Tiny Windows, An Amazed World / 2008

GMOMA, Ansan, Korea


Joon Lee



There is one artist who has collaborated with children, traveling around the globe with the naïve belief that ¡°A dream each person dreams is just a dream, but a dream we share can become a reality.¡± Born and brought up in Korea, the artist moved to New York in his youth. He depicted his daily surroundings and life during each moment, using small-size canvases that the artist himself developed. This type of canvas is convenient to carry and can even be put into a pocket. On 3x3 inch palm-sized canvases, the artist began representing cultural shocks he experienced while in New York and all the conflicts, self-reflections, curiosities, and everyday scenes that he went through while walking through the subway all with a sense of wit and irony. Year after year, these small paintings increased from one thousand to 10 or 100 thousand. He gradually became the focus of attention in the New York art scene with his installation art consisting of numerous canvases like a mosaic.


Since 1985, when Kang Ik-joong held his first one-man exhibition at the Long Island University Museum with 1,000 pieces of art, the number of pieces composing his installation work has gradually increased. Kang gained reputation through a series of exhibitions at the Asian American Art Center and Queen¡¯s Art Museum and especially through the two-person exhibition, Multiple Dialogue, at the Whiney Museum in Connecticut with world-renowned video artist Paik Nam June. There, he presented a work composed of over 25,000 pieces. Kang represented all things under the sun, including everyday scenes occurring near his studio located in Chinatown, Manhattan, his own humble dreams and hopes, and the social and cultural icons of our times. His work features all kinds of things like interesting phrases found in the news and in commercials, funny images and objects, a Buddha learning English, and sound paintings with small speakers.


Kang is a rare contemporary artist who has tried to capture all objects and worlds in a moment. Perhaps no other artists are more diverse and prolific than him. He keeps on earnestly drawing when delightful or sad and even while lying down, traveling, or moving. The small, 3-inch square canvas becomes one with him and is a sure-fire trademark representing his art.


Kang began pouring a considerable amount of his energy into public art and joint work with children. The form of his installation work that brings together several hundreds or several thousands pieces in the same place is quite fitting for not only gallery and museum spaces, but also for public and cooperative art. In his installations, each piece has its own completeness, but together, they present a magnificent panorama and make a complete composition as a whole. Kang¡¯s work has been presented in the form of public art many times including a wall installation at the Flushing subway station in Queens, New York in 1991, a wall painting at a vocational school in Queens in 1992, and a mural at the San Francisco International Airport in 1994. In these murals and installations, he combined childlike, ordinary, and familiar images in a formal frame placed in harmony with any wall surface or any space, departing from art¡¯s usual fixed frame. These works also naturally showed the amount of importance the artist places on communication.


Commissioned to make a mural in the lobby of a public library in Princeton, New Jersey in 2004, Kang gained momentum for actively involving local residents in the project, irrespective of his own or children¡¯s participation. Noted as a college town, according to him, Princeton has a strong impression as a city of severance since the residential areas of white people and Hispanics or other non-white people are thoroughly divided by an avenue. For A Happy World he conceived to unify those residents by breaking down a wall among them, he asked them to donate their treasured belongings, underscoring meaning of sharing something.


He permanently set a work singing harmony and hope in the public library by exploiting a wide variety of donations such as his own pieces, Einstein¡¯s pipe, memos and signatures by Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winners, family photographs, and playthings. In the same year, as part of the World Culture Open (WCO), Kang completed A Moonlit Dream project, a 12-meter large-scale balloon made up of 126 thousand paintings sent by children from 141 countries via the Internet, at Lake Park in Ilsan.


He is a collector bringing together children¡¯s dreams and images, artist, and curator as well as a messenger of hope and dreams. Last year, he did an installation for the Group of Eight (G8) summit meeting in Heiligendamm, Germany and currently put ahead several public art joint projects. These projects demanding a huge amount of expenses and institutional supports cannot be achieved without extraordinary verve. The reason why Kang has continued such projects despite difficult situations is because he is confident that if small dreams and humble wishes gather, it exerts a great cultural strength.

For this Gyeoggi Museum project, the artist specially encouraged children of migrant workers living in Ansan where the museum is located. In Ansan as an industrial city, migrant laborers from 50 countries reside in this region. It is more meaningful that migrant workers, physically handicapped persons, and juvenile offenders as volunteers partook in the project along with children.


