed through one of Dae-Haeng’s collections of teachings. The book stressed finding enlightenment by embracing a hidden world of energy.
“It really got me. It was something I never knew,” Muhn says. “It felt like I was caught in the heavy downpour of a storm, like I was out there in the wilderness, and it was pouring down on me, and I was exposed, naked.”
Dae-Haeng became Muhn’s Zen master. In 1994, hoping to get some feedback from his spiritual leader, he showed her some slides of his paintings.
“After looking at my pieces,” he recalls, “she said very quietly, ‘Who would understand this?’”
Muhn has since accepted his empty-canness. These days, he spends Sundays at Annandale’s HanMaUm Zen Center, meditating and listening to videos of Dae-Haeng’s teachings. In turn, his art has come to reflect his everyday ruminations on Buddhist identity.
In “Dreams and Reality,” an exhibition of Korean-American artists held late this summer at the Smithsonian Institution’s International Gallery, Muhn arguably dominated the show with a 2002 sculpture titled Her Consciousness. Though dwarfed in visual complexity by Ik-Joong Kang’s mosaic of tiny Buddha paintings, and simply dwarfed by Y. David Chung’s steroidal kimchi jar, the piece stood out for its sheer audacity. A pillar made of a 150-year-old barn beam with a long tongue sticking out of it, after all, is not easy to ignore.
“Some people hated it,” says the exhibition’s curator, Komelia Hongja Okim. “I guess it’s not anybody’s favorite thing to see [the tongue’s] bright, hot-pink color.”
Okim, a South Korean expat herself, jokingly says she didn’t look too closely at the piece, “maybe because it was a little too provoking for me.” And some gallery visitors, she says, made some rather troubled-sounding remarks: “Oh, it’s just too much!” and “How can you put that in the house?”
But Her Consciousness, says Muhn, is a harmless metaphysical comment on dead and living matter, which he believes are unjustly separated. “At the fundamental level,” he says, “they’re just waves of energy.”
He has a similar explanation for Undercurrent, which hung next to the tongue. “They’re not really human heads,” he says of the doll parts pouring out of the fish, “just a symbol of life. The fish is seemingly dead, but it has life.”
Still, Muhn admits to seeking a little shock value with this past show. “To me, the visual language has got to be provocative,” he says. “First, you catch the viewer’s attention. Then, if they can feel what I like to convey, that’s wonderful.
“If not, we haven’t reached the same wave of consciousness. Yet.” CP