Ruth K. Meyer



Travelers to South Korea will find that the capital, Seoul, is brimming with artistic activities even though the ¡°economic miracle¡± years have passed.  The Koreans¡¯ continued optimism for eventual unification finds its best expression in one notable project, the rebuilding of a prominent national monument, Gwanghwamun, the gatehouse to the Gyeongbokgung palace complex.  The construction site is enclosed in a temporary shed that is partially concealed behind an immense mural commissioned from the Korean-American artist, Ik-Joong Kang, who has been pursuing his career in New York City since 1984. Approaching the age of fifty, Kang is receiving international attention for a range of public activities that draw upon his personal style. This article reviews the latter and describes his Amazed World projects involving the work of children.


Kang¡¯s 2007 ¡°Mountain and Wind¡± mural was awarded by the Korean government and announced Kang¡¯s success as a public artist in his birthplace. The freestanding mural, 89 feet high by 155 feet wide is located at the terminus of a major boulevard in Seoul. The Gyeongbokgung palace, where the boulevard begins, was built in 1395 and became the foremost of five palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Following victories over warring Ming and Mongol factions, General Yi Seoung-gye, a founder and a first king of the Joseon Dynasty, moved the capital of Korea from Gaeseoung to Seoul in October 1394 and located the Gyeongbokgung on the 28th of the same month. The history of Seoul as the capital of Korea begins from this date.


Over the centuries, the road from the Gwanghwamun gate developed into Tae Pyong Road, a major artery of civic and national pride. Stretching for one kilometer, Tae Pyong Road is the address for governmental ministries, foreign embassies (including the USA) and Seoul¡¯s City Hall, where it terminates.  Think Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, and you¡¯ll have the picture.

Kang¡¯s ¡°Mountain and Wind¡± mural is laden with symbols of rebirth and unification that speak to Gwanghamun¡¯s storied history. The palace gate had to be rebuilt after Japanese invaders left it in ashes, not once, but twice, during two separate invasions in the 16th century. During Japan¡¯s occupation (1910-1945), the gate was relocated as an affront to Korean dignity and spirit. After the 1950s Korean War, the gate was hurriedly rebuilt in its original location using concrete with a wooden façade.  The new structure currently being rebuilt behind Kang¡¯s mural will be a meticulous reconstruction to its original splendor and will take from three to five years to complete.     

Traditional and contemporary Korea meet at the Gwanghwamun, which will one day stand open so that everyone can enjoy the former royal palace and its grounds. To one side of the palace complex, there is a new royal palace museum that celebrates the achievements of the Joseon dynasty. The last of these hereditary rulers permitted the establishment of a modern Korea, although it was dictated to them under duress by Japanese administration that controlled Korea until 1945. In the last quarter of the 19th century the Joseon kings were compelled by Japan and other world powers to open the country to foreign inventions and Korea began to participate in the worldwide industrial revolution.


Under the rule of the Japanese, the hereditary rule of the Joseon dynasty came to an end in 1911, so today this dynasty is revered more for its historic support of traditional arts than for its capitulation to foreign invaders and industrialization.  This is the dynasty that produced the fine b¡¯uncheong ceramics for which Korea is famous and also the cherished, uniquely Korean, ceramic form, the Moon Jar. A spherical vase formed by the union of two hemispherical bowls and finished by the addition of a small, almost concealed foot and a narrow lip at the top, the moon jar is glazed with a thin translucent white that appears casually applied with irregular strokes giving the ware a handmade appearance.  The surfaces of the moon jars dimly glow just like the moon and the imperfections are admired since these recall the moon¡¯s surface.  The nine best and largest extant examples of moon jars are designated national treasures and are held in both public and private collections including the British Museum, the Osaka Museum of Oriental Ceramics, the National Palace Museum of Korea, and the Samsung Museum in Seoul. In interviews for this article Kang has said of his inspiration,  ¡°The Moon Jar is like a human being, filled with air and spirit. Both are made of earth and have a foot, a body, shoulders and a lip. Collectors treat Moon Jars as family members animating them with their projected visions of human existence.¡±

