In our modern moment of climate emergency and accumulating waste, contemporary artist Dong-Kyoon Nam is using assemblage art to draw attention to overconsumption and consumer-driven mass production. Here, Mary Ann Steggles considers Kyoon’s work in the context of power, waste, and late-stage capitalism.
Artist Dong-Kyoon Nam – currently a PhD student in Art and Visual Culture at the University of Western Ontario – wants us to think about waste. In 2012, Kyoon graduated with an MFA degree in sculpture from the University of Victoria in British Columbia. He was quickly hired to teach sculpture, digital media, and video for the School of Art at the University of Manitoba. As an artist, he is very much interested in the process. He creates assemblages with a strong conceptual base that examines late capitalism’s profit, power, and reproduction systems and how these forces operate at the expense of the environment.
Kyoon uses his art to investigate our daily over-consumption of manufactured, mass-produced goods. In referencing the abundance of cheap manufactured items, he breaks down domestic appliances and the most mundane home accessories, such as extension cords and wall clocks, to each product’s smallest unit. He then places every piece in a large pile and rearranges them into what he calls ‘sculptural configurations’. When exhibited in a gallery, these assemblages mimic the display practices of the items stacked high on shelves in large North American retail chains such as Walmart or Home Depot.
As consumers, do we even notice the bins full of tens of thousands of nails, the floor-to-ceiling rolls of carpet, the faucets, the lighting fixtures stacked so close together you cannot tell one from another? The aisles of our shops are packed full with every gadget and convenience item you could feasibly imagine, enticing us to continually change our entire kitchens and bathrooms – to upgrade. The message is one of unending abundance and it is a seductive message. As shoppers, we almost become numb to the fact that each part, no matter how small, comes at a very high cost to the environment. We are the ‘throw away’ society, we live in a world with an ever-growing distance from the living, natural world. But, if we are to save our planet, we have to stop being consumers. In a recent interview with Richard Powers – the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Overstory for Emergence Magazine – Powers states, “We have to escape the life of commodity with the life of community”. In other words, we have to realize that we have squandered the abundance of nature and replaced it with stacks and stacks of industrial goods leading to more and more over-capacity landfills. Nature is finite and there is a cost. That cost could well be the Sixth Extinction. Powers believes that what is required of humans is a total “conversion of consciousness”. In many ways, the newest work by Dong-Kyoon Nam addresses this need to tear apart the ‘system’ and to replace it with something new; signalling the death of the controlling human race and the birth of a human community which sees itself as interdependent with all other living things.
The artist’s latest creative projects are multimedia-based installations that include both found and mundane objects and outdated electronic devices or ‘digital e-waste’. Recycled Sensations contains smartphones, laptops, gaming systems and digital cameras. The artist carefully disassembles every machine part, including its microchips and electronic circuit boards, so that they can never return to their original function or their machine hierarchy. These individual pieces become -for the artist – ‘potential things’ that can be reconfigured and reconnected. The process of physically taking apart each and every object is crucial for the artist. Kyoon says that this allows him to become a catalytic operator bridging the various components while they, in turn, bridge him opening up a new spectrum of relationships and qualitative differences. When asked what he would like viewers to take away from this particular series, Kyoon said:
There are two main things that I want to implement in Recycled Sensations. First, it paradoxically expresses the assumption that there can be some complex ecosystems in such scraps of household appliances that we use and discard daily. Second, through meticulous rearrangement of such device’s functional units (so defunctionalized), I also tried to express that culture, technology, and nature are not separated but intricately entangled with each other as a form of ecological assemblage.
To make any progress in solving the climate crisis, this artist believes that people can no longer see themselves as a discrete, isolated part of the environment. We live in a world composed of a series of interlocking systems that are social, cultural, economic, and ecological. To undertake the type of disruptions necessary to defeat late-stage capitalism and solve the environment’s issues, the entire system must be broken apart and reassembled just like Recycled Sensations. Dong-Kyoon Nam hopes that his assemblages will help viewers better understand the current ecological crisis and cause them to rethink its precarity. The artist says: ‘My art projects seek to examine the complex intersection of artistic practice, art history, philosophy, politics, and ecological concerns while addressing the question of art in moments of crisis.’
Mary Ann Steggles is a Canadian contributor with an interest in environmental reform and the intersection of art, particularly ceramics, and social activism. She recently retired from her position as Professor at the University of Manitoba to devote her time to writing full-time.