Brooklyn Heights Press & Cobble Hill News

November 27, 2003

¡®Buddha¡¯ Artist Explains His ¡®Diaries¡¯ and ¡®Notes¡¯

Rotunda Gallery, NY

Abby Ranger



Korean- born artist Ik-Joong Kang, Whose installation ¡°Buddha Learning English¡± is now on view at the Rotunda Gallery on Clinton Street, says he sees the role of the artist as a fisherman casting for new ideas, or as a bridge between countries and minds.

He also says he makes art for himself, and that he turns down most galleries that approach him wanting to show his work. Kang¡¯s work does have the quality of personal document; he calls the three-inch by three-inch paintings he accumulates in the thousands ¡°diaries.¡± When he installs them in tight rows, they line walls like mosaic tiles. The Buddha statues that foreground some of three installations, or sit depicted in the tiny paintings, Kang says, are-among other things- metaphors for himself. The habit of working in so small a format started when Kang was a graduate student at Pratt institute in the mid 80¡¯s. He worked 12-hour night shifts at a Korean grocery store in Manhattan, went to classes all day, and carried his paintings with him in his pockets, working constantly on subways and buses. Scanning a wall of his tiny paintings, your eyes might skip over outlines of a spinal cord or a coffee cup, the words ¡°baby wipe¡± in block capitals, a tank, what might be a bird, or a phrase like ¡°I saw Spike Lee,¡± or ¡°Art is good for wasting time.¡±

When Kang¡¯s father went visually impaired because of diabetetes, Kang started caving some of the tiny images into blocks of wood, so that they can be felt instead of seen.

¡°Buddha Learning English¡± at the Rotunda takes a slightly different from Kang¡¯s earlier, tile-like installations. Here, three-inch by three-inch paintings of seated Buddhas are centered on sheets of letter-sized paper and backed by wooden panels that create 14 foot-tall, curving wall.

Each panel also supports an actual toy or tool of some kind- egg slicers dangle among plastic dolls, funnels and strainers and Chinese fans. The pages of paper are hand-written word lists, studies of English vocabulary often reading like noun-heavy poems. One line goes in part, ¡°heroic individuals, national purification, mythic community,¡± and another, ¡°parakeet auklet, band tailed pigeon, mourning dove.¡±

¡°They¡¯re just notes,¡± Kang said about the word lists. ¡°Just notes to myself.¡±

For an artist so inward-turned that he claims to have never really gone to Chelsea galleries, Kang, 43, has built a career that hundreds of other New York artists might envy. His installation at the Venice biennale in1997 won a special Merit award; he has pieces in the permanent collections of museums in Germany and Spain, in New York¡¯s Whitney museum of American Art and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Kang has also done projects that interest UNICEF more than the art world. In 1999, he collected three-inch by three-inch drawings from 50,000 children in South Korea, and then installed the children¡¯s work in a kilometer- long, internally lit vinyl tunnel in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. The intention was to complement the drawings with another 50,000 from North Korean children, but ultimately, when his many letters weren¡¯t replied, Kang left half the tunnel blank.

He followed that project with a similar installation, two years later in the lobby of New York¡¯s United Nations building, of three-inch by three-inch drawings by children from 139 countries.

Stacks of those children¡¯s drawings, each sealed to the front of a wooden block, are still heaped in Kang¡¯s 4,000 square foot studio on DUMBO. He has worked in that eleventh floor space for three years now, sometimes with a crew of up to 25 volunteers.

Every morning, Kang walks south along the East River from his Stuyvesant Town apartment over the Manhattan Bridge to his Jay Street studio. Almost everyday, he and his assistants take a lunch break bike ride along the Brooklyn side of the river, down to Red hook.

Looking out at the river and the bridge from his studio¡¯s roof one chilly afternoon this week, Kang talked about notions of translation and communication that he was mulling over when he created the current version of ¡°Buddha Learning English,¡± a project has revisited several times.

¡°For me, art is not about telling people what I see,¡± he explained. ¡°It¡¯s about telling myself.¡±