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Subversion and Enunciation in Kim Ku-lim’s Performance

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작성자ART 댓글 0건 조회 188회 작성일 19-04-06 16:19

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Subversion and Enunciation in Kim Ku-lim’s Performance

Lee Sook-kyung


“If an artist spends most of his time in making a number of objects, he doesn’t have time to extract the whole concept from the work. A true artist should be able to read the expression of existing world that is distant from objects or thoughts.”



When Kim Ku-lim’s performance From Phenomenon to Traces was presented in April 1970 with a subtitle ‘An Event with Fire and Lawn’, Kim had been already widely known as an ‘avant-garde’ artist who consciously challenged artistic conventions and expectations. His interests in new artistic genres such as mail art and land art, which were unfamiliar terms to some of his contemporaries, were symptomatic of a desire for experimental art that was shared by many Korean artists at the time. The degree of understanding of and response to experimental practice in art from mass media and the public was rather limited, but young Korean artists including Kim were highly motivated by the notion of innovation as a key concept for their practice.


The development of Korean art had been increasingly rapid and progressive since the end of the Korean War, and emerging artists began to establish small groups including ‘Creation Art Association’ and ‘Modern Art Association’ in the late-1950s. Western inspired terms like ‘modern art’ and ‘avant-garde’ started to emerge as significant terms, and modernist aesthetics focused on originality and innovation earned immediate currency amongst young artists. The new generation of artists challenged the traditional nature of painting in particular. They replaced a figurative tendency revered by then established art system with an abstract one that was perceived as new and innovative, and subsequently focused on the materiality of painting such as canvas and paint.


Kim’s paintings from the 1960s reflected such a situation but also indicated where the trajectory of painting would head in the near future. He employed burnt plastic alongside oil paint in the work Nucleus (1962), showing organic and somewhat arbitrary forms. In the painting Work 8-63 (1963), Kim attempted to destroy the continuity and homogeneity of white surface by adding torn newspapers and metal bits. The seminal concepts of his practice like creation through destruction and innovation through challenge and negation were already present in these early paintings.


Juxtaposition and synchronisation of media


Kim Ku-lim’s approach to artistic media and genres has consistently been interdisciplinary. The convention of differentiating genres in art never appealed to Kim, while the emergence of relatively new disciplines like installation, video art and happening was perceived by him in a wider context of avant-garde or experimental art. The artist explained, “I do not feel bound by media, and my decisions about media are always spontaneous and accommodating. My ideas and philosophies should convey themselves independent of media”, emphasising the way ideas determine suitable media rather than the other way round. Furthermore, the boundary of chosen media keeps shifting in his work, alternating the states of connecting and separating beyond the given medium’s material and conceptual definition. For instance, Still Life (1979) creates a three dimensional painting by combining a flat canvas with painted ready-made objects, and Shovel (1974) transforms a brand new shop-bought product into a seemingly well-worn tool with painterly illusions.


The two years of 1969 and 1970 witnessed a remarkable focus and energy in Kim’s work. He was inclined to explore new forms of artistic expression less exposed to the artistic community, while seeking collaborations and collective practice involving other artists. The act of creation began to move from the realm of individuals to the one of collectives around this time and the site of appreciation for art work also expanded from private encounters to public and social experiences. Such an environment offered an ideal basis for Kim’s experiments and the emerging sense of solidarity amongst like-minded artists.


The juxtaposition and synthesis of media were not limited to visual art for Kim, as he began to integrate other art forms such as theatre, film, literature and fashion in his work. The Meaning of 1/24 Second was a film work he created in 1969 but it negated the traditional filmic language by using performance-inspired acting and non-narrative montage style editing. Moreover, the film’s emphasis on visual images and rhythms showed more affinities with visual art than conventional films. The artist continued a practice that sought a synchronisation rather than a segregation of diverse media, taking crucial roles in the fields of theatre and performing art.


The 16 mm film The Meaning of 1/24 Second was in fact Kim’s second experimental film work. He had just shot an 8 mm film, which apparently was quite similar to the second one in its non-narrative style, fragmented images and seemingly insignificant actions by unknown actors. An article in Weekly Kyung-hyang (jugan kyung-hyang) titled ‘The Korean happening group making a nude film’ reported the first film. According to the article, the film showed an urban woman getting bored, getting naked and then making out with a man who appears without an explanation. The report went on explaining a few facts that the artists decided not to premier the work deeming it a failure, a new film was on its way presenting only one man who would show a modern man’s boredom, and it would be projected onto ‘objects’ rather than on a screen.