In his recent work, Kang has taken the moon jar as an icon and compares its formation to the future unification of North and South Korea. The moon jar features prominently in the Gwanghwamun mural along with brushstroke paintings of In Wang, the mountain that lies northeast of the palace complex and is visible from it.  Mt. In Wang, also called the Benevolent King Mountain, was thought to protect the region of Seoul¡¯s original city center. It is one of Korea¡¯s most significant sacred mountains, an active center of shamanism and folk-religious traditions.   It rises to a height of 338 meters and turns its sheer granite face to the Chongno-Gu community below it where the former royal court residences and palace support services were located.   

In his design for the gatehouse mural Kang established two huge vertical planes for the grid of images. The front plane recreates the silhouetted shape of the two-tiered pagoda that is being rebuilt using a grid of moon jar paintings. Behind it the back plane establishes the physical location through a grid of rectangular landscape paintings. The offset of the two planes adds an architectonic dimension to the mural. At ground level the barrel vaulted entrances to the future gateways have been outlined and in one open vault Kang¡¯s signature motif, the 3x3 inch square painting, has been used as architectural ornament. Impressive by daylight, Kang¡¯s Gwanghwamun mural becomes spectrally romantic when it is illuminated at night in a palette of rainbow-hued LED lighting.

Ik-Joong Kang¡¯s art has long been recognizable and memorable for his use of 3 x 3 inch stretched canvas paintings and carved wooden blocks, arrayed in a grid and displaying images that are combined, multiplied and deployed in various architectural arrangements.  With these small squares Kang can cover a wall, create an enclosure or surround a monument depending on the site that is offered. As his work has become known and opportunities have increased, Kang has expanded the format to include   larger, nearly 24 inch-square paintings, while retaining the dominant grid.  

Kang has lived in New York City since 1984 when he left Korea to pursue an advanced degree in fine arts. Since that time Kang has benefited from all of the career building advantages that the city offers. After graduation from Pratt Institute in 1987, Kang began to show his work and seek out public art competitions. He won numerous awards his mentor, the modern master, Nam June Paik, (d. 2006). A perceptive Whitney curator, Eugenie Tsai, had the idea to introduce them and showed together in 1994 at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Champion, CT.  Paik found Kang to be not just a fellow Korean trying to make it in New York, but also a kindred spirit. Thereafter, Paik promoted Kang¡¯s work internationally and helped him launch an exhibition career in Europe. Kang speaks of Paik with devotion and reverence recalling that Paik once said to him with a childlike smile: ¡°What will happen in the 30th century?¡± This futuristic comment has remained in Kang¡¯s mind and he says, ¡°To me, he is a shaman who sees stars even in daylight.¡±

Kang didn¡¯t have it easy to begin with and worked numerous jobs while studying at Pratt. There was no time for a studio, no money to fund one, so Kang drew constantly on small canvases measuring 3 x 3 inches as he shuttled around Manhattan. Desperate to learn English, he drew objects and ideas and lettered them capriciously in English, then affixed the drawings to small stretched canvases. The naïve charm of these simple paintings translated into a savvy contemporary statement when walls of them were erected. In 1996, at the Contemporary Arts Forum, Santa Barbara, Kang¡¯s installation ¡°365 Days of English,¡± combined 4000 blocks featuring English words and phrases,  a tape recording of his voice reciting the words. This work is now in the contemporary art collection of the Samsung Art Museum in Seoul.

Kang¡¯s work uses one of the most significant symbolic structures of late 20th century art, the grid.  The prominence of systems using the grid emerged in the 1960s under the headings of Minimal and Conceptual Art. Not only geometry, used by Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre, but also language arts, used by Jasper Johns, appeared within grid systems.  Whereas other artists used these systems to establish their intellectual distance from the craftwork of art making, Kang used his grids to create humor and to portray the profound nature of language acquisition.  With the addition of small toys, household objects and all the trivia of American street culture, Kang embellished his blocky murals with ever richer accumulations.  

