The peculiar sensation that unfolds when encountering Kim Minjung’s mixed media work comes from the realisation that these flat surfaces are in fact three-dimensional constructs. They are layers of paper that have been painstakingly built one atop the other, each small piece hand-cut and burnt along the edges or perforated with holes using a lit incense stick. Kim has made this paper layering technique her signature since 1998, and soon thereafter also began layering ink or watercolours in her paintings. The stained edges of each painted layer appear like actual layers, imbuing the paintings with a physicality that is entirely illusory.
East Asian painting prescribes that every brushstroke should embody the spiritual essence and vitality of the subject, and balance space and presence to create a unified whole. The expression of nothingness to make a whole perhaps finds its best articulation in Kim’s ‘Mountain’ series, with paintings made from the repetition of a single undulating stroke. The resulting image hovers between non-representation and monumental forms evocative of its subject matter. Guided by the fundamental Taoist principle of attaining equilibrium between Yin and Yang, void and fullness, ‘Mountain’ captures the Taoist beliefs that lie at the heart of Kim’s practice.
Born in 1962, Gwangju, South Korea, Kim Minjung studied Oriental painting at Hongik University in Seoul, the country’s foremost arts institution. Her Master’s thesis focused on the four material elements of ink painting: paper, brush, ink and inkstone. In 1991 she moved to Italy to study modern Western artists who had drawn influence from Eastern art, such as Franz Kline and Paul Klee. What these Western artists and East Asian painting shared was a belief that gesture and form held profound spiritual and expressive value. This shared belief underpins Kim’s artistic practice of combining Western collage techniques and use of colour with the metaphysical approach of East Asian art.
Nevertheless, it is the Korean aesthetic philosophy of Dansaekhwa that is most prominently reflected in her works. The methodical, labour-intensive mode of art it advocates is echoed in Kim’s time-consuming layering technique. Dansaekhwa, or Monochrome Painting, was a key artistic movement in Korea during the 1970s to 1980s that today is the focus of much international interest. Its proponents regarded form, materiality and repetitive process as a means to distill a Korean aesthetic essence. Korean Hanji paper, Korean pigments and earthy colours recalling the Korean landscape and traditional buildings were used in pursuit of this goal.
More than a quarter century since Kim left Korea, she continues to use only Korean ink and Korean mulberry Hanji paper, which she likens to her own skin. Her choice of materials reflects her deep sense of home longing and rootedness in Korean identity. It is thus apt that for the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès art space Aloft, the first artist exhibited in 2017 under the theme ‘Reflection’ is Kim Minjung.
Dedicated to explorations in contemporary art, Aloft is one of five international art spaces under the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès, which supports the creative talents of individuals and organisations. Each year, Aloft presents a themed exhibition series featuring new work by two artists. Presently in its tenth year, this year’s theme ‘Reflection’ is an invitation to both remember the past and ruminate on the future. Art Republik speaks with Kim Minjung about her work and artistic journey, and her views on the role of art today.
Both your painted and mixed media work are like a palimpsest of time and effort, with their extensive build up of layers. In relation to the theme “Reflection”, of looking back to the past, back in time. Could you explain how you approached the paintings?
The ‘Mountain’ series is especially meditative and philosophical. Years ago, while I was staying near a cliff at a seaside town, I heard sounds of waves all the time. I began to visualise the sound of waves. I started thinking of the origin of sea and nature because when god created them, he formed them in ways that have been unchanged through time. When I paint in layers, I have to wait for each layer to be completely dry. The motion is repeated again and again, just as how nature is eternal and infinite. Unexpectedly, I realised that when the layers are disassembled, they look like the sea but when assembled, they recall mountains. The sea, mountains, land and even man was one at the beginning of world.
On looking back, as an artist whose formative years occurred during the militarisation, democratic uprising, and clash of social realist and abstract art in South Korea, how have those events shaped your practice?
My practice is generally about my personal narrative, which has been largely affected by Korea’s socio-political issues. I left Korea in 1992 and have lived mostly in Italy, but the period from 1960 to the 1990s when I lived in Korea was a time of fevered democratic movements and dramatic economic growth. Many of my generation in Korea suffered from the huge changes we experienced. When I was in art college during the 1980s, student activism was rife. Many artists joined the ‘Minjung art’ or ‘People’s art’ movement against government militarisation, demanding democracy. At the same time, Dansekhwa and avant-garde performance art by senior artists was also developing.
