Niki de Saint Phalle_Masuda Collection
Location: Seoul Arts Center, Nambusunhwan-ro 2406, Seocho-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: June 30 - Sept. 25, 11:00-20:00 (Last Entrance at 19:00) ※Closed on Sept. 24
Attaining equality is an ongoing topic for discussion, which leads to numerous debates on how we can reach a place in society where no one is discriminated against by gender, religion, or race. At this point, it is meaningful for us to hear the voices of those who fought against past discrimination. The mid 20th century was a period where the basic rights of females were suppressed and women were generally only viewed as passive beings.
Meanwhile, there was a lady named Niki de Saint Phalle, who suffered from those limitations imposed upon her as a woman, yet sublimated her sufferings in art. Her life guides us to the way of finding oneself and living life to the fullest. Through her artwork, which overturns social prejudices and conveys a message of consolation for wounded hearts, The Argus would like to introduce to HUFSans the life of a woman who struck back against her placement in society.
Background Briefing of Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle was born in a wealthy French family, but after the Great Depression her family went bankrupt and moved to America. She went to a monastic school but could not endure the religious restrictions placed upon her. At age of 11, she was sexually assaulted by her father. At 19, she ran away and got married. However, her marriage did not turn out well, as paternalistic values were demanded for her role as a wife, and a mother. From these events, she suffered from depression and entered into a mental hospital.
She encountered art as a means of a cure in the hospital and used it to present her psychological wound, portraying the role of women that she wanted others to view as. Moreover, with art, she wanted to cure those people similar to her who also got hurt by being repressed.
Shooting Picture, a Portrayal of a Soul Dripping Blood
Entering the exhibition, the first thing The Argus reporter saw was the “shooting paintings” for which Niki is most well-known. Shooting paintings are the paintings which are created by sticking objects, such as tin cans or plastic bags filled with paint, on a plaster surface and shooting them. By giving a wound to the artwork, Niki became the perpetrator and the art piece became the victim. This was an overturn of her being a victim in reality, and was to cure her trauma. The spilled paint by the shooting looked like shedded tear drops and blood. The work seemed to express her ego being smashed and slaughtered. The exhibit followed with some rather scandalous pieces.
“La sorciere rouge” which translates to “The Red Witch” is a sculpture of a monstrous woman that portrayed some objects which represent the social image of a woman, such as a statue of the Virgin Mary or a baby. By shooting these objects, Niki resisted society which gave her the stereotyped role of a wife and a mother at such a young age. “Through painting, I could see the roles that society imposed upon women in that period,” said Kwon Young-eun, a 32-year-old female visitor.
The video recording of her, shooting her painting, was projected alongside the wall. Her reddened eye, staring at her finished artwork, seemed to prove her authenticity. This led to a ponderous stream of thoughts on the sudden and immense agony put into her, and the number of times she would have pulled her trigger to them from the bottom of her heart. The Argus fell into the thought that the fright which this reporter felt while confronting the first part of the collection was to portray the fright which she felt while confronting the world.
Shout-out to All the Nanas in the World
The exhibit looked like it was ordered by the process in which Niki’s trauma is cured. The next works were composed with more lively and vivid colors. “Upside Down Nana” is a sculpture of a corpulent woman figure standing on her hands. The figure stands as if it is defying gravity and is flying off the ground. This seemed to show her desire of defying the customs which tied her and her wish for freedom to those rules.
Nana means “a normal girl” in French. Herein, Niki expressed what she thinks is the true image of an ideal woman. The Nana series was inspired by Niki’s friend, Claris, getting pregnant. The artist wanted to broaden the social definition of beauty. What she wanted to say was that women’s beauty is not only restricted to the slender female figures who are featured in the magazine covers, but also extends to a more relaxed plump image. Also, the Nana figures depict active movements of a female, which is contrary to the stereotypical women in the 1960s. In other words, her “Nana series” is cheery rebellion against traditional gender roles.