Infinitely extensible the grid is familiar indoors and out of doors as a building technique.  Out of doors, the grid slips easily into the realm of ornament and design and there is a rich history of gridded ornament in Korean traditional building.  Walls and ceilings of Korean temples and palaces are vividly painted with repeating squared and cubic patterns that use motifs from the flora and fauna of the natural world in symbolic contexts. So whether Kang got his grid in New York City from observations of the tiles in the subway stations (as he once said to an interviewer) or brought it with him in his bags could inspire a rich discussion of comparative cultures from East and West, now and then.

The point is that Kang¡¯s work gained early acceptance when he began to show in 1985 at Long Island University with ¡°1000 Works,¡± all the blocks he had at that moment.  Two years later there were ¡°3000 Works¡± in his thesis show for Pratt and in 1988 ¡°6000 Works¡± were available for Broadway Windows Gallery. Since that time, both the blocks and the exhibitions have been steadily multiplying. Kang¡¯s public commissions began in 1991 when he created a mural for New York City¡¯s MTA in the Queens Main Street Station.  

By 1997 Kang had achieved recognition in his own country. That year he was chosen to install work in the Korean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale for which he received a Special Merit Award. His first exhibition in his home country since his emigration, ¡°Throw Everything Together and Add,¡± had taken place in the preceding year, 1996, and included 50,000 blocks. It is from this point that Kang began to move toward making statements that are about more than just the accumulation of blocks and his English lessons.  He started to explore his unique position between two cultures, Korean and American, and to reference his childhood in an occupied country.

Kang grew up close to the US Army base in Seoul and remembers the soldiers who distributed chocolates to him and his playmates. Sweet treats appeared first in a gallery installation in Leeds, England; however, the double-edged metaphor of American generosity was significantly elaborated upon when Kang coated a colossal statue of General Douglas MacArthur with chocolate for his installation ¡°8,490 Days of Memory¡± which enumerates the number of days Kang lived in Korea from birth to emigration. At the general¡¯s feet are arranged 8,490 plastic cubes encasing objects from his childhood.   MacArthur stands as conqueror and savior, defender and colonizer, representing the ambiguous nature of American involvement in peace for Korea that still has not been fully achieved.

Collaborative Projects: Amazed World

In 1999 Kang started his work with children¡¯s drawings that, like his own paintings, are laminated on 3¡± x 3¡± blocks and coated with polyurethane. The first project ¡°100,000 Dreams¡± was intended to display an array of 50,000 drawings by South Korean children on one wall with 50,000 drawings by North Korean children on the other side of a temporary exhibit space at Pa Ju Unification Park in the northern limits of South Korea near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).  It was on the eve of the new millennium and with new hopes swirling around the world, Kang began to think of how his art could affect the longed for unification of the Koreas in the future. His marriage and subsequent delight in becoming a father had also propelled him down this new artistic path.  But, the North Korean government was not receptive, so Kang placed 50,000 empty blocks in the exhibition anyway as a demonstration of his sincerity and intentions.

Shortly after this an introduction to a United Nations official brought him into the orbit of UNICEF and its international resources.  Through a number of NGOs (Non-governmental Organizations) around the world, Kang began to collect drawings from children of many nations, intending to mingle them for an installation titled ¡°Amazed World¡± to be shown at the UN Headquarters in New York City.  The opening was scheduled for September 11, 2001, Kang¡¯s birthday, and of course, the day of the attack on the World Trade Center.  News of Kang¡¯s exhibition was submerged in the waves of grief and mourning that engulfed the city.

