Ik-Joong Kang vs Ik-Joong Kang

Posco Museum of Art, Seoul, Korea 2011

- Joon-mo Chung (Artistic Director, 2011 Cheongju International Craft Biennale)


Ik-joong Kang, A Nomad mixed in Wind and connected to Land


Head or Legs of a Serpent?

What should we call it if the tail of a snake is on its head? Should we be concerned about this if it is originally a natural fact? It could be perhaps natural for those who see the serpent for the first time, whereas others would be troubled because they already have a proper knowledge of the position of a snake's head and tail. If there is a person who agonizes himself over such a preposterous matter from time to time, what kind of the person would it be? Ik-joong Kang is an 'inventor' who produces useful pieces through such trivial concerns. Listening thoroughly to his explanation on such matters, however, we cannot help but chime in with him.

Looking very young, always with a smiling face, the artist is very eloquent. There is no way I can catch up to his wealth of knowledge when he begins talking about anything we encounter while walking the streets of Chinatown in Manhattan, which he calls his second home. He loves to think things over and look deeply into everything around him. More precisely, he tries to contemplate ideas over and over again so as to remember the changes of what he saw as well as of what he has thought. By doing this, everything he has experienced and studied ads to his own understanding, then blossoms into a form of artwork. Observing a process that small panels compose large panels and then the large ones are combined again which take up a space to become a whole art work. His audience can see that his art work is never distant from his daily life but equal to his life itself. As a matter of fact, his work is simple and naive. Ironically, it approaches us with various facets due to its simplicity. We tend to say that we understand or know about an object by a single look, but it is merely what 'I' personally see and understand, not 'we.' In other words, it is our delusive mistake to think in that way by assuming that others see what ¡°we¡± see. In spite of the phrase that "seeing is believing," we should admit that there are numerous ways of believing as there are of seeing. Nevertheless, many people are not as lenient as they can admit to. Rather, they tend to impose their own experiences upon others. In Ik-joong Kang¡¯s art work, the contrary holds true. The gap is enormous between every individual unit and its combination as a whole piece. It must be the same sense of confusion as identifying a past year with only a single word by reading one's diary even if it provides vivid memories of the events and feelings of the past. You can call the singularity of his art work multiplicity, and vice versa. And now you can identify his art in the feeling of various differences, as well as in the disparity or distinction of affections for it.


 Art comes from Wearisome Nomadic Life

Born in 1960 in Cheongju, his mother's hometown, Ik-joong Kang majored in the Department of Paintings at Hongik University. One month before his commencement ceremony in 1984, he left for New York, the city of Art where all prospective artists dream of being. The beginning of his life in New York was of endless suffering. More than anything else in order to survive, he started a part-time job, which became his main job. He had to work, and started to at a fruit stand during the day and in the evenings, as a guard at a flea market in Parakawai, Queens. Painting seemed to have fled far away from him. It was at this period, however, when Ik-joong Kang¡¯s trademark, 3"X 3" size canvas, was invented to paint while commuting by subway with an intense tenacity of art making. He captured his life in New York in his hand-sized canvases as if he were writing in diaries. The subway was a moving studio for the artist. He drew images of daily life and English words with simple lines on the canvas. His diligence enabled him to find his own creative method. With thousands of pieces created during his struggling life in New York, Ik-joong Kang earned an opportunity to be in a solo exhibition in the Long Island University. It was two years after his arrival in New York, and all his art work was made with materials, methods, and subject matters acquired from his life in the city; painting meant a daily life for the artist. His mundane art work approached easily and intimately to the museum goers unlike Modernist art of Greenberg style or subjective Neo-Expressionism, the mainstreams of New York art field at that time.

Ik-joong Kang¡¯s art during this period showed a co-existent duplicity of ethnic minorities' experiences in New York, a land of promise but simultaneously of frustration: unfamiliarity and freedom. On his canvas, disparate things coexist, or rather, cannot help coexisting in spite of their exclusiveness. One can say that his canvas resembles the blast of a furnace which creates a new alloy by melting different things altogether. I observe this context same as "Bibimbap" theory that Nam June Paik used to mention all the time.

Ik-joong Kang¡¯s name was known to the New York art field by his performance; he worked ten hours daily for one month, residing inside of a tent installed in a gallery instead of painting in the subway. In Broadway Window Gallery, he installed six thousand pieces of paintings made until 1988. In his next solo exhibition, the artist exhibited his Ssound Paintingss, in which a small speaker equipped at the back of his work generated the mixed sounds of waves, thunder, and wind so as to create a new nature combined with artificial works. Reproducing the sounds of his home, it also signifies nature itself which is the root of his colored Indian ink paintings.


