Modernity, Plastic Spectacle, and an Imperfect Utopia: A Critical Reflection on "Plastic Paradise" (1997) by Choi Jeonghwa
Plastic Paradise (1997), a massive yet precarious-looking vertical installation made of cheap, mass-produced industrial consumer goods found in popular places in Seoul, is one of a series of installations that South Korean artist Choi Jeonghwa (b. 1961) has produced since the mid-1990s. With architectonic metaphors that enact a uniquely self-reflective critique of Korean modern society and its ethos, this excessively vertical installation signifies the utopian hope of the Korean masses toward industrialization. However, its fragile material structure alludes to a counter-utopian reality latent in Korea’s compressed growth (apch’uksŏngjang). This article provides a reading of the visual and tactile elements of Choi’s art, which presents its unique structure as a cue for a nuanced social critique. Presenting samples of mass production as testaments to a modern utopia, Plastic Paradise critiques the pervasive myth within a society of mass consumption that these goods have become the totem of happiness “for all.” Inspired by Choi’s original observation of the dynamic form of the life of the masses, the installation also demonstrates how their seemingly mundane, everyday life is punctuated by the iconoclastic utopianism that they embrace for the future, and their understated creativity that continues to adapt and transform the given environment. In this way, the installation becomes both a monument and an antimonument to the state of development and its pervasive optimism.
Keywords: South Korea, modernity, compressed development, Choi Jeonghwa, utopianism, dystopia, kitsch, plastic, readymade, street market, pop art, minjung art, democratization, mass consumption, mass production, imperfect utopia, popular creativity, city, spectacle, Miracle on the Han River, contemporary art