¡°100,000 Dreams¡± and ¡°Amazed World,¡± launched a new phase of the artist¡¯s career that Kang describes with animated enthusiasm. Admitting that other artists tell him frankly that this work is too naïve and juvenile, too political and far from the contemporary cutting-edge where he had originally been headed, Kang has pursued unique challenges and pushed impressive boundaries.  For example, Kang¡¯s ¡°Moon of Dreams,¡± a project for Lake Ilsan, Kyungki Do in Korea, (2004), used a gigantic inflated sphere pasted over with 126,000 childrens¡¯ drawings that floated on the lake as if the moon had come down to earth.  Similarly, in connections with UNICEF, Kang was able to establish an on-going project for hospitalized children to exchange their drawings for mural installations in hospitals. The first of these features 25,000 drawings from 25 countries and is in a public education area of Cincinnati¡¯s Children¡¯s Hospital (2006).

While the Cincinnati project was getting underway in 2005, Kang was working on a commission for the new Princeton, New Jersey, Public Library building. Artwork for the building had not been budgeted and a concerned board member noticing this omission helped to raise the funding for a first floor hallway mural. Kang proposed to open the project to the community and on one Saturday, Princeton citizens old and young came to the library to contribute writings and drawings, poetry and word-plays, trinkets, trivia, toys, photos, old buttons and assorted sports equipment. Each item was catalogued, considered and 1,000 of them were inserted and incorporated into a wall of 3¡± x 3¡± paintings and carved blocks by the artist.

The library site was a non-descript space located in a passage linking two public entries, with a café and the restrooms between them, but the mural he titled  ¡°Happy World¡± (2006) has since become a singular destination and the pride of the local Princetonians who helped create it. Consistent with the age of information management, according to library director, Leslie Berger, Kang¡¯s mural will soon have its own website so that its content can be visited online and the ideas it encapsulates will go far beyond the borders of Princeton.  

The Amazed World projects have proliferated as word of them has spread. In Louisville, Kentucky, at the Mohammad Ali Center Kang¡¯s temporary installation ¡°Hope and Dream¡± went up at the time of his 2005 show at the Speed Museum of Art and has been since been retained as a permanent feature.

¡°Small Pieces for Peace¡± (2007) was a collaborative effort by the Eurasian Foundation, UNICEF Germany and Alexander Ochs Gallery, Berlin. It was part of a larger exhibition entitled ¡°Balance!!¡± that coincided with that year¡¯s G8 Summit meeting held in a small German seaside town. Kang led a large team of workers who prepared the panels of children¡¯s drawings and installed them in a roofless abandoned building in Heiligendamm, Bad Doberan, Germany, not far from where the world leaders were meeting. This project was unique in the series because it intentionally involved cadres from many different social groups in the preparation of the drawings. To Kang it seemed like the whole town pitched in: there were teachers and jobless, single mothers and pastors, musicians and carpenters, along with people living in the shelters. When he recalls this diversity, Kang says he sensed the importance of what he perceived to be the healing benefit of handling the children¡¯s drawings for some of those who joined in the activity.  

Increasingly, the Korean art community has been eager to recognize Kang and offer him exhibitions. One especially coveted project will be an installation of Kang¡¯s work at the Korean National Museum of Contemporary Art where he will share a large cylindrical gallery with a famous Nam June Paik sculpture, ¡°The More, the Better,¡± (1988.) Paik erected a tower of television sets programmed with contemporary videos reaching a height of 18.5 meters.  Kang¡¯s work, ¡°Multiple Dialogue Infinity,¡± will be an homage to Paik spiraling up and encircling it. 65,000 of Kang¡¯s small paintings will be in dialogue with Paik¡¯s 1,003 TV screens graduated in size as they rise to the rafters.

In June 2009, Kang will display his works in all fifteen galleries of the Seoul Calligraphy Art Museum, located at the Seoul Arts Center. The significance of this venue is that the paintings and calligraphy of his 18th century ancestor Pyoahm Kang Se-Hwang are in the museum¡¯s permanent collection and frequently have been displayed in exhibitions. Kang Se-Hwang painted in the highly revered Chinese literati style combining poetic commentary with landscape elements, brushstrokes and areas of colored wash.  Ever since Ik-Joong Kang¡¯s talent manifested itself in childhood, his family has encouraged him to follow his ancestor¡¯s footsteps.  Their Confucian faith in the power of ancestry is now being richly rewarded.