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