Mina Cheon: Creator of “Polipop”​ the perfect balance between politics and art

Mina Cheon (Ph.D., MFA) is a Korean American global new media artist, scholar, and educator who divides her time between Baltimore, New York, and Seoul, Korea. Cheon has exhibited her political pop art known as “Polipop” internationally and draws inspiration from global media and popular culture to produce work that intersects politics and pop art in subversive and provocative ways. Her thematic focus includes geopolitical and contested spaces, race culture and post-colonialism, and Asia’s relationship to the Western world in global media culture. In particular, Cheon has worked on North Korean awareness and global peace projects since 2004. While Cheon creates work that ranges in medium from new media, video, installation, performance, and public projects to traditional media of painting and sculptures, the content of the work is in historic alignment to appropriation art and global activism art. Cheon is the writer of Shamanism and Cyberspace (Atropos Press, Dresden and New York, 2009), contributor for Art US, Wolgan Misool, New York Arts Magazine, and Artist Organized Art (New Observations Magazine), and currently a Full-time Professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She is also a Board of Directors of the New Media Caucus of the College Art Association, an Associate Editor of the Media-N peer review academic Journal, and represented by Ethan Cohen Gallery of New York.


A= Mina

Q: How did you start your art career? Is there a person who has influenced you in your career path?

A: I always knew and thought that I was an artist. It wasn’t like a career decision but something always within my mind. Growing up, I have always had a strong belief that I am an artist and I was influenced mostly by my parents. My father is a true lover of art, and he worked as the secretary of information for the Korean blue house, which is equivalent to the White House. After that, he switched to the cultural sector as a cultural attaché and he traveled to a lot of different countries. Mostly, he spent a lot of time in New York, Denmark, and Canada. Therefore, I got to travel with him and met many extraordinary artists. When we were in New York, we saw many Korean artists coming to the United States. Thus, I was surrounded by artists all the time. My mother was studying art history at Hunter College in the early 80s, and she met Nam June Paik, the famous founder of video art, and they became really close friends. As I was growing up, I had a chance to see many different artists and their different kinds of productions. Also, I was always surrounded by books, which served as a great foundation for me. Through reading, it has always guided me, therefore, working in the art industry is just very normal for me because I was exposed to art at such a young age.

Q: What role do you think art plays in the political world?

A: I work with “Polipop” (short for political pop art) not as a direct propaganda, but as a way to advocate for a cultural message. I use politics and popular culture because these are the two things people are surrounded by in our daily lives. They influence us to a degree that we talk about them all the time. With my work, I would like to show the two are connected. However, there exist so many contradictory messages depending on which culture you are associated with. Therefore, my works may look very political from one perspective but I am using political images to discuss the differences between reality and media. Since 2004, I have been studying the issues of the race and culture in Asian countries and using them as subjects in my artworks. Many of the issues are very heavy, and some of them as art subjects have been there for over 15 years. Nowadays, it’s really common to see the younger generations are using art as a form to protest and advocating for themselves and issues surrounding identity. I think fake news is a problem and there are artists who try to draw comparisons between fake news and actual news. These artists advocate for democracy and their rights when they realize that fake news is taking over our social reality. From my own perspective, I’ve seen how my artworks got written by people who are from a political party not supporting my opinions. As a result, they would create fake news about my artwork. Through other types of media, the news will spread to other media platforms and gradually accumulate to creating more fake news. That’s how I see fake news being created all the time.

Cheon: Polipop & Paintings

Q: Do you think it’s important for artists to write clear statements for the audiences so there will be less misunderstanding which might cause what we said early on about fake news?

A: Open interpretations are always going to be there, but people are still going to interpret art from their own perspective. Many people just want to see the pretty art, such as the visual sensations they get when they see a good composition or color. However, that is just one very thin layer of understanding art. Understanding art is very complicated since it has its own logic and science, context and discourse, as well as history. Therefore, art can get so much more interesting when you understand the complexities that define and surround the work. I think the real issue is how to unpack, which is the ability to understand the depth of art. If you can understand the depth of art, then art can become so much more exciting and even addictive. There is a prejudice associated with art that art is just a visual object, but it’s not. I don’t feel I have to educate everybody on how to read art. People can take my art however they want, and usually, people misunderstand it, but that is fine with me. On the other hand, there are people who do really understand (my art), and since I am an educator in art, I will make sure that students who come to study with me will get the best education in terms of understanding the depth of art and design. It’s interesting that you mentioned open interpretations can lead to fake news. I think that open interpretations in the realm of art are different from the open interpretations in political ideologies. We need to understand the difference between the two, and we need to distinguish the difference between the fake news when it is used as political agendas and when it is used as an innocent misread of an abstract painting.

Q: What are the similarities and differences between art and design?

A: Art and design are in two different fields, and they both have many sub-fields. For example, there are fine art, architecture, graphic design, product design… Within the realm of fine art, there are various forms of traditional media to installation, performance, and new media. It is not only based on the different mediums, but also on the different outlets. Thus, the audiences or the clients can be a bit different. I always like to consider them as projects, not just a matter of art. If you think in the term of projects, one can be working on an architectural installation project or a writing project. A lot of people tend to do more than just one thing because they don’t see the world as a singular medium. Indeed, we experience the world in such an interdisciplinary way. Life is so integrated that we become the creative producers of our own lives and the time we live in, why limit yourself to one medium, one cultural expression? When I teach students, I use the words design and art very specifically only to address those things in relation to the project.

Cheon: Umma

Q: You also teach at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), what do you think is the most exciting part of being a professor?

