Art Asia Pacific / Number 19, 1998
LIVING ON THE EDGE
Borders and cultures in the work of Ik-Joong Kang
Sporting round glasses to match his round, wide-eyed face, Ik-Joong Kang looks less like a tortured artist than he does an 'accountant' (as he describes himself), or perhaps a deceptively mild-mannered bureaucrat. Beneath the misleading demeanour, however, is an artist most adept at exploring cultures and exploding boundaries. At times flamboyant, poignant and jocular, the small 3 x 3 inch (7.6 x 7.6 centimeter) canvases that form the basis of Kang's work have a simplicity that transcends the usual diet of angst so prominent in the work of many Asian-American artists. Unlike many of his more solemn and sometimes dour Korean counterparts, Kang has a playful style and exhaustive repertoire of materials that traverse and amalgamate different cultures. For Kang, the fascinating aspect of culture is its potential to embrace other cultures, and in his works from 1988 to 1997 his exploration of a multitude of ethnic and local cultures redefines boundaries that once limited definitions of 'culture'.
Ik-Joong Kang has always had an affinity with the idea of borders. Rather than defining the border as a hostile obstacle or point of tension a la the DMZ (the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Korea), Kang perceives it as a place to absorb and digest the cultures of both sides. Growing up near Seoul's Itaewon, a neighborhood of Korean souvenir shops, seedy bars and restaurants catering to the tourist trade near the United States army base, the artist quickly assimilated and digested this border culture. Although Itaewon was and is considered by many Koreans to be a cultural no-man's-land, Kang was intrigued by the coalescence of American culture with the huckster attitude of the Korean shopkeepers. Today, Kang's own studio is located on the periphery of Chinatown in New York and his early works, such as One Month Living Performance, 1986, and 6000 Paintings, an installation that featured in the 'Broadway Windows' exhibition in 1988, showcase Kang's fascination and struggle with American culture.
Leaving what he considered a stifling training in academic drawing at the well-regarded Hong-Ik University in Seoul, Kang immigrated to the United States in 1987. In New York City he began his series of small works on canvas as he commuted from Brooklyn's Pratt Institute to his part-time job at a flea market in Far Rockaway, Queens. This commute was in itself another passage between seemingly disparate realms: the 'high' art taught by the fine arts program at Pratt and the 'low' kitsch of the flea market. His choice of the 3 x 3 inch format reflects his merging of the two realms: on one hand, the size is the standard of perfection in Zen thought and is found in shoji screens and traditional wooden sake containers,1) and on the other hand, as Kang readily notes, the dimensions are equivalent to the distance between the eyes, a size that would 'appeal to the public who, after all, must be able to comprehend and enjoy what they are seeing'. The exquisite melds with the ordinary.
But Kang's most lissome merging is his penetration of 'low' or common culture into the rarefied sanctuary of galleries and museums, such as branches of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Kang often compares his own work to the Korean dish of 'bibimbap', a hodgepodge of vegetables and meats mixed with rice that is an everyday meal found on any street corner in Korea. Banal items like rubber stamps and plastic magnets are prominently placed in many of Kang's canvases. Despite the fact that many of his earlier works were produced from the perspective of the newly arrived immigrant, it is evident in his later work that Kang is a first-generation Korean-American and a voracious consumer of all cultures.
Sound Paintings, an installation at Montclair State College in New Jersey in 1990, revels in the ordinary. Among its 7000 canvases, viewers can find everything from a romping, Keith Haring-like tiger to the ubiquitous New York City subway advertisement for parenthood counseling that reads, 'Pregnant? We Can Help'. Inspired by a 'singing' Christmas card 2), Kang installed tiny microchips emanating various city sounds in 2000 of the wooden blocks in the installation. Combined with the pinks, blues and yellows of the paintings, the sound from the canvases approximates a slice of life in New York City. This impression is reinforced by the severe alignment of the canvases into orderly rows, paralleling the perpendicular streets and avenues of Manhattan. By virtue of the installation's sheer size and the range of questions that the artist asks himself in each canvas, Kang compels the viewer to share his wonder of New York, his 'New World'.
