For many Americans, the subject of military service elicits strong emotion, particularly after a decade of uninterrupted war. These national preoccupations are what make Korean artist Sung Rok Choi's series, Call of Duty: Operation 100 -- now at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts -- so well-timed and thought-provoking. The title takes its name from a popular video game, which allows players to engage in brutal, virtual military action. Throughout, Choi reminds viewers of humanity's tendency toward violence, war's perpetual recurrence and the individual's role within these vast conflicts.
Choi, who graduated from Seoul's Hongik University in 2004 and is now in graduate school at Carnegie Mellon, prefaces his exhibition with an animated timeline of the past 100 years of Korean history. It covers the period between the 1910 Japanese occupation and the 2010 sinking of South Korean warship Cheonan. The timeline's underside features a parallel familial history, including his grandfather's first understanding of freedom after Korea's 1945 liberation from Japan. Even as simple timeline annotations, such personal details make the history lesson more immediate. It alludes to individual experiences usually lost in the collective historical tide.
And individual experience is the focus of three keynote videos. "Call of Duty: Operation Camel/Deer Down/Seaweed" (2011) makes titular reference to the video game, which casts users as soldiers. But Choi's animated watercolors make viewers into observers. Viewer attention is focused on each man's impassive resignation rather than on potential threats or perpetrated horrors. The soldier in "Operation Camel" drives a tank away from some unseen (but smoldering) desert rout. A "Deer Down" soldier, camouflaged by woodland brush, creeps forward on his elbows to blast some undefined target. Two deer mate nearby, undaunted by the shot. The last soldier emerges from ocean water wearing scuba gear.
The Brechtian quality of these naïve depictions points up our conditioned expectations: Where is the impersonal, unfailingly heroic aura assigned to soldiers in recruitment and propaganda videos? There, physical prowess and valor eclipse any sense of individual experience. Here, Choi offers a view of the disillusioned individual. Considering South Korea's compulsory two-year conscriptions, this is likely closer to many men's understanding of "duty."
Choi's exhibition offers fascinating observations on the individual's role in the creation of history. Such ideas, while timely, also have an enduring and culturally universal significance.
CALL OF DUTY: OPERATION 100 continues through May 22. Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. 412-361-0873 or www.pittsburgharts.org