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Asia’s First Steampunk Art Exhibition

This entry is part 63 of 70 in the series SF in South Korea

Well, we’re back from our trip to Korea. Many missions were accomplished, though the visit was too short to see everyone I would have liked to. I focused on seeing the people who probably won’t be in Korea next time I’m there, as those folks are always harder to see again later.

While I was in Korea, I was lucky enough to have a chance to see what apparently is the first steampunk art exhibition in Asia.  It’s currently showing at the Seoul Arts Center (서울 예술의전당). (And it runs till the 18th of May, for those of you too bogged down with the start of the semester to make it in March!)

The show was put together by Art Donovan (there’s a profile of his work on the exihibit here, and here’s his website with lots of details) and it was an evening well spent with my friend Sanko Lewis, who took almost all the pictures in this post. I’ll share a few highlights–though what I post only scratches the surface–and then add my thoughts after. 

There were a fairly large number of artists and designers whose work was shown at this exhibit. I can’t post examples of everyone’s work, and really wouldn’t want to: you should try check out the exhibit if you can, instead. Still, for me, there were a few highlights, one of which was featured on the second poster above: the work of Shovel Head, a Japanese artist/designer, who seems to take great pleasure in fusing the natural and the mechanical:

There were wonderful posters available detailing Shovel Head’s designs, but they were too pricey for me to be able to afford: this one, for example, ran almost fifty bucks:

There were also a couple of really cool creations made from Lego (and maybe other odds & ends?), by Jason Allemann, including this Daliesque mecha-elephant:

There was also a lot of what one might consider traditional “museum” art using more modern media, such as graphic sampling and remixing. Among those, I was rather taken with this clockwork tiger, I believe created by Sam van Olffen:

Van Olffen’s sampled/remixed urban scapes, often depicted in motion, were also fascinating:

I particularly enjoyed the paintings by James Ng, which should be familiar to anyone who picks up Jeff Vandermeer’s The Steampunk Bible: the inside cover features this painting by Ng:

There was also more conceptual gadgetry all over the place, like this mad scientist weapon-ish thing by Park Jong Deok:

… and this remixed astrolabe titled “Shiva Mandala,” by which my friend Sanko was very taken, which IIRC was made by the curator himself, Art Donovan:

But even with gestures towards the literary origins of Steampunk–there was a nice display featuring covers of books by K.W. Jeter, Lavie Tidhar, and others–the show drove home that Steampunk is about a fashion, about a particular kind of aesthetic. What that aesthetic is about, it didn’t approach: presumably, bringing up nostalgia and a feeling of being overwhelmed by more recent technological developments, as well as what Sanko and I finally decided boils down to a manifest lack of sartorial “classiness” in our own era, might not be what people were interested in paying $12 a head to experience.

Still, fashion was a huge part of the show, from the conceptual, as with this pressure-driven armored prosthetic by Tom Willeford:

… and this forearm “computer,” also by Willeford:

… to the outlandish, like the leather wings (I’m not sure who did them):

… and these oddly fascinating gas/dust/fashion masks below, by Tom Banwell and Bob Bassett:



And of course, I cannot neglect to mention the most surprising parts of the exhibit: Cris Cofitis’ Steampunkified motorcycles and scooters:

I could post tons more images, but I’ll just link the photoset at the end of this, so I have a bit of space for posting my impressions.

In the end, what seemed apparent is that Steampunk really is more of a social and artistic movement than anything specifically literary. It obviously has a literary component, but the movement seems very much driven by things like fashion, alternative design, the arts, and so on. In other words, “steampunk” is more like a cultural octopus than a literary movement. That said, the display itself clearly credits Jules Verne and K.W. Jeter for  the genesis of steampunk.

In some ways, the movement has been more successful culturally than certain other branches of the spec-fic world, like, say, hard SF, and the question of why is both interesting and, to some degree, uncomfortable. Lots of steampunk fiction is (either critically, or uncritically) nostalgic for the Victorian era, in ways that probably say a lot about our contemporary anxieties.

We also don’t have such a hard-and-fast sense of social class, or of the privileging of the “rich”… which it’s possible for us to be nostalgic about now, because we’re so removed from it temporally that the worst of English class structure is more remote to us–even to the English–and because we are able to imagine, however unrealistically, that we would be among the élite gallivanting about and adventuring, and not among the masses who had to slave and toil to keep the damned system going.

(Hence all the young adventuresses; we reinvent the Victorian past because we grew up, in part, with Victorian stories about boy adventurers. Why not inject some girl adventurers into the mix, we ask ourselves, and as incongruous as it would have been to many in those days, to us it makes perfect sense.)

That said, what’s also interesting is the transcultural mobility of steampunk. It’s not like the concept is totally mainstream in Korea, but several of the pieces on display were made by Korean and Japanese artists, and didn’t necessarily stand out as particularly Japanese or Korean.  While steampunk might, in an American or British context, function as an expression of some kind of historical/cultural yearning for the past, it’s something that has mutated as it as crossed cultural lines. I’m not sure what Steampunk means in Korea, or Japan–though elements of it seem to have been evident in Japanese manga and anime, and Korean manga as well, for quite some time now. Steampunk certainly means something to Northeast Asians, I’m just not sure what.

It’s sort of funny,  but also unsurprising, that it’s a historical-fantastical aesthetic that translates so well here: a futuristic one, not so much. And given that, it’s worth thinking about whether Steampunk is a kind of historical reimagining for the history of the industrialized world, like the historical reimagining more familiar in non-Western societies about their pre-contact past. (That is, that steampunk features some of the same kinds of fantasizing moves that other historically-fantasizing imaginaries do, especially postcolonial ones.) Maybe it’s just that we feel so disconnected from the wellspring from which our modern, technological world sprang that we have to reimagine it as more fantastical just to get a handle on the fact that we did come from this awkward, barely-functional machine made of tyranny, chrome, and meat-in-motion.

Anyway, the end-of-show bookstore has all kinds of fun stuff for you to buy: everything from keychains to very expensive prints of the gorgeous schematic diagrams for various creations by Shovelhead. There’s also an abundance of books by a number of authors, including Jeff Vandermeer’s The Steampunk Bible and a number of different books by Shaun Tan. (Had I not already ordered Vandermeer’s book, I’d have been tempted to get myself a copy. I love Tan’s work, and was tempted, though the prices and my travel budget restricted me to picking up a small Mecha-Octopus keychain for Mrs. Jiwaku, who couldn’t make it to the exhibition.)

Anyway, I hope the above sells you on the exhibition. It’s worth the price of admission, if you’re at all interested in steampunk, geek culture, or just very odd things. If I haven’t sold you, you might want to take a look at Sam Van Olffen’s post on the exhibit, which was gorgeous pictures, or watch this Arirang TV segment on the exhibit.

Oh, and here’s that photoset. As I said, nearly all of the photos are by my friend Sanko Lewis. (I did scan and upload the pamphet and my ticket myself, though!) You can read Sanko’s (lovely, and more personal) writeup of the same event here.

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