Suki Seokyeong Kang introduces the gestures of an individual movement from the classical Korean tradition through a mixture of sculptures, paintings, installations and videos.
Art Radar profiles and talks to South Korean artist Suki Seokyeong Kang to find out more about her oeuvre, “Black Mat Oriole” and her practice on the occasion of her recent exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania (ICA).
Suki Seokyeong Kang marks her first exhibition in the United States at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania (ICA), which features Kang’s five-year devoted project, “Black Mat Oriole”. The project elaborates on the fresh perspective on individual space and movement in society through an expansion of painting, sculptures, choreographed units of installations, collected objects and an immersive video triptych. Kang’s works are profoundly rooted in the classical Korean traditions of poetry, calligraphy and dance.
Her work is especially influenced by the historical Korean dance Chunaengmu, the dance for royalty which adhered to strict codes of court etiquette, and the traditional Korean mat, Hwamunseok, handwoven with sedge reeds that grow on Ganghwa Island in South Korea. With “Black Mat Oriole”, Kang carefully expresses the invisible limitations through slow movements and gestures within limited spaces called ‘black mat’.
Seoul-based Suki Seokyeong Kang (b. 1977, Seoul) studied Oriental Painting at Ewha Womans University, and Painting at the Royal College of Art. Recent exhibitions include “The Eighth Climate”, Gwangju Biennale (2016); “As the Moon Waxes and Wanes”, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Gwacheon (2016); “Group Mobile”, Villa Vassilief, Paris (2016); “Foot and Moon”, Audio Visual Pavilion, Seoul (2015) and “Grandmother Tower”, Old House, Seoul (2013).
Art Radar speaks to the artist to delve deeper into her work, “Black Mat Oriole”, her practice and interest.
You originally studied painting in school. How did you get involved with performance, video and sound?
My work often takes the form of installations or videos, though painting initiated the series. As the concept of ‘expansion’ is the primary drive of my work, including performance, video and sound based on my paintings came naturally. I think of the work composed of different media as a series, not separated according to their material. “Black Mat Oriole” is multimedia, and my progression with various media emerged from a long process (2011-2018) of thought and experimentation with structure and form.
“Black Mat Oriole” is an interesting choice for a title… How did you come up with it, what was the inspiration behind it and its meaning?
The title, “Black Mat Oriole”, is a compound of the words “Black Mat” and “Oriole”. In this context, the oriole is derived from Chunaengmu, which I translate as ‘Spring Oriole Dance’ in English. This dance was originally written in English as Nightingale Dance, but I decided to use the name of a bird species similar to the Oriole. This solo dance from the Joseon Dynasty of Korea is slowly performed on a square mat called a hwamunseok. The Black Mat in my work represents an individual’s space within society and the movements that take place within that space. Through this interpretation, I sought to gradually show the invisible limitations that we all face. In translating the slow court dance into the gestures of an individual, my intention is to narrate the time employed in such slow movements, and convey how an individual’s voice and gestures could designate and extend to certain domains. That is how I portray the oriole’s movements on the black mat – to provide a visible voice to the invisible domains and stance of the individual within society.
Is there any reason behind using a triptych panel on the video editing?
The video represents another black rectangular space in my work. There are developing actions in the black space within the rules of invisible and rigid grids. These actions incorporate a single unit of time, and every action moves towards a state of balance through the two opposing concepts of mediation and tension. Processes used in the video include paintings, units of installation, and collected objects that fill up and empty within the space through the movements of an individual.
How has your five-year-long creative process been? Could you expand a bit more on how you approached it and why it took you five years to complete?
Research for “Black Mat Oriole” was a multi-year process. It is difficult to talk about the Mat and movement as separate periods, as they are based on my previous works. While conducting my research, I have been trying to experiment in media related to both Korean traditional culture and literature, such as poetry. It took a long time to connect my research with the concept of the ‘individual’ in the context of my work, through a timeline that connects the present to the future. I am still in the process of finishing both the research and the experiment.
ICA explains that your work is engaging viewers with the power and politics of space. Could you speak to this ‘power and politics of space’ aspect in your work?
In approaching space, I consider the attitudes of how to face the visible and invisible square called the painting and with what thoughts I could fill that space. This is the spatial background of the place I am standing now: my current thoughts and the traditions of the past. Based on those temporalities, I wanted to show that the here and now make up the individual attitudes and movements that are balanced in society. Through our present moments, we can determine where we will stand, where we can look, and where we can create a collective voice. Whether the moment is now or later, if an individual can maintain his or her heart and attitude, I believe meaning can be generated through the harmony produced by each other’s movements.
Where do you find the classical Korean traditions that you are drawing from through your practice? What is the importance of breathing new life into such traditions in your work?
