The second 800-word piece informed by seeing Kim Yong-Ik’s ‘I Believe My Works Are Still Valid’ exhibition at Spike Island, Bristol is by the London-based writer Laura Davidson.

As part of the task, the writers were asked to include a direct quote from the artist, a quote about Kim’s work from another source, and also biographical information about the artist.

‘I Believe My Works Are Still Valid’ is the first European solo show of the Korean artist Kim Yong-Ik. In the gallery, Kim’s sculptures, drawings and paintings are situated within the ubiquitous framings of the contemporary art space: white walls and a lacquered grey floor. Drawings clearly inspired by western traditions of modernism are neatly installed in rows which are subsequently disrupted by a heap of uninstalled work collapsed on the floor, resting next to an artwork wrapped in shipment packaging.

The work on the floor is An Installation Made of Damaged Two Pieces (1998) and Packed Materials (2016) (second version, 2017, after original of 2016). In a text accompanying the exhibition, Kim describes this particular work as “difficult to be immediately identified as an artwork, the ‘politics of ambiguity’ as embodied in this work could be a metaphor to my political stance that has long stood between socialist/populist art and modernism, never belonging to one or the other.”

The shifting identities of Kim as an artist are prevalent throughout the exhibition. These guises seem to be a rebellion against the traditional expectations of a lifelong artistic commitment to a school of thought; they provide an intriguing critique of contemporary art whilst giving an insight into the biographical context of the artist.

Born in Seoul in 1947, Kim emerged as an artist in the 1970s working under the tutorage of Park Seo-bo, a paternalistic figure in Korean art and the founder of the Korean Monochrome Movement, known as ‘Dansaekhwa’. The minimal geometries of Kim’s education are evident at Spike Island, yet they have been subverted either by use of materials or in their presentation. Minimal drawings of polka dots are washed with the organic patina of plant juice, neat dots sliding off the right angles of the corner they are installed on.

Many of the works are remakes of older, lost pieces, their titles appended with ‘second version’. This is not the result of lack of care. Speaking in 2016, Kim reasoned: “This is an age where editing is a required process for art-making, in place of creating. Furthermore, the age of ‘development-creativity’ has come to a close, and one can now declare an age of ‘collection compilation’. As I move forward towards the ‘deconstructed self’ from my initial ‘modernist self’ I will no longer create new works. Instead, I will present those I have reinterpreted, restructured, and reappropriated from my previous works.”

What led Kim to this way of thinking has its roots in the 1980s, when he departed from his training in Dansaekhwa. South Korea was under a military dictatorship and freedom of expression was limited. As a result, a political movement known as ‘Minjung’ (Min meaning people and jung denoting ‘the mass’) grew to fight the oppression.

‘Minjung misul’ or ‘people’s art’ emerged from this. Kim’s engagement with ‘people’s art’ is best evidenced by his revisited work from this period, Untitled (Dedicated to the Exhibition ‘Young Artists’ in 1981) (second version 2011, after lost original), which consists of a simple packing crate with paintings concealed inside. It’s a trope that has endured throughout his practice, this first act of concealment making a dual statement about the dictatorship and his own relationship with modernism. At Spike Island, there are fully and partially packaged works from across the decades.

While Kim flirted with the ideologies of people’s art, he never fully identified with the movement. In a text written for an exhibition of his work at Tina Kim Gallery in New York earlier this year, this unique trajectory is recounted: “Whereas the Minjung movement opposed the austerity of modernist painting with its embrace of vivid fragmentation and ephemerality, Kim forged an independent response, collapsing the painting in on itself and drawing the viewers’ attention to all of its packaging, both literal and figurative.”

Bringing attention to structures and what they are encasing allows Kim to occupy a position where he can be both critiquing a political situation and what it means to be an artist; the art is simultaneously obscured by materials, politics, society and evolving codes of the art world. However, there is a suggestion through the works on display that artists themselves do not have to be obscured; the artist is a peripatetic agent and is free to roam between these outer layers of society, culture and the art world.

The work in ‘I Believe My Works Are Still Valid’ switches between the minimalism of Dansaekhwa, the politically engaged, and the spiritual. This movement between ideas and styles makes it hard to define Kim, and thus his ‘politics of ambiguity’ marks him as a true radical; an artist who has the awareness to respond to the world(s) around him by abandoning a particular school of thought, to instead reflect inherent cultural structures and how they operate.

Laura Davidson

Kim Yong-Ik: ‘I Believe My Works Are Still Valid’ continues at Spike Island, Bristol until 17 December 2017


0 Comments

Following the first of three workshops in the 2017-18 a-n Writer Development Programme, the participants were asked to write an 800-word piece informed by seeing the current show at the gallery: Kim Yong-Ik’s ‘I Believe My Works Are Still Valid’.