Documenting Memories

Thereafter the artist chose woodcuts instead of his usual three-inch canvas. Ik-joong Kang¡¯s new artistic style was motivated by his father, who lost his sight due to diabetes, and was now able to sense his son's works with touch. The artist's woodcut paintings recall us to the Tripitaka Koreana, the complete collection of Buddhist scriptures carved on eighty thousand woodblocks, when regarding his longing and love for his father. In an exhibition in 1991, More is more, Ik-joong Kang showed his woodcut pieces to the public. At the same year, he produced a wall painting Happy World in the Mainstreet station of 7 line in Flushing, Queens. Since the 7 line station runs between the Flushing, a concentration area of Koreans, and Times Square in Manhattan, his mural project composed with more than two thousand pieces of paintings symbolizes New York as a place of 'Harmony with others' which can be defined as a single vocabulary 'New Yorker' which symbolizes diverse racial groups.

It was the hardships of life and the problems of language that mattered for the artist after his arrival in New York. In spite of his hard work studying English in Korea, he had to re-educate himself with English in New York. His method was endless memorization of vocabulary. From this experience, words began to appear on his canvases instead of visual images. Mainly selected from GRE guide books, the vocabulary and expressions in red with Korean letters in blue remind viewers of an English dictionary. Ik-joong Kang later held an art exhibition called A Buddha learning English, which was extraordinary in those days as it shows Buddha symbolizing the Orient. Buddha found enlightenment as a wise man, but he also has to learn English to communicate with others in New York. Repetition is the most general way of English learning, and the artist observed a resemblance of the method with memorizing the Buddhist scriptures when sounding wood blocks in the temple. By appropriating this kind of a traditional practice he experienced in the Buddhist temples in his childhood, Ik-joong Kang tried to adapt himself in New York. He firmly got renowned in the New York art scene with his works, including a solo exhibition 3X3 and a wall painting at a vocational school in Queens.

The year 1994 is very significant for Ik-joong Kang¡¯s artistic life. In San Francisco, his project Throw Everything Together & Add was held with a collection of twenty thousand pieces of his three-inch works and a mural work was painted in the San Francisco Airport. This wall painting, 3.2 meters high and 22 meters long, is decoratively composed of 5,925 units of canvases which exhibit various materials such as words, paintings, objects collected from his daily life experiences. These works signify both the culmination of his ten-year life in the United States and the fact that his 'three-inch art' finally held a unique position as his artistic trademark.

A far more important event was, however, an exhibition Multiple/Dialogue held in the Whitney Museum of American Art at Champion, Connecticut. He participated in this exhibition with Nam-june Paik, who also became famous in Korea. In this exhibition, the two Korean artists showed a 'Bibimbap' theory that they share in common in terms that the artists embodied art works which were many but eventually one at the same time. While Nam June Paik created a collection of units with monitors, Ik-joong Kang built a compound of three-inch canvases. As all different food products are mixed together in a single pot for Bibimbap, the 'Bibimbap' theory represents a meaning of a multi-cultural community in which all the disparate elements of people become 'one' by fusing together: differences between West and East, diverse skin colors and religions, rich and poor, settlers and immigrants, etc. In Kang's works, it later evolved with chocolate, a symbol of a sweet American dream for poor Koreans after the Korean War but an ordinary item in his later life in the United States.

Ik-joong Kang returned to Korea in 1996, after twelve years, to successfully open his art exhibitions in Chosun Ilbo Gallery and Hakgojae. The public attention primarily attributes to his name renowned by the former exhibition with Nam June Paik, but his eloquence on his own art as well as a new method with his on looking attitude toward the Modernism hinted an alternative viewpoint for young artists in Korea. It was when he used chocolate for his work. Entitling it 8,490 days of Memory, the artist built a statue of the General MacArthur, a hero of the Korean War, on the box filled with his own objects used for twenty three years, 8,490 days during his youth before his departure to the USA. The work was also exhibited in the Whitney Museum at Philip Morris in New York.


 Mixing Water and Oil

Ik-joong Kang never lived outside of Chinatown in New York; except for a brief period of time, where he was at a studio in Brooklyn. Foreigners may have thought he was of Chinese descent if seen inside of Chinatown, but he is surely distinguished from the Chinese. He is one of many immigrants like others in New York, but he is clearly a Korean roaming around the Chinese population. He can blend among other immigrants or be disjoined from some of them like oil and water. From his early days in New York, he enjoyed cheap but plentiful food in Chinese restaurants, where he had difficulty ordering food due to his poor knowledge of Chinese letters. Later on, he realized that learning the menus in Chinese were rather cheap and delicious for him, and he began to learn Chinese letters for his own convenience. After all, he published a guide book for Chinese restaurants in Chinatown with his own ability in reading Chinese letters. The book ¡°Starving Artist's Restaurant Guide¡±. This kind of series is related with performance art in which he used to have been interested during his early days. One might think that artists act randomly, but these were all influences from his life and art at the same time so I would call it 'art of life. Moreover, he created ¡®Ik-joong Kang font' used from his own woodcut works, and allows people to download it from the internet for free. Not only does he cut his hair for himself, but also has a fine skill to cut other people's hair. All these things are his practice of 'art of life' based on his diligent personality and dexterity.

