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Kim Ku-lim: Touching Base

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작성자ART 댓글 0건 조회 275회 작성일 19-03-28 08:59

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Kim Ku-lim: Touching Base


Joan Kee



In 1970, Kim Ku-lim performed Zen, the best-known image of which was of the artist sitting cross-legged on a severed tree stump perched in turn on a tent-like, conical swath of canvas. The image situates the viewer almost directly at the foot of the canvas cone, compelling us to imagine ourselves there, tilting our heads back to see Kim sit on the stump. Two things make themselves clear: one is verticality and the other is the emphasis on the pedestal, or base. Kim almost goes out of his way to draw attention to the fact that the base is repeated twice, the intentionality emphasized by the amputated stump.


This attention to the base deserves further scrutiny, as both an artistic trope and as a metaphor for the priorities advanced by his early work from approximately the early 1960s to the early 1970s. On the one hand, the prominent attention given to the base in Zen called display into question as a matter of judgment: what does it mean to segregate a given object or subject from the ground on which it otherwise stands? The urgency of the question was intensified by the extent to which the state commissioned public sculptures that sat upon elongated plinths, from photographer Kim Han-yong’s unlikely portrait of a newlywed couple standing at the base of a statue of Rhee Syng-man to Kim Se-choong’s widely contested effigy of Admiral Yi Sun-shin on a lofty stone plinth at the crossroads of central Seoul. The base offered a concrete means through which to consider the friction generated by the alignments and discrepancies between the state’s instrumentalist views of art and artists working both within and outside such views. At the same time, the base is an apt metaphor for thinking about what might be described as the tactical thrust of Kim’s attention to materials. In his works is a will to activate viewers’ capacity to make contact—to touch base—with the world so that it becomes more than a given or a consensus.


His intentions are made plain in Death of Sun 2 Created in 1964, it is a rectangular wooden panel first painted a rich black that appears to shine under overhead, or direct illumination. On this panel, Kim attached an expanse of thin black vinyl, upon which he subsequently bonded small plastic washers, thin plates with holes in the middle and often used to prevent leaks or corrosion. He set fire to the washers, which caused them to melt partially and fuse permanently to the surface of the vinyl and panel. Using gasoline, Kim drew a large circle on the panel, which he also set on fire, resulting in s a surface of variegated textures.


Initially conceived as a pair, Death of Sun 2 is among the first artworks in Korea to recognize as central the commodity nature of the art object. This is not to say that Kim was the first to recognize that the artwork could, or as was all too well-known by abstract painters in sixties South Korea, could not, be exchanged for other instruments of value, but that he was among the first to make central the relationship between the realm of the artwork and the realm that revolved around the production and consumption of material goods. The best-known example of this relationship is arguably U.S. Pop Art, about which Thomas Crow has written that the “scandalous” juxtaposition of high and low calls into question the “‘normal’ hierarchy of cultural legitimacy.” Death of Sun 2 evokes this in at least two ways: one pertains to Kim’s decision to foreground the washers by placing them at the very heart of pictorial space, and by allowing them to remain recognizable as such.


When Death of Sun 2 was first shown in 1967 in “Art Culture Invitational,” a group show at the Public Information Center in the southern port city of Pusan, Kim held a managerial position at a textile factory during which he made several works that incorporated parts gleaned from the factory floor, including threaders and needles. It was still some five years before South Korea would experience what one commentator would dub as the “golden age of Korean cotton spinning,” but spinning, weaving, and other businesses related to the textile industry was among the most important pillars upon which South Korea based its hopes of industrialization and economic development.


But Death of Sun 2 was far from being a celebratory representation of South Korean industrial success. In 1964, South Korean textile and spinning factories faced many difficulties, including obsolete, or old equipment. The washers Kim used were discarded remnants that could no longer fulfill their original purpose. Also notable was the way in which Death of Sun 2 projects forward an image of defacement. Such defacement intimated destruction of the kind that resonated throughout South Korean abstraction, particularly during the Korean War and the immediate years thereafter. While the symbolism of these images as a reflection of wartime destruction and postwar social instability has been frequently iterated, in 1964, the event of defacement had a much different inflection. Death of Sun 2 is destruction without apparent cause, an impression supported by the response of one viewer, who, after having seen the work, “violently recoiled from it, angrily demanded to know who in hell would consider this as art.” The violence of this reaction suggests that the work too openly defied expectations of what an artwork should be, a question which within the Korean art world was defined in terms of what art could do: what it could represent, or what it could give back to the viewer in the way of pleasurable sensation.


