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Hobong Kim
Astro Boy in New York, A Stranger from the Bygone Future

by Kun Kyung Sok, June 28, 2024

This solo exhibition by first-generation  Korean / American artist, Hobong Kim, at the GALA Art Center open through June 30th is titled "Unfamiliar Time, Unfamiliar Space," features pale, neon pastel-toned oil paintings and small cardboard works of everyday scenes in New York: coffee drinkers in cafes, pedestrians shopping or crossing streets, parked bicycles and people seated in the subway. However, a closer look reveals an unexpected presence within these scenes: Astro Boy (or Atom; also known as Mighty Atom in Japan).

Astro Boy, created by Japanese manga artist Osamu Tezuka in 1952, is an artificial intelligence modeled after a scientist's deceased young son. The story was set in the future of the 21st century, and it was immensely popular in both Korea and Japan from the 1960s to the 1980s. In his work, the artist summons Astro Boy to New York today and explores the New York experience for Astro Boy, who is of Asian origin, was born in the future yet is from the past, and not human. As a being of different space, time, and material, Astro Boy epitomizes the experience of alienation in New York. Astro Boy, in Kim’s paintings, symbolizes multi-layered otherness and transcultural identity. The artist identifies with Astro Boy, linking the character's otherness with his own, creating a complex self-portrait. To Kim, New York is bright yet dark, vibrant yet fearful, diverse yet isolating and his only companion is a cat named Romeo. 

Kim’s oil paintings do not show the fluidity or hybridity of identity often seen in many second-generation immigrant artists. They highlight the stark difference between the Astro Boy and his surroundings in terms of color, form, and texture. Based on photos Kim took while wandering through Manhattan, which underwent multiple layers of digital transformation, Kim creates a bright but somehow cold and pale neon pastel-toned New York. Astro Boy, however, is depicted in heavy accentuated colors contrasting sharply with the soft tones of the background. This contrast extends to form and texture. Astro Boy's smooth, simplified form, as if cut from a comic book, contrasts with the more detailed and textured realistic depiction of people and urban landscapes. These differences express the disparities and barriers experienced by immigrants in a new environment. In his works, the Astro Boy is visible but invisible and exists not on a fluid, hybrid 'border' as discussed by Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture (1994), but on the 'edge' with nowhere else to go.

A different Astro Boy emerges in the works made from discarded cardboard. New Yorkers who were bright and lively in the oil paintings appear monochrome and dim within the dark cardboards, representing marginalized New York. As a 3D figure, Astro Boy occupies the space with a much stronger presence than within a flat image and empathizes with his surroundings as a fellow marginalized being. In the original animation, despite the continual discrimination by humans, Astro Boy’s heart persisted in protecting humans. The artist may be more closely represented by the Astro Boy within the cardboard—a lonely, fearful, but empathetic little hero among other marginalized beings as he knew in the past. 

Kim’s "Unfamiliar Time, Unfamiliar Space" explores the immigrant experience through the concepts of boundary and otherness. The artist exists on this boundary, but it could either be an edge pushed to the end of a border existing simultaneously in two places. He investigates the possibility of breaking down boundaries, which may be accomplished through the pursuit of empathy with others. Kim’s exhibition encourages understanding complex, multilayered lives on the boundary and listening to their stories. The works connect us to the wider world from within our boundaries.

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