In Venice Biennale in 1997, Ik-joong Kang was nominated as a representative artist for Korean Pavilion and awarded the Special Merit Award. Around this period, he showed landscapes in 4"x1" size woodcuts by adding variety into his three-inch canvas. This change stems from his recollection of Korean traditional landscapes which used to have decorated the interior of his old house, and later developed in the landscape used for the background of The Moon over the Gwanghwamun.

These days, the artist has entered into an artistic experiment to unify multiple-races and cultures. In relation to his past works limited in his individual life and miscellaneous items, it was a great self-awakening. This awakening was already predicted, however, since he started collecting children's paintings from various sorts of groups, hospitals, and schools. In addition to an exhibition, 100,000 Dream, with the children's paintings from 141 countries in Paju Unification Garden, the artist planned to build an art bridge, The Bridge of a Dream, on the Imjin River which flows through the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) to connect South and North Korea. Although this project was frustrated by the noncooperation from North Korea, Ik-joong Kang still makes efforts to realize it. The artist gave people an astounding impression with another art work, An Amazing World, in the lobby of UN building by commemorating the victims of the 9.11 terror and celebrating the UN Children's Special Session. In this work, the artist exhibits peace with pure and dewy-eyed views of the thirty four thousand children from 135 countries all over the world. The significance of this work lies on the emphasis on individuality which composes a whole rather melting together.

In 2004, Ik-joong Kang flew a gigantic balloon on the Ilsan Lake's Part desiring a peaceful reunification of South and North Korea. The balloon's diameter was 12 meters, covered with one hundred thirty thousand pieces of children's paintings, and named as A Moon of Dream. In the process of his artistic communication, the artist persistently produced other works such as a seven-thousand-piece work in Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky in 2005, or Happy World in the lobby of the Princeton Public Library, New Jersey. In addition to the Moon Jar on the screen of Gwanghamun reconstruction site in Seoul.


Head or Legs of a Serpent?

Ik-joong Kang is a pro. He objectifies himself and communicates with others through his unusual artistic life. He does not attempt to provide a lesson or to teach others with art, but rather utilizes his art as a means of sincere communication among people. He is hardly tolerant of jealousy and antagonism. Therefore, this artist has a lot to talk about, the division of his father's land, Korea. It was The Bridge of a Dream project that he commenced working on this subject matter. But the reality was uneasy, so he changed his artistic direction toward children¡¯s dreams and hopes. His Amazed World project aims to unify the dreams of the earth's future hosts in order that children understand each other for a win-win.

While working on this project, the artist began to get interested in moon-shaped jars. The moon-shaped jars are gentle and congenial just like the generous hearts of Koreans. Since their appearances are unaffected but natural, they look like if they accept everything with their magnanimities which symbolizes Korean culture. With the moon-shaped jars, Ik-joong Kang proposes us to enjoy composure like a full-moon besides hectic lives. His moon-shaped jar has a broadened meaning in addition to this. The making of the moon-shaped jar is eventually very tricky due to its big size and requires highly qualified skills. Even technicians can succeed with only one or two after numerous failures. I observe that the hardship of this process equals to that of gaining people's hearts to get along. Likely to the unification of two stone pieces in the temperature of 1,500c, the harmony among people would be possible only with endurance and patience.

In this way, Ik-joong Kang respects other people's lives and thoughts, dreams of peaceful co-existence with others, and practices it. An individual is for him a universe and thus an entity for him. Living as a minority himself in New York, he found the significance in the life of every individual. And his life directly transformed to his art. Meanwhile, at the aged over fifty. The artist's solo exhibition this time shows us both his retrospectives and innovative visions under the title of Ik-joong Kang: A Retrospective (1996-2011).

For this artist, the United States has been a land of struggles for survival but, on the other hand, a place of miracles for more than twenty five years. The miracle for him attributes to his incessant efforts and bravery as well as his diligence. In this land of miracle, Ik-joong Kang ironically found the beauty of Hangeul, the Korean letter. They usually say that people have a homing instinct as they get older, but the artist pays his attention to its scientific aspect, rather than a mere patriotism, that the letters consist of mother, son, and daughter's unit in them. Like its combination, Kang's art primarily requires the encounters and correspondence of elements. A tie between two parts or more leads another, and the artist regards it significant. The meaning of his wall paintings start at this point, and he widened his works into ¡¸The moon is high up at Seolleung¡¹or¡¸Hangul. Mountain¡¹ at this exhibition. And the sound that the miniatures of moon-shaped jars generate whenever bumping each other on a small water way is full of variety. This is another symbol of a tie between two. The artist entrusted the importance of such meaning to the flows of water in his installation work. The water is also an artistic symbol of nature on which his art is based.

Confucius said that once a person reaches fifty years of age, he comes to obey the edicts of Heaven, or literally to say, he would know Heaven's decrees. Now Ik-joong Kang is over fifty, and tries to obey the laws of nature by ruminating his past days and preparing for the future. It should be remained to the viewers, not to the artist himself, whether this exhibition would be 'Back to the future' or 'Back to the past.'