A: I didn’t know in the beginning; I was just trying to teach as much as possible. However, now I teach less but mentor more. I think the most exciting part about teaching is how I can keep a life-long relationship with my students. Now I have been teaching for almost 20 years, and I have students all around the world. I have had lots of Chinese students who succeed as well with great accomplishments that I’m so proud of. The most exciting part for me is being able to see how much of an influence that I can bring to my students and how my advice can be helpful for them to become who they are, and how successful they all have become.

Q: Now the world has become smaller and smaller with the rise of the internet, which means artists get a new platform that allows them to show themselves to the world in just one second, do you think that marketing is necessary for a designer or an artist? To what degree?

A: I think it is necessary to have an online persona and let yourself and your art out there so that you can curate yourself and let your work be exposed to more people who are interested in it. It’s essential to not only have your own image being marketed but also you need to focus on your contribution and your message to the world. I think the internet has enabled us to become more active. We are no longer hidden in the studio, and the online platform has helped all of us. Although we are behind the screen, it still helps us to interact with the world. I feel so connected wherever I go because I have so many different groups of social media. The only limitation is that you only see people who is in your immediate media feed. I wish I can see people that are not in my feed, not just the people whom I like their posts and they like my posts every day.

Cheon: Obama Dancing

Q: You’ve said that one of your favored medium is digital painting, how has the Internet changed the art industry, and the way artists think?

A: There was a lot of net art before Y2K, which is the bloomer of internet based art. During that period of time, the artwork being created was challenging what the internet could do. However, after Y2K, we went from fearing and celebrating the Internet to just riding the potential of the Internet, on or off screen, internet lives define us, and that is why we are in the stage of post-internet, and the effect of the internet lives beyond the screen. There are many inappropriate cultural elements that can come into our world through the internet too in viral ways thus bringing fake news to us as well. However, at the same time, the internet can help us to communicate easily and have more access, the same platform is devised by artists to fight fake news. However, when we realize how much the internet is being censored and how much garbage information we are being exposed to, you start to think what are the downsides of the internet. At the same time, you have to be critical and be aware of delineating true information from the rest if it is possible. We have to learn how to separate the two because there is so much trash out there on the internet. Back in 2011, I didn’t do a lot image filtering for my art because there was just a great number of images online that were good found sources that included the images and ideologies of the world as is. When I went from the United States to Korea, I saw the change of e-landscape from the images that you can access from the Korean internet platforms. For example, you can type a keyword, the resulting searched images would be very different between the two countries, which makes for good cultural comparative material for art.

Q: As an artist, you have to deal a lot of restrictions on fake news and also deal with the fact that your own work being fake newsed or fabricated, do you have suggestions to the current audiences on what should we do pick the right news or eliminate fake news online?

A: My work is definitely not fake news but I try to create work that raises knowledge and intellectualism. There are still scholarly works and real database that help us to learn and have access to actual information. There are books published with credibility. When you are searching online, you need to check the credibility of the work and stay mindful of the sources instead of just believing everything you see online. One of the greatest things that modern thinking has helped us is to formulate critique and to be active in terms of finding credible information so that we can build knowledge to criticize. Also, citing others is very important and there is a reason why plagiarism is not allowed. When my students talk about the specific relationship of an artwork, I try to help them to understand what exactly the work is and help them to learn the historical background behind it. This also applies to writing: we read a lot of scholarly texts, and students write similarly to the voice the authors of the texts they are reading and sometimes mistakenly believe that they have created those theoretical thoughts and ideas. Citing them properly is to honor the people who have written the subject before you as well as gaining the knowledge so you can use them properly. Unfortunately, there are still classist issues, and education is expensive so that’s an unfortunate reality and a crisis of our time that not everyone can have equality in education, but it is a necessity. I am not saying only people who can afford an education should get educated, I am saying everyone has the right to be educated and we as a community have to fight for that education. (For more information, please see the response from Professor Cheon at a recent panel )

Q: VR and AR are hot topics; will you incorporate these technologies in your works?

A: I have been very interested in VR specifically in one project which is related to Dokdo, an island between Korea and Japan. In the past, I exhibited the works as a three-channel video installation but I would like to have a physical component and new footages of what I call a very unique geo-political contested space, and VR definitely makes sense for this project as a way to extend realities and bring awareness to cultural perceptions. I’m a new media artist so I’m planning to work with virtual and augmented reality in the not so distant future. But everyone is doing this, for example, I have a friend who recently did an augmented reality piece for the Venice Biennale, and he worked with app developers and put constellation images all over Venice (Richard Humann’s “Ascension” by Membit). So many artists are working with this technology, it is becoming an accessible medium. It is the next new filmic realm of extended realities and interactivity, so I see great potential in VR and AR. VR especially has been around for decades but finally warding off the clunky factor. For me always as a conceptual artist, content is first, and then I look at what’s the most appropriate and available media for the project. One of my concerns is the accessibility of technology for the audience so I’m determined to work with VR and AR that allows direct interfacing with even less gear.

Traveling to Dokdo Island

Q: We know you write for journals and magazines, what do you think is the connection between writing and art?

A: I don’t write poetry or novels, but I write scholarly essays and sometimes art reviews for magazines. The only art reviews that I do academically now are the international art biennials, because I only want to cover at that level of art world and also push new media scholarship, at least for now. My critical essays don’t directly translate into my art, and I don’t think it has to, but I’m definitely influenced by what I see, learn, and write about. When other people write about my art, I also appreciate the different perspectives they bring to enrich the interpretation of my work because it gives me the insight of my art that I may have never thought of and helps me grow as an artist. Through writing, it helps me to learn about art and life. After all, to be able to write about what I am curious about can make my life more meaningful, and that’s why when I travel somewhere or see a new exhibition, I try to make it a project to write about it, to understand my experience and possibly define it for myself during the moment that I was there as a way to understand my relationship with the world, it is a way to document my existence.

Cheon: Choco.Pie Propaganda

Check out the Chinese version here

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