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BMJ. 2007 August 18; 335(7615): 352.
PMCID: PMC1949477
Review of the Week

Cosmetic artistry

Reviewed by Colin Martin, independent consultant in healthcare communication, London

The Homo Species. An exhibition by Hyungkoo Lee, Korean pavilion, 52nd international art exhibition, Venice Biennale, until 21 November. www.labiennale.org/en/art/exhibition/en/76530.html . Rating: ****.

Colin Martin is fascinated by an exhibition of pseudomedical devices designed to help an artist overcome what he describes as “undersized Asian male complex”

Many people feel that their self image and other people's perception of them might be transformed if they were able to enhance their appearance. Their attempted metamorphosis could be as simple as wearing different clothes or as drastic as having cosmetic surgery. Korean artist Hyungkoo Lee (b 1969) tackles the subject in a series of works entitled The Objectuals, which forms part of his solo show in the Korean pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

The series explores the additional dimensions of physical differences between races and feelings of cultural inferiority. Lee created them after he experienced “undersized Asian male complex” while studying for his postgraduate art degree at Yale University, where he encountered “bigger and stronger” white men.

The works were not the result of any locker room comparisons. “One day, Lee was standing in a subway train next to a white man of roughly similar physique,” says Soyeon Ahn, the Korean pavilion commissioner. “He realised that his hand, holding on to the handle, was significantly smaller than the Westerner's next to his.” Back in the studio, his artistic response was to develop a series of pseudomedical devices to enlarge or alter parts of his body visually, via a sort of perceptual cosmetic surgery, which made him feel better about his body image.

Lee's untitled ink drawing (2003) of a nude man, which echoes Leonardo da Vinci's often reproduced drawing of an ideal Italian Renaissance man with his outstretched limbs bounded by geometry, summarises his own points of perceptual intervention. The first work in the series, A Device (Gauntlet 1) That Makes My Hand Bigger (1999), was constructed using a water filled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle of the type manufactured for laboratory use, some shot glasses, and steel wire.

HK LAB-CPR (2001-2007), a large installation with mixed media from the series, creates a tableau reminiscent of both Dr Frankenstein's laboratory and an operating theatre. Tubing suspended from the ceiling feeds into the base of an operating table; and glass shelves on the surrounding walls are stacked with assorted laboratory vessels, surgical instruments, limbs, and heads. The order and precision are as illusory as the artefacts, all of which are replicas.

“By turning his inferiority complex to humour and making the postures of medical science a laughing stock, Lee questions widespread Western values,” asserts Mr Ahn.

Lee's inherent interest in human physiognomy stimulated his development of a series of helmets, which use simple enlarging and reducing lenses to distort the facial features of the people wearing them. Rather than satisfying what Mr Ahn describes as Asian “longing for the large eyes of Westerners” by merely imitating them, Lee's optical helmets exaggerate and caricature the desired features. Although some of the helmets transform their wearers into visions of doe eyed cuddliness, Altering Facial Features with H-WR (2007) presents a more disturbing metamorphosis. The helmet distorts its wearer's smile into a grimace which, along with his enlarged metal-capped teeth, produces a sinister, voracious effect reminiscent of the wolf masquerading as Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother. In this work, Lee seems to deflect Asian insecurity about eye shape toward darker anxieties of white people, as expressed in European folk tales.

Helmut WR (2007), a five minute high definition video playing within the pavilion, follows the helmet wearing artist around Venice as he walks alone around the city at night or sits among tourists at an outdoor restaurant, drinking coffee in the sunshine. The soundtrack includes rasping breaths, similar to those made by artificial ventilators; however, neither these sounds nor the prosthetic devices worn by Lee seem to elicit much attention from surrounding people. At the Venetian winter carnival, locals and visitors are used to seeing people wearing more elaborate and eye catching disguises.


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