Artist wants residents to have say in public artwork

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Artist wants residents to have say in public artwork

Lee Kyung-bok, 41, who refers to himself as an environmental artist, simply wants to find a way for the public to have a say in what their city or community looks like.

In 2003, Mr. Lee created a project he named Sanbang (, with san meaning “to make” and bang referring to “direction,” to “look for the right direction in art and then create it accordingly.” The private art project is still led by Mr. Lee with currently only one other member, Park Ya-il, assisting on projects (there were four members at its inception). It was formed in order to promote projects and seminars that deal with the controversies concerning public art in Korea.
The “right direction” that Mr. Lee is searching for has been, for 10 years, the answer to how to make art that can coexist with the masses and become a public asset.
“Public art is not necessarily the antithesis to ‘gallery art’ and it also does not only mean art that is shown outside,” he said. “The definition of public art derives from its objective, which is not to sell to one person, but display for all to see and ‘own’ the art together.” He goes on to add that “gallery art” puts limits on who enjoys the art and that “although the artists hide it in an eloquent way, it is, strictly speaking, a commercial entity.”
Upon entering Mr. Lee’s small studio in Gwangjin district, eastern Seoul, one sees tables filled with piles of sketches and designs. On one wall is a long drawing, stretching about a meter, of a winding road with tigers and people in hanbok, looking like a cross between a traditional Korean folk story and a modern-day suburb. Mr. Lee explains that this is his next project ― a wall mural he has been commissioned to paint for an apartment complex in northern Seoul.

“We are trying to convey a sense of neighborly unity as well as tell little stories with the mural,” he said. Pointing to a part of the sketch which includes a little boy, street signs and a tiger, he adds, “This is meant to present the story of a boy who is going home from school or elsewhere. The street signs and tiger represent or symbolize all the potential obstacles that he might have to run into, which the parents might worry about.”
Last year, he and former Sanbang members led a project titled “The Three Million Won Project,” in which seven artists and seven organizers were paired to spend 3 million won on making a model of a community (situated either in their homes or studios) making all exterior items, such as public sculptures and murals, in their hands.
The project delved into many things, especially the problems as well as benefits of the Art Decoration for Architecture Program. The program was established by the Korean government in 1972 and enforces a legal mandate that owners of buildings with an area of 10,000 square meters or more must commission a work of art within the premises, using a minimum of 0.7 percent of the building’s construction fee.
“Although there are divided opinions on this, the atmosphere for public art has vastly improved over the years. During the 1980s, it was risky to have art showing outside in the first place,” Mr. Lee said, referring to the politically repressive and confining climate of Korea during the 1980s.
Mr. Lee graduated from Hongik University with a degree in Western painting and went to the University of Seoul for graduate study in landscape architecture. He has been involved in public art projects since 1993, especially researching wall paintings in and around Seoul. He is also the head of M, a landscape architecture group that has been a leader in defining public art in Korea.
“The wall paintings that were seen during Korea’s 1980s were influenced by the political mural paintings of Mexico during the 1920s and the wall painting movement during the New Deal era in the United States,” he said.
The most well-known instance of the Korean government restricting artistic expression for mass viewing was the “Sincheon Wall Painting” incident, in 1987, where it stopped the artists painting politically-charged images on the wall and had them arrested. “This stifled the development of wall paintings as a socially unifying symbol in Korea. From then on, from the mid-1990s, wall paintings were used mostly as part of a city beautification plan or purely for decorative purposes.”

Mr. Lee says that this is only a fraction of the story, however. “One of the most important roles of public art is uniting a community and representing the unique quality of each one,” he said. “This hasn’t happened so far.” More than 50 percent of the existing wall paintings in Seoul are of nature scenes, according to Mr. Lee’s research. In his thesis for the University of Seoul’s graduate program in 2002, he stated that “67 percent of wall paintings in Seoul were created to decorate the districts. So there were lots of nature drawings and simplified folk drawings that really didn’t carry any specific meaning beside being an image of nature surrounding the concrete.”
In 2002, Mr. Lee’s exhibition, “A Report on the Road-Side Mural Painting of Seoul,” which featured photographs of 500 wall paintings from Seoul and 300 from the United States, compared and analyzed wall painting in both countries. “After the exhibition, I felt that, in Korea, people did not have a chance to think of wall painting as art, but saw that most of the visitors thought of wall painting as just some graphics on a fence beside a job site,” he said. “This is very different from places like San Francisco, where they even have wall painting tours around the city and over 60 wall painting artist groups.”
When asked about the direction of public art in Korea, Mr. Lee replied, “It is a way for art to meet the public, and bring culture to everyday people, without the limiting confinements of a buy and sell relationship. I wish that the old definition of public art, wall paintings in particular, in which art carried a religious or communal meaning, representing the irreplaceable culture of the place it belongs to and the people who drew it, would seep into the definition of modern public wall painting as well.”

by Cho Jae-eun
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