Art, Science & Perception: Michael Joo | Radiohalo

Published in Art Radar on March 7, 2016

Michael Joo, “Radiohalo”, 10 February – 9 April 2016, Blain|Southern, London, installation view. Image courtesy Blain|Southern.

Blain|Southern, London, presents a solo show of new works by American-Korean artist Michael Joo entitled “Radiohalo”, on view from 10 February until 9 April 2016. A comprehensive catalogue accompanies the exhibition and features Joo’s ongoing projects and key works. The publication also includes an insightful essay written by Miwon Kwon, Professor & Chair of Art History at UCLA, and a conversation between Joo and the artist Julie Mehretu.

Joo received his MFA from Yale School of Art in 1991 and a BFA from Washington University. His work has been exhibited widely and selected notable shows include “Drift (Bronx)”, The Bronx Museum of Arts, New York (2014); “Michael Joo: Drift”, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Connecticut (2014); “Exit from the House of Being”, Blain|Southern, London (2012); and White Cube, London (1998). Joo received international laudation when in 2006 he was awarded the grand prize at the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea and also received the United States Artists Fellowship. In addition to this, he also represented South Korea at the Venice Biennale in 2001.

Many notable cultural institutions have collected Joo’s works. Some notable institutions include FNAC, Paris; Guggenheim Museum, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Samsung Centre for Art and Culture, Seoul and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Michael Joo, ‘Prologue (Montclair Danby Vein Cut)’, 2014-2015, Danby Quarry marble, silver nitrate, steel, 304.8 x 302.9 x 63.5 cm. Image courtesy Blain|Southern.

Joo’s mixed media practice has conceptual undertones and explores themes of identity and knowledge in an ever-changing world. Apposing different facets of knowledge and culture alludes to the fluctuating nature of identity. Joo incorporates diverse media, such as film, performance and sculpture, to achieve this end. His choice of materials is unconventional and discordant – materials as diverse as bamboo, human sweat and silver nitrate, find place in his work.

Joo’s work revisits and interrogates the nature of perception through narratives that explore places, people and objects, combining them with an empirical thirst for science and research, to produce works that document the process. Joo recognises the role that science plays in developing culture, as he explains in an Art Asia Pacific article:

Science influences modes of thought and can be interpreted as having a ‘zeitgeist’ affect in the culture at large […].

Joo’s guided explorations seek to blur the boundaries between art and science, playing at the interface between these two disciplines to create engagements that explore and interrogate.

Michael Joo, ‘Untitled, To (Sleep)’, 2015-2016, silver nitrate and epoxy ink on canvas, 91.4 x 71.1 cm. Image courtesy Blain|Southern.

Joo’s works combine a plethora of techniques used in sculpture, printmaking and painting. Silver nitrate, a recurring material, has found a firm place in Joo’s oeuvre for over a decade. The nature of silver nitrate is such that it alters with time, until the chemical process is made to stop. This results in beautiful, temporal works that are immutably transfixed on canvas. The Rorschach-esque images convey Joo’s concern with the performative aspect of the chemical.

From the onset of his career, Joo has been fascinated with the process of energy consumption. An artist statement on the Pangolin website reveals:

Joo has focused on the processes through which visible entities (like the human body, or flora and fauna in nature) consume invisible calories, and the crystallized byproducts generated by these processes. Joo combines making art with the apparently scientific theme of production of matter-energy and with the expenditure of calories of the human being during physical and psychological effort to achieve a state of diversity.

Joo’s recent body of work combines silver nitrate with an epoxy ink to produce “caloric paintings” that carry forth his engagement with energy and its manifestation and consumption. “Radiohalo” features works from this series. These caloric tray paintings draw from previous works, like The Saltiness of Greatness (1992), wherein he would quantify the caloric intake of significant historical figures through their lifespan. In this series, Joo estimated the calories consumed while performing specific actions. Next he would gather used baking trays, which were stamped with different caloric values. The resulting image would be fixed on canvas, each one unique, referring to the culture of consumption.


Joo’s preoccupation with energy and transformation continues in two special paintings, which though part of the caloric series, deal with the spiritual connotations associated with the body. He calculated the rough metabolic rate for Buddha based on artistic representations to determine a metabolic rate; next he estimated the number of calories consumed every millisecond by an individual to change into God. These figures are transferred onto the bark of the Bodhi tree, which has special significance to Buddhists everywhere; the resulting image is finally transferred to a canvas using a special silk-screening technique.

Untitled (Give) (2016) refers to the history of Buddhist monks starving themselves to attain nirvana and depicts the number of calories it takes for the body to consume itself. The other work Untitled (Take) (2016) portrays the amount of calories the body would provide as sustenance. The number is imprinted on a bark and inner Ringwood respectively.

About these paintings, the press release states:

Combining a range of techniques associated with painting, photography, printmaking and sculpture, the caloric values are transferred to canvas. By assigning a numerical value to a quantifiable action, the artist questions if there is any significance in this method of categorisation.

Michael Joo, ‘Prologue (Montclair Danby Vein Cut)’, 2014-2015, Danby Quarry marble, silver nitrate, steel, 304.8 x 302.9 x 63.5 cm. Image courtesy Blain|Southern.

The temporality of the silver nitrate is also manifested on other materials. In Prologue (Montclair Danby Vein Cut) (2015-2016), a marble slab from the Danby Quarry, the largest marble quarry in the world, is treated with the chemical that produces sinuous patterns. The characteristic swirls and veins of the marble engage with these patterns to produce a surface that is both poetic and subtle.

This marble slab is mounted on a steel stand to create a work similar to the artist’s easel with a canvas on it, replete with the silver nitrate as the ‘paint’ appearing to drip down. According to the exhibition press release:

Although inherently sculptural, the opposite side, where the silver nitrate has seeped through in drips and stains, presents a painterly surface resulting in a work which Miwon Kwon calls a combination of ‘picture-object-structure, simultaneously speaking the language of painting, photography, sculpture and even architecture, [the work] refutes the traditional task of these mediums to serve as a representational window or frame.’

Michael Joo, ‘DRWN, Carunculatus (28)’, 2015, graphite impregnated urethane, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Blain|Southern.

The other works on display tie up not only materially, but also thematically. Joo manages to convey how acts of life and energy, creation and destruction, flourish at margins and intersections. The work DRWN, Carunculatus (28)
 (2015) – a sculptural body cast from the legs of endangered cranes, which are used to create longitudinal marks on the gallery walls – alludes to this preoccupation with boundaries.

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