The Not-Always-Gentle Art of Marriage

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The Not-Always-Gentle Art of Marriage

The sculptor Park So-young and her painter husband Kim Ji-won have been together for 21 years, but talking about each other's works has never been easy. Several times in the past, Ms. Park said her husband "challenged" her ego by deliberately choosing to give negative comments on work she was particularly proud of, just to let her question more about the work.

"We only agree when we see good art," said Ms. Park in her husky voice. She's sitting in the couple's studio near Anseong, a remote suburb of Seoul in Kyonggi province, while her husband fixes coffee in the kitchen. "Otherwise our discussions are mostly brutal attacks on each other's works."

Choosing his words carefully, Mr. Kim explained that artist couples are generally divided into two camps: those who avoid any discussions of each other's works and those, such as he and his wife, who fight all the time.

"It's often painful to hear criticism from your partner because you know what comes out is an observation by someone who really knows your work," Mr. Kim goes on. "In other words, you have the inside story that other critics or curators can only infer." Although the couple often find this intensity exhausting and emotionally taxing on their marriage, they also admit that it is from this tension that their art makes its most significant advances.

"It's nice to be apart from each other, now that we get a chance," Ms. Park sighed. As she did, Mr. Kim nodded his head. After sharing studio space with her husband for most of the past 14 years, Ms. Park earlier this year moved into a studio provided by the Young-un Museum of Contemporary Art in Kwangju on a one-year contract, as part of their artist-in-residency program. That contract ends in September, but she is hoping to extend the residency for another year, just to enjoy the freedom of using a separate studio space from her husband.

"Little things," she said of the freedom. "For example, it's always me who has to start worrying about dinner and rush into the kitchen every evening when both of us are fully concentrating on our work." As Ms. Park went on about her husband's lame attempts at housework, Mr. Kim stared at a pack of cigarettes and stayed silent.

"I don't mind eating instant noodles for dinner," Ms. Park cleared her throat and said. "When I'm really in the mood, I'll just buy a pack of microwave rice with little side dishes from a local supermarket. But our friend over here is the type who has to have a bowl of steamed rice and homemade kimchi even if it's a humble meal. It took me some time to stop feeling guilty for not cooking dinner the way he prefers."

For a moment, the two, both 40, fell into an uncomfortable silence. Then Ms. Park worked to break the awkward silence with a compliment. "But now we have come to a compromise," she said while looking kindly at her husband.

There are things in their lives, however, that have not been compromised. Art, for example. Like many artist couples, one's work complement's the other's. Ms. Park's mixed-media sculptures, made out of tactile materials such as peanuts and synthetic petals from artificial flowers, are intimate and personal. Mr. Kim's 6-foot tall and surreal landscape paintings, on the other hand, are characterized by critics using adjectives such as "bold," "monumental" and often "political." But the difference does not seem to bother the artists.

"It's good enough that we share similar interests," Ms. Park said, leaving it at that.

The two artists met in their freshman year at Inha University, and married eight years later, on the day Mr. Kim had his first solo exhibition. They had their wedding at noon and went straight to his gallery opening in the afternoon.

"I wish I was charmed by Ji-won's works but for me it was more the person," she said with a laugh. Unlike many other artist couples in Korea who insist that their chemistry is entirely built on the exchange of intellectual dialogue and inspiration, Ms. Park adamantly stated that art and life can be separated.

But now, 14 years since the two started sharing the same studio, Ms. Park calls her partner's most recent major exhibition, "Similar Walls; The Same Walls," which was held in the annex gallery at the Artsonje Museum in Gyeongju, a "masterpiece." The grand-scale installation of 70 paintings of the red bricks walls from his neighborhood wall received promising reviews.

"I am the kind of artist who has to just stop working and stay away from everything when I am stuck. But this friend is different," she said. "He may collapse in front of his canvas, but he never leaves the studio."

Waiting for a break in the conversation, Mr. Kim said, "That's the good thing about having an artist wife. She never complains even if I don't come home for several days, as long as she knows I am in my studio."

Part of being a noted artist is having your work - and yourself - seen. Ms. Park said that she is not fond of being photographed with her husband. "It's embarrasing to see how media often depicts artist couples like us: drinking-their-morning cappuccinos-on-the-balcony."

A story in Korean tabloid actually presented the couple that way last year.

When the two finally agreed to pose this day, they giggled for a while and then looked away from each other: Mr. Kim faced his canvas, while Ms. Park looked toward her side of the studio.



by Park Soo-mee

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