Most striking of all was how Kim recognized the art object’s commodity nature was the juxtaposition of black vinyl, a material that could be cheaply procured in early sixties South Korea, with oil paint, an expensive substance by then inextricably associated with notions of fine art. The divide between fine art and the quotidian was further made palpable by the addition of a wooden frame to the work some years later. Relatively wide, the frame clearly distinguishes the events taking place within its borders from the realm outside. The wooden panel is set apart as a unique object, but the use of the washers and vinyl, along with the very unmarketable nature of abstraction in South Korea, brings it back to the realm of the every yet still-prevalent day.


Kim, together with many other artists active in the 1960s nevertheless wanted their works to be seen outside the domain of the everyday is evidenced by their tenacious adherence to the terminology of “high art”: in contrast to the small, but lively cadre of performance artists wanting to bridge the gap between art and life, or to several ink painters who regarded their works as belonging to a greater literati tradition altogether removed from the realm of art, abstract painters insisted that they be known as artists (chakka), and their works as art (misul). Yet they were bound to the everyday world in a way that many of their peers were not. It was not unusual to see newspaper, cigarette butts, barbed wire or other effluvia culled from the so-called “everyday” treated with the same consideration as painting’s more traditional materials of oil and canvas, or ink and paper. Throughout Korean abstraction was an earnestness which diverged sharply from the appropriations of the Nouveau Réalistes seeking to bring art and life closer together, or the symbiosis of “high” and “low” propagated within Pop Art. This earnestness was not naivete, but instead a reflection of the degree to which abstraction itself was already imbued with social purpose by means of the materials with which artists had to work.


And here we encounter another definition of the base, which for Kim also covered the ground on which things stand as perhaps best exemplified in his so-called “earthworks” such as From Phenomenon to Traces, executed in April 1970. By treating the ground as an active presence rather than taking it for granted, Kim implied a refusal of the verticality endorsed by the state as a metaphor of its own claims to authority through such examples as the many elevated highways and high-rise buildings constructed in the late 1960s and early 1970s and concurrently promoted through photographs published in both special interest magazines and the mainstream press. The state emphasized this verticality in the commemorative statues it commissioned as well as through the kinds of works chosen to represent contemporary Korean sculpture in the state’s official annual salon, the Kukcho‿n. Arguably Korea’s most influential venue for contemporary art from the end of the Korean War to the mid-1960s, the Kukcho‿n and its juries defined sculpture as discrete stone or metal objects mounted on stable pedestals which separated the artwork from the ground. Conversely, Kim presented objects whose operation depended on placing the object directly on the ground so as to incorporate the viewer as a crucial element in the work’s realization. The ground was thus a critical platform on which to imagine a psychological and physical space that might enable a general public to perceive the world as scaled according to their own proportions and reactions and not to the agendas imposed by external agents for whom the public existed only as an undifferentiated mass.


The broader implications of this approach took shape after he joined The Fourth Group in June 1970. A gathering of visual artists, a fashion designer, a scriptwriter, a journalist, and even a Buddhist monk, the group’s chosen mode of operation was performance, which often parroted the elaborate formal structures on which the increasingly authoritarian South Korean state seemed to depend. The group issued a set of “Regulations” that mimicked the format of the state’s constitution. Divided into articles and paragraphs, the group’s “Regulations” also provided for national committees, upper committees, middle committees, and lower committees.8 The increasingly arcane divisions provided in these regulations certainly registered as parody and was intended to work as such, yet these rules also foregrounded the extent to which it was impossible it was to operate as a social entity without also recalling how any such operation was then inscribed by the law. Challenged by dissenters at home and by the North as viscerally evinced by the Blue House Raid of 1968, Park Chung-hee’s authoritarian state leaned heavily on the rule of law in its anxious bid to shape civil society according to its own instrumentalist ends. Yet by 1970 it became apparent that it was not only the enforcement of laws that mattered, but the forms through which that enforcement took place. One recalls, for instance, the notorious Haircut Ordinance which yielded a flurry of highly publicized photographs of policemen playing impromptu barber to young men whose hair was deemed too long to adhere to unspoken standards of what the state called public “morality.” In their “Regulations,” The Fourth Group took particular aim at how the state perpetuated their authority through the structures generated by the enactment of rules; the rule mattered because of its capacity to sever, divide, and diminish, using as its alibi the promises of equality and order.


