James de Candole of Candole Partners -
Since the body of Yoo Byung-eun, the South Korean swindler and owner of the ferry that capsized killing 304 on board, was discovered on June 12, evidence is emerging that he used his myriad companies to promote his artistic alter ego, AHAE. Milan Knizak, the former director of the National Gallery of Prague and a close ally of former Czech president Vaclav Klaus, was also a big supporter of AHAE, leading some to question whether there was more than mere artistic appreciation at work.
The rotting body of Yoo Byung-eun, the beneficial owner of the Sewol ferry that sank in April killing 304 passengers, almost all of them schoolchildren, was discovered on June 12 and identified on July 22, bringing to a grisly conclusion the largest manhunt in South Korean history.
Prosecutors say that money that should have been spent on making the Sewol seaworthy was siphoned off by Yoo and his family over many years to pay for, among other things, investment in promoting his artistic alter ego, AHAE. Apparently, Yoo had been pouring millions into re-inventing himself as an artistic genius, renting out prestigious exhibition space around the world to display AHAE's photographs and paying western art curators to praise his art and hype it as a sound investment.
Three years ago, Yoo organized a tour of his photographs, all paid for by Yoo's own companies, staged in places like the palace of Versailles and Grand Central Terminal in New York. The tour took in Prague as well, with an exhibition organised by Knizak, who was director of the National Gallery of Prague between 1999 and 2011. "I was honoured to organise a retrospective exhibition of the Korean artist AHAE, which was very successful," said Knizak, who is a close associate of the former Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, and is currently a professor at the Czech Academy of Fine Arts. "I also put together an international team of specialists and created a representative publication showing the richness of AHAE's personality entitled 'Book on AHAE: so simple, so beautiful, so perfect', published by Kant in 2012." The book is available on AHAE's website for $250.
Knizak describes AHAE as "not only a photographer and poet but also an inventor, entrepreneur, scientist, philanthropist, ecologist and sportsman. He is a remarkable artistic personality. But I want to emphasise his philanthropy. I know many concrete cases where he has helped people to survive." Unless they were the unfortunate souls who used the Sewol ferry.
According to the New York Times, "Of all the Yoo family's schemes, prosecutors and financial regulators say, the most elaborate involved the photographs taken by Yoo's artistic alter ego. The Yoos forced their own businesses, including the ferry company, to buy his photos at inflated prices, pitching them as good investments, prosecutors say."
But Knizak points out that AHAE's photos are a sound investment: "AHAE's photographs are accepted as part of our global culture, but they didn't become fashionable like (unfortunately) some contemporary art. The prices of AHAE's artwork are reasonable and have never jumped too high. This is a sign of his strength, dignity and humbleness."
Others disagree. Christopher Phillips, curator of the International Center of Photography in New York, who has organized exhibitions of Asian photography, is quoted by the New York Times as saying: “My informed opinion as a museum curator for the last 15 years is there is no market for these works at any price. You couldn’t give them away.”
Shortly after the Sewol ferry disaster in April this year, Yoo issued a statement dismissing suggestions that he had forced his business affiliates to buy his photos at rip-off prices. Attached to his press release were statements by Knizak about what good value his photos are.
Curiously enough, Yoo was in the habit of giving a device for administering enemas to those whose help he needed. This was because, as the leader of a hugely profitable religious cult in South Korea, he championed purity and bodily cleanliness.
A friend of mine and his wife were approached by Yoo in 2012 seeking help with introductions to art curators in Prague. At the end of the meeting, they were given what the wife said "looked like a hookah. In fact, it turned out to be an enema kit. One each!" As Knizak observed in his plaudits to the now dead Yoo, "he is very unique with his purity.”
Professor Knizak may have received an enema device from Yoo Byung-eun. And after reading the verbal diarrhoea Knizak has written on AHAE, it seems this was the last thing he needed. A stick of charcoal would have served the purpose better.
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