Siobhan Liddell
oh, shyness


SeMA, Buk-Seoul Museum of Art

Are you a shy person? Consider shy children, who may want to run and hide but cannot go far. People who appear to be quite shy may really be taking a step back and observing things so that they can understand and adapt to their circumstances. We’re accustomed to viewing shyness in a negative way, but it’s quite natural for us to feel this way in unfamiliar and uncertain situations. Four artists have taken particular note of that shyness. In 1993, Luca Buvoli, Beom Kim, Siobhan Liddell, and Eran Schaerf held an exhibition in New York titled (oh, shyness). That exhibition is now being brought back in Seoul in the year 2022.

New York–based multimedia artist Luca Buvoli uses frail materials like plastic bags, old clothes, wire, and candy wrappers to show the fragility and vulnerability hidden underneath the heroic images of Superman and other superheroes. Recently he has created Astrodoubt, a skeptical astronaut character who attempts to escape a planet plagued by contagious disease and pollution. Looking through the small window of a locker on the museum’s first floor and scanning a QR code on the locker’s door, visitors can view a scene where Astrodoubt, during his desperate escape from “CovidVille,” slips and almost falls into the bottomless whirlpool. Seoul-based Beom Kim adopts a serious yet playful approach to focus on a world where human perceptions are fundamentally in doubt; for this exhibition, he has installed a door in the second-floor lobby that is identical to the museum’s own. With the addition of speakers that create a knocking sound, he confuses those who pass in front of the door. His artistic aims are carried over into the video work displayed at the museum’s café. At first glance, a chicken appears to be roasting in a microwave in the café’s kitchen. In fact, this is a monitor showing a video of a sculpted chicken turning round and round. British-born New York–based Siobhan Liddell creates artwork that intrudes upon spaces through subtle, meticulous attention to materials and environments. Using 253 pushpins to spell out the words “False Sense of Security” in the corridor on the museum’s first basement level, she sends the message that the only space we can feel safe in is one where we recognize and accept our own insecure existence. Berlin-based artist Eran Schaerf cites a character from literature, trying to imagine her/his life as if it continues outside the text. He identifies shyness in the emotions we confront when we are translating languages and cultures. Recognizing that we cannot know everything about the thing we are translating, he emphasizes a process of coming closer to that thing instead. His tape work meanders through the sculpture terrace on the museum’s second floor, serves to separate out sections, yet the tape is only partially fixed, the rest of it waving in the wind. It may or may not divide the space. In this case, shyness manifests in the way the work is implemented, seeking to remain open-ended, without discounting other possibilities in terms of the statements it makes.

The 1993 exhibition (oh, shyness) was staged in three galleries in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, but not in their main spaces—instead, it was presented downstairs and in a back room, in a stack room, and in other ancillary settings. In this way, the exhibition was characterized by a viewing approach that involved connecting hidden spaces together. Defining “shyness” as a matter of cautiously keeping one’s distance from the world, the artists used the exhibition to express the difficulty of accepting standardized social systems. By putting the title in parentheses and lowercase, they expressed a sensibility unique to shyness. For the 2022 Idle Space Project, a “Period Room” and a “Reading Room” have been set up in the lobby on the museum’s second floor, and some of the same artworks presented at the 1993 exhibition have been displayed once again, this time alongside an archival video and brochure. It is an opportunity to explore both the consistencies and the changes over the past 30 years in the ‘shyness’ approach that existed as a common undercurrent in the four artists’ work.

Buk-Seoul Museum of Art has been staging its Idle Space Project every year since 2017. Artworks are placed throughout the museum in spaces beyond the main galleries in order to help broaden citizens’ perspectives on the viewing of art. As with the 1993 exhibition, this project scattered works from the second floor to the first basement floor in inconspicuous places in the museum. While viewers explore the works hidden all around in the name of “the art of being shy,” they can view the museum setting in a new light.

The fact that the artwork is exhibited spread throughout the museum rather than in its main galleries seems to send the message that the artwork is less the protagonist and more a part of a little ‘game’ taking place within its spaces. Anyone who visits the museum can play if they wish to. By focusing on the things happening in the background rather than center stage, the Idle Space Project calls into question how we distinguish between the “center” and the “periphery.” In this sense, it shares echoes with shyness as a worldview, with its choice of parts over wholes, tranquility over noise, and humility over arrogance. When shy people find themselves blushing in awkward situations, they are forced into a paradoxical position where they become more visible at the very moment they most wish to disappear. The ‘shy’ artworks in the 2022 Idle Space Project step outside of the safe and familiar confines of the gallery to poke their blushing faces out and speak to people. As they sheepishly share their message, we hope that our visitors will whisper their own replies—and that they won’t feel shy about their own shyness.

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Gordon Robichaux