Exhibition Catalog / 1996
Life as a Huge Mosaic
Hak Go Jae Galllery, Seoul, Korea
December in New York, the weather was freezing outside but Ik-joong Kang's footsteps were as light as ever. Television reports were forecasting the city's first white Christmas in 12 years and the pavements were already covered with snow. Nevertheless, Kang was swiftly heading on his way, looking at everything that he passed.
It is a 40-minute walk from his home to his studio and all year around he chooses to travel this distance on his feet, he tells me. I was suddenly reminded of a mountain trip I took a few years ago with an ex- 'Partisan,' the defiant North Korean guerrilla troupe dispatched to Chiri-mountain at the break of the Korean War. After all those years, he was still skillful as ever on the rocky mountains. And just like that old man, Kang was a skillful climber of a mountain called New York City.
Walking to and from work everyday, Kang says he observes New York- the New Yorkers, their lives and everything that exists in the city. In other words, New York in his hunting ground. Just like a wild animal makes a home on his hunting site, New York has now become Kang's hunting ground and homeland. Any beast that feeds on his catch of the day will know-how this familiar and almost boring place called home can turn into a new, exciting world when the hunt begins.
It was 1984 when Ik-Joong Kang arrived in New York. His first years as an obscure art student were difficult, working 12 hours a day to make a living. It was no wonder that he spent whatever time he had left on his painting, for to him painting was what survival was all about. He made mini-canvases for himself to carry around in his pocket, so that he could work while he was on the subway. This was how his trademark '3-by-3-inch' canvas paintings were born. Things have changed now. He can now sit back in his own studio and concentrate on his paintings instead of dividing time between petty jobs, and painting on the subway. But he is still a wild hunter at heart when it comes to gathering the images and impressions of New York, which shocked him and stimulated him during his early days in the city. His working environment may have changed, but the contents of his works remain the same. And it is to encounter and recapture these images that he spends 80 minutes of his life everyday walking the streets of New York. Each moment he stops to pick up the pieces that make up the city that slice of someone else's life take a new meaning.
To a stranger, New York is truly a striking city. Everything is big, busy, full of energy, variety and danger¡¦.. still, it is not common that an artist who has lived in the city for 12 years still has an insatiable and continuous curiosity for the place. What is it that keeps drawing him? The moment I begin to wonder, the artist, walking a few steps ahead of me, suddenly came to a halt. We were passing by a crowded flea market. He smiled and said let's have a look. There's a lot to see here, he explains. By the time we made our way through the crowds, he ahs turned into a hungry hunter again. He seemed totally caught up in everything he laid his eyes on, as if searching for his prey. I concluded that his curiosity is an instinct, not something that is switched on an off. Though it is also true that New York keeps his curiosity on the alert, much more so than any other place in the world.
There are many dangers to categorizing an artist according to a specific culture that he comes from, for it may or may not be an important part of his work. Especially for an artist of unique creativity, his works may well be beyond the boundaries of culture identity. Ik-Joong Kang is in many ways a unique artist, in understanding the basic mechanisms of his work, his link with a certain characteristic of Korean culture does come in handy.
Let us try to view his works in link with Korean cuisine. This will prove helpful in the analysis of his art, and after all, Kang himself is quite an enthusiast on various cuisines.
Seeing from experience, unlike Western or Japanese cuisine, a majority of the Korean dishes are 'water-based.' Overall, Korean food is high in water content. No Korean meal is complete without 'kuk (Korean soup)' or 'chigye (stew.)' In Korean cuisine, these dishes are not merely a side dish as in the West, and in some cases even make a hearty main course. The variety of these dishes is almost endless, served in all sorts of different tastes. It is quite a contrast to the way Western people consume water with their meals, which are served as 'something to drink,' like tea, wine, beer, juice, or even coke.
