Actress-turned-artist finds union in creativity, theory

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Actress-turned-artist finds union in creativity, theory

Kang Rina brushes aside slides of her work and moves to Einstein’s theory of relativity.
“Actually it’s not that I understand his theory so well,” says the 39-year-old artist. “I’m just mesmerized by the profound impact that Einstein’s theory has had on everything from the big bang theory to the atomic bomb.”
A moment later she’s drawing a mystical connection between her work and Buddhist theories of metempsychosis, the belief that at death the soul passes into another human or animal body.
She points to scribbles, random equations and numbers that she has welded into the surface of her silver plates as support. “I began reading these thesis papers and found that there’s a commonality between Buddhist teachings on life’s cyclical nature and Steven Hawking’s argument on the brane theory (that multiple universes exist as membranes in a multidimensional hyperspace),” she says.
In April, Ms. Kang had her works displayed at the Ellen Kim Murphy Gallery in Gyeonggi province. Her steel plates bent into the shapes of missiles with scribbles of English text that read, “Axis,” “king” and “love,” were clearly a reference to the war in Iraq.
Ms. Kang was one of few Korean artists who responded to the war. Maybe she is too naive. Maybe she hasn’t yet been tainted. Or maybe the local art world was waiting for somebody to speak first.
Indeed, Ms. Kang is considered somewhat of an outsider among the mainstream art world in Korea. As an actress-turned-artist, she says she’s more often treated as “an event” than an artist by gallery directors. “There’s a sentiment among the owners of art galleries that I’m not a professional artist because I worked in show biz first,” Ms. Kang says.
With a degree in Korean painting, Ms. Kang often speaks about the authenticity of Korean identity. Yet she is often asked whether she has a clear idea what a true Korean identity is. And, she was recently asked to relinquish her membership the Art Association of Korean Painting because she wasn’t considered faithful to the notion of “Koreanness.”
“That sometimes hurts my feelings, but I try to not to let it bother me because this is something I’d do whether people supported me or not,” she says.
Reviewing Ms. Kang’s artistic journey might make one wonder where life will take her. Fifteen years ago, she was a senior visual arts student at Hongik University. She had just landed a modeling gig, a local blue jeans commercial. She used the money to help her pay tuition and buy paint for her graduation exhibition.
Next came film roles portraying the political scandals of Korea’s military regime, like “Seoul Rainbow” and “Evaporate,” movies that were considered sexually provocative. Although she portrayed the heroine, the scripts of her political thrillers bothered her, Ms. Kang says, because they treated women as victims or as tragic scapegoats of political plots.
Often these stories began with a charming young woman becoming sexually involved with an ambitious politician and then being murdered before the story ends. She was working during the dark phase of Korean cinema, when there was no interest in Korean films because of poor quality and censorship.
“To me, acting was an extension of modeling,” she says. “I didn’t believe in it. When I won the Grand Bell Award for best emerging actress, I sent the director to pick up the trophy and I just took the money.” When guilt about her roles became overwhelming, she left the film industry.
“I used to harbor a strong hostility toward digital media, largely because my mind feels bogged down by the wastes of popular culture,” she says. “Artists nowadays think they have to become stars to get their work shown. Why should I have to face the talk-show circuit again?”
Her new exhibition at the Posco Art Museum will hardly recall her days in low-quality thrillers; her sponsors are Buddhist organizations.
The show, which opens July 7, will feature large silver balls inspired by the superspring theory, a term found in Buddhist texts. It is a complicated explanation of human existence as a cluster of balls related to one another in an extended dimension.
In her last exhibition, at the Ellen Kim Murphy Gallery, Ms. Kang wrote a poem titled “Looking at the Silver Narcissus Flower,” a flower she says blooms to mark the start of spring and dies quickly, before other flowers bloom. The poem provides an entry point to the complex nature of her work, the artist says. But perhaps Ms. Kang realizes that it’s impossible to describe her work within the limits of language.
“Have you seen wind flowers?
They fall before wind blows
They stand before wind blows
On the hillside before the hill branch
They raise their small faces
While weeping in small voices
Stopping the wind’s onslaught
Spread across the hills, the ridges, shouting
They do what they are meant to do
They do not weep
We do not weep”

by Park Soo-mee

The exhibition “3x3 =33” opens July 7 at the Posco Art Museum. For more information call 02-3443-0884.
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