The peregrine Kang crosses even more boundaries in Throw Everything Together and Add, a 1994 installation at San Francisco's Capp Street Project. He illustrates his concurrent intimacy with Korea and the United States in works that juxtapose drawings of gunboats reminiscent of the Korean War with flimsy sailboats alluding to the amusing plight of the stranded inhabitants of 'Gilligan's Island' - a popular American sitcom of the 1970s. On a more local level, the work details Kang's meandering through the very distinctive and disparate neighborhoods of Manhattan: his references to museum fixtures such as conceptual artist Joseph Beuys and Kang's hero, Nam June Paik, signify the art establishment located in the Upper East Side and SoHo, while spools of thread and tiny decorative tassels are a miniature facsimile of the textile-related objects and other bric-a-brac sold on Canal Street, at the boundary between SoHo and Chinatown. Far from appearing as contrasting symbols of irreconcilably different worlds, however, Throw Everything Together and Add deftly blends these elements into a cultural buffet at which any viewer can easily discover familiar icons and items.
Not content merely to wander, however, Kang's 'English' series demonstrates his ceaseless attempts to cultivate a knowledge of American culture. Like a hardworking Korean student preparing for his entrance examinations, in his 1994 installation English Learning Drawing Kang studies English vocabulary taken from the graduate record examination. The densely written words and their corresponding Korean translation resemble flashcards or noryukjang.3) These sheets later formed the basis of English Rice Field, 1996, a personification of Kang's effort to plant and cultivate knowledge. Neatly mapped out on the ground in long strips similar to the paddy fields found throughout rural Korea, the tiny words resemble seeds that the artist has sown. This is a three-dimensional rice field, however, as the process of cultivation and planting takes place on two adjoining walls. Carved in woodblocks and stamped onto reams of paper, more English words in various primary coolers adorn the walls and are reminiscent of the thirteenth-century Tripitaka Koreana, the oldest and most complete set of Buddhist scriptures, which are carved into 31,137 woodblocks.4) Kang accordingly intertwines references to traditional Korea with his fervent and current study of English.
Yet not all of Kang's travails celebrate all cultures or all attitudes towards a given culture. He frequently uses popular iconography such as chocolate as a means of satirizing stale hierarchies and undiscerning attitudes. 8490 Days of Memory, 1996, is Kang's humorous perception of a once-powerful American colonizer, invoked through memories of his childhood in an impoverished, war-torn Korea of the early 1960s. The work is a colossal effort depicting a gargantuan, almost three-meter high chocolate statue of General Douglas MacArthur. At MacArthur's feet are 8940 clear plastic cubes containing small tokens of Korean childhood, such as a pencil-shaped eraser and a pair of doll's shoes. The title of the work refers to the number of days Kang spent in Korea before coming to the United States.
Kang equates chocolate with the sweet promise of the American dream that beckoned poverty-stricken Koreans in the 1960s and 1970s. An almost non-existent luxury in Korea, chocolate was tossed by American soldiers to Korean children. It symbolizes the sweetness of American plenty while its silver foil wrapping is a literal representation of the glittering promise of wealth and the American dream. Kang drives this point home by incorporating a large statue of MacArthur, who gained a place in Korean hearts by masterminding the Inchon landing, a crucial turning-point in the Korean War.5) Kang's inflated statue of MacArthur is reminiscent of Andy Warhol's blown-up silkscreen images of larger-than-life celebrities such as Mao Zedong and Marilyn Monroe.
For Kang, chocolate is a metaphor saturated with allusions. It is a positive metaphor in the sense that it 'represents the wealth of the Americans, which eventually enabled South Korea to climb from its dirt-poor, war-torn aftermath in the 1950s'. However, Kang also uses chocolate to portray the United States as an appropriator or colonizer. Kang states that the choice of chocolate in 8490 Days of Memory 'was especially relevant for this project given the fact that chocolate has been appropriated by so many countries that claim it as its own when, in fact, it originally hails from Mexico'. In Kang's work chocolate symbolizes the often deleterious relationship between Korea and the United States, as the chocolate 'may taste sweet, but when eaten over a period of time, results in a range of health problems like tooth decay'. The suffocating prevalence of chocolate in 8490 Days of Memory denotes the wholesale acceptance of the culture of the United States by Koreans and the resulting decay of traditional Korean culture as it is displaced by slavish imitation of western trends. The metaphor of chocolate is a double entendre in this work: when exposed to heat it rapidly melts, paralleling Kang's perception of the United States' waning military power in both Korea and the world. By creating a giant statue of MacArthur in chocolate, a perishable medium, Kang undermines the construct of an omnipotent United States.