Then why have 'water-based' dishes become such a major part of Korean food? With the risk of sounding like an old-fashioned environmental determinist, I think food culture in Korea was influenced by various environment factors; climate more suitable for agriculture than breeding cattle, four distinct seasons and plenty of clean, pure water. Since cattle was scarce, methods were developed. In Korea, salt-based pastes and sauces make up for a majority of the fermented food, which are usually cooked in water to be served. This was probably preferred in terms of hygiene and taste. Furthermore, situated on a Far Eastern peninsula, Korea was for centuries an isolated country that considered trade and commerce a disrespectable occupation. The exchange of goods with foreign countries was not common, which meant there was limited variety in the ingredients used in Korean cuisine. In order to develop new dishes, I imagine, various cooking methods were experimented in order to make up for the lack of variety in ingredients. In other words, chemical change replaced physical change, and needless to doubt, water is the one of the most important catalysts in processing chemical change.
It could be said that this kind of food culture naturally gave birth to a way of thinking which focused on 'essence' rather than 'phenomenon' itself. 'Water-based' dishes involve the dissolution of ingredients and the consumption of its pure essence dissolved in the water. The essence was in the water, not the ingredient themselves, so the Koreans came to refer to 'chinguk (thick, undiluted soup stock)' as the highest value not only in cuisine, but also in life. This expression is often used to describe people of fine character or artists of great accomplishments. This kind of 'substantialism' in Korea can also be found in traditional paintings. Which focused music which was not based on the harmony of sounds as in the West, but on subtle vibrations and solful outbursts. The acclaimed Korean film (Sopyonje) recently portrayed a traditional musician risking his own human integrity, in order to achieve the 'chinguk' of all sounds.
What I would like to point out here, in reaction to Ik-joong Kang's art, is the ability of these 'water-based' dishes to combine, synthesize, harmonize and sublimate the ingredient. Kang's works are closely linked to these characteristics of Korean cooking. A wide variety of ingredients can be used for Korean soup or stew dishes because they can be mixed together with water. Sometimes even the most unlikely mixture of ingredients are cooked together, but once they are boiled and dissolved in water, there is no room left for disharmony. Cooking becomes a process of infiltration, dissolution and coming together into a single entity. Kang himself often compares his works to the Korea dish 'pibim-bap,' rice mixed with broiled vegetables, meat and hot paste, in similar context with the 'substantialism' of the 'water-based' dishes. The only difference is in the medium used in the two dishes-rice or water. But they share the same role in that neither add any distinct taste to the food but simply act as a base for the mixture. The difference is that water participates more actively in the dissolving process because the mixture is not simply stirred but heated together.
Kang's artistic method of putting small separate pieces like mosaic tiles to form a single work of bigger scale reflects the characteristics of Korean cooking in many ways, and furthermore, an important character of Korean culture. He observes the world around him, picks up the bits and pieces from that world and uses them to form a world of his own. He collects his ingredients from the streets, newspaper, television, and from within his heart. These bits and pieces each tell their own stories, without one dominating the others. In a survey carried out on South Koreans' political preference by the American military administration following Korea's liberation from Japanese colonial rule, a majority of the people had answered in favor of socialism. This was not based on concrete belief in the system, but more on the cultural tradition that a country's unity should be based on individual equality. It was their preferred alternative. The basic cultural consensus of the Korean people shown here was that all members of the society are unique and individual and that at the same time, openness and unity should never be lost.
In this context, Kang is an artist who has successfully utilized his cultural traditions. He displays a dexterous skill for synthesizing his cultural traditions. He displays a dexterous skill of synthesizing and harmonizing a variety of individual materials in his works. In this process, his character plays the role of water in Korean cuisine. I may not show on the surface, but it brings together the bits and pieces of this world and dissolves them into a unity. In his works Kang's ultimate artistic value is to visualize the artist's invisible character. This is closely linked to the Choson Kingdom (1392-1910) painters who described a satisfactory work as an 'accomplishment of noble cause' and their tradition of placing greater emphasis on an artist's efforts to refine character and intellectuality. Kang stresses that he would like to do away with any obsession he might have for his own art. His favorite role model is the baseball legend Hank Aaron, who said, "When I'm at bat, my mind is not there with me, but far away in the stands, looking down at myself standing on the grounds." It is evident that Kang finds strength in the Korean tradition of artistic contemplation and successfully puts it into practice. His invisible characters warmly embrace the visible world of his art. And in that we can recognize his strengths as a uniquely international artist who 'comfortably crosses over to and from two different world, the East and the West.'
