Landscape in the Era of Plastic Surgery
By Choi Ji-a (curator at Daegu Art Museum)
Whimsically representing the other side of the everyday using traditional painting, Kim Tae-yeon presents a new series of work entitled “YuMiDokJonDo” (唯美獨尊圖, a painting that describes the current phenomenon in which people believe beauty is the most important thing in the world). Compared to Kim’s previous work, this is a more comprehensive appropriation of the conventions of Buddhist art, as seen through the artist’s choice of ‘scroll painting’, which were typically painted on either paper or silks and preserved by being rolled up.
Kim’s attention was focused on the human desire for beauty, which has drawn people in modern-day Korea to crave better and more idealized appearances, eventually turning to plastic surgery. People are seen in television commercials or other mass media recounting their experiences of cosmetic surgery, and with all the advertisements for plastic surgery clinics that can be seen plastered over the subways and buses, the general public can’t be blamed if they are tempted to become part of this society of man-made beauties. Exposed to the visually striking consequences of surgical ‘before and after’ photos, we can’t help but appreciate the results and increasingly tend to see surgery as a part of everyday life (something that we don’t take too much seriously).
In Kim’s work, these tendencies are reflected in images of Korean women who have resorted to unnatural techniques to affect Westernized appearances. Repeatedly appearing in several works including Portrait of Three Goddesses, these women look down on the general public, with their artificially enhanced eyelids, sculpted noses and sexualized bodies; hair dyed in the most fashionable colors, wearing high-heels, showy clothes and accessories. Unlike the lifeless, and timid expressions that are confined to the mirror, thanks to the surgeon’s touch they are full of confidence and proud of their transformed appearances.
What is noteworthy here is the way in which the man-made beauties and the doctors occupy the central or upper parts of the painting. This is comparable to the central positioning of Buddha in conventional Buddhist painting: The people whose looks have been transformed and the plastic surgeons whose skills have enabled this to happen are raised to a position of status that is usually reserved for divine existence. As seen in Portrait of Judges, the doctors look down on their future patients from above, and make severe judgments on their looks. The women holding their hands out desperately, standing haggard in front of the mirror, plead to the doctor. His expertise and outstanding skills transform them into totally new beings. This might be described as a form of rebirth. As seen in CheonSangCheonHa YuMiDokJon (天上天下 唯美獨尊) what these desperate women gain after surgery is not just physical beauty but tickets to an extreme joy (極樂, geukrak), typically symbolized within the upper sections of Buddhist painting. Whether it results in a raise in social status or financial affluence, surgery can help turn their lives around. For this reason, the plastic surgeons turn into transcendental beings, and their potential patients are not against being evaluated. They lie back on the surgery beds under their own compulsions and wake up in an unimaginable world. Surely the process of entering into this heavenly realm isn’t quite so simple? They willingly take all the risk, and endure all the pain, getting injections, their swollen faces covered with bandages, all for their rebirth into new faces and new bodies. Unlike the real world where all the pain is hidden, Kim keeps exposing the bandage-covered faces, revealing the process of entering into a state of extreme joy.
The figures and the situations described in Kim’s work already populate our surroundings. These works pose questions about our personal desire for beauty, whether explicit or dormant, and—hidden deep within our society—the reasons that people place themselves on the surgery bed with so little hesitation. This surgery craze is not just limited to youth, as even men in their 50s and 60s have joined in, for the sake of job opportunities or self-satisfaction, tacitly revealing our sensitivity towards ‘what is outwardly seen’ or ‘the gaze of others’. A crowd of eyes and wagging tongues seem to encircle our surroundings, and perhaps it is impossible for anybody to be truly free from them. In this modern society, when physical beauty can turn into a form of capital, the power of visual impressions is extremely potent. We used to say ‘What is good is good’, however now we seem to believe that ‘What looks good matters’.
New looks gained through surgery are far from individual. Seeing advertisements on the walls of subways or on the Internet, the ‘before’ shots vary from one another but the ‘after’ photographs are not entirely different from each other. As unnatural and exaggerated as the women seen in Modigliani’s work, the faces all seem to be the products of cookie cutters from factories of plastic surgery hospitals. They say they pursue their own personalities, however in reality they blindly chase what others recognize and what society requires, which is a total contradiction. This falsehood and duality is revealed in the portrayal of surgeons in WonJangBoSalDo (院長菩薩圖), which is painted in reference to SuWolGwanEumDo (水月觀音圖), a Buddhist painting from the Goryeo dynasty. They recommend unnecessary operations and rake in vast amounts of wealth, wreathed in gold necklaces, and seated on stone as if they were wise men or perhaps divine beings, only it is their services that help allow for transformation. Below them, there are human beings overly conscious of the judgments of others, and yearning for man-made beauty.
Kim addresses the frivolousness of this era, obsessed as it is with superficial beauty. In addition, the artist laments the shallow thoughts of people who leave their bodies to the experts, dreaming of life’s big jackpot, and wishing for an extreme joy. Swept away by the views of others, it is hard to keep one’s own thoughts, despite the anger towards the current situation. It is extremely difficult to escape, especially now that physical appearances are taken more seriously than an individual’s smartness and competencies. Seeing that personal identities are completed by the doctors’ touch—as in Parents Give Birth to Me, and Doctors Give Me a Make-over—a question is posed: What is beauty in this era?
In reality there is nothing new in this era about our desires around beauty. However beauty cannot inherently be attained with ease, or remain merely on the surface level. In this world, where something visual turns into everything that matters, Kim reawakens our values towards genuine beauty. Fortunately what the artist suggests is not too serious. With her attentive observations of everyday life, combining traditional conventions and the modern, Kim’s work reflects society as if it were a mirror, and talks to the viewer. The viewers get to take a break from their inner desires and look around for a while at the bittersweet landscape of this era of plastic surgery.