The ‘modernist beauty’ of hangul

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The ‘modernist beauty’ of hangul

Ahn Sang-soo is not an easy person to get hold of.
He is terribly busy, his assistant says. But even when he has time to sit for a few hours, he just doesn’t seem to bother.
When he finally agrees to an interview (by e-mail), it’s on the condition that only the back of his head appear in the photograph with the article. (He has had his initial shaved into his head.) Questions are e-mailed to him. Weeks pass; his reponse does not come until two days after the deadline for the article. The response is a text message to the reporter’s mobile phone, apologizing for his lateness and saying, “I am now ready for an interview.”
He’s not media shy, his curator says. But Mr. Ahn, a 52-year old typographer and a pioneer of hangul design, doesn’t seem to mind that his actions might be portrayed as arrogant in the media. Perhaps he just doesn’t care about the media.
It’s true, though, that he’s a busy man. Mr. Ahn always seems to be on the go and meeting new people. At his blog,, he has posted hundreds of snapshots of people he’s met, all of them posed with a hand covering one eye. He calls it the “one eye archive”; its subjects range from his students to a migrant worker from Africa, all doing what the photographer tells them to do.
“The idea originally started in 1988,” he says. “It was the first cover of a magazine called Report.”
Report is a magazine about underground culture he founded. People in the design industry regard it as having introduced an entirely new paradigm for editorial design.
In his layout for an issue of Outsiders, a journal of Korean social commentary, Mr. Ahn asked each writer to mark the highlights of his or her piece in bold fonts. This revealed the writer’s point more explicity while adding visual texture to the page.
Judging from his own writing, Mr. Ahn’s experiments with hangul seem to be rooted in daily practice.
In the e-mail interview, he uses commas instead of leaving spaces between the words. When he needs to jump from one idea to another, he uses slashes rather than skipping a line. He makes frequent use of ellipses, as he seldom writes in complete sentences. In print, his writing has an odd visual charm, filled with dynamic forms, shaped by slashes, dots and straight lines formed by words.
For an exhibition currently being shown at the Ssamzie Space gallery, “Hangul-Dada,” Ahn acted as a guest curator, choosing 20 artists and designers to create works that play with hangul as a visual motif.
Artist Kim Doo-seop questions the aftermath of the foreign exchange crisis on advertising design, filling a gallery wall with reproductions of bright yellow advertising stickers, written in the bold fonts commonly seen on street poles in Seoul. Kim Hyeong-seok looks into the three-dimensional possibilities of the script by creating hangul out of pushpins. For his own work, Mr. Ahn created an installation consisting of a metal cutout of a hangul character, with the block from which it was cut left on the floor. It allows visitors to focus on the formalist aesthetics of hangul.
“I find that there is a modernist beauty in hangul,” he says. “There is a sense of beauty that’s very daring.”
For the last 25 years, Ahn has been exploring that beauty in a manner that what one might call “multitasking.” He’s introduced new fonts for hangul. He’s designed posters for major events. He’s founded a publishing company. He was named a vice-president for Icograd, the world body for graphic design.
In the meantime, he’s taught, held major exhibits and helped develop visual concepts for many different publications. His position in the Korean design world is an unusual one for someone who so often plays with the traditions of language, traditions considered sacred by many Korean scholars.
Mr. Ahn says many local designers’ use of hangul has been “too dogmatic.” “I felt there needed to be a breakthrough. We need to widen the parameters of our imagination.”
So far, that hasn’t been an easy task in Korea, where the design world is focused heavily on commercial trends and the tastes of designers’ clients.
Since the foreign exchange crisis in 1997-98, some critics say the state of Korean design has gotten even worse; they say advertising has gotten more chaotic, as companies push for designs that stand out. This phenomenon has driven many talented designers out of the country, to study abroad or to work overseas.
Ahn is aware of this situation, but he is not without hope. He says, “it’s possible to channel a person’s unyielding spirit into a will to transcend a boundary.” He believes design is something that goes deeper than style.
Indeed, he has many other things to think about, although design always seems to be on the list. “I am interested in the notion of ‘life,’” he says. “I am interested in society, in Southeast Asian nations and other issues, in typography and design.”

by Park Soo-mee

“Hangul-Dada” runs through Nov. 5. To get to Ssamzie Space, use Hongik University station, line No. 2. For more information, call (02) 3142-1693.
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