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Michael Joo’s project at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is hard to see in context. His work, the latest in the museum’s splendid “Perspectives” series of Asian contemporary art installations, occupies the museum’s pavilion, same as the others in the series. Spacious and filled with light, the lobby pavilion is easily the best gallery the museum has to offer. But Joo’s piece is far more delicate and asks much more from its surroundings than other “Perspectives” shows. Maybe no space is quite up to the task.
Joo’s “Perspectives” exhibit includes a tapestry and a mobile. Both objects take as their subjects the Korean red-crowned cranes, which migrate through the vast no man’s land between North and South Korea known as the Demilitarized Zone. Joo used silver nitrate and 3D scans of dead cranes from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History collection to create an abstraction—a tapestry of a sort, or perhaps a painting or photo print. His suspended mobile, comprising brass bars and volcanic-rock weights, traces the migratory patterns of the birds as tracked by satellites.
With his work, Joo seeks to balance natural and technological sources as well as digital and traditional techniques. The mobile in particular is a compelling choice for representing partition in Korea, as it suggests stability and harmony; the political reality is teetering and fragile. Deploying such an iconically mid-century modernist gesture is a pointed comment in context. South Korea is one of the nations that is leading the 21st century, while North Korea has never moved much beyond the 19th century. That same asymmetry can be found in Joo’s painting, which pairs 21st-century digital scanning with 19th-century photo-printing methods.
Nature knows no DMZs: The message in Joo’s piece is plain. But the Sackler pavilion is not the easiest place to receive it. The mobile is meant to move, for example, but the air inside the museum is still. (A museum staffer obliged a request to thwack it with a newspaper, setting the piece into motion and turning its brass beams into chimes that collide in satisfying gongs.) Stillness isn’t a problem for Joo’s mobile. It reads well as an abstraction in space. But the sounds of Crocs-clad museum visitors clomping down the stairs into the lower levels of the subterranean Sackler gallery, make it impossible to hear either the soft clangs of the piece in motion or the utter silence of the mobile in repose.
Balance and tension are the critical components in so much of Joo’s work. While he is at times fond of using common or familiar objects in his sculptures, he eschews the snarkiness of post-minimalism. Consider “Expanded Access” (2011), a series of mirrored blown-glass sculptures that take the shape of cloth VIP rope barriers, interconnected in swooping peaks and valleys; or “Dissembled (version 2)” (2013), low-slung iron-glass and ceramic sculptures that depict a pile of SWAT-gear shields. Joo’s “Perspectives” show is even more lyrical than those examples. It calls for quiet, even solitude.
Unfortunately, that’s not something the Sackler can deliver. The Jean Paul Carlhian–designed underground complex that houses the Freer and Sackler Galleries (also the National Museum of African Art) is the Mistake on the Mall: Some works just won’t work in these spaces. The sunlight that streams into the Sackler pavilion will no doubt cast Joo’s show in different aspects as the season changes from summer to winter and back again. (And to be sure, “Perspectives” would be worth repeat visits if it were hung inside the museum gift shop.) Still, the echoes from the museum chamber are maddening. Just as Joo’s work relies on the weight of different tensions against one another, it also seeks some kind of balance with the viewer, too. An elusive state.
One rather interesting aspect of the Sackler’s hanging for this show is how Joo’s 2D and 3D works come together inside the gallery. It’s hard to get a good view of the painting-like piece without also taking in the sculpture; it’s just not a white-cube show. That’s a feature, not a bug. The best perspective may be from the floor, looking up through the installation to the 13-foot tall abstraction, which rises high along the wall.
“Perspectives” expresses an elegant concept: Military patrols along both sides of the 160-mile long DMZ have preserved, for more than 60 years, an unparalleled ecological preserve for the red-crowned crane. That the DMZ could be a source of beauty, that nature can thrive where progress has failed, is a keen and gorgeous insight
To July 9, 2017. 1050 Independence Ave. SW. Free. (202) 633-1000. asia.si.edu.