Kang wants viewers to embrace different cultures. Says the artist, 'Learning is a two-way street and in the twenty-first century, we need to give and receive'.6) Awarded a citation for special merit at the 1997 Venice Biennale, Kang's 'Learning' series reflects his ideal of reciprocity between artist and audience. In I Have to Learn Chinese, 1997, the title's imperative tone urges the viewer to join the artist in memorizing its cloisonné-like strips of Chinese characters. Comprised of ninety poplar panels, the elongated rectangular forms epitomize Kang's desire to 'grow into a big tree that does not fall'.7) The panels join together to form a trunk with roots deeply embedded in the past, a past that: 'both the individual and the nation should know about. People talk about globalization, but in order to accomplish that we have to really plunge ourselves into the past. It's sort of like trying to jump when you're in a swimming pool - you can't really jump unless you push yourself from the pool bottom.' Throughout the 'Learning' series, Kang notes that 'people are uncertain about the future and restless when it comes to the past'. The purpose of his work, then, is 'to eliminate both that uncertainty and restlessness'.
In America Landing, Kang's 1997 installation at the Kwangju Biennale, the colonizer and colonized become equals. Posing a statue of General MacArthur at one end of a thirteen-meter long corridor, Kang subverted the statue's imposing manner by using perspective to diminish its virtual size. Viewer and subject observe each other on an equal basis with no pretence of superiority on either side. There is no 'superior' culture, Kang suggests, only different ones.
At the same time, however, Kang insists on the two-way street where Koreans must share their culture with others. 'Flexibility', says Kang, 'has enabled Koreans to survive even amidst the harshest of foreign invasions and has been the source of my own strength'.8) In Kang's work, flexibility is denoted by the artist's facility to traverse and absorb other cultures while maintaining and disseminating his own. Although Kang is classified as an American artist in exhibitions such as 'American Story' at the Setagaya Art Gallery in Tokyo in 1997, solo exhibitions in Seoul, and at international festivals such as the Venice and Kwangju biennales, he is often instantly made a representative of Korea. Yet through his work, Kang embodies the notion of fluidity and, in turn, successfully defies the viscosity of categories and hierarchies that wilfully attempt to constrain the whirl and flux of culture of his infinite and soothingly repetitive squares.
1) Eugenie Tsai, 'Good and Plenty', Ik-Joong Kang, exhibition catalogue, Art Space, Seoul, 1996.
2 Artist's statement, 2 January 1991.
3) Literally, 'book of effort'. This is a colloquialism that refers to blank books used by Korean schoolchildren to commit words or phrases to memory by writing them over and over again.
4) Peter Hyun, Koreana, Korea Britannica, Seoul, 1984, p. 110.
5) The Inchon landing resulted in the retreat of the North Korean People's Army north of the thirty-eighth parallel (the current boundary dividing Korea). On 15 September 1950 United States troops landed at Inchon, almost fifty kilometres from Seoul, behind enemy lines. This move sandwiched a sizeable percentage of the North Korean army and reversed the tide of the war. See David J. Wright, Historical Dictionary of the Korean War, James I. Matray (ed.), Greenwood Press, Westport, 1991, p. 189.
6) Quoted in the Chosun Ilbo, 23 June 1997, p. 10.
Research for this article was made possible by the generous support of an East Asia travel grant from Yale University. If not specified otherwise, all quotes and background information are from interviews with the artist on 7 February 1997 in New York City and 22 August 1997 in Seoul, Korea. Images courtesy the artist. Joan Kee received her training in art history at Yale University and writes frequently on contemporary Asian and Asian-American art.