CHUN KWANG YOUNG
SUNDARAM TAGORE CHELSEA MAY 3 â€“ JUNE 16, 2018
GALLERY MISSION Established in 2000, Sundaram Tagore Gallery is devoted to examining the exchange of ideas between Western and nonWestern cultures. We focus on developing exhibitions and hosting not-for-profit events that encourage spiritual, social and aesthetic dialogues. In a world where communication is instant and cultures are colliding and melding as never before, our goal is to provide venues for art that transcend boundaries of all sorts. With alliances across the globe, our interest in cross-cultural exchange extends beyond the visual arts into many other disciplines, including poetry, literature, performance art, film and music.
EARTH OF THE HUMAN MIND CHUN KWANG YOUNG’S AGGREGATIONS MARIUS KWINT Chun Kwang Young’s aggregations inhabit the human world like strange corals, creating magnificent entities from their multitude of cellular components. Incorporating elements of both painting and sculpture, their aesthetic qualities and resemblances defy simple categorization. They come as three-dimensional pictures bursting from their frame, or freestanding or hanging installations that, in spite of their size, elude the sense of sheer mass. At first glance the aggregations suggest natural forms, at once biological and geological, earthly and extra-terrestrial, yet on closer inspection they bear the marks of civilization and craft, being made from countless little packages, wrapped in mulberry-paper printed with text, and carefully tied with mulberry-paper string. Chun arduously assembles his works from great bags of these pre-made pieces, gluing them one by one to boards or hollow sculptural substructures and then hand-painting them. Sometimes the many, tightly packed protuberances are carved to produce burrows and depressions and are coated with graded colors to give the ambiguous impression of being both convex and concave.
Informed by his experiences of the U.S. and South Korea during the second half of the twentieth century, Chun’s aggregations have connected with global audiences and earned him international fame and accolades at home, including the Korean Presidential Prize for Art and Culture 2009. He is represented in major public collections such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, Yale University Art Gallery in Connecticut and the United Nations headquarters in New York. “I’m very excited to show my recent works in New York again, as I haven’t exhibited there for the past four years,” Chun tells me, speaking of the present exhibition at Sundaram Tagore Gallery Chelsea. “I’m showing diverse works such as sculptures, new color selections and new styles.” Chun was born in 1944 in Hongchun, to the east of Seoul, and so grew up during the end of Japanese colonization and the ensuing horrors of the Korean War, which left the peninsula dangerously geopolitically fractured. Coming from the U.S.-backed South,
Left: Aggregation 12 – AP014 (detail), 2012, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, 64.2 x 90.2 inches/163 x 229 cm 5
however, he was able to pursue graduate studies at Philadelphia College of Art, where he became thrillingly absorbed by the Abstract Expressionism that was made famous by painters such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, as well as sculptors including Louise Bourgeois. Though much of it had originated in Europe before the Second World War, Abstract Expressionism seemed to epitomize the cultural freedom and exuberance of a post-war U.S. It became the cutting edge not only for artists there, but throughout the non-communist world, South Korea included, in part because its abstraction was so open to multicultural forms. Chun recalls that Abstract Expressionism brought the liberty to juxtapose clashing colors. It “seemed to be the best way to freely express my surprise and sadness at witnessing the huge gap between idea and reality,” he says, and to represent the conflicting energies that he always felt existed beneath harmonious appearances. For all the undoubted integrity and artistic success of Chun’s work during this period, he still felt that this master-style was somewhat inauthentic and unoriginal. These doubts grew as he found himself a bit alienated from the American dream of consumer fulfillment and technological progress, with its undercurrents of civil strife, foreign warfare, hedonism and inequality, and he returned to his homeland. The feminist art historian Shin Ji-Young has argued that this was also a time of political pressure on South Korean artists to uphold “genuine Koreanness” by developing modern styles that were rooted in pre-colonial, precommunist national heritage. Shin argues that some eminent South Korean artists of the 1970s and ’80s such as Suh Se-ok and Han Muk responded by
