A mechanical evolution

by Manami Okazaki

The Mori Art Musem is currently hosting an exhibition of previously unidentified life forms. These newly evolved creatures were found recently in urban areas, structurally resemble flowers, fish and insects, and have a complex inorganic, electromagnetic make-up.

Or so South Korean sculptor Choe U-Ram would have us believe at his installation of visually stunning metallic sculptures. The show is the fourth chapter of the MAM (Mori Art Museum) Project that was initiated to promote promising new talents; previous chapters introduced to Japan the Argentine installation/site-specific artist Santiago Cucullu, the Finnish artists and designers ROR (Revolutions on Request) and the Japanese-Vietnamese installation/video artist Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba.

The center piece of Choe’s exhibition is “Urbanus,” which structurally resembles a huge metallic flower, or a beautiful but monstrous spider. It’s perfectly synchronized, palpitating movements are strangely erotic — but you may not want to get too close, as the scientific description the artist helpfully provides says: “The light from the genitals emit a great number of electrically charged parts.”

In an interview with The Japan Times last Friday, Choe said, “Urbanus was a new work, especially for this project. When I first visited this museum, I saw the whole city from the Mori observation deck at night, and I felt some higher power and energy in the city. I wanted to show a creature living with that urban energy.”

Though his work is highly conceptual, Choe wants to create something that could conceivably be real and then present it as if it were being showcased in a natural history museum. The sculptures themselves are meticulously detailed and seem alive with movements that breathe and pulsate, making them creepily uncanny in their realism. His inspirations come straight out of the otaku handbook.

“I like biology, physics, I like sci-fi very much, almost everything! [the Wachovski brother’s film trilogy] ‘The Matrix,’ [Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film] ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is one of my favorites. . . . I get inspiration from documentaries . . . and I live in the city so I feel wonderment toward urban scenery and life.”

But Choe says his relationship with technology is actually paradoxical. On the one hand, he loves machines with a fetishistic tendency that is evident in his works. On the other, he has the typically dystopian paranoia of the sci-fi genre — the fear that scientists’ preoccupation with technological progress is reaching a potential state of automated doom. In total, it adds up to a fascination with human creativity spawning entities that might already be beyond our control.

“I like machines, but they are dangerous, they can ‘attack’ humans. They live together with us, but they eat our hope, our desire,” he muses, adding cautiously, “Their evolutionary speed is faster than nature, and speedier than ours — the history of machinery is only 2,500 years old, but human evolution has taken much longer.”

His love of sentient machines is reminiscent of the early 20th-century avant-garde Futurist movement (minus the fascism) in its love of science and technology as a means of advancing the human state. But Choe is part of a generation that grew up without the idealism of its forefathers — always surrounded by gadgets and computers, today’s artists know better than to blindly expect salvation from technology.

Choe instead tries to create a parallel vision of nature in order to make us think about the one in which we currently exist. He explains that his works are “a metaphor for human life. All creatures can’t live independently, somehow they are linked to one another.”

Despite his Choe’s personal forebodings, the most prominent feature of his installation is that it’s purposefully fun. Though the pieces are awe inspiring, the pseudo-scientific explanations about the creatures’ existence, genus and habitat are, in a word, silly.

The description of the giant salmon-like metallic flying fish “Ultima Mudfox” tells us that “the creature’s ability to float freely in dense mud remains unexplained,” and, apparently, the “Echo navigo” (pictured above) “lives near huge antennae in the city and eats all sorts of electric waves.”

The reaction of his audience to the pieces is similarly priceless.

“Sometimes I go to my own installations and watch the reactions. The attendees stay a long time and I watch their jaws drop. The audience ask, ‘Is it real? Do these really exist in the city?’ One time this person came up to me and said ‘I saw this creature in the subway!’ That was one of my favorite reactions.”