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Kwang Young Chun

Born in: 1944

South Korea


Translation in progress

"My twenties were all about America. The thin, young man from a distant country as suddenly a social, ideological alien in a new world. The American dream of the 1960s promised success and wealth, but the reality was that innocent youths were dying on battlefields. This was a country where democracy had flourished, but young people were being doomed to an unfair death. Some were dragged into a meaningless war that ended their lives in a faraway jungle, while others absorbed themselves in antiwar campaigns and marijuana, crossing the boundary between freedom and dangerous self-indulgence.
Yet it was also obvious that human life was becoming materially richer. I remember that the early 1970s was full of rosy predictions that by the new millennium, we would conquer disease and create a new settlement on another planet within the solar system. It was almost as if we could rebuild the Garden of Eden with our own hands. Nevertheless, it somehow also seemed that society and even humankind were becoming more and more incomplete. Automobiles filled the streets and every day saw enormous supermarkets stacked anew with goods and groceries; society was ceaselessly encouraging us to consume, and we—spending tremendous amounts of energy—were always exhausted. I could see addicts and homeless people lying around in broad daylight while also perceiving invisible class distinctions and human relationships dependent on financial status and social position. In all this, my humanistic views and ideas based on Asian traditional values were no more than a useless outcry of a young alien who couldn’t adapt himself to the capitalism, materialism, and scientism of the new world that called itself America. The media reported the constant conflicts between rich and poor, black and white, capitalists and communists, victims and suspects, claiming that theworld we lived in was becoming more and more chaotic.
The artist is a witness to his times and the canary in the coal mine. After the Second World War, Abstract Expressionism began to bloom in America. It was the first specifically American movement to achieve worldwide influence, putting New York City at the center of the art world. Of course, it soon was followed by Pop Art, Fluxus, conceptual art, and Minimalism, but I was instantly attracted to Abstract Expressionism, which seemed to be the best way to freely express my surprise—and my sadness—at witnessing the huge gap between ideals and reality. The juxtaposition of conflicting colors, tabooed in traditional painting, was encouraged; the brushstrokes themselves proudly emerged on the surface, creating a tension between abstract forms, colors, and the canvas that burst out from the artwork, leaving multicolored lumps and wild brushstrokes like the tails of comets. Until then, I had been used to traditional art classes that forced one to have one’s artistic imagination censored by one’s teacher, but I soon accepted the freedom of Abstract Expressionism. I wanted to express the conflicts that were happening between people and between the past, present, and future, though subtly hidden behind a dangerous harmony. Abstract Expressionism was the answer to my problem. However, when I started making artwork based on this, I could hear the voice inside my head saying, “This is not wholly yours. Are you not doing it just because others are doing it?” My peers and young gallerists often praised my work, but the voice inside my head became gradually louder until it became hard to ignore.
Abstract Expressionism worked best to express the chaos and struggles of the world I lived in, but my artistic fastidiousness undermined my devotion to this art form. Soon I began to feel a sense of shame that I might remain a second-rate artist, as my artistic philosophy and method were borrowed ones. The image of cursed artists endlessly painting second-rate imitations in a gloomy studio started to haunt and devastate me. Why can’t I just compromise with reality? How can I find the best way to express my art? How can I, as a Korean artist, create my own original style? Even after I returned to Korea, I didn’t stop asking these questions of myself. I carried on with my artistic practice, but as long as I couldn’t find the answers to my questions, the atelier was not a happy place for me.
On a late spring day in 1995, the room was filled with warm sunlight coming through the window. Having been sick with a nasty cold for a few days, I sat in the living room and stared at the glass of water and a package of pills that my dear wife had brought for me. I felt the pills through the thin paper package. Suddenly, an old memory struck my mind. When I was young, I was a sickly child, and my mother used to take me to a doctor in the neighborhood who practiced traditional Chinese medicine. I never liked the place because of the strong odor from the infusions and the threatening sight of the acupuncture needles. While the doctor felt my pulse, my mother held my hand, and I fixed my eyes upon the ceiling, hearing the doctor muttering something to himself. I remember that numerous packages of mulberry paper were hanging from the ceiling, each with a name card of the medicine that was wrapped inside. The image of my old memories of the drugstore lasted in my head for a while. I always had a desire to communicate my art through a Korean sentiment, and the image of the medicine packages hanging from the ceiling became a new theme in my art since that memorable afternoon.
Every piece of information is the end product of a struggle for hegemony, as well as an accumulation of human experience. Each hypothesis is in ceaseless conflict with another, until one of them finally becomes accepted as fact, as new knowledge. While this process is sometimes attained in a peaceful way through debates and publications, it also happens in the shape of physical conflicts like wars led by the governing class. Ghengis Khan’s Mongolia provides an example of this, as did the Crusaders’ wars, which brought great changes to the ideas and lifestyles of the neighboring countries. Even now, in Africa, the only method of distinguishing one tribe from another is whether or not each tribe dresses alike or speaks the same language.
According to the Bible, at the beginning of the world, when God tried to break up the people who were building the tower of Babel, he just made their languages different from one another. As soon as communication was disrupted by different language systems, people who at one time shared the same information started to fight each other. The paper bags of Chinese medicine become information the moment the doctor writes their names on them. Each medicine has a different use; a healing medicine to one patient can be a deadly poison to another. The package I fumbled with on that afternoon is a type of information, a product of human knowledge and experience. The tablets of medicine are the refined accumulation of numerous experiments with virus and bacteria, and thanks to the fact that this information was available to me, I could shake off my cold in a few days, while my unfortunate ancestors’ lives had to depend on luck.