With Love: Dear Jean Tinguely
As the reporter walked past the second section, a sculpture of a man placing a television that has a woman on the screen caught her eye. On the opposite side of it stood the woman, which was in the TV screen, placing TV which screens the man. This statue, which has a funny name “TV on the brain,” waggishly depicts an ironical situation of a couple not understanding each other’s values yet thinking of the other.
The exhibit suggested the two most special connections in Niki’s life, which were Jean Tinguely and Yoko Masuda. Through those connections, Niki built trust in human relationships and interacted with others. Jean was a sculptor who deeply influenced Niki’s formative arts. Even after the divorce, he continuously gave Niki some artistic guidance and advice. He also inspired Niki to further understand the relationship between a man and a woman and eventually helped her create some related works.
Friendship of Niki and Yoko for 20 Years
Yoko Masuda was the person who possessed all the artworks presented in the display. Yoko became an art collector and a friend of Niki for 20 years after coming across Niki’s artwork. The long friendship of a French woman Niki, and a Japanese woman Yoko, seemed exceptional for some reason. The reporter reckoned that the two still shared some of the values that the callous world put them into. In that sense, the message that Niki’s work gave went beyond borders.
The Psychological World with Human Drama
Entering the third section, The Argus saw the glowing shape of a skull standing out brightly. The skull artwork featured fancy ornaments and shattered pieces of stained-glass, giving the feeling of exclusiveness, yet the jocular smile that it has made the viewers grin.
Named “La Cabeza,” this work was created when Niki moved to San Diego due to her health problems. There, she encountered the culture of Latin Americans. The idea that grabbed Niki’s interest was that to the natives, death was a familiar subject not far from their lives. By “La Cabeza,” Niki wanted to derive the futility of living and the hope for an afterlife.
Besides this, there were portraits or sculptures of characters which are from ancient Egyptian, Mexican, and Hindi myths or fables. By illustrating the sorrow and the love depicted in the stories, Niki tried to suggest the way to relieve the distress that the life gives. Coming through the shooting pictures which were made in front of audiences, and her formative art series, communication with the viewers became an indispensable part of her art. She tried to transfer the power of art that helped her overcome her pain to the public.
Tarot Garden, a Pleasant Fantasy World
The last section showed Niki’s initial drawing of her tarot garden and some miniaturized sculptures. While traveling in Barcelona, Niki was inspired by Antoni Gaudi´s Park Guell and decided to make her own park. She dreamed of a place where she could present a pleasant and therapeutic experience regardless of one’s gender, religion, and race.
Niki believed that the Major Arcana, which is a deck of 22 tarot cards, meant stage and energy of life. She tried to put in those meanings in her statuary. Carvings which seem to borrow images of animals or mythical figures embellished the room. This looked like the extension to the room before, in that it used some of the ancient motifs. Nevertheless, the lively colors and her exotic creativity, together with the white colored walls with bright lights implied an explosion of optimistic energy. The explanation that the park put emphasis on harmony with nature, and that it is based on mythic motifs reminded the reporter of the Park Guell. After working on her garden for 20 years and opening the park at Tuscany, Italy, Niki passed away on May 12, 2002 in California.
Throughout the exhibition, The Argus saw snakes portrayed in a lot of her works and finally understood the reason why. The description of her work “Serpent Tree” wrote that the year when she was raped by her father, the memory of watching two snakes fight, and seeing a dead snake, came deeply into her. The snake was an entity that brought her traumatic remembrance. “By making a snake, I changed the dreaded feeling to a pleasant one,” said Niki. She had to stand up to the fear that she faced every day. Confronting her fear face-to-face was a way to endure her pain.
Walking out the exit door, The Argus looked back at the photo of Niki next to the entrance. The photo depicted her pointing a gun towards the front. Yoko once stated that the bullet that Niki shot in the 1960s circled the Earth for 20 years and struck her heart. Niki’s message was one that transcends time, ethnicities, and borders.
She, who was the victim of oppression, aimed her gun toward the irrational. Her bullet meant hope to some, to others, enlightenment. A woman who fought for her pain and dreamed of a better world by art; her aspiration circles the Earth for years, strikes our hearts and resonates in our minds.
By Kim Hannah
Staff Reporter of Culture Section