That the “Regulations” were not explicitly presented as artworks per se further highlights The Fourth Group’s recognition of the rapidly fraying boundary dividing art from everyday life, a boundary that itself became the subject of numerous artists’ works in the wake of increasing state censorship and limitations on public assembly. Echoing Kim’s efforts to actively utilize the extra-artistic world as his medium in works such as Relics of Mass Media, his 1969 mail-art collaboration with Tchah- sup Kim, the Group took their art outside the gallery, choosing to stage their performances in some of the most crowded, and thus, public, areas of Seoul, including Sinsegye Department Store and Myo‿ngdong. The choice of sites was not coincidence; as Kim recalled some years later, the group “tried to erase the gap between the arts and the public.” Most illuminating in this regard was Funeral for Established Culture and Art, a performance took place on the country’s most important national holiday, August 15. Just as August 15 commemorated the liberation of Korea from Japanese rule, it would also be the date when Korean culture too would be freed.

To this end, five members (Kim, Cho‿ng Ch’an-so‿ng, Cho‿ng Kang-ja, Kang Kuk-jin and Son Il-gwang) decided to stage a “funeral” of “the wrongheaded system of the establishment.” The proceedings began in Sajik Park in downtown Seoul, not far from the U.S. Embassy, and home to another statue commissioned by the state, this time of Sin Saimdang, the Choso‿n paragon of womanly virtue. A coffin shrouded by the Korean flag was to be carried from the park along Seoul’s most heavily trafficked avenue, towards Kwanghwamun, the main gate of the main royal residence. The performance cut a sharp contrast with the kind of public art then endorsed by the state as part of its efforts to will into being a nation behind which its citizens, or, given the increasingly repressive atmosphere of the times, its hostages, could reasonably support. In short, the performance forced the question of what public art in authoritarian Korea was, or rather, could be.


The Fourth Group freely acknowledged an essential dependence on the immense masses and movements of the city—and above all, the ground. The methodical pace of the tightly arranged procession (whose participants were evenly separated by a distance wide enough to deflect accusations of wrongful public assembly, then a serious crime under Park’s increasingly wary regime) contrasted with both the fast, free-flowing swarms of people enjoying a rare day off from work and the stock photography of streets used in daily newspapers which show off the bustling metropolis, albeit in a state of permanent deep freeze. It was the different rates of movement that caught the attention of police, who were quickly dispatched to stop the procession. Detained at the police station at Namdaemun, the young performers were taken to a corrections bureau in Yo‿ngdo‿ngp’o, where they were found guilty of obstructing traffic and violating street laws.


That they were unable to convince the police that the performance was in fact art was tellingly symptomatic of the state’s insistence on re-aggregating its constituent domains—the distinction between art and “real life” was duly invalidated so that the state could more readily consolidate its authority over both. According to the letter of the law, the group’s transgression was relatively minor. Yet the repercussions were disproportionately great, a symptom of the state’s pathological unwillingness to have its own forms of order disrupted by even the smallest or most temporary kinds of interventions. Kim recalled being harassed and followed by a police detective for about six months, while the KCIA allegedly raided his father’s house. The surprising harshness of the state towards this particular work suggests its deeper anxiety regarding what the notion of an “avant-garde” meant in authoritarian Korea: a claim to a society where the exercise of personal freedoms—the rights of expression and public assembly—was possible. An essay that appeared in the Kyonghyang Sinmun a few weeks after the group’s performance suggested as much; the anonymous author bemoaned the lack of a larger avant-garde culture in Korea that he or she insinuated was actively suppressed by the state through laws like the infamous Haircut Ordinance. Implicitly comparing Korea’s lack of an avant-garde with that in Western Europe and the U.S., the brief article strongly implied that true experimentation could only happen in a free society, which Korea at that time was decidedly not.


Yet the group’s arrest also hinted at the possibility of art’s capacity for social intervention, short-lived as that intervention might be. Like the most interesting artists working under political and social duress, Kim never deluded himself into thinking that art could operate in the same way as a political demonstration or protest. The truth he championed was simple yet provocative: that action must first begin by recognizing where we are based and that we make contact on a shared plane. This he astutely pursued not only through his works and performances, but perhaps even more significantly through their documentation. Few artists were as attuned to the possibilities offered by photographs and their subsequent circulation in the media as was Kim, whose performances and events in the late 1960s and early 1970s were best experienced as photographs. Reproduced and thus viewed repeatedly, these images generated a circuit linking the artist to his contemporaries and a potentially infinite multitude of viewers so as to lay open the possibility of a public that could exist outside the mandates of the state. For Kim, it was of paramount importance to involve viewers in a way that shifted onto us the challenge of laying claim to that which had preemptively co-opted by a state whose interests were not always in alignment with those of its citizens. Such was the obligation Kim asks of himself and of his viewers—a request that ensured that his works retained their charge long after the sirens stopped wailing and the gallery lights turned off.


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