When Kang first arrived in New York, he says he was marveled at everything being so different from Korea. Every little thing, which would have seemed routine and boring to a New Yorker, was so new and unfamiliar to him. At that time, he was quickly interested in everything he laid eyes on and soon everything was used as subjects in his paintings. And as mentioned earlier, thanks to his insatiable curiosity, this process became an important part of his art.
He was amazed at the fact that everything was different: the shape of a door knob, the leg of furniture, even the curve of a kitchen knife. Some things were not used as mere subjects but as object on his canvas. Once, Kang's wife attended his show opening and was in shock to see the leg from a piece of their furniture stuck on one of works. Kang's curiosity had left a piece of their furniture 'crippled.'
Kang just can't keep his eyes off little cheap toys sold on the streets. He not only pastes them on the canvas, but has developed from them an interest in the world of animation. He has dissolves all sorts of other ditch images from the streets into the simple lines and figures in his works. After reading a news story about an aspiring dancer from the countryside who died in a building collapse while working her shift as a part-time waitress, Kang expressed on his mini canvas the sympathy he felt for the poor artist who had invested all hopes for her future. Written on some of his works are abrupt statements like "They work hard for fame.: "I paint for my own sanity." They are Kang's own ways of reaffirming his own directions in life amidst the everyday ups and downs. During his early days of painting on the subway, he even carried 'portable' watercolors and even needles and thread to add colors and embroidery on his drawings. It must have been an eye-catching sight on the trains. Impressionist painters sought freedom from the stuffy studios by taking their canvas outside. But their outdoor painting did not break any boundaries between the 'sublime' world of art and the real everyday world. The outdoors was merely an artistic subject for them. But young aspiring painter Ik-Joong Kang's 'subway painting' of the 1980s placed art and the real world on same ground. It was a happy marriage of the two worlds, interacting with each other in equilibrium. The artist was holding on to reality and reality was holding on to him.
Ik-Joong Kang has been holding on to the images that pass through his life with a small canvas tucked into his pocket. To judge each of his works by the existing aesthetic standards f tableau painting is therefore misleading. Each work is simple, momentary and individual. They are drawings and at the same time, they are paintings and simple statements. They can also be objective. But most of all, they are little pieces of this world, in the same state the artist has picked them up in. Only when they are put together within the artist's character to form a world of their own do they become art. This is clearly pointed out in painter Byron Kim's words:
"Kang evades the touchy question of quality by asserting that quantity is quality. His paintings are a virus. He produces them everywhere. You can imagine finding them anywhere."
His mini paintings look like something that has been painted many times before, something anyone will be able to paint. But together, they unfold into a world that no one has seen before and nobody has been able to show. Still, they are sliced of everyday life in the city of New York, something that 'anyone can recognize.'
I feel that Kang's paintings are not actually painted on a small canvas but on his life's time itself. His works are not painted on a given space. Rather, they are painted on a concept of time used to classify the chronological passage and each stage of a lifetime. As the river of time rolls along reflecting the glittering light of life, Kang's paintings rise to the river surface like tiny fish scales and encounter the world. These scales float on the river, flowing along and spreading through the world. If among them, a single scale reaches someone's heart, that someone will easily be able to picture the other scales. Then he will soon imagine a huge beautiful fish made up of those scales and marvel at its magnificent sight. This is the kind of experience that a viewer goes trough upon the encounter f Kang's rt. His works show, more than anything, that life itself is a miracle, full of marvel and wonder.
It was in the subway trains that Kang began working on his 3-by-inch paintings, . And even today, he roams the streets, in order to encounter the everyday life in the city. He is basically an artist in motion. He paints as he moves along. That is why he can be found everywhere, like a virus. From the act of constantly moving, and as his self-identity moves along with him, he has learned the ability to objectify his and life and art, to look upon it like the Choson kingdom cartographer Kim Jung-Ho made the 'Taedongyo-jido (Korea's first scientific map of the Korean peninsula)' through his travels across the land, Kang has learned to view the map of his own life on a larger scale. Like Hank Aaron, he sits n the stands and looks down at himself at bat. And he paints his own life as if it were someone else's. In this era of the electronic information super highways, in this era of high-tech nomads with cellular phones and notebook PCs, he has the rare ability to break out of his own shell and move around in his true inner self, communication with the world through a wave more fundamental than electromagnetic waves, a wave that travels beyond history. His movements are therefore more fundamental than the movements of out time.
