Modernity wrapped in the Korean soul
Chun Kwang-young started his art career doing minimalist painting in Philadelphia, where he resided for 10 years in a fruitless search for recognition. In the mid-70s he moved back to Korea and made the rounds of galleries begging for a show. Frustrated by the lack of interest in his work, he decided to give up on art and take his wife on a trip around the country.
“Then it came to me,” he said, “one of the most vivid experiences I’ve had as an artist. I was sitting in a museum one day when I saw in my head the image of an old woman shoving food into a fabric bundle and tying up the tips. That was it. I knew then what I wanted to say in my work.”
Chun quit painting and began to make art installation pieces based around the idea of wrapping and packaging.
To make a piece, he cuts thick triangles of Styrofoam, wraps them with mulberry paper - the kind traditionally made in Korea - and ties them together with a string. He then glues them onto a wooden panel or ties them together into a sculpture as large as 2.7 meters (9 feet) across.
At “Unlimited,” his show in Basel, he rolled out a giant ball made from 7,000 pieces of his Styrofoam-paper-string product. He then hung it from the ceiling, about half a meter off the ground, to create the feeling of tension in viewers.
The piece was striking and evocative. The Styrofoam wedges, all of different sizes, pointed in 7,000 directions across the white room. It looked like a violent explosion caught in the first microsecond of its ignition.
The piece was supposed to be a commentary about the state of the world, but the notion of wrapping also reflects a Korean worldview. In Chun’s opinion, this native philosophy is optimistic and embraces life and death, as babies are swaddled at birth and the dead are wrapped before burial.
“I am always amazed at how the shape of a bojagi (a Korean style of wrapping) changes depending on what it holds,” he said. “You would think the bundle could only take a certain amount, but you can keep adding objects.”
Chun’s search for recognition appears to have finally found success: he is considered by many to be one of the most influential sculptors in Korea, was named Artist of the Year by the National Museum of Contemporary Art in 2001. His patrons include Chase Manhattan Bank in New York, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Neiman Marcus Department Store in Dallas.
If his work sounds labor-intensive, consider that each piece requires 7,000 to 8,000 Styrofoam pieces that must be made by hand with the help of assistants; even with the help, it still takes seven or eight months for each work.
Even this meticulous approach to sculpture is a subtle reference to traditional Asian craftwork, symbolizing the endurance and meditative focus that marked the work of the older Asian masters.
“People call me crazy when it comes to labor in my work,” he says. “I admit it. But it’s also a way for me cultivate my sense of morality.”
This link between wrapping, endurance and Asian culture was noticed by Oh Kwang-su, the director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art. Mr. Oh wrote that the idea of wrapping in Chun’s works is deeply associated with the life of uprooted people in modern history, who carried bundles of personal items from one place to another during times of war.
The paper that Chun uses is linked in his memory to trips he would take when he was very young to the Oriental medicine clinic which belonged to a relative. Chun grew up around these medicinal herbs wrapped in mulberry paper, hung from the ceiling in tight clusters. The paper was also used in Korea for a variety of regular household goods before being replaced by plastic and other modern materials; doors and lamps, for instance, were also made with mulberry paper.
In most of his works, Chun uses paper from Korean books that are more than 60 years old ― the paper is covered in Chinese characters.
“It allows me to feel the spirit of those who once read or touched the book,” he said. “In a sense, I am ‘wrapping’ the stories of people’s lives. I am telling the story of my culture.”
by Park Soo-mee
“Aggregation” runs at the Kukje Gallery through December 18. For more information, call (02) 735-8449. To get to Kukje, get off at Anguk Station (No. 3 line) and walk 10 to 15 minutes toward the Blue House. The gallery is right across from Gyeongbuk Palace.