According to Kim Ku-lim who led the project while also directing both films, the shooting of the first 8 mm film was ceased when the heroine disappeared with fears over her nude scenes, and the completion of The Meaning of 1/24 Second also faced several difficulties including a serious threat from the film world which did not appreciate the unconventional nature of Kim’s films. Despite such hostilities from the existing arts world and the negative tone of media interests, the second film was scheduled to premier on 21 July 1969 at the Academy Music Hall. Unfortunately a technical problem prohibited the successful screening of the film in the end, but the artists showed another projection work they had prepared for such an occasion, and transformed themselves into a moving screen wearing white tops and tights while walking around a number of square columns. They achieved their original aim of challenging conventions of film such as story, conversation, acting and two-dimensional screen eventually. The work effectively demonstrated Kim’s desire for being free from media-bound thinking, and engendered a possibility that the assumed inherent qualities and unique expressions of particular medium might indeed be only conventional and arbitrary rather than fixed.


Collapse of institutional realms


Kim’s performance has often been bound with a creation of specific situations in an everyday space and the interruption of institutional situations, rather than the body and the presence of the artist himself. In Body Painting presented in 1969, the artist painted the arms and legs of women models, transforming their bodies to a pictorial arena. While referring Yves Klein’s performances where female bodies become painterly tools, Kim’s work distanced itself from the connotation of violence or expression. Instead it showed that even painting, a medium regarded as one of the most traditional artistic media, could become a radical expressive medium when given the right context.


Another work by Kim titled Zen, shown at the Art Association Exhibition in the summer of 1970, also emphasised the importance of a radical concept through his own performance. The artist used cut down tree trunks to make a kind of elevated plinth and covered the lower half of the trunks with white fabric. It was an independent art work in its own right but also became the stage of Kim’s performance on the opening day of the exhibition. He sat on the top of the work only wearing his under ware, as if he was carrying out a session of meditation. As the title also suggested, the work and the performance made a reference to ‘Zen’, which was a familiar notion to Korean audience who understood the iconology of Buddhism and Taoist philosophy. With the artist’s bodily interaction, the clear yet somewhat abstract message of the work embraced a concrete and physical dimension of the meaning.


Kim presented Relics of Mass Media in the autumn of 1969 which was a collaboration with Kim Cha-seop. The work challenged the limitation of the institutional aspect of art world and moved the site of performance from the producing subject to the receiving subject in the form of postal mail. It was an attempt to test a new way of artistic communication by posting three consecutive letters to one hundred acquaintances, but resulted an unexpected psychological effect as well. The first and second letter contained the envelopes with each artist’s name separately and there were torn papers with anonymous finger prints in the envelopes. The third letter had a message from both artists, saying “You appreciated Relics of Mass Media a day ago”. The purpose of this collective performance was to prove the artists’ points that the meaning of an art work is complete in the realm of reception not creation, and the individual and subjective interpretation of the work by the viewer is as important as the original intention of the artist. The recipients were reluctant participants at best, since unilaterally selected by the artists regardless of their willingness. Their responses varied widely from curiosity, unpleasantness and threat to disinterestedness, and the artists perceived such responses as the proof of their argument that the meaning of the art should be determined by the viewer as well as the artist.


Kim staged a performance on 15 May in 1970 at the entrance of the Faculty of Humanities at the Seoul National University. It was organised by Kim with Jung Chan-seung and Bang Jeo-geo (a.k.a. Bang Tae-soo) in the form of a street campaign instead of postal mail. The artists distributed a big envelop that consisted of four smaller envelopes and they were supposed to be open in the order of the numbers. The work contained more instructive messages than Relic of Mass Media did, and the first message said “Open the envelop number 1 at 8:40 pm on 15 May”, followed by such instructions as to drink the enclosed powder with water, to use the enclosed broken condom and to breathe in a specific way. The last envelop included the message “Number 1 Work by Kim Ku-lim Stem, Number 2 Work by Jung Chan-seung Condom, Number 3 Work produced by Bang Jeo-geo 0=1+1-1-1x1”. The three artists presented another performance of installing hundreds of balloons the next day on a footbridge near Shinsegae Department Store. A footbridge became an art work while the passers-by became not only the viewer but also the subject of the performance, and the quotidian site was transformed to the site of an art work and of an artistic communication. The two performances were also the materialisation of new art forms, performance as an instruction and installation art.


The collective dimension of artistic actions


With a number of colleagues in the various fields of arts such as theatre, fashion and music as well as visual art, Kim established The Fourth Group on 20 June in 1970. The group proposed interdisciplinary collaboration and socially motivated and progressive arts, and represented an aspiration for artistic experimentations and social expressions. They consciously avoided the use of the term ‘association’ often used by artistic groups, insisting that ‘group’ stands for more democratic and inclusive values. ‘The 4th Manifesto’ outlined the cause and aim of the group’s establishment and its principles, “We hereby declare the liberation of human beings and the independence of pure Korean culture. We integrate all arts with the principle of non-being and establish a unified system across politics, economics, society, culture, science and religion by direct participations.”


