Chuyoung Lee, Associate Curator
National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
Korean Beauty: Two Kinds of Nature aims to examine the original perspectives and aesthetics of contemporary Korean artists. In this exhibition, the viewers will be able to observe the distinctiveness, universality and creative aesthetics of contemporary Korean art.
Even in this present day when contemporary Korean art is characterized by its diversity and use of a wide range of modes of expression, the public tends to confine the concept of “Korean beauty” to several hundred year old traditional artifacts such as Buddhist statues, stupas, ceramic works, and Hanok. Intending to prevent making the error of not being able to discern the unique characteristics of Korean art while being taken away by the present-day tendency to lay emphasis on international university, this exhibition shed light on the artistic originality and distinctive aesthetics of contemporary Korean art.
The subtitle “Two Kinds of Nature” came from the following questions: how Korean artists’ deep thoughts and philosophies on “nature” as the origin of all beings are embodied; what is a common perspective among them. In this exhibition, therefore, are unfolded the artists’ warm attitudes towards and empathies for “nature” and the world of “another nature” created on the basis of their deep contemplations and understandings of the fundamental attributes and essence of “nature”.
“Nature,” which has contained itself through the process of generation and degeneration, has been the constant source of creative “inspiration” to all the artists throughout the world. In the simple forms of abstract works in which artists’ thoughts and understandings of nature are reflected and the subtle expressions of nature that artists captured through empathy and observation, the viewers will discover the aspects of contemporary Korean art’s original aesthetics and artistic visions.
In other words, they will be able to experience the inspirations and expirations of nature that tend to be veiled by the absurd arrogance of man to consider himself as the lord of all creatures, the lingering imageries before our eyes, and the resonances ringing in our ears. Art can be described as a sharpened hatchet that breaks the icy-cold shells of our senses blinded by the intense light of the artificial civilizations and of our thoughts stiffened due to our materialistic thoughts and desires.
Nature 1: Resonance
Gallery 1 focuses on the properties of “nature” as essence and origin. While conveying suggestiveness and metaphor, emptiness, and lingering impression and resonance, the works featured here demonstrate the original “spiritual” aesthetic senses realized in contemporary Korean art.
The extremely simplified forms contain the concentrated energy of the artists who constantly attempted to empty their minds in order to attain certain moments of originality and essentiality while eliminating the intentional, the unnecessary, and the ornamental.
On one of the walls of the gallery are showcased the works influenced by the Korean “white porcelain ware,” especially the aesthetics embodied in moon jars, which have been a unceasing source of inspiration to Korean artists. Contemporary Korean artists have seen the highest perfection of contemporary formal beauty in the mystery of the milky pure white color of moon jars and their ample forms of simple circularity.
Nature 2: Harmony
In the high sky above the huge wall surface that connects Gallery 1 and 2 beautiful clusters of clouds are floating around and a chain of islands on the horizon engender a landscape of remoteness. Wild flowers and weeds sprout from the soil and release the energy of life, and the faces of small rocks jutting above the mirror-like surface of a calm stream and the willow leaves floating on the water purify our minds. The branches of pine trees are reaching for the sky, and the cool breeze through a dense forest of bamboo trees fills the gallery.
Upon entering the gallery after those natural landscapes, one is greeted by the scenes of ordinary people’s lives. The viewers find themselves in the detailed depictions of the multitudes of anonymous city dwellers crossing at the crosswalk and of their neighbors in the subway trains. The video images which show ordinary people’s lives in the identical spaces of thirty two households reveal the mediocre, yet happy lives of our neighbors concealed by the modern life of absent communication in closed spaces.
Standing gallantly against the backgrounds of white walls, the seven “horned artiodactyls” are the artist’s tribute to hoofed animals such as horses, cattle and sheep that played a critical role in the survival of mankind. Especially to Koreans, a bull was more than a farm animal. In the agrarian society, they were the essential source of labor and were considered to commune with human beings.
Selected Artists and Artworks
Lee U-fan, Correspondence
Lee U-fan (1936- ) is a Korean artist who led the art movement called Mono-ha, which was an experimental tendency in modern Japanese art, in terms of both theory and practice. As one of the key artists of contemporary Korean art, he is well known not only to the audiences in Japan and Korea but also in the West for his original artistic interpretation that combined the attributes of the Minimalism and Conceptual Art of the West with Eastern sentiments.
The work entitled Correspondence (1994) metaphorically unfolds the idea of chance and inevitability as well as relationships and encounters through density, location, and direction of single-stroked dots, along with the gradation of colors, allotment of empty space, and relations among the dots. His seemingly random placement of dots on a large-scale pure white canvas, either horizontally or vertically, imbues them with independent and immanent poetic rhythm and at the same time delivers strict orderliness and controlled expression. Consisted of an empty canvas and eight dots, this work entails a kind of incompleteness and thus relates to the realm of nothingness. This painting well exemplifies the artistic philosophy of Lee U-fan that understands art as a phenomenological structure where human and the world intercept one another and envisions a realm where the materiality and ideology come upon each other.
