Princeton packet / Friday, march 12, 2004

Portrait of the artist, Princeton Public Library, NJ

Jillian Kalonick



The daily walk from artist Ik-Joong Kang¡¯s home in the east village of Manhattan to his studio in Brooklyn takes an hour and 10 minutes. It is peaceful ritual for Mr. Kang, perhaps because before he had time to work in a studio, he used his bus and subway commutes to work and school for painting, working on portable three-inch-square canvases.


Mr. Kang built those small paintings into cohesive works, and the tiled, three-dimensional collage effect became his unique style. It is the format he will uses for ¡°Happy World,¡± a 10-foot by 30- foot installation for the lobby of Princeton public library¡¯s new building on Witherspoon Street. Princeton residents donated more than 500 objects to be incorporated into ¡°Happy World,¡± which will contain about 5,000 three-inch squares. Its look will be similar to Mr. Kang¡¯s ¡°gateway,¡± a permanent installation at San Francisco International airport, and ¡°Throw Everything Together and Add,¡± which won the special merit prize at the Venice Biennale in 1997.


¡°I use a lot of objects on top of my painting. I thought it was interesting to let their idea and sprit flow into this wall,¡± he says of ¡°Happy World¡± The squares look almost like books, stacked cover-up. Mr. Kang who earned a master¡¯s of fine arts degree at the Pratt institute in Brooklyn, has exhibited his works at the Whitney museum of American Art at Philip Morris, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul, Korea. In ¡°Happy World,¡± he is focused on the intersections of the Princeton community, between the academic installations and the town, the young and old.

¡°By building this wall we can break the wall- the wall between communities, generations, between past and future,¡± he says.


Along with his wife and five-year-old son, Mr. Kang has visited Princeton several times. He had an opportunity to interact with the community in January when he made a visit to the temporary library in the Princeton Shopping Center to collect materials for ¡°Happy World.¡± There was this energy and vibration, so warm,¡± he says. ¡°There was a long discussion, with donors explaining about the objects. It was a positive interaction. Traditional public art is a reaction. This one I want to make more level – interacting, sharing with community, learning about other cultures.¡±


During recent visit to Mr. Kang¡¯s studio on the top floor of a warehouse in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, he and his assistants were surrounded by hundreds of the Princeton pieces. Many items are specific to Princeton history: a picture of Paul Robeson, a piece of copper gutter from a Princeton house built in 1948, and many family photographs and letters. Among the more whimsical pieces are a ¡°librarian action figure,¡± a South Indian mask, sea shells, a library card, a Wiffle ball, a clock from the old library on Witherspoon Street, cards from the old paper library catalog and a Rubik¡¯s cube.


¡°Happy World¡± will be installed over a period of two days before the library¡¯s April 1 opening. Participants who donated items will be recognized in a formal documentation, says Jeff Nathanson, of library¡¯s art committee. The committee commissioned the installation and several other art works to be displayed in the new library.


¡°The thing that amazes me bout the artwork is it¡¯s an extension of his personality and the way he views the world,¡± says Mr. Nathanson. ¡°It¡¯s really deep, inspired, thought-provoking work that functions on a level of interest to artist and critics and curators, as well as communicating effectively to the general public. It¡¯s rare to find an artist these days that can (either) be in a museum or public realm.¡±


When Mr. Kang discovered that more than 50 languages are spoken in Princeton households, he invited local students to write the word ¡°library¡± in their native language on a piece of paper. At least one square from each language will be incorporated into ¡°Happy World.¡± ¡°The past is knowledge, and there¡¯s a vision of future for our children. (The library) is a meeting place for different backgrounds.¡± Mr. Kang¡¯s inclusion of contributions by children echoes his work ¡°100,000 Dreams¡± (1999), which featured 50,000 drawings from Korean children in the interior of a one-kilometer-long vinyl tunnel in the demilitarized zone in South Korea.


The work has particularly emotional for Mr. Kang, who was born in 1960 in Cheong Ju, South Korea, and has lived in New York City since 1984.

¡°I¡¯m part of Korea, and Korea is part of me – and (it is) divided. I thought, ¡®As an artist, what can I do for that?¡¯¡± The installation incorporates drawings of children¡¯s dreams, but he was able to obtain drawings by children from South Korea only, so half of the canvases were left blank to represent children from North Korea.

¡°It was emotionally really touching,¡± says Mr. Kang. ¡°Before the 20th century went way, I had to make a statement, a bridge to the future.¡±


His installation, ¡°Amazed World,¡± displayed at the United Nation in New York City in 2001, expanded this idea with contributions by children from more than 125 countries. In a letter to children he wrote ¡°Hello, I would like to gather all of your dreams for the future and show them in one place so everyone can see! What is your dream? I am very curious about how you imagine your future, the future of the world.¡±


The thousands of drawings he received for the project, and still receives, had a particular resonance on the morning of the opening for ¡°Amazed World¡± – Sept. 11, 2001.


¡°Children¡¯s vision is very clear, simple – they want peace,¡± he says. ¡°A child¡¯s drawing is a small window – if you stand far away you can¡¯t see. If you stand close to the hole, you see everything. I have to really listen to them. Our generation needs to make a tiny vision really big. We don¡¯t have a future without children. We cannot rely on ourselves; children are our only hope¡¦the Princeton piece is part of that.¡±