Fertile timesWith flowers in full bloom, spring is everywhere. Spring, however, is not all about going on a picnic, especially when it comes to artists. Here are four artists from across the peninsula whose appetites for creativity are not overshadowed by the arrival of spring. The pinks and greens of this season of rebirth seem to all the more enhance originality. In their ateliers, artists are budding new ideas. Meet a novelist sequestered in the hills, a painter in the capital of an ancient kingdom, a married couple performing traditional music in Jeonju, North Jeolla province and a modern dancer based in Daegu, North Gyeongsang province.
His first brush with fame came in ’79
GYEONGJU, South Gyeongsang ― The legendary Gyerim woods are no exception in welcoming spring. Trees that turned ebony after surviving a millennium, are once again verdant with new shoots sprouting everywhere.
Two thousand years ago, Kim Al-ji, the founder of the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. to A.D. 935) was born in these woods. On a recent weekday, Park Dae-seong, 58, the oriental painter, stood in the heart of the grove, welcoming the arrival of springtime.
As he sketches, Mr. Park says, “Spring is a crucial season to start a healthy year. Of course, spring comes only after bearing the cold and hard winter. Now I’m about to embrace a whole new season of my life this spring after the arduous winter.”
Mr. Park does not hesitate to adopt the spirit of the season, but he is not ready to indulge in it. His life has been too hard of late to be elated by spring. As a little boy, he lost one arm and had no chance to obtain even the most rudimentary schooling. He learned to write and paint completely on his own.
The self-taught artist has modeled his orchid drawing on the wallpaper of his house. In Korean artistic circles, where academic cliques and personal connections hold more weight than talent, Mr. Park endured a decade as a nobody. A breakthrough came in 1979, when he landed the top prize at a prestigious art competition. Since then, Mr. Park has stayed true to his focus on Korean traditional painting.
Landscape painting with Chinese ink appeals to this man. Deviating from the basic chiaroscuro style of oriental painting, Mr. Park has applied light shades of colors for he felt there were just too many things in color to be painted. Recently he returned to the basics; his work will be exhibited at a private show in Tokyo starting May, for 20 days.
Critics say Mr. Park does not paint but rather carves lines on a sheet of a paper. To perform just one stroke of a brush, Mr. Park practices calligraphy for hours each day.
“A truly powerful stroke is only possible through trained calligraphy, which enables a painter to fully take command of the blank and give it a deep echo.” What worries Mr. Park about today’s oriental painting circles is the lack of the tradition, the reckless adoption of Western painting methods.
“Young men these days seem to think that change comes in one sweeping moment. To their eyes, at least 80 percent of a thing must be different for there to be change. But just think about it ― spring does not come in a moment. Seasons come and go without our knowledge. So does my painting; it’s changing slowly but steadily.”
She’s a step ahead of the competition
DAEGU ― Spring arrived on schedule in this city still grieving for last February’s subway disaster. White apricot trees’ blossoms are trying to soothe this wounded city.
In the heart of the city stands the Daegu Culture and Arts Center, where Ahn Eun-mi, the modern dancer and choreographer, is as busy as the flowers of early spring.
Since mid-January, Ms. Ahn has put all her efforts in her latest production, “Chunhyang,” an adaptation of a traditional Korean tale of star-crossed lovers. Following up her successful performance in Seoul, Ms. Ahn is to stage “Chunhyang” from May 1 to 3 in Daegu with her Daegu City Dance Troupe.
“Dance is a way to emit living energy that belongs to a life itself ― like an outcry amid silence,” says Ms. Ahn, 40. “The most primitive means of communication is dancing, which makes it such a desperate and strong expression of living energy.”
Ms. Ahn herself has been a symbol of vigorous energy, called a reincarnation of the avant-garde. Since her debut at 16, Ms. Ahn won local acclaim by sweeping modern dance competitions with her animated and original dance moves before flying over to New York City.
Since 1991, Ms. Ahn’s hairstyle has been simple: a shaved scalp. That suits her needs perfectly, she says. This woman’s revolutionary spirit does not end there. She also dances naked onstage, leading to the stage name “Crazy girl”― even in New York, the forefront of the avant-garde.
“Art without experimental spirit is dead. Such a life is a bore. Destruction only brings wounds; breaking the law gives you reasons to go on.”
Back in Korea, Ms. Ahn settled down in Daegu, not the capital, which came across as a bit surprising. Ms. Ahn explains, “Daegu, at least culturally, is more open than Seoul. Daegu citizens react more sensitively to my original stage.”
Why did Ms. Ahn turn her attention to a traditional love story like “Chunhyang”?
Ms. Ahn explains: “I wanted to break the stereotypical image of the tale, to bring a whole new adaptation, pump new life into the story. With body painting and red-toned background stage set, the audience is invited to develop a new viewpoint.”
