Leeum Museum of Art presents How to Become a Rock, a solo exhibition of one of Korea’s leading contemporary artists, Kim Beom (b 1963). Comprising works from the early 1990s to the mid-2010s, the large-scale survey exhibition brings together more than 70 works, including his early paintings and pieces from overseas collections that have never been shown in Korea.

Kim Beom’s works are based on animistic thinking, a belief in the existence of life and soul in all extant matter, and acts that perceive the gap between what is seen and what lies within, combined with hypothetically set up situations that shatter stereotypes. Kim is interested in exploring the ways in which knowledge is created and disseminated via educational systems and other modes of information circulation. ‘His works are an endless quest to find ways to view the world differently,’ Kim Sung-won, deputy director and chief curator of Leeum explained.

In his work, an antelope chases a cheetah, a dog bursts through a wall, a ship learns that there is no ocean, and a car key is transformed into mountainous landscapes. Combining his uniquely unpretentious forms with extraordinary ideas, Kim’s works are not only refreshing to the eye, but also overturn basic premises of the world, making us aware of areas of truth hidden by social conventions. Pursuing an aesthetic that may appear excessively calm and even ascetic, Kim Beom rules that ‘what you see is not all of what you see’, a self-reflective statement in its own right. As such, he urges us to question what we know, see, and believe, pushing aside all habitual thinking and awakening in us a way of ‘seeing’ that is entirely new and different.

Objects being taught they are nothing but tools (2010), is a large-scale work that has everyday household objects placed on ‘school’ chairs facing a blackboard in a familiar classroom-like setting. It is Kim Beom’s biting criticism of Korea’s educational system and society’s expectations. The objects are assembled in front of a pre-recorded, televised lecture in which the teacher’s head is cut off and his voice dubbed so that in a speeded up, squeaky voice, the orator emphatically and gravely iterates the utility of ‘students’ and, therefore, the futility of attempting to become anything more.

Tools do not go to the hospital to see doctors, the voice points out, as humans do. They are instead serviced and fixed, or simply replaced. So it goes for the student. Education is a process that involves some notional form of change: knowledge is imparted and one’s identity and views on the world around us are informed or changed.

The exhibition title, How to Become a Rock, is an excerpt from Kim Beom’s artist book, The Art of Transforming (1997). More than a direct reference to the content of the book, the exhibition seeks ways to exist in a world dominated by power and control and leads us to reflect on the identities, and the variable relationships therein, formed by uniform rote learning. His sensitive and incisive critical thinking vigorously explores what humans project and their inherent contradictions, as well as the gap between image and substance. While his seemingly clumsy craftsmanship redefines the relationship between materiality and immateriality in art, his deliberate ‘lo-fi’ sensibility emerges as a quiet resistance to all standardised thinking, impervious to the speed and trends of today.

Until 3 December, 2023, Leeum Museum of Art, Seoul,