The group’s leader Kim organised their first performance in the streets of Myung-dong on 1 July, with other board members including Jung Chan-seung, Bang Jeo-geo and Sohn Il-gwang. The performance was held at the New Seoul Beer Hall, a footbridge near Shinsegae Department Store and the National Theatre, all in Myung-dong, then the most flourishing district of Seoul. Following Kim’s script, Jung Chan-seung, Ho Koh and other artists began actions, while wearing signboards carrying messages like “How are you going to prove that you are a virgin?” and “Looking for my lost self”. The event could not be completed as the artists got arrested and referred to a summary trial under the road traffic law, but they showed a glimpse of what integrated arts might be through the performance.


On 15 August same year, The Fourth Group gathered on the occasion of the Liberation Day of Korea. The event began at Sajik Park with a public reading of their manifesto and was followed by a procession to Han River carrying a flower-decorated coffin, Korean national flags and some white flags. The procession symbolised the funeral of existing culture unable to be free from out-dated thoughts. However, the artists were once again taken into the police under the road traffic law, and the press responded negatively to their intention as an example of typically inapprehensible art.


Shortly after its inauguration, The Fourth Group had to cease its existence due to intensive interrogation from intelligence services. Within the social environment of the time where anti-communism and the protection of the establishment were the highest priorities, the group was easily perceived as dissident and pro-communist with its militant resistance to the established art and the propaganda-like happenings in public places. Such a situation ultimately made the group’s key members like Kim and Jung move to Japan and the US respectively. However, their choice of public space for artistic manifestation, their interdisciplinary approach to diverse art genres and their emphasis on the creative and expressive process rather than the art work as an end product were already showing that the centre of artistic discourse had begun to shift from object to concept.


From Phenomenon to Traces


The series of Kim’s work From Phenomenon to Traces showed that the materiality of the art work and the performativity of art act are fundamentally bound up with the notion of temporality. As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the performance with the subtitle of ‘The event with fire and lawn’ was the artist’s attempt to realise what he called ‘the art separated from object and thought’. The event was the action of burning the sloping lawn of 22 meter width and 100 meter length on the bank of Han River near Seoul’s Dduk-seom area. Art critic Kwang-su Oh explained the work in the event’s leaflet as following:


Kim Ku-lim’s From Phenomenon to Traces … is exemplary in demonstrating the de-materialisation of art, which resists the idea of unique materiality of an art work. The burnt lawn will leave traces with black marks. And the space will gradually become green and the traces of burnt areas will disappear. Here, we understand it is possible to realise an art work without mass and volume, and the subtle visual statement where time, space and action combine will appear.


Moreover, Oh described the action ‘Earthwork’ and linked Kim’s vanguard work that “leaps out of art museums and galleries to seek materials in the limitless land and prepares an arena of actions” with the context of contemporary international artistic trends.


For the first Korean Art Grand Prize exhibition held at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Kim installed a work titled From Phenomenon to Traces, which wrapped the entire building of the museum with cotton cloth. By binding the museum building with rolls of fabric as if binding small objects, and by burying the each end of the cotton cloth in the ground dug up in the shape of a coffin, the artist emphasised the metaphors of a corpse and tomb. He explains, “Christo’s wrapping covers buildings until they disappear but my work stemmed from the idea of embalming and burying the museum like a corpse that represents the out-dated art world.” The museum de-installed the work against the artist’s disagreement, claiming it reminded people of a house in mourning. Ironically the museum’s response was based on the right reading of the artist’s intention of referring a funeral.


Another work under the same title of From Phenomenon to Traces was shown at this exhibition, which consisted of three plastic red containers, blocks of ice in different sizes and tracing papers in the shape of the tops of the ice blocks. The work focused on the process of the object’s transition from solid ice to liquid water and to vapour, and questioned whether the change of the art work’s physical character should be perceived as the fundamental change of the work itself. An unrealised work due to the museum’s objection, a wall mounted ice block wrapped in cotton cloth, was intended to look like a sweating bundle. Employing ice as a medium that looses its original appearance in a relatively short time, these works problematised such concepts as an art work that is complete, the art work as an object and the art work that is permanent.


While a number of Kim’s radical activities including the ones related to The Fourth Group were bound up with negation and resistance, the main concerns in the works like the series From Phenomenon to Traces were concerned with art’s inherent issues rather than political or social ones. The conservative art world of the time didn’t allow Kim’s artistic enquiries and aspiration for changes to be explored within its realm. The artist’s own preference of everyday sites such as Myung-dong or the banks of Han River to the traditional art venues like art museums and galleries also contributed to the sustained exclusion of his questions within the boundaries of art discourse. After more than forty years, we are now witnessing a context where interdisciplinary art practice and the art beyond ‘white cube’ are no longer triggers for debates but regarded as given, natural conditions. Kim’s practice is finally valued for its radical experimentalism well ahead of his time. The lingering criticism of post-liberation Korean art based on the claims that it followed Western art without critical considerations and became derogative in undertaking international modernism can also be challenged, since Kim’s practice contemporaneous to international undercurrent provides us with a firm ground to rethink the history of modern and contemporary Korean art with a just and objective perspective.


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