Under the theme of My Dream, 50,000 children from Marado Islet, the country¡¯s southernmost area to the civilian access area in the DMZ, the country¡¯s northernmost region, participated jointly in this installation. The children¡¯s palm-sized pictures bear their humble dreams about pets they want to raise, playthings they wish to have and their dreams to become a nurse or a teacher. Through those paintings depicting themselves as a doctor, an astronaut, or a football player, children living in different regions, cultures, and environments represent their different dreams and narratives.


For the artist, it is of no significance whether those paintings were well rendered or poor. What¡¯s significant is not a visual outgrowth but a creation of new values by collaborating with the same dream. That refers to the world of childlike innocence and purity as an remarkable vessel containing the nation¡¯s dream. Nevertheless, the world of various dreams and hope rendered by children with crayons and pencils look visually so beautiful. Like a mosaic flamboyantly embroidered on the entire wall of a cathedral, they are in harmony.


During this process, Kang conceived of projects that would actively encourage local residents and children to participate. As part of such projects, 100,000 People¡¯s Dreams, held in Paju in 1999, is a good example of one of these projects conducted jointly with children. Kang has represented his social and cultural concerns as well as his own daily life and his simple dreams and hopes through his paintings. As an artist of the only divided nation in the globe, he has dreamed up of a festive exhibition to express hope for the unification of the two Koreas at the Tongil-dongsan Park adjacent to Imjingak, a park located on the banks of the Imjin River. For this project, he planned to collect 50,000 paintings of South Korean children and 50,000 pictures from North Korean children.


Kang did his best and worked tirelessly, paying several visits to North Korea, but regrettably, in the final stage, North Korea decided not to participate. The exhibition remained an unfinished project executed with only the 50,000 paintings by the South Korean kids. The space to be filled with the 50,000 pictures by the North Korean children was left empty and aptly named the ¡®wall of waiting¡¯. Recently in Korea, public art projects aimed at revitalizing local cultures and inducing the cultural participation of local residents have become pervasive. His way of working has finally been introduced to Korea and has become dedicated to the development of our public art.


In line with the Paju exhibition, Kang presented Amazed World composed of the drawings of 34,000 children from 135 nations around the world at the lobby of the UN headquarters building in celebration of the UN Special Congress on Children in 2001. Starting a year earlier, he began collecting countless children¡¯s paintings that bore their dreams and hopes for this work, asking NGOs, schools, medical centers, and governmental organizations to gather pictures. It was quite remarkable that such a huge number of children from various hot spots and poverty-stricken areas, including Iraqi, Uzbek, and Congolese children and Croatian war orphans, were all able to take part in the project.


Thanks to the connection with the UN, he was commissioned to do a drawing installation for the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky that opened in 2005. For this memorial hall, which was established to pay homage to the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali for his efforts on behalf of black human rights, poverty, and world peace, Kang responded to the request from the Center by creating an installation with 5,000 drawings done by children from 141 countries, under the title of Hope & Dream. This work included drawings from Afghan refugee children in Pakistan and African children infected with AIDS. Kang said about this work, ¡°I want to show how children¡¯s dreams are pure and innocent, irrespective of their nationality, race, or religion.¡±


Kang Ik-joong presents a harmonious, astounding world by collecting children¡¯s innocent dreams and hopes as seen through tiny windows. Global space and time are becoming narrower and narrower by the day. The 21st century is an age where networks and interactions are considered paramount, which has broken down barriers among regions, races, and classes. However, in the global village, poverty, racial discrimination, and other disputes and conflicts have still persisted. The artist seems to have the humble belief that if gathered together, ordinary wishes may exert great strength and power. As seen in the recent candlelight vigils, if brought together, small, seemingly insignificant wishes can change the world.


 Although each candle might seem minor and inconsequential, if combined with others, they become the light of hope with the power to change the world. It is hard to calculate the worth of the cultural strength and healing power derived from participation in this world of dreams and hopes that demolishes the barriers between races, cultures, and districts. Kang¡¯s installation, joined by people from diverse walks of life including not only kids, but also college students, handicapped people, juvenile delinquents, and soldiers, turns into to a reservoir of hopes and dreams and a place where our lives become art.