adapting Abstract Expressionism to the traditions of calligraphy and Confucian scholars’ painting, while others resorted to nostalgically patriarchal depictions of rural life. However, the critically sensitized Chun was probably not so easily satisfied. Creative epiphany eventually came in 1995. Laid low by a bad cold, with the late spring sun streaming through the windows, and fingering a packet of pills his wife had given him, Chun was vividly reminded of the neighborhood traditional apothecary that he had apprehensively visited as a boy with his mother, with its acupuncture needles and many bags of pungent medicine labeled and wrapped in mulberry-paper. “I always had a desire to communicate my art through a Korean sentiment,” he recounts, “and the image of the medicine packages hanging from the ceiling became a new theme in my art since that memorable afternoon.” A once-familiar sensation had reawakened long-lost memories, similarly to the episode famously described by the early twentieth-century French writer Marcel Proust in his autobiographical novel In Search of Lost Time, when the author tastes a limeblossom tisane with madeleine cake together for the first time since childhood. Chun’s mode of reconciling his personal past with the larger cultural history of his country and the social pressures and self-expectations of being an artist is illuminating. This is because it helps us to understand how creativity externalizes and aesthetically materializes the tensions arising from the relationship between self and circumstance. Chun attaches the greatest weight of significance to the mulberry paper (hanji in Korean) in which all the pieces of his aggregations are wrapped.
As the cultural scholar CedarBough Saeji has noted, “in Korea . . . even the workshop of the papermaker can serve as [a] mnemonic site.” Manufactured from trees native to the rocky mountainsides of the country, hanji was probably invented nearly two thousand years ago. “In my opinion,” Chun tells me, hanji encapsulates the overall history of Korea and possesses a spiritual power even in its most ordinary uses. The hanji that I am currently using are from books between fifty and a hundred years old. Each has its history and each generation of our ancestors’ joys and sorrows can be seen in the thousands of aggregated fingerprints that make my work even more mystical and precious. It’s almost as if these fingerprints are trying to have conversation with me, to explain their reasons for being there. Inside the packets are simply triangular Styrofoam wedges; though usually regarded as a worthless and now ocean-polluting material, expanded polystyrene in this context is, according to Chun, “full of spiritual existence” too. I might add that such packing material is just as instrumental to modern Korea’s prowess in the global trade of consumer goods as mulberry paper was to the administrative and cultural functioning of the classical Korean, Chinese and Japanese state. Like paper, polystyrene was also originally made from trees, using resin from the American sweetgum. All Chun’s materials therefore take on symbolic value; they are not just the bearers of illusion, but become freighted with meaning by their roles in social interaction and exchange.
Some of Chun’s works, such as Aggregation 18 – JA006 (Star 1) in the present exhibition, resemble microbiological imagery such as the white blood cells of the immune system, while also, as the title suggests, bringing to mind vast stellar forms. Others such as Aggregation 06 – AP016 bring to mind eroded landscapes, or landed meteorites in the case of Aggregation 15 – JL038. The resemblance of the aggregations to natural forms that incorporate both positive and negative associations may reflect the eastern Asian philosophy of nature, where universal, opposite and reciprocal energies, the famous yin and yang, transcend human experiences of good and bad. In an autobiographical essay, Chun discusses his key concept of information in the light of this fundamental continuity between the human and natural worlds, stating that “[e]very piece of information is the end product of a struggle for hegemony:” a struggle that leaves body, mind and society wounded and scarred, just as the earth bears the craggy traces of great tectonic forces colliding over millions of years. “To me,” Chun says, the triangle pieces wrapped in mulberry paper are the basic units of information, the basic cells of life that only exists in art, as well as independently expressive of social events or historical facts. By attaching these pieces one by one to a two-dimensional surface, I wanted to express how these units of information can create harmony and conflict with each other. In constructing such complexity from basically geometric parts that are marked with the linguistic particles of human thought, Chun is able to bring forth both order and chaos in a coexisting form.
