Art Net Magazine, July 1996

8,490 Days of Memory

The Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris

 

Joan Kee

 

 

 The Korean American artist Ik-Joong Kang is primarily known for mosaic-like installation works made up of 3 x 3-in. squares representing various aspects of his life, ranging from the names of artists who influenced him to notes on his masturbation practices. His most recent work, the tour-de-force 8490 Days of Memory, ventured into history via Kangs memories of his childhood in the impoverished, war-torn Korea of the early 1960s.

 

The work represents a colossal effort--a larger-than-life statue of General Douglas MacArthur was constructed from chocolate bars and stands in the middle of the gallery on a low dais made of cubes of resin. The walls of the gallery are covered with Kangs trademark squares, here made of chocolate and imprinted with U.S. military insignia. The work underscores the powerful way that memory can function through vision, smell and even sound--notably the Tom Jones hits, popular in the U.S. and Korea in the 1960s, that Kang has playing in the gallery. Deployed in a relatively small space, the work poses a kind of sensory overload from the strong smell of chocolate, the maculation of the space through the repeated squares and the giant statue. The physical disorientation suggests the similar fragmented process of the recollection of long periods of time.

 

Chocolate is a powerful metaphor to Kang.

As a rare luxury in post-war South Korea, casually supplied to local children by the victorious G.I.s, chocolate symbolizes the sweetness of American plenty while its silver foil is a literal representation of the glittering promise of wealth and the American dream. Kang drives home this point by incorporating MacArthur, who gained a place in the hearts of Koreans (and a place in their parks, through proliferating statues) by masterminding the Inchon landing, a crucial turning point in the Korean War. The memorialization of the past is also emphasized by small toys and other childhood memorabilia set within each transparent resin block under MacArthur's statue. Each gonggi (jacks) set, each eraser and each pair of doll shoes are fossils embedded forever in Formica, as if to suggest the enduring quality of Kangs memories.

 

Despite the importance of memory and the past, Kangs work is very much a work of the present, avoiding Korean American artistic clinches that attempt to compensate for lack of substance by using inscrutable components of the past. Chocolate is a double entendre metaphor because when exposed to heat, it rapidly melts and this property parallels Kangs idea of America's waning military power in both Korea and the world.

 

Likewise, the childhood memorabilia used are not actual objects hoarded from yesterday but objects that can be found or purchased anywhere in Korea today. Such an incorporation of present objects implies that memories are often remembered using the constructs of today. The conflicting ideas of the present and the nostalgia of the past give Kangs 8940 Days of Memory a pulsating energy that reminds the viewer that the past and present undergo a process of constant interaction.

 

Ik-Joong Kang, 8940 Days of Memory, Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris, 120 Park Ave. (E. 42nd St.) New York, N.Y. 10017, July 11-Sept. 27, 1996.