Eastbourne-based writer Judith Alder reflects on the work of South Korean artist Kim Yong-Ik, in the sixth of eight pieces informed by seeing the artist’s exhibition, ‘I Believe My Works Are Still Valid’, at Spike Island, Bristol
As young artists, we rush through our early years leaping from one subject to another, gobbling up arts experiences with a voracious appetite. We explore how we can make work which is in turn bigger, better, more meaningful, more shocking, more honest, more commercial. Alongside this, we grapple with the daily grind of arts practice, trying to develop a skill, trying to make something work and, crucially, trying to recognise the moment when we have found something worthwhile, something worth pursuing further.
For some, a deep preoccupation exists from the very beginning – a passion which cannot be put to rest. For others, it is something which grows slowly, but which returns again and again, to be picked apart, dissected and reconstructed in a process which offers new ways of thinking about the question – whatever that question might be or might become.
For Kim Yong-Ik, his preoccupation has been a ceaseless questioning of arts practice itself. Born in Seoul, South Korea in 1947, he was brought up during a period of extreme instability and repression in the country. He became an art student in 1969 at Hongik University in Seoul where he trained under the masters of Dansaekhwa, a tradition of Korean modernist painting.
It was not long, however, before he became disillusioned with the constraints of the arts establishment. In an interview for Artnet Worldwide in 2016, Kim recalled his frustration with what he called the “self-confining circuit” of Dansaekhwa. This frustration led to his experimentation with alternative arts movements, marking the start of a persistent interrogation of the relevance of art and art making. This preoccupation became an ever-present feature of Kim’s practice which, he says in the same interview, “consumed my being to the core”.
At last, however, in a landmark exhibition at Kukje Gallery in Seoul last year, with the maturity that comes from almost half a century of brutally critical arts practice, the artist defined his current practice in an unprecedented statement in which he announced: “I will no longer make new works.”
It’s an announcement that provokes both shock and a sense of liberation on behalf of the artist. At last it seems that the painful process of picking at the complex mesh of questions that encumbered him has finally reached a conclusion. As evidenced in the Spike Island exhibition, ‘I Believe My Works Are Still Valid’, through both his artwork and his writing, Kim has steadily accumulated a mass of work which, he explains, is now presented as “reinterpreted, restructured, and reappropriated” compositions. Lost or damaged works are remade, added to and altered; old and new are combined. The formality of modernism is partnered with the chaos of the organic.
Paintings and drawings, notes and diagrams are resurrected and layered, encased in ‘coffins’ made of timber and Perspex, shrouded in handwritten text scrawled with black marker; original cardboard packaging is stacked next to new timber crates. Everything seems to gain weight and significance from the history which permeates it. As the catalogue essay for that 2016 exhibition explains: “This work frames the importance that manifests in the layers of time. This history revealed by the old, discoloured and soiled surfaces of the works implies their ongoing relevance after yet another 20 years of time passes.”
Through his insistent enquiry, an obsession that has governed his art-making, Kim has succeeded in creating an archive, a collection which has become the vocabulary of a new language. Each item can be endlessly recombined with others to construct new phrases and enable fresh readings of the work. Now taking on the role of editor and curator, his statement continues: “…the age of ‘development-creativity’ has come to a close, and one can now declare an age of ‘collection-compilation’”. Kim has brought together these components to create something far greater than the sum of its parts.
Kim Yong-Ik: ‘I Believe My Works Are Still Valid’ continues at Spike Island, Bristol until 17 December 2017