My recent works that began from the image of packages of Chinese medicine were the essential expression and private documentation of my desire to regard these triangular cells as the minimal unit of information. Each triangular package, covered with Korean and Chinese characters, was made from old documents of differing ages and ideas. The documents that were the only means of transferring information at those times were reborn in my hands as minimal units containing different information. The writings of Eastern philosophy are randomly reconstructed along the boundaries where folded pages meet. Sometimes the accidental combination of words are of old geographical names or ancient people’s names, but sometimes the words assume a totally new meaning—a page from the Analects of Confucius, for example, can attain an entirely different meaning that is opposed to the original idea of the book.
When you look at the rings of a tree stump, you can see the traces of the tree’s struggles against harsh weather conditions—The rings show whether there has been a severe winter or a dangerous fire. The tree itself is one of many composing a forest, but it must continually compete with the other trees for sunlight and water and fight the whims of nature. All members of nature’s “system” have their own inherent nature and appearance, and we try to decipher information about time and history from them with the help of our senses. Each human being starts from a basic unit of information: the egg and the sperm. While our appearance and nature transform through numerous cell divisions, these factors depend on the original information within the egg cell and sperm cell—information that is a product of the long-held struggle by our ancestors against nature, society, and environment.
To me, the triangular pieces wrapped in mulberry paper are basic units of information, the basic cells of a life that only exists in art, as well as in individual social events or historical facts. By attaching these pieces one by one to a two-dimensional surface, I wanted to express how basic units of information can both create harmony and conflict. This became an important milestone in my long artistic journey to express the troubles of a modern man who is driven to a devastated life by materialism, endless competition, conflict, and destruction. After almost twenty years, I was now able to communicate with my own gestures and words.
A wound is a trace of the battle between bacteria invading your body and the white blood corpuscles defending it. Simple wounds leave small scars (the empirical documents of the disease), but more complex diseases like measles, which calls for a harsh struggle against the disease, leave large scars that sometimes last for a lifetime. Individuals have trivial arguments, sometimes accompanied by physical violence. Between nations, when the nonviolent form of diplomacy becomes useless, physical wars follow. As previously stated, I tried to transform my canvas and the mulberry paper pieces into a window that reflects the history of human life. The scars of our bodies, the conflicts between members of society, the wars between nations, humans’ exploitation of nature and nature’s suffering—all of these units and the natural, social groups they constitute are dynamically in conflict with one another, and I wanted to chronologically document the force and direction of their energy. Just as two nations in war transform their borders, leaving scars on their neighboring countries, or just as billions of years ago continents collided, creating deep oceans and high mountains, in my small universe, the small units of mulberry paper create protrusions and craters over the surface. If the collision between particles in my previous example of Confucian Analects represented the collision between different thoughts and ideas of individuals and societies (that is, a difference of opinions within our system), the mass collision on the canvas symbolizes a stronger clash of events, which leaves permanent changes and deep scars.
The round and oval-shaped black hemispheres and whirlwind-like images are the product of an artistic desire to create strong tension and dramatic movement over the canvas, as well as a metaphor with multiple meanings. The confidential documents of governments show black bars over censored parts even after their period of confidentiality has expired. These black bars serve not only as a permanent termination of sensitive information, but also as a metaphorical signpost that forms a boundary between those who are able to access the information and those who cannot, creating a visual tension over the whole of the document.
The black spheres and whirlwind-like images in my work are the expressive outlet of my conscience regarding the numerous pieces of information that are censored, fabricated, and cut off. They mean the destruction of historical facts and the damaging of truth by dynasties and governments all over the world, including the Chinese emperor Shih Huang Ti, who burned books of the Chinese classics and buried Confucian scholars alive. The blackened pieces that have no words were derived from old books that no longer retain their value, that of communication, and thus are unable to compete with the other neighboring pieces. As the black ribbon of oil coming from a stranded oil tanker instantly reminds us of dead fish and dead oceans, the pieces that are blackened represent death and nonexistence and are a final requiem for the numerous lives that are no longer existing on this earth. In my recent works, I also introduced red and blue in addition to black, but the basic philosophical approach is the same.
The small, minimalistic pieces of mulberry paper are finally reborn through the act of adhering them on the canvas—creating a collision between information as well as deciding the moment of vanishment and death. The black spheres and the colorful pieces move in groups over the surface, making scars, creating movement, and depicting confrontations and conflicts. This irregularity and instability, as well as the overall sense of movement of the canvas, is a methodological approach of conveying my artistic imagination, one that I have wanted to express since I was young, and also my own serious way of reconciling myself with Abstract Expressionism, the movement in which I once was so deeply absorbed."
- Kwang Young Chun

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  • SouthKorean Artist

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