The Virginian Pilot -The Daily Break, January 27, 2000
Sweet Salute, Contemporary Art Center, Virginia Beach, VA
Tribute arose out of artist's desire to freeze his memories of home.
MacArthur, in chocolate.
A well known artist has rendered Gen. Douglas MacArthur in creamy Korean chocolate. At 9 feet, Ik-Joong Kang's statue might keep a pack of hungry children sugar-charged for days. If they were allowed to gnaw in his shoes and slacks.
But the art installation, titled"8490 Days of Memory," is in a please-don't touch-or nibble-gallery.
Tonight, Kang's 7-ton sculpture goes on view at the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia in Virginia Beach. It's part of a show called "Six Degrees of Inspiration," featuring work by prominent immigrant artists. Displayed so close to MacArthur's Norfolk memorial and burial site-and days after his widow passed way-some might think Kang was daring to trivialize the popular, five-star general. The truth is quite he opposite.
"MacArthur is probably most important man in Korean history. He was almost a Super hero too some people," Kang said, speaking last week from his home in Manhattan. "It was surprising that even during the demonstrations against American government in the 1970s, his statue as unharmed by any demonstrator."
Kang didn't experience the Korean War. But growing up, the effects, the stories were vivid to him. Most of his countrymen knew how MacArthur, in 15 days, had overtaken South Korea, bullying Communist forces back across the 38th Parallel.
That was in 1950, a decade before Kang was born. American and Korean cultures were well mixed in the town where Kang grew up-It'ae Won, site of a U.S. Army base. It was unique among Korean town, in the extent to which business catered to American; most signs were in both English and Korean. The artist's family was not well off. Luxuries and treats were rare. He recalls running after Jeeps packed with American soldiers tossing candy bars to youths.
"The memory of the chocolate was very sweet." He said. "The memory of war was very bitter." Memory of an accident also left a sour taste. He was chasing a Jeep with another boy when his friend was hit by a car. The youngster was hurt, but not fatally. "Then I had to run and tell his mother. I remember his mother screaming and crying. I remember really strongly."
He places that bittersweet contrast with other yin-yangs he's seen or read about.
"When I look back in my Korean history, even though MacArthur was a good man with a good heart, I was comparing him with Christian missionaries. They came to our land with rice in one hand, a bible in the other," Kang says.
"Then they five out candy to children, was I kind of public relations reason? May be not. May be they gave chocolate from caring mind." "It really didn't matter to me at the time. The chocolate was so sweet. I couldn't really eat it all at once."
"When you open foil, you smell. You don't eat right away. You lick the chocolate with your tongue, little by little. You eat slowly as possible." "Very precious."
Kang moved to New York in 1984. He was 24, and came to pursue a master's degree n art from Pratt institute in Brooklyn. While studying, he worked two jobs, leaving him no studio time for making art. His solution: During long subway rides from job to class to job. He created hundreds of pocket-sized, multimedia paintings and drawings. For a newcomer, it was a way to process the flood of strange sights. Every work was a quick impression, and personal response.
By 1994, he was successful enough to quit his jobs and work full time at art. Yet he continued to make many small pieces, and have those like-scales components comprise his art installations. Kang's career is going well. He's shown worldwide in prestigious venues, including two shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art, one with the MacArthur sculpture. He represented Korea at the 1997 Venice Biennale, where he earned a major international award.
In 1997, he also showed at the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia. His "English Garden" installation resembled a Buddhist temple covered in small paintings; tapes broadcast both the chanting Korean monks and English language lessons.
As was " English Garden." The "8490" piece is about the artist's attempts to hold on to memories. Kang was in American for 12 years before he returned to Korea.
" I realized my memory about my hometown was gone. And my memory of my small school." He felt urgent about that loss of personal history.
"So I had to freeze, just freeze my memories. So it doesn't fade away." On that trip, he connected with a gallery in Seoul and told them his idea. In 1995, the Korean economy was booming, so the gallery handed Kang $250,000 to build his "8490 Days of Memory." It remains his most expensive artwork.
Since MacArther is a close copy of a memorial in Incheon, near Seoul. Same height. Same posture, with field glasses held down at his waist. In uniform, and a tad pudgy at the middle. Kang started his statue with a clay model. Then he cast it in plaster, resulting in a hollow form that he pulled of in sections and rejoined. He got about 44 pounds of Korean chocolate donated by a Korean company. Then he set up a double boiler in his studio, melting the chocolate, then icing it on with a wide, bamboo brush. At time, to get in the tight spots-around the general's face, for instance-he's put in rubber gloves and smear the hot chocolate on by hand. Ouch.
This is the fourth showing for "8490." Five years since it was made, the original chocolate remains. Kang has cut the statue in two, to make shipping easier. Touch ups, however, are required with each new showing. Kang generally installs his work. But he learned his other-in-law would be having open-heart surgery in Monday, the day he was due in Virginia Beach. So he and his wife dashed off to Korea. Earlier this week, staff at the Beach arts center were doing as Kang would have done. They were heating chocolate and brushing it on. At the very least, they had to heal the seam between the two main sections. May be an elbow or nose was scuffed. Needed a little fresh chocolate.
The figure now stands on 8,490 3-inch plastic cubes, each containing a tiny toy. Each cube represents a day in his life in Korea, prior to moving to the United States. His mother collected every one of those toys. "It's kind of her life also. Kind of root. So I think it's important she collect, and we make together." He's reclaiming each day from his childhood, and freezing it.
But the yin-yang two-sidedness also is encapsulated. On that chocolate MacArthur: "When you talk about Buddha, Buddha was covered in gold. When you go to any temple in Asia, Buddha statue usually has gold coat." The gold is a sacred material, symbolic of holiness. But in Korean history, wars were fought to obtain gold.
"Chocolate-same thing. Sweet, but bitter."