I ask Chun whether some of the scientific analogies that are mentioned in his writing and might be inferred from his artworks (such as the fragments of text on the packages suggesting DNA), are deliberately intended. He replies: It is hard to say that my works are focusing on science; however, some parts of the works are influenced by nature. My work tries to represent the internal field of the human world. In other words, it expresses ‘the mother earth’ of our human mind. Most of the works are influenced by craters and caves and other topological features, which are created slowly by natural action. Many people are amazed about how long it takes to assemble the small triangular pieces. It feels like a tedious natural process, but when it’s done, it’s marvelous. Indeed marvelous it is: the aggregations appear to vibrate, bristle and glow under some underlying force, like iron filings around a magnet, but they also resist this governance; the pieces do not all align. Nested together, they constantly intrigue the eye with the interplay of jutting pieces and recesses, fragmentary interstitial patterns, tantalizing glimpses of text, bulges and hollows, and myriad, ebullient colors. However, their effect is not purely optical: Chun’s aggregations radiate their presence in space and, true to their inspirational origins, in some cases seem to arouse even the senses of taste and smell. In some of these latest works, Chun is moving from the earthy and grayscale tones of his earlier oeuvre. He tells me:
My recent works show more intense and delicate colors with various shapes. But this doesn’t mean that the old colors and shapes have been excluded. I cannot deny the fact that I am ageing, and this influences my choices. Using intense colors in the works expresses the beauty of the present and tries to escape from the dark past. But even if many colors and shapes have been changed, all my major works have a certain connection. It would not be difficult to find the commonalities between my old works and recent works, because they are the special expressions of my life and thoughts. It is telling that Chun Kwang Young found the inspiration for the rebirth of his practice in a quest for healing. The dazzling commercial success of modernday South Korea makes it easy to underestimate the extent of its former suffering under colonialism, war and state repression during the last century. As Shin JiYoung has said, when Abstract Expressionism came to South Korea along with the U.S. forces in the 1950s, “the uneven roads, due the hasty burial of bodies, and half-demolished buildings, kept awakening the fear of being ‘Red.’ ” Neither was the America of Chun’s twenties immune from the traumatic effects of Cold War and ideological conflict. Perhaps the other metaphors to describe Chun Kwang Young’s work are not so much biomedical but archaeological. In common with many artists of his generation and nationality, he has dug beneath the strife-torn layers of modernity to find fragments and whispers from the past. However, instead of using these remnants to create idealized projections of Korean cultural identity, he has brought
them, cracks, seams and all, into the present. Building quasi-organic forms literally from the archive, he has created fascinating and enduring artworks that quietly counterbalance the classical Western dichotomy between nature and culture, subject and object. After all, we are all aggregations: cellular collections of substances informing each other and nestled tightly in space.
Dr. Marius Kwint is an art historian, born in Sacramento, California, in 1965. He teaches visual culture at the University of Portsmouth in Hampshire, England. A graduate of the universities of Aberdeen and Oxford, he has held research fellowships at the Houghton Library, Harvard University, and jointly at the Royal College of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Between 1999 and 2008 he was a lecturer in the history of art at the University of Oxford, where he was elected fellow of St. Catherine’s College. His interests include the relationship of science and art and he was lead curator of the major exhibition Brains: the Mind as Matter at the Wellcome Collection, London in 2012 and Manchester in 2013. In 2015 he was co-curator with Sundaram Tagore of Frontiers Reimagined: Art That Connects Us, a Collateral Event of the 56th Venice Biennale.