As time passes, people say their lives are getting short. They say their days are disappearing, like smoke in the air. But do the days really disappear into nowhere? Looking at Ik-Joong Kang's works, I feel that it is quite the contrary. His days pile up with the passage of time. As the number of his works grows with each passing day, we realize that it is all the more true. As time passes, he encounters more and more stories to tell, paints them on his little canvas and they keep poling. His paintings may b enough to cover up a whole village someday. They may be just small bits and pieces, but his works seem to tell us that this is what a man can leave behind through his life-long encounters-karma, in Buddhist terms-with the world. His works are the results of the encounters of a man's life, which have taken on so much meaning in the course. The Bible's teaching that "one's belief can move mountains" seems not so much about faith itself, but about looking back at your life to acknowledge "how big a mountain you have moved." Needless to say, Kang's works is a convincing example of this mountain.
It was a month after our meeting in New York that I spend two days with Ik-Joong Kang at a small hotel near London's British Museum. He was holding an invitation show in Leeds, northwest of London. It was clear to see from the TV coverage of his exhibition on national and local networks including BBC-the BBC anchors even delivered their closing words while nibbling the chocolate used in Kang's works-that his show was being well received. It was a successful London debut for him. But he was actually excited about something else. He was soon scheduled to hold his first solo show in Korea in 12 years.
His Seoul show is to be his biggest solo exhibition to date. He was also excited about the fact that he was coming home after being away for so long. But at the same time, he was concerned whether his show will set a good example for the many young artists back home, calling himself an obscure artist. How should one take such an attitude from an artist who has held a two-man show with Nam June Paik, has an installation work being set up at the San Francisco International Airport and has a solo show coming up at the Whitney Museum? It was his long-awaited homecoming show drew near. There was one thing he did want from the show. He hoped that the young artists back home would be able to see in the show his struggles and efforts in New York as an artist from the outskirts of mainstream Western culture. It was not difficult to recognize the 'hunter' in him struggles and efforts in him when he said, "No matter how much critical acclaim you earn from the powerful men of the art world, it is nothing unless it appeals as 'somethingí» to the pure eyes of the young as aspiring artists."
To be featured at Kang's Seoul show in addition to his mini canvas paintings, are his Buddha paintings, wood relief carvings, drawing and objects using transparent cube boxes with various objects from his youth, symbolizing the traces of his life as an ordinary Korean. The chocolate worked relive the artist's own memory as a child living near a American military base in Seoul and at the same time, trace of the chocolate that American GIs used to hand out to the kids, which is a memory shared by many Koreans. This memory has been expressed in the forms of U.S. military badges made out of chocolate. The works to be shown are overwhelming in sheer amount and each has so many stories to tell. When they approach the viewer together as one grand piece of art, they become unique, filled with various implications. Just like the taste of Korean'kuk,' 'chigye' or 'bibimbap.'
Kang and I said good-bye at Heathrow and went each other's way as one headed back to New York and the other to Seoul. Seeing him depart with a bag on his shoulder after a month-long stay in the U.K., I saw in him a nomad setting up on another long journey. This son of the agricultural people from the 'Land of the hermits' had turned into a veteran nomad spreading his virus around the world. His virus may be five millenniums old, but after all, coming from the 'land of the Hermits,' it is a brand new kind to the rest of the world. And tat the same time, it is his own unique kind. This nomad is setting out to put together everything he encounters into one harmonious unity, like a chef cooking up a grand bowl of 'kuk' or 'bibimbap' with all the ingredients from around the world. It is just as if he is spreading the echoes of Martin Luther king Jr.'s dreams, through the waves he sends out from within.