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Exploring Don Sunpil's perspective on 'Bishōjo' through Arario Gallery’s offering

The South Korean artist approached Bishōjo figurines as semiotic configurations in his solo exhibition titled Industrial Bishōjo at Arario Gallery Seoul.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Aug 31, 2023

Arario Gallery in Seoul, South Korea recently presented the solo exhibition Industrial Bishōjo by Don Sunpil, from July 12 to August 19, 2023. The art exhibition explored Sunpil’s critique of Bishōjo (lit."beautiful girl") figurine culture, which is closely intertwined with the world of Japanese animation. For Sunpil, Bishōjo figurines have already sparked inquiry into the semiotics that are built around them, but this time around, the artist explored them from the perspective of producers who work meticulously on the figurines, often themselves coming from a position of deep affection for the figures, which become much more than mere toys.

Installation view of ‘Industrial Bishōjo’, 2023| Industrial Bishōjo | Don Sunpil | STIRworld
Installation view of Industrial Bishōjo, 2023 Image: Courtesy of Arario Gallery

The exhibition Industrial Bishōjo, as its name suggests, looked at the human and capital driving forces behind Bishōjo, toy design through a video art piece, 24 sculptures and four photographs. Sunpil discussed the exhibition, along with his own personal relationship with Bishōjo, in an interview with STIR.

‘Blue Print’, 2023| Industrial Bishōjo | Don Sunpil | STIRworld
Blue Print, 2023 Image: Courtesy of Arario Gallery

To begin with, one wonders what drives the meticulous craftspeople at the heart of the phenomenon, which the Korean artist shed light on, saying, “The transformation of a character from a mere concept to a tangible form has a mesmerising effect on people. This allure largely stems from the modern figurine industry, which encapsulates the capitalistic culmination of intricate processes like mold creation, duplication, and painting. While translating a two-dimensional design into a three-dimensional figure logically presents challenges, the industry thrives much like our fascination with ancient tales and myths. It's as if there's a compelling belief in the figurine world that our cherished characters have been flawlessly brought to life as miniature synthetic resin models.”

‘Bunny X Soul’, 2023| Industrial Bishōjo | Don Sunpil | STIRworld
Bunny X Soul, 2023 Image: Courtesy of Arario Gallery

The artist isn’t influenced by any one character or work within the wider world of anime, but rather, appreciates the artform in its entirety, along with all its facets, as he sees them: manga comics, video games, and of course, the figurine culture known as Bishōjo. He explained that he has come to understand art through a critical engagement with anime culture, rather than through formal art education or direct creative endeavors. In his words, “I am navigating the realms of contemporary art and subculture, cherishing both. Instead of diving deep into just one realm, I have been striking a balance, maintaining a measured distance as I continue my artistic journey.”

‘Linker’, 2023| Industrial Bishōjo | Don Sunpil | STIRworld
Linker, 2023 Image: Courtesy of Arario Gallery

To address a certain elephant in the room, many commentators, which Sunpil duly recognises as being predominantly Western, have criticised anime culture for what they see as regressive in terms of the gender roles it assigns to female characters. Naturally, this criticism also extends to the world of Bishōjo. When asked about his position on this, Sunpil responded with a degree of nuance that often escapes this conversation. He told STIR, "Bishōjo characters have transformed alongside societal shifts. If a Bishōjo character's role in a piece feels antiquated, it might suggest that society hasn't fully embraced change." In his view, Bishōjo characters act more like intricate bodies of symbols, rather than actual people, which the exhibition is largely consistent with, in its deconstructive approach.

‘Stereoscopic’, 2023| Industrial Bishōjo | Don Sunpil | STIRworld
Stereoscopic, 2023 Image: Courtesy of Arario Gallery

The artist believes it might not be apt to compare these characters to real-life situations, despite the fact that they have been designed for easy engagement, and for their ability to mirror parts of reality. As he put it, “Blending these artistically constructed images with real-life personas might lead us astray. If we only use a Western lens that aims to duplicate the world "as is" when discussing representation, it can easily become tedious.”

Portrait photograph of Don Sunpil, 2023| Industrial Bishōjo | Don Sunpil | STIRworld
Portrait photograph of Don Sunpil, 2023 Image: Courtesy of Arario Gallery

Discussing the near future, Sunpil explained that his interests have gravitated toward the depiction of “reality” in media content of late. In his words, “Even though we can now stream high-resolution images in real-time, the way we convey realism on our screens often feels a bit stuck in basic reproduction, despite all our tech advancements.” Sunpil quoted the film genre Tokusatsu (lit.“special photography” or “special effects”), famous for characters such as Ultraman, as a prime example of this strange dance between absolute reality and faux-realism. He is fascinated by the manner in which it embraces the seemingly “fake” aspects of the objects, situations and characters it portrays, all while using modern production technology. The South Korean artist ended his interview with STIR, saying, “I am excited about the idea of applying this unique approach to my working method in the near future.”

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