Exhibition Catalog / 2002

Cologne Pagoda and Other Works

National Museum of Asian Art, Berlin, Germany


Uta Rahman-Steinert



From a distance one has a better view/ one can see things more clearly.


Allusions to the Korean tradition in the work of Ik-Joong Kang


"From a distance one has a better view," replies Ik-Joong Kang to the question, why he always referenced a full range of diverse aspects of traditional Korean art in his work. The artist, living in New York since 1984 and surrounded by the achievements of the West, does not want to delete the images of the culture of his origin. He manifests in his person as well as in his work, the process of globalization as a fusion of Eastern and Western cultures. Origin and whereabouts hold less significance in the work of the artist; the more significant aspects are socialization, spiritual and emotional disposition. A rich quality of Ik-Joong Kang's work is his passionate inclination to engage with the local particulaties of his environment; improvisation seems to stimulate and challenge his creativity. Is this a distinctive feature of Korean culture?


Regardless, the installation shown in San Francisco 1994 was titled "Throw everything together and add." This work refers to the popular Korean dish bibimbap, which is prepared by mixing rice with any ingredients at hand.


A similar pragmatism is revealed in the frequent/persistent use of a 3x3 inch format. Born during the days in art-college, the idea for this format allowed Ik-Joong Kang to do his art-work wherever he was. By far more significant than the efficiency of this format is the modular structure of all his works. Ik-Joong Kang arranges the squares in a variety of his works that are greatly differing in form and content. Modular structures are a common phenomenon in the eastern Asian culture. The Chinese written language for example consists of only eight basic lines, functioning as components for more than 50,000 signs, which has also been used in Korea until the Han'gul-Alphabet was introduced in 1443. Some elements of these signs can still be found in modern texts. The complex structures of the traditional stud construction method are built out of prefabricated, standardized modules: a variety of interlocking wooden pillars and studs constitute the complex construction of the consolesystems in roofs. An extraordinary achievement in compiling single parts to form a meaningful whole was realized by Korean monks in the 13th century. Within 15 years they carved 81,258 wooden printingsticks, each encompassing one book-page. The largest and oldest collection of existing Buddhist texts, the Korean Tripitaka, was printed with these sticks.


Ik-Joong Kang composes his works out of modules in the form of small squares.


This format, however varying in size, can be found in the decoration of Korean architecture or works of craft. Elaborately embellished ... in palasts are pieced together out of squares, wooden grids divide walls and windows in quadrants, doors and windows are covered with papersquares. Often, the multifacetted chests of drawers and cases are decorated with square elements. Similar structures appear in crafted objects out of textiles and paper. Also evident is the likeness to the wondeful fabrics for wrapping gifts (pojagi). Having an overall square shape, they are mostly stiched together out of various colorful small squares of fabric, sometimes printed or painted with a grid. They are common objects with the aesthetics of abstract works of art. "The dissection/fragmentation of larger entities into small parts with geomatirical shape, comparable to a graphic design that repetitively uses related/similar elements" is a (prominent) trait of Korean art. Also, the chinese characters/signs are fitted into imaginary squares.


In addition to their common formal features, all four artworks in the exhibition are related to one another by their reference to Buddhism, the most important of all relevant religions in Korea. The basic/ constituent element of the "Cologne Pagoda" and of "English Garden" is the pagoda. This repository of relics, initially developing out of a grave-mound, is the utmost sacred symbol of Buddhism and often the central building in temple structures. During rituals the monks walk clockwise around the pagoda. Most of the still-existing pagodas in Korean are made of stone, preferably out of granite. Its style, however, is similar to the Chinese wooden pagoda. The pagoda is constructed with an even number of sides and an uneven number of levels, because the even numbers in eastern Asia are associated with the principle of the yin (the earth, the depth, the darkness etc.) and the uneven numbers symbolize the yang (the rising, the heaven, the height, the light). Most of the Korean pagodas have three or five levels above the base. Ik-Joong Kang's "Cologne Pagoda" is inspired by the three-leveled pair of padodas in the temple Pulguksa in Kyongju, that was built around 751 A.D. In one of the two pagodas, the oldest printed text was found. The "Cologne Pagoda," with its two levels, appears to be in an unfinished state. Was it destroyed? Fortunately, all the numerous relics are enclosed in plastics, covering the entire structure/pagoda. Usually, the third level of most Korean pagodas has a small space for keeping the relics.