However, artists are creators, not reporters. Some feel that good art is art that directly reflects the world and provokes, but I do not think that is art. Traditionally, artists served as a bridge connecting god and man. We have to create something new, not report what is happening.
Your aesthetics and philosophical approach recall Dansaekhwa, in particular the work of leading Dansaekhwa painters Park Seo Bo, Chung Chang Sup and Chung Sang Hwa. You were studying painting while Dansekhwa was emerging in the 1970s and 1980s. How did it impact your artistic development?
My university professors were now-established Dansaekhwa masters, so naturally they influenced me. Dansaekhwa itself looks very flat and minimalist but it is fundamentally about repeating acts of labour and the process of painting. It has a profound depth, and is completely different from Western Minimalism. Similarly, through repetition, I empty my mind and I meditate throughout my actions. Dansaekhwa may look like a very calm and peaceful aesthetic but it indirectly conveys the very powerful and provocative statement that simplicity or clarity can be derived from repeated action. In the context of Korea’s chaotic socio-political situation during the time, Dansaekhwa represented a form of escapism and speaking out.
Do you thus see your practice as somewhat continuing the Dansaekhwa mentality?
Yes and no. Obsessively repeating certain motions, such as painting layers, collaging papers, burning papers, is very like Dansaekhwa. I often hear my work called post-Dansaekhwa though, and I have never intended that. The subject of my practice has always been my own personal history and its changing narrative. It is more about my longing for home since I migrated to Italy; my practice is almost like my life’s series of encounters and farewells. The Korean traditional papers and inks are the best materials I can use to express my story and identity. Ultimately, I cannot really say that Dansaekhwa is a direct influence on my work but as I grew up with it and was taught by Dansaekhwa masters, it is difficult for me to ascertain.
Could you share with me more about your choice of colours and its significance in the ‘Mountain’ series? Black and red are very primal, sensual colours that contrast from the muted colour palette of your mixed media works.
The concept of colour is simply the retina’s perception of light, it is not an important issue to me at all. Without light, everything is black and white. The mountains in the series are imaginary mountains. In fact, they could be ocean waves. It is the abstract object of my imagination; hence I do not feel the need to paint in particular colours. Visually, red is the strongest colour, followed by black. I wanted to examine the two types of colours on the ‘Mountain’ series. I experimented with other colours but red had the greatest clarity of expression.
The serenity of your aesthetics is strongly juxtaposed against the world in crisis today. It also contrasts with the emotionally, politically charged art that is increasingly emerging. Your striving for equilibrium between void and fullness evokes the Taoist concept of non-action, the “effortless doing within the flow of things”. Laozi said that the state of non-action enables a return to harmonious things. Do you think that your work, or art, can still achieve that today?
I am pretty sure it can. I believe that gentleness and quietude send stronger messages than loud action. There are three ways of practising art: the first is to speak out directly, the second is indirect expression, and the third is escaping from the reality. We may now live with political conflict, poverty, and terrorism but there has never been a peaceful era in all of human history. Political works analyse what is directly happening now and I know that such art plays an important role. However, I occasionally feel confused about the difference between art and journalism. In my opinion, art should give pleasure and emphasize emotion, whether bad or good, to its viewer, especially in chaotic situations. That is why most people look at, and to art. My art may look very peaceful and tend to concept of non-action as you said, but I live in the same world as everyone. I do not think every artist needs to speak in the same language; I respond to the world, just in my own language.
Have these contemporary issues affected how you think about your practice? If so, how?
To be honest, I do not take the term “contemporary” seriously. We should not have to deliberately think about contemporaneity; contemporary means the time and space we are all living in now! I am conscious of all the issues currently surrounding me, naturally. I read the news everyday and am constantly checking it all the time. My friends and I sometimes discuss and critique these issues but I do not want them to be directly reflected in my work. The issues I choose to reflect in my practice are always first filtered by my personal perspective and artistic language.
‘Oneness’ will be shown at Aloft at Hermès at Liat Towers, from April 27 to July 30.
This article was written by Rachel Ng and originally published in Art Republik.