Side view of a large ark installation made from recycled cardboard and metallic materials.

MMCA Hyundai Motor Series 2022: Choe U-Ram — Little Ark, Little Ark, 2022, recycled cardboard boxes, metallic material, machinery, electronic device (CPU board, motor), 210 x 230 x 1272 cm.

Image provided by MMCA

Where do we come from, and where are we going? Inside a cavernous gallery at MMCA, writer Shannon Lee reflects upon Choe U-Ram’s newest exhibition, Little Ark, and questions how we define progress—both cultural and personal.

Amid an ever-spiraling climate crisis following the global pandemic, Choe U-Ram’s poignant installation Little Ark (2022) at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul asks a simple yet daunting question—where are we going? Set within a dark, cavernous room, the installation centers around a strange, ship-like vessel whose mechanized steel oars undulate through the air like the legs of some enormous centipede splayed on its back.

Accompanied by an ominous "Space Odyssey"-like drone, Choe’s ark feels like a contemporary take on Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s sci-fi epic. Aboard the ark is a lighthouse, whose panopticon searchlights dart across the room. Beyond one end of the ship is a video projection of an infinite stream of doors opening onto one another. On the other are two mirrored vortexes that give the illusion of entering technicolor wormholes. Juxtaposing these slick machines are cardboard replicas of the James Webb telescope and two faceless seated figures that point upward in opposite directions, confusing notions of where the ark might be headed.

For Little Ark, Choe collaborated with the team of engineers at Hyundai Motor Group Robotics LAB in order to develop cutting-edge technology that would allow for the eerily smooth, variable motions of the ship’s oars. All of this tech invested in the hyper-articulated motions of a ship that, ultimately, doesn’t actually go anywhere.

We often think about technological progress within linear terms, like an arrow that only moves forward from its starting point. We tend to assume technology is a positive thing; that this ceaseless pursuit into the unknown is synonymous with advancement. Little Ark is a directionless vessel, heading nowhere discernable and to no foreseeable end, calling to question whether this assumption about progress is really true. In the novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the protagonist Dr. Dave Bowman is shot through time and space and evolves into an immortal “Star Child.” He wanders distant galaxies before ultimately returning to earth only to detonate a nuclear warhead and end all life on his home planet. To what end do we “progress?”

Born in Seoul in 1970, Choe is part of a generation that has witnessed South Korea transform from an impoverished, post-war nation into one of the most high-tech civilizations on earth, seemingly overnight. His practice is reflective of a deep, almost spiritual connection with machines, having spent his formative years as a young artist in the 1990s collaborating with engineers in Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon electronic market. For Choe, these local engineers were his teachers, showing him how to create intricate, life-like movement in his sculptures.

My dad, who was born a generation prior to Choe, likens the experience of South Korea’s rapid technological advancement to whiplash, where your body isn’t fully able to keep up with the momentum of its context. At what point are we accelerating past our physical ability to keep up?

This past June, South Korea launched its first working satellite using its own rockets, establishing itself within the burgeoning space startup industry. This summer NASA’s James Webb telescope captured images that peered far deeper into the unfathomable expanses of space. As those first images began to orbit through social media feeds, a friend had asked the perennial question, “what is the point of space exploration?” All these great minds and vast resources are spent to, quite literally, plunge ourselves into darkness while earth is at a perilous tipping point, riddled with violence and inequity.

An industrial-style installation resembling an ark with a human-like statue seated in it. Overhead, a golden angel hangs from the ceiling.

MMCA Hyundai Motor Series 2022: Choe U-Ram — Little Ark, Little Ark, 2022, recycled cardboard boxes, metallic material, machinery, electronic device (CPU board, motor), 210 x 230 x 1272 cm.

Image provided by MMCA

The same, however, is often said about art. It too is an open-ended pursuit into the unknown, to better understand ourselves and our position in this vast endless universe. There’s something intrinsic in us that drives us to see beyond the immediately observable and imagine something greater.

My little brother allegedly has his name etched onto the side of the James Webb telescope. He’s a mechanical engineer for a company that was contracted by NASA. It’s a trip thinking about how his name is out there, hurtling through space at nearly half a mile a second and over a million miles away, forever. “I might’ve gone to art school, but you’re the one making reality-shifting pictures,” I recently told him.

The week those first images came to earth I was on a beach in Cape Cod using an app to track the whereabouts of a rising supermoon before it peaked above the ocean. Someone’s precocious son, about four years old, looked eagerly over my shoulder as I zoomed into constellations; he knew the composition of Saturn’s rings, the names of Jupiter’s moons. Our own moon emerged above the sea first as a faint glow on the horizon, then a growing sliver of grapefruit-pink echoing against the tide. It came up quickly and slowly, timeless and awe-inspiring.

As its oars sway in aimless determination, Little Ark is a work that wonders about wondering, inviting the universe’s big questions; the ones that evade answering, but whose pursuit has defined humanity. Perhaps we are destined to ultimately head nowhere at the end of the day. Was progress ever really the point? Maybe we’re all just here to look around.

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