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Robert Mapplethorpe in Romance Rooted in Eternity: Flowers in Bloom

20 June—5 November 2023
Group exhibition at Jeonnam Museum of Art, Jeollanam-do, Korea

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If everything is in perpetual motion, then where does eternity reside, and what can we actually grasp as tangible entities? Since time immemorial, humanity has relentlessly pursued answers to these questions, and the aggregation of such pursuits has continued to shape human history. In some eras, people sought answers in religion; in other eras, in science; and in yet other eras, they fell into nihilism, thinking that, at the end of the transient passing of time, it is only death that awaits humans. From a religious perspective that believes in the existence of posthuman life beyond mortality, the said questions are a matter of whether to situate eternity outside the realm of the ephemeral flux of human time or situate it within its domain. History, for its part, has opted for the latter, thereby flowing forward from the Middle Ages to the modern and contemporary periods.

To mark the hosting of the Suncheonman International Garden Expo 2023, the Jeonnam Museum of Art (JMA) seeks to explore the romanticity embedded within artworks that depict it in the form of flowers. Flowers, which have long symbolized the creation and destruction of life, represent diverse meanings throughout our lives and have been depicted as such in visual arts. Against this backdrop, this exhibition highlights how flowers accompany a person’s life from birth to the grave, striving to turn our attention from romance in its totality as a single broad concept to romance as a concrete and dynamic force in an individual’s life. Put another way, the exhibition is an attempt to recognize the continuing shift of human life without being buried deep under its influence.

Nangman (浪漫), the Korean word for “romance,” is defined in the Korean dictionary as “an ethos where one is not constrained by reality but is faithful to one’s dreams and emotions.” The word consists of the syllable nang (浪), which means “waves,” and the syllable man (漫), which means “idling away.” Indeed, until the Joseon period, the term was used to convey “aimless wandering” or “debauchery.” The word nangman, in its modern sense, first appeared in the Korean lexicon in 1910. On the other hand, romanticism in the West was a reaction against the Enlightenment that had prevailed in the previous era. The Enlightenment valued empiricism and science over the invisible, and equal rights and individual freedom over privilege, sparking a series of subsequent revolutions. Nevertheless, values advocated by an ideological movement cannot remain true and relevant forever. The followers of the Enlightenment insisted that history progresses linearly and were convinced that the world and human life advance without limits both physically and spiritually. However, people were gradually reawakened to an organic worldview that we humans are all connected as well as to an emotional awareness of their inner selves. In this regard, the definition of romance has changed with time. As such, the history of romance suggests that no particular value can endure eternally. In this sense, flowers are not desolate as they sit at the polar opposite of the everlasting and the absolute. And romance lies somewhere in between.

Art has often been deemed incomprehensible despite its intention to mirror human life. That is because, rather than viewing life and society as clearly defined concepts, art makes an impossible attempt to capture the lives of each individual, full of radiance and motion. The present is the only thing that is eternal. This begs the question: how can we capture a fleeting moment and immortalize its meaning, without having the present mortgaged to a future that hasn’t arrived yet? Perhaps, romance does not lie in the continuation of stability and solidity, but in the very anxiety of needing to endure change. We hope that all our visitors living in this desolate age will discover their own version of romance while strolling in our museum’s small garden of variegated flower-themed artworks.