How children see the world
He collects obsessively and counts and plays with the visual significance of scale.
In “8,490 Days of Memory,” Kang installed a statue of General Douglas MacArthur behind a spectacular mosaic made of 8,490 chocolate bars, which reflected the number of days the artist had lived in Korea before he moved to the United States.
Each bar touched on snippets of his memories as a child growing up in a war-torn country, where American GIs shared their chocolates with local kids, and the land of the heroic general meant sweetness and an absolute savior from communist invasion.
He represented the Korean pavilion at the 1997 Venice Biennale; his works are permanently installed at major public sites including San Francisco International Airport and Flushing Main Street Station in New York.
His success story is a legend among many Korean-American artists who are struggling to juggle their survival and artistic careers in the wild jungle of the New York art scene.
“I still eat the same food,” chirps Kang, shying away from a question about his advanced status in the art world compared to 20 years ago. “It really hasn’t changed that much.”
Kang moved to the United States in 1984, when street graffiti artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were at the peak of their fame. Kang graduated from Hongik University, a prestigious art school in Korea, but it wasn’t until the early ’90s that the American art world took any notice of his work.
Back then, the artist’s pockets were stuffed with a stash of drawing tools and small 3-by-3 inch canvases. He used them to soothe his long subway rides to the flea market where he worked.
On each trip, he filled his canvases with glimpses of life in New York, daily musings and words or random phrases that popped into his mind that day, which sometimes included notes on masturbation and disturbing phrases out of the blue like “I won’t get you pregnant.”
- People with similar shaped noses become friends easily
- You should never run when there is a disabled person nearby, no matter how busy you are
- When you get lost in the subway, go in the opposite direction of the way you think is right
- The proportion of meat to scallions in dumplings should be 2 to 1
- Laundry soap makes you itchy although it saves money
Wall of Hope is part of a continuing series of installations involving children. Visually, it is the essence of Kang’s work. In the series, he called for submissions of children’s artworks from schools, orphanages and community centers. The theme: a dream.
A painting of an envelope with a North Korean address was sent to him by a young boy in the South; it turned out to be his letter to his grandmother living in the North.
A child from Iraq sent him a painting of a boy shooting an air-gun in the sky. The bullet was targeting a flying bird named “War.”
A boy from Cuba sent a drawing of two men, an Israeli and Palestinian, shaking hands; a Vietnamese child sent a picture of a family eating.
“It’s an almost like an open textbook,” Kang says. “It’s an encapsulation of their culture, society and religion. You call this the work of a child. But in 1,000 years, this will be a major cultural asset.”
Wall of Hope stretches 64 by 14 meters, filling all of the museum’s two-story wall. The artist used a Google map of the peninsula’s mountains, rivers and islands, including Dokdo, as the backdrop to the mosaic.
Perhaps surprisingly, all 50,000 pieces of artwork were included in the exhibit. One child had fixed a matchbox onto his canvas. After a brief mull, Kang’s assistant took the matches out of the box and slotted them into the mosaic.
“We asked the teachers to send in all of their students’ artworks, even if it was just a dot on an empty sheet of paper,” says Lee Jeong-yeol, Kang’s local assistant, who helped put the installation up in the museum. “We made that very clear so that the teachers’ judgment didn’t get in the way.”
Each of the young participants captures child-like wonder in their ideas; answers are substituted by a picture of a colorful whale, a master of taekwondo, a simple display of Nintendo gadgets laminated onto a sheet of paper.
Personal recollections are common: the children have sent in their first baby shoes, their mother’s lipstick and a Pokemon doll. But not all the children embraced naivete.
Three were blunt slogans carrying the words “MB Out,” a common catchphrase used by local demonstrators in protest against the nation’s current president, Lee Myung-bak. One even had a picture of a machine gun.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Kang counted the number of footsteps it took to walk between his home and studio: 3,628. Despite this obsession with numbers, however, he knows that ultimately it’s not about the heroic scale of the 50,000 participants and 8,490 days he lived in Korea.
“It [counting] makes me nauseous, but I can’t stop,” Kang says, sipping his ginseng juice. “It just allows me to measure the distance of relationships between things.”
By Park Soo-mee Staff Reporter [email@example.com]