As part of the task, they were asked to include a direct quote from the artist, a quote about Kim’s work from another source, and also biographical information about the artist.

All the pieces will be posted on this blog, starting with Edinburgh-based artist and writer Jessica Ramm.

Born in 1947 in Seoul, South Korea while the country was under U.S. administration, Kim Yong-Ik’s personal biography coincides with the birth of one of the most politically turbulent and rapidly advancing technological nations in the world. The prolific use of packing materials in his current exhibition at Spike Island, suggests that his works are on the move as part of a larger ongoing process; there are tapes that bind, wood that cradles and sheets of translucent plastic that enclose hidden baggage.

Many of Kim’s biographers refer back to the earliest stages of his artistic development: an origin myth of sorts. He began exhibiting in the mid-1970s with work influenced by the Korean monochrome painting movement, Dansaekhwa. This work proved so successful that, as stated in the exhibition guide for ‘I Believe My Works Are Still Valid’, he was ‘lauded as the natural heir to the older generation of Korean Modernists.’ The construction techniques Kim has used since, such as painting over earlier works with cloudy washes of pigment, suggest that this heritage is not something that he wishes to take ownership of. His decision to go on working and reworking material from this period indicates that unburdening himself of this bestowed legacy is complicated, since it constitutes part of his identity.

His work Ksitigarbha-2 (1992-2015) functions as a wooden coffin-come-packing-crate in which he has placed work from this early period of his career, making preparations for it to be accompanied by a traditional Buddhist deity on its journey to the next life. Kim’s ambivalent relationship with his heritage is something that is no doubt shared by many contemporary Koreans who balance the combined pressures of living in a high-tech society that still holds traditional conservative values.

Success, or the recognition of one’s work, is a theme that often causes doubt and anxiety for artists. Enveloped in the possibility of success is the risk that one’s work might be corrupted or its vitality destroyed. Kim’s approach to tackling this issue recalls Balzac’s fable of a master painter who struggles for years to reproduce the likeness of a beautiful woman, only to arrive at a mess of splodges and scribbles from which a single perfect foot emerges.

Perhaps it’s this impossible predicament of representation that Kim refers to when he says that he “discovered the limitations of Dansaekhwa art that lingered in its self-confining circuit.” Cannibalising pieces from his modernist period, he layers them up, paints over them, sinks them into storage containers. In some cases, Kim writes directly on their faces, introducing alternative interpretations via translations in Korean and English; an act of iconoclasm that invalidates the clean perfection of his early minimalist works.

One work bears a manifesto-like text that proclaims: “This is an age where editing is a required process for art-making, in place of creating.” The act of overwriting forces the work to conform to a contemporary sensibility in which information is composited and rehashed. Though he addresses the place of creativity in contemporary society with a hint of cynicism, it’s worth noting that his ability to shrink-wrap his youthful optimism of a previous era has probably saved him from the pervasive madness and eventual disintegration suffered by Balzac’s painter.

Suspended in mid-air is a plastic-wrapped painting over which a sketchy outline of some palm trees on an island is drawn alongside the caption ‘Wrapped and Erased and Bound Utopia 16-0.’ The word Utopia was first coined by Thomas More in 1516 for use in the title of his satirical-fiction Of a republic’s best state and of the new island Utopia. Though Utopia can be thought of as a place, it is really an impulse or tendency: the ultimate destination on the path of human self-improvement.

Perhaps it is partly in response to the Republic of South Korea’s turbulent political climate that Kim dwells on the idea of the “politics of ambiguousness” in his work. Though the concept of the republic is based on democratic principles, history teaches us that power struggles and corruption are unavoidable. Utopia is a wry joke that serves to highlight the social inequality found in societies the world over. The hollow outline of Kim’s tropical island seems to reflect its ultimate intangibility, like a mirage oasis hovering over a parched desert.

Reflecting contemporary civilisation’s experience of living without any illusions of teleological progress, his works circulate round and round, and traces of past journeys are layered up. The packaging boxes in which his objects are confined bear post labels; multi-lingual traces of journeys around the globe. At present, his works are at rest in Spike Island’s gallery, but soon they will be on the move again, continuing their migration till an unspecified time is reached; a time when we’ll be able to take the plastic wrap off Utopia and proclaim that the world will improve again.

Jessica Ramm

Kim Yong-Ik: ‘I Believe My Works Are Still Valid’ continues at Spike Island, Bristol until 17 December 2017


0 Comments