Exhibition Catalogue / 1997

Venice Biennale, Italy

Kwang-Su Oh



Korea has participated in the Venice Biennale since 1996, but this year marks the second time since the construction of its own national pavilion. Since the 1960, contemporary Korean art has been introduced to the world through various routes, but it was only in very recent times that participation in the Venice Biennale has come about, offering another route through the international audience may experience the unique characteristics of Koreas contemporary art.


For this Biennale, two young artists, Ik-Joong Kang in painting and Hyung-Woo Lee in sculpture, have been selected. These two artists are still in their thirties and forties, and this ids the first time that Korean artist of such a young generation are taking part in this international exhibition. But despite their relatively youthful careers, each of these artists has a definite aesthetic language and realm of his own. In some ways, they are noteworthy more for their abundant potential than their experiences and achievements thus far. We are at this point when we are devoting a great deal of concern toward what is being shaped in the present and what is to be achieved in the future, no less than toward what we have accomplished in the past. And in this effort, we can foresee the bright prospect of contemporary Korean art. Such future possibilities figure into the expectations we have of these two young artists.


In addition to the fact that one works in painting and the other in sculpture, these two artists also reveal differences in their distinctly individual methods o visual expression,. But even amid such disparities, their works somehow manage together to achieve an uncanny accord, converging towards harmonious unity. While bringing together distinctive visual languages, we did not over look the importance of Korean pavilion as a whole. We were especially conscious of this point, considering the particular structure of the Venice Biennale, which is composed of exhibitions presented in national pavilions. Our intention was to organize an exhibition in which each artist would be able to display his own singular aesthetic realm that would also be subsumed into a larger, harmonious whole.


After receiving an art education in Korea, Ik-Joong Kang and Hyung-Woo Lee went on to further training in New York and Paris, respectively. Kang eventually settled in New York, while Lee returned to Korea after a period of study in Rome and Paris. Lee actively continues to produce and show his work, in addition to teaching at his alma mater in Seoul.


Kangs uniquely structured work is from his daily life, and accordingly the content of his work often calls to mind a personal diary or journal. During his early years in New York, Kang spent up to twelve hours a day working in grocery stores or doing other odd jobs, and his distinctive pictures were produced in spare moments a she rode the subway to work. The necessity of having to work on the subway meant that he had to create canvases small enough to hold in his palm or slip into his pocket. Thus, the various phenomena of his daily life are recorded in scenes measuring only three-inches square: events taking place around him, passing cityscapes, and his memory and desire revealed in fragmented images, scrawls or epigrams. There are even flickering glimpses of scenes constitute the accumulation of all that Kang saw, heard and felt-in short, a direct reflection of his life-during his twelve years in New York. Kang has since gone to expand the scope of his art, wandering all over New York in search of images.


The images in Kangs miniature scenes seem unfettered by any systematic order, rule or motive. His reactions, observations and curiosity toward his subjects, along with the imaginative associations they give rise to, come together-seemingly almost indiscriminately-in the form of allusive pictures or cartoon-like images and caricatures. But these diverse, individual objects are arranged to form a grid on the wall, where they constitute a greater whole. Each discrete module is transformed into a component in a large-scale mural. The appeal of Kangs work lies in its ability to provoke visual pleasure and wonder through the connection and arrangement of the fragmented images that are themselves filled with wit and humor.

Kang often compare his work to bibimbap, a Korean dish which combines all kinds of vegetables and meat mixed into a bowl of white rice and flavored, finally, with red pepper paste and sesame seed oil. Korean dinner is usually centered around rice and soup with an arrangement of side dishes, often some sort of meat or fish and small servings of various vegetables. But in bibimbap, through served in a single bowl, encompasses a variety of foods high in calories.


The reason Kang compares his work to that peculiarly Korean dish called bibimbap is that the various discrete attributes of his work intermingle-and even the unfamiliar and the ambiguous blend together-to compose a panorama on the single large surface of a wall. In addition to the visually exuberant effect of his wall structure, another compelling aspect of his work is the incorporation of sounds, the synthesis of visual and auditory elements. In particular, the Western music that emanates from his work composed of numerous Buddha images induces the spiritual shock of an unexpected encounter. In some of Kangs work, we find elements of cultural criticism that is hard to overlook. Such elements can be seen as a natural reflection of the critical spirit that he must have acquired when he found himself cast into the foreign territory of New York after growing up in Korea.


While the works of both Ik-Joong Kang and Hyung-Woo Lee stand at points of departure from painting and sculpture, they also include a sense of restoration, of a continual return to painting and sculpture. In other words, the departure itself begins in questions about the source and the essence. Needless to say, those questions are none other than what is sculpture? To draw on a tiny surface or to make very spare structural forms is to meditate on the original modes of drawing and making. And it is this aspect of their art that will elicit the astonishing experience of glimpsing an original moment of pure creation.


Despite their universal aesthetic appeal, the works of these two artists also reflect traditional Korean aesthetic sensibilities. Although derived from his recent years in New York, Kangs fragmented images and signs-to say nothing of the repetition of Buddha figures-also evoke elements of Minhwa, or folk painting, and Bujok, the talismanic inscriptions common in folk religions. His scenes are permeated, perhaps without his conscious awareness, with all maner of images and symbols prevalent in the spaces and surroundings of Korean life. Hyung-woo Lees small wood and terra cotta objects also evoke household goods and utensils commonly found in traditional Korean living spaces. In his work, we have the strong impression of coming upon an arrangement of broken pieces of their works isnt international, for these artists insistently try not to invoke, or reflect any kind of obsession with, the traditional. It is probably an embodiment of their individual aesthetic sensibilities emerging naturally amid a long transcendent process.