[TEXT] Stories of Streets and People Summoned to the White Cube

Shin Boseul 

It may sound out of the blue, but as I was browsing through the portfolio of GR1, the ending of the main character of A Dog of Flanders came to my mind. Nello, a boy who lives with his grandfather meets an old dog, Patrasche that was abandoned by his drunkard owner and was shivering with cold. Although it was a life full of poverty and hardship, Nello had his grandfather, Patrasche, his friend Aloise, and above all, had a dream to become a painter. One frigid winter day, his grandfather dies and Nello and Patrasche are evicted out of the village. What is worse, he heard the news that his painting fails to be selected in the contest. In a winter day with glacial winds, Nello and Patrasche decides to go to Antwerp to see the painting of Rubens, which Nello has been dreaming to see. He opens the church door and enters, but the Descent from the Cross (1612), which Nello had long yearned to see, is usually covered with a curtain and only visitors who pay one gold coin can see it. Fortunately, the warm-hearted cathedral keeper hears about Nello's pitiable circumstance and shows him the Rubens' painting and Nello was deeply moved by the painting. Nello, having fulfilled his wish, exhausted from the cold and hunger, falls into a deep sleep hugging Patrasche in his arms, and then dies. As a child, I could not accept that the story ends with Nello's death. My cousin said Nello died, but I remember vividly that I persisted in my idea that Nello is just sleeping. After a long time, while now having a job of organizing exhibitions, I often recall the face of Nello who passes away under the Rubens' painting, peacefully as if he sleeps. I even try to groundlessly guess that Rubens' painting must have been comforting Nello. And I ask myself if today's art can be/is being such a comfort to anyone.

Nello and Rubens, graffiti and contemporary art, white cubes and streets, comfort and empathy.
Looking at GR1's work, all these things got jumbled in my mind.

#1. GR1 was a graffiti artist.
The artist name GR1 is said to mean 'Graffiti number one' /'Graffiti only one. In this way, he makes it clear from his name that he is from the street. He was obviously a graffiti artist. He started graffiti work in his hometown Busan in his first year at high school, and he continued his graffiti work while working for a local newspaper in Chicago. He said he had even experience of being arrested and tried in the middle of working. The small booklet I received when I first met GR1 was a collection of his graffiti works.

#2. GR1's techniques are in great part based on graffiti work.
Although he came into the art scene rather late, GR1 already has his trademark techniques. As we may guess, they are based on the graffiti culture. However, his techniques are different from the graffiti on the backstreets or trains in Europe that we know well. He uses the 'Paste up' method, in which he stacks several layers of thin pulp paper like a canvas, does drawing or stencil work in black and gray tones on it, then pastes a pre-prepared large-scale poster on the wall. Either it is because of the stacked pulp paper or the drawn image, it feels more Korean than graffiti, but in any case, his method is based on graffiti.

#3. GR1 still keeps the graffiti spirit.
"I am interested in a situation of conflict at the intersection of social, political, economic, and cultural relations, or in the collision provoked by such conflict and the by-products from such collision. [...] The phenomenon of globalization has caused the disappearance of borders and frontiers in many areas and has triggered exchanges between cultures and people as well as capital. Behind these exchanges, various collisions occur. [...] Behind the collisions, unrevealed side effects and by-products are bound to be generated. I am interested in these by- products, and would like to reveal through my work the point, which was hidden at the time of collision under the surface of the other, not the party concerned, bring that point into the forum of discourse, expand and express it through graffiti, street art, painting, and video, etc." (from Artist notes)

As clearly stated in the artist notes, GR1's work is a story about social conflicts and collisions, as well as their by-products. His works dealt with themes related to politics, society, and culture, such as various issues of subculture, animal rights, youth issues, environmental issues, etc. And it is mostly connected with the contemporariness, the present. In this context, Gwangju is not over (2019), in which images reported during the 2019 Hong Kong Democratization Movement were superimposed on five symbolic sites related to May 18th Gwangju Democratization Movement, seems to be one of the works that successfully connected contemporary issues with the placeness and siteness of the street proper to graffiti genre, and this work also allows me to get a glimpse of the graffiti spirit that still remains in him.

