Exhibition Catalogue / 1999

Buddha Learning English

Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany

Eugenie Tsai



Buddha Learning English (1999) resembles the interior of a small pavilion of the sort we might see nestled amidst distant hills in a traditional Asian landscape painting. A curved wall covered from top-to-bottom with 3060 jewel-toned paintings, all measuring three-by-three inches, encloses a chocolate statue of a seated Buddha. The statue rotates slowly on its base, accompanied by the repetitious sound of chanting. This figure of Buddha is modeled on Seated Maitreya, a Korean National Treasure from the sixth century, which Kang admired in the inaugural exhibition of the Korean Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1998. Working from a postcard showing the front of the statue, and a drawing he made of the back, he recreated the masterpiece in resin, and added the finishing touch of a layer of melted milk chocolate.


In contrast to the serene, contemplative attitude of the statue, the paintings project a loud, boisterous presence. Each canvas bears a different phrase (for example, "garden clogs", "city taxi", "erotic context") randomly selected by Kang from his daily reading of The New York Times and other newspapers and magazines. The artist's treatment of individual letters and larger phrases-outlining words in black, employing blocky capital letters, dividing words at odd junctures-highlight the abstract, graphic qualities of language in ways that parallel strategies found in concrete poetry. While whole-heartedly embracing American culture, the word paintings also refer to a Korean artistic tradition. The unmodulated, highly saturated hues of red, green bright yellow, gold, white, and blue, and the use of black outlines, are Kang's play on Don Cheong, a painting technique and color scheme found at temples, such as Bulkuk-sa, an eighth century temple in Kyongju, designated a National Treasure.


Buddha Learning English, incorporates themes and structures utilized in Kang's work since he arrived in New York in 1984, where he came to attend graduate school at Pratt Institute. As an impoverished student, he worked two jobs, one by day, and one by night. This left him little time to spend in the studio. He discovered that three-by-three inch canvases fit into his pockets and into the palm of his hand, allowing him to work on them during his long commute between his jobs and school. The subway became a mobile studio. The paintings produced by Kang at this time were immediate and diaristic, recording his amazement and wonder at everyday encounters with a foreign culture. Hung in a grid formation, several thousand at a time, the ensemble of canvases presents a continuum of Kang's life in a newly adopted culture.


A few years later, other aspects of Kang's production drew upon his memories of Korea, particularly of school trips to Buddhist temples. An earlier series entitled Buddha Learning English (1992-92) juxtaposed a grid of three-inch-square paintings, each bearing an iconic image of a seated Buddha, with the artist's voice on tape, carefully enunciating phrases in English.


Kang's fascination and struggle with the English language is also evident in several series of drawings (1992) devoted primarily to the written word as image. These include drawings on gridded white paper with vocabulary words taken from the study guide for the Graduate Record Examination written in English using red ink, and the Korean equivalent written in blue. In other series, the artist filled sheets of lines paper with a single phrase, like "good luck," "happy," scrawled longhand until no empty space remained.


With his installation 8490 Days of Memory (1996), Kang once again revisited his childhood. He utilized chocolate, with its distinctive aroma and taste as a material to evoke his initial encounter with American culture during the Korean War. During this time of great impoverishment, he and his friends would stand near a gate of a US Army base near his school where Gis would throw candy bars to Korean children. A nine-foot chocolate statue of General Douglas MacArthur dominated the installation. Eight-thousand-four-hundred-ninety three-inch squares of chocolate, hung on the wall, each bearing a different insignia from the U. S. army.


As we have seen, Kang's past work has reveled in the most mundane aspects of the material world, exemplified by American popular culture, including the printed word. With Buddha Learning English, we see a reevaluation of the artist's attitude toward this world. The downcast gaze and contemplative pose of the seated Buddha, slowly revolving in a cacophonous world of minutiae suggests a letting go, a release of all attachment to the everyday world of appearance and things. Having examined his past and relished the present, perhaps on the eve of the Millennium, Kang is looking toward the future.