Ms. Ahn may be the only person able to manage the main character. Her ambition hits its apex when it comes to the range of materials seen on stage, like bojagi, or cloth wrappers, which are employed in making swings, skirts, floor cloths, anything that embraces.
Ms. Ahn’s creative spirit, her power to accept everything, is much the same. Her medium is the limitless power of imagination and experiment.
On paper and off, it’s a spiritual life
JINBU, Gangwon ― The trees bud late in this out-of-the-way mountain village. No signs of spring have arrived yet; instead a thin layer of snow carpets the ground. A humble house in the heart of this village is the right place for Kim Seong-dong’s religious mind ― and his creative writing.
Mr. Kim’s house bears a nameplate Bisananya, meaning “Not a Temple Yet a Place for the Recluse.” Mr. Kim explains it this way: “A Temple That’s Not Exactly a Temple.”
It has been more than a year since Mr. Kim, 56, nestled down in his private hermitage. His daily routine begins at 4 a.m. with worship in front of a statue of Buddha. After chanting some sutras, Mr. Kim bows to the deity 108 times.
This statuette of stone found its way to Mr. Kim in 2000, in Yangpyeong, Gangwon province. Mr. Kim had been toiling on the plot of a new novel when his manuscripts were lost during a flood. Then Mr. Kim found the stone Buddha with a sad smile, drifting in a stream.
Mr. Kim converted to Buddhism at 19, then juxtaposed writing with truth-seeking for a decade until the Buddhist authorities deemed his 1975 short story “Moktakjo” a libel on Buddhism and removed his name from the Buddhist monks’ register. Since then, he’s concentrated on pursuing truth through the pen. He was wandering about temples in the country, not as a monk but as a simple follower, when he settled down in this village.
“Come to think of it, literature and pursuit of the truth are pretty much the same thing,” he says. “You are totally alone in achieving both in the long run. You have to walk your way through on your own, which is exactly what we have to do in our lives. This makes me sad, whenever and whatever I do ― this being alone all the time.”
Mr. Kim has in some sense operated between the mundane world and the spiritual Buddhist world. Mr. Kim missed this world too much to desert his whole self to seeking the truth, he says. By now, however, he wishes to return to the Buddhist world for being “alone” has made him tired. No wonder he’s now working on a book about the rise and fall of Sindon, a Buddhist monk of the Goryeo Dynasty (918 to 1392) intent on revolutionizing a nation on the decline.
Two years ago, Mr. Kim rewrote his maiden success, “Mandara.” In the first edition, the protagonist, a Buddhist monk, transgresses the Buddhist commandment in the end, after lengthy agony and wandering. For the second edition, Mr. Kim created a happy ending, having the monk going back to the temple. Mr. Kim, likewise wants to be reborn as a Buddhist monk, with the arrival of spring.
Most days they sing the night away
JEONJU, North Jeolla ― Magnolias in full bloom are fodder for an idyllic perfect spring day. Golden bells and pink azaleas here add yet more color to this city, named for its love for traditional culture.
Such spring days, however, seem to accompany sorrow. Then a piece of pansori, a traditional song of drama, greets the ear.
“Spring is here with flowers everywhere, but all I feel in this world is loneliness. What’s the use of welcoming spring days; they just come and go.”
There they were, the married pansori performers ― Kim Il-gu, 63 and Kim Yeong-ja, 52 ― singing “Sacheol Ga” (Four Seasons). On a traditional pavilion, the couple tune up their voices in the heart of spring.
Three years have passed since the couple came to Jeonju, the center of pansori in Korea whose citizens have ears for music. The celebrated performers spent their life in Seoul, but settled here in a village of hanok, traditional Korean houses, where they feel more comfortable. They have since opened a pansori training school.
All the same, the couple is not totally rooted to Jeonju. In June, they will come back to Seoul for a performance. They were invited to the Five Great Pansori Singers stage at the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts.
And in July and August, they are to perform in the United States and Britain. Last year, the couple infused all of their energies into show in France. They were even happy to die on stage that day, and the audience cried a river over the performance though they couldn’t understand the lines.
This spring day, however, they are happy to be singing in their second hometown. Both performers started singing pansori before puberty, grabbing a moment to sing every single day. “So as not to lose the right voice, we have to practice at least three hours a day, or I just cannot perform correctly,” the pair say in unison.
The couple constitute formidable pedagogues for each other, and it’s no mystery why: nobody knows them better than themselves. Even the slightest mistake cannot be overlooked, a trait that often leads to arguments. But at the same time, they are the closest of companions.
Taking turns, they say: “In the still of night, when every single prattle and every earthly thought is asleep, we are wide awake, performing pansori until a new day dawns. A pansori singer should be able to disentangle the complicated emotions and aged grudges heaped upon every Korean’s mind and body. Only after you master how to sing sorrow can you add to the amusement of your audience.”
by Lee Kyeung-chul