Sources cited and further reading Kwang Young Chun, “[Aggregations] Information: A Long Journey of Confrontation, Conflict, Union, and Its End.” Chun Kwang Young website: http://www. chunkwangyoung.com/html/03_Biography.php Kwang Young Chun and Marius Kwint, email correspondence, February 12, 2018. Kwang Young Chun, Carter Ratcliff and John C. Welchman, Kwang Young Chun: Mulberry Mindscapes (New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2014). Fré Ilgen, Artist? The Hypothesis of Bodiness: a New Approach to Understanding the Artist and Art (Tübingen: Ernst Wasmuth Verlag GmbH & Co., 2013), 159–64. Nancy Lin, “5,000 Years of Korean Art,” Journal of the History of Collections, 28(3), 2016, 383. doi:10.1093/ jhc/fhv047 Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time: 1, The C. E. Scott Moncrieff Translation, Edited and Annotated by William C. Carter (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014 [1913–27]). CedarBough T. Saeji, “The Republic of Korea and Curating Displays of Koreanness: Guest Editor’s Introduction,” Acta Koreana, 17(2), 2014, 523. Ji-Young Shin, “The Construction of National Identity in South Korea and the Tradition of Masculinity in Korean Abstract Painting,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 8(3), 2007, 367. doi:10.1080/14649370701393741
A g g r e g a t i o n 17 â€“ M A 0 2 8 ( D r e a m 7 ) 2017, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, 59.4 x 59.4 inches/151 x 151 cm
A g g r e g a t i o n 17 â€“ N V 0 9 3 2017, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, 73.2 x 60.2 inches/186 x 153 cm 13
Aggregation 12 â€“ A P014 2012, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, 64.2 x 90.2 inches/163 x 229 cm 14
Aggregation 18 â€“ J A00 6 (Star 1) 2018, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, 63 inches/160 cm tondo
Aggregation 00 â€“ N V3 0 6 2000, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, 64.6 x 52 inches/164 x 132 cm 19
A g g r e g a t i o n 17 â€“ D E 1 0 7 2017, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, 76.8 x 52 inches/195 x 132 cm 21
Aggregation 15 â€“ J L03 8 2015, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, 129.9 x 129.9 x 70.9 inches/330 x 330 x 180 cm 22
A g g r e g a t i o n 17 â€“ D E 0 9 8 2017, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, 72.4 x 60.6 inches/184 x 154 cm 25
Aggregation 07 â€“ D111A 2007, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, 78.7 x 78.7 inches/200 x 200 cm
A g g r e g a t i o n 17 â€“ D E 0 9 9 2017, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, 59.4 x 59.4 inches/151 x 151 cm 29
A g g r e g a t i o n 17 â€“ D E 0 9 4 2017, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, 64.2 x 89.8 inches/163 x 228 cm 30
A g g r e g a t i o n 17 â€“ D E 1 0 0 2017, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, 73.2 x 65 inches/186 x 165 cm
Aggregation 13 â€“ A U03 8 2013, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, 96.5 x 80.7 inches/245 x 205 cm 35
CHUN KWANG YOUNG
Chun Kwang Young began his career as a painter. He began to experiment with paper sculpture in the mid-1990s and over time his work has evolved in complexity and scale. The development of his signature technique was sparked by a childhood memory of seeing medicinal herbs wrapped in mulberry paper tied into small packages. Chunâ€™s work subtly merges the techniques, materials, and traditional sentiment of his Korean heritage with the conceptual freedom he experienced during his Western education. Chun Kwang Young received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Hongik University, Seoul and a Master of Fine Arts from the Philadelphia College of Art, Pennsylvania. His work is in numerous public collections, including the Rockefeller Foundation and the United Nations, New York; the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D. C.; the Philadelphia Society Building, Pennsylvania; the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, and the Seoul Museum of Art; the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; and the National Museum of Fine Arts, Malta. He was named Artist of the Year by the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, in 2001 and in 2009 he was awarded the Presidential Prize in the 41st Korean Culture and Art Prize by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. Born 1944 in Hongchun, Korea | Lives in works in Seongnam, Korea
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President and curator: Sundaram Tagore Director, New York: Susan McCaffrey Director, Hong Kong: Faina Derman Sales director, Singapore: Melanie Taylor Exhibition coordinator/registrar: Julia Occhiogrosso Designer: Russell Whitehead Editorial support: Kieran Doherty Printed in Hong Kong by CA Design
WWW.SUNDARAMTAGORE.COM Photographs © 2018 Chun Kwang Young Text © 2018 Sundaram Tagore Gallery All rights reserved under international copyright conventions. No part of this catalogue may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording or any other information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. Cover: Aggregation 17 – DE100, 2017, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, 73.2 x 65 inches/186 x 165 cm ISBN: 978-0-9967301-5-0