Song Hyun Sook, Two Strokes
Song Hyun Sook (1952- ) went to Germany as a nurse but studied at the University of Fine Arts of Hamburg and is known for her paintings whose simple colors and restrained expression exquisitely reflect the Korean sentiments. Her main interest as an artist is to portray the spirits and emotions peculiar to the Korean people by focusing on the ideas of homeland, people, and tradition. In depicting the sentiments indigenous to Koreans, the artist uses as main subjects such items as stakes, tiled roofs, jars, and rubber shoes that she reflect her childhood spent in her hometown Muwol-ri, Damyang-gun in Jeonnam province. By using the technique of tempera, which is a painting medium comprised of resin pigment mixed with water and vegetable oil, the artist skillfully renders in-depth colors that seem to bear the traces of time and brushwork that exudes powerful energy in a simple and unpretentious manner. Two Strokes (1997) has a simplified pictorial space consisting of two solid brushstrokes on a warm green surface. Without any explanatory element, this simple and muted picture plane evokes extreme tension in the mind of the viewer. This work perfectly represents a modern expression of the traditional Korean aesthetics that put emphasis on the notions of emptiness and subtle overtones.
Bae Bien-U, snm1a-092v
Bae Bien-U (1950- ), who is renowned for his photographs of pine trees in Korea, taught himself photography after majoring in design in college. He was fascinated and greatly influenced by the works of László Moholy-Nagy and Edward Weston. Bae is a world-acclaimed photographer who was commissioned by the Spanish Government to work on the garden of Alhambra palace, which is one of the World Heritage sites, for two years. He is also one of the Korean photographers who were the driving forces behind the rapid growth of the Korean photography scene since the 1990s.
Having delved into the idea of Koreanness, Bae found the resonance in pine trees and began to work on the subject in 1983. Besides the fact that pine is the most common species in Korea, it also has many different symbolisms in the history and culture of Korea. This facilitates the viewers to immerse themselves into the vestiges of the past. Bae usually works at the gate of sunset or sunrise so that he can capture the subtle changes of light. In terms of composition, he stresses linearity. In his black-and-white photographs of pine woods, the glimmers of a breaking dawn coming forward from distance accentuate the lines of the trees, and the delicate changes of tones remind one of a black-ink painting.
Kwon Boo Moon, Naksan
The oeuvre of Kwon Boo Moon (1955- ) mainly consists of photographs that capture the changes in cityscapes and sceneries of countryside during the modernization of Korea in the 1970s. His photographic series that documented the submerged area and Hahoe Village in Andong is of great historical significance. His works since the 1980s have gradually abandoned specific narratives and instead focused on the natural landscapes of mountains, fields, and coastlines.
His Naksan Series, which began in 2005, shows the scenery of the Naksan Beach and is considered as one of his important series. Photographed in heavy snow in February 2010, the images for Naksan is characterized by the use of the vertical frame, detailed depiction of waves and windblown snow, and employment of the large-scale picture plane. The snow-covered seaside at the lower part of the image plays a critical role of liaising between the viewer and the image in the photograph while functioning as an empty space. The very painterly images of Naksan are the outcome of the thorough exclusion of the artist’s gaze and intention and the untouched arrest of nature. In front of these over two-meter photographs that is completely filled with the sea, the sky, and the snow-covered Naksan seashore, the viewer is overwhelmed by the sublimity of nature.
Shin Hyun Jung, For Horned Ungulate
The sculptor Shin Hyun Jung (1953- ) is well known for his sculpture series in which he explores his own curiosity about nature and life and makes intellectual inquiries into the fields of archeology and anthropology in order to give form to the awe attitude towards nature and primal vitality.
His For Horned Ungulate (1995) demonstrates the artist’s interest in the origin of human civilization and warm attitude towards nature and life. This work is the artist’s tribute to artiodactyls, that is, even-toed ungulates such as cattle, horses, and sheep. These animals have provides humans with meat, milk, horns, fur and even labor. The artist chose seven artiodactyls including deer, goats, antelopes, gazelles, and impalas and made sculptures of them by using small pieces of wood. Standing imposingly on the land, these works of artiodactyls attack on the arrogant pride of man who acts as the ruler of the world.
Choi Ho Chul, Uljiro Circular Railway
Choi Ho Chul(1965- ) works in a variety of mediums including painting, illustration, cartoon, and animation without confining himself to any specific genre.
Inspired by Jeong Tae-choon’s song called “Rainy Season 1992 at Jongro,” Choi conceived Uljiro Circular Railway (2000) and went to observe the impoverished hillside area of Bongcheon-dong where ordinary people lead their lives. This work shows the inside and outside scenes of the subway train of the Shindorim Station on the Subway Line 2, one of the busiest stations in Seoul. “At this point in my life, I want to draw nice graffiti on invisible strings attached to the relationships in this world,” said the artist, and here he crowded this large pictorial surface with the many diverse stories of our neighbors. Depicting the daily life of the moderns in a detailed and amiable way, this work reveals the artist’s deep affection for and warm attitude towards our neighbors who are capable of not losing hope and of maintaining the sense of humor in the midst of everyday challenges.