#4. Graffiti moving out of the street and invited to the white cube 
However, recently, the spatiality of his activities and works has been moved from the street to the white cube, and warm comfort (or sympathy) started to appear rather than edgy attacks of graffiti. Run! Baby Run! (2021), depicting food delivery riders with paint marker and spray on paper, contains a criticism on labor and work patterns traded on digital platforms, but rather than analysis and criticism on the system problems, the original image of the riders comes up first. Cup Noodle (2022), which was exhibited in the exhibition For 1000 Days held at Jeon Tae-il Memorial Hall, also attracted the viewer's eyes with the images and names of cup noodles that filled the large wall, rather than the discussion about the social structure in which they had to make do with cup noodles. It is true that there is no problem even though the image of the work catches attention first. If, in the exhibition hall, we look carefully at the work, read the artist notes, and listen to the explanation about the work, we can eventually attain to the artist's intentions. However, what I want to point out here is that, for GR1's work in the white cubes, the production method is clearly based on graffiti, but the sense of speed and sharpness of graffiti on the street is not quite noticeable here.

#5. GR1's works when detached from the graffiti
Suddenly, I realized that the advance information that he was an artist who had been working on street art and graffiti may mislead me to a wrong interpretation of the work. Sometimes the artist's previous works help to understand the present work, but it can also lead to an error of wresting the new work into the framework of the previous works. I decided to take another look at GR1's work without the label of graffiti.

The recent work #&#&# (Hashtag and Hashtag and Hashtag) (2022) also starts with the introduction describing him as 'one of the first generation of Korean graffiti artists, who interpret the Western culture of graffiti with his own unique language!. (Park Min-jin, 2022) Obviously, this work is more directly related to graffiti than other works. He shows the 'GR1 Was Here' sticker on the street, at art museums or galleries, brings his graffiti that fills the streets of 'Domansa' (People Who Make the City) in Seongsu-dong into the indoor space, or fills the entire walls of the white cube exhibition space with images of Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Taipei streets that the artist has never visited with the tag 'graffiti. It looks Asian because of the Chinese characters in the image, or the layers of the image seem to become more diversified due to its media crossing the border of online and offline. However, what I think is important here, rather than graffiti, is about the story of the space he looks through the medium of graffiti, and the artist's sensibility looking at the space. The images trapped in the orange grid, the meaning created when the street scene with real graffiti is reproduced in the white cube, the reason we are empathized with the figure crouching in the corner of the alley....what we need to see in GR1's work may be such stories beyond the image.

The Crashing Grass series recently exhibited at Cheongju Art Studio seems to reveal this aspect of GRI's work more clearly. The plants depicted in GR1's work are so-called naturalized plants. Naturalized plants refer to plants that are artificially or naturally introduced into a country other than their home country and get indigenous on their own. They are often considered as plants that must be removed because they are known to threaten native plants, damage to humans, or ruin the ecosystem. GR1 has painted naturalized plants of a huge scale of 4mx2m. And on top of that, he wrote with a spray the excerpts from the poetry collection The Rose That Grew from Concrete of American rapper 2PAC, published after the musician's death in 1996. A thought came to my mind. Since the plants themselves did not intend to be naturalized, wouldn't they be the victims of an unfair stigma? Couldn't this attitude toward naturalized plants also apply among humans? The reason I could not easily turn my eyes away from Crashing Grass may be because the story was not just limited to the plants.

Again, back to A Dog of Flanders,
Why was I recalling Nello and Rubens in GR1? I still cannot figure out the reason. Even though I number possible reasons to insist on finding one, I cannot figure it out. However, if I had to guess, it could be because of the sympathy for the subject that lies in GR1's work. The world is harsh. Only the strong could survive. There are a lot of things I have to go through against my wish, and the high and solid rampart of the world is not likely to be easily destroyed, even if I want to defy it. Standing in front of the wall, I am infinitely small and helpless. I thought if the artist invites us to face the life of backstreets hidden by colorful neon, revealing one aspect of that life, it could be an empathy, and a timid suggestion to take a look at them together.

He no longer works by the method of painting in backstreets, on street walls, on trains and running away. Instead, he invites the image of the street, the people of the street to the white cube. Like the Rubens' painting in the sumptuous cathedral that could not be seen without paying one gold coin, a space called the white cube may be a difficult space for some. Nevertheless, like Nello who fell asleep peacefully under the picture, couldn't someone also be comforted? Couldn't someone also sympathize in front of his paintings?