To me, the beginning of painting is traditional Korean painting. Literati painting used with ink generates a possibility to see and to learn how to think critically about the present from the past. For me, the intention is to navigate the present by thinking through literati. Although I use the same term “painting”, I consider the starting point of painting from a slightly different place. Instead of representing something that already exists, traditional Korean painting has more to do with how you think and how you use paper as a vessel to fill your thoughts with.
I spent a long time learning and developing the process and the attitude of traditional Korean painting – what position you have, what kind of thoughts you need to possess in order to fill or empty this screen or paper. My painting space, which includes perspective and the journey of compiling these experiences to produce art, led me to the methodology for my current works. That is, not simply replicating tradition as a history, but constructing a background for myself living in the contemporary moment.
You have re-created the movement that you found in Korean poetry, calligraphy and the historical dance Chunaengmu. Could you describe what you are inspired by in particular for this aspect of your work?
I enjoy reading old texts and finding abstract balance and structure within them. Through that, I got to know about Jeongganbo, a music score written in outdated forms like old song lyrics and dances. Jeongganbo is the name of a traditional Korean music mensural notation system. Jeong, a square in the arrangement, indicates a complex combination of durations and tones, lyrics and movements. Rather than functioning as a simple, linear score, the Jeongganbo offers a structure in which an ensemble of musical elements can be conveyed.
In this way, I think each Jeong (井) is interpreted as a squared vessel that holds one human’s voice and spirit. So when I read about the movement notation of Chunaengmu, I translate and understand those notations as an activation inside of a square that offers a framework in which I can convey the dissonant voices, conditions and events that shape a society.
You are using the hwamunseok mat in your performance. What does this mat stand for?
The Black Mat is the size of my painting and the steel structure that I place on the floor. The Black Mat is the square structure on which a person can stand on, and the Mat Black Mat is piled on top of it. The dyed reed used to make the Mat Black Mat is appropriated from hwamunseok, a delicately woven Korean traditional mat. The Mat Black Mat, either on top of or beneath the Black Mat, serves as a tangible space that one can step on or as a blanket to cover what is underneath. The distinct texture and weight of the Mat Black Mat and the Black Mat – composed of heavy steel – encompass the constant encounters and mediations of difference that reflect each individual’s domain of collision and combination.
What are the pivotal subjects in your practice and what has most highly influenced your current practice?
The focus on the individual, in my work, is a precondition for finding out how we can protect our own hearts and rely on each other to move forward together. When I think about painting, I consider how to face the visible and invisible square space called the painting and with what thoughts I could fill that space. This is the spatial background of the place I am standing now, my current thoughts and the traditions of the past. Moreover, based on those times, I want to show that the here and now make up the individual attitudes and movements that are balanced in society.
I want to share individuals’ attitudes and forms that could correspond to each person’s heart and attitude through what I consider painting. Also, I believe if we respect and preserve each person’s territory, these independent movements will converge and have a moment when they face each other. Through each one’s present moment, we can figure out where we will stand, where we can look, and where we can make a voice together. Whether the moment is now or later, if an individual can maintain his or her heart and attitude, I believe meaning could be generated through balancing the harmony produced by each other’s movements.
Could you tell us about what you hoped to achieve through your “Black Mat Oriole” performance?
The word ‘performance’, in my view, is not the movement of characters in my video or the show. I wish to use the term ‘activation’. Inside of the video, people activate their bodies to move and work together. The movements are intentionally simple so that viewers can easily mimic them with their own body. The painting I created can be referred to the position of ‘mat’. Everyone can stand on the mat, express themselves and move their bodies. The ultimate format for any one of my works is the last stage of “Black Mat Oriole”.
What do you make of the space and objecthood that you are exploring? Could you explain more about these two elements in your practice?
My answer to this would be my attitude towards my practice and the material hwamunseok.
Regarding the painting process, I have been working in the size regulated by the limits of my own body. For instance, I made the painting the length my arms could reach or the width that I can see when the paper is laid on the ground. That becomes the size of my ‘mat’. As my research on hwamunseok progresses, its area expands as my arms reach farther and as I step a bit forward. The practice with hwamunseok can be another form of the black mat. I have been researching about hwamunseok with these thoughts to create a mat that is as shallow as it can be on the ground, below the mass of the painting.
Is there any medium that you are particularly interested in? And why is that?
I have generally been interested in diverse media, but I believe the source that unites them is painting. In Korean traditional painting, what I learned is to navigate the present in a literary way of thinking. As I mentioned in the previous question about this, I am interested in how to think critically about the present from the past. So this would become a process of how I navigate the work in terms of the painting as not just a flat, two-dimensional image; text, letter and the image need to create harmony. So a painting as a space in the context of old traditional painting for me becomes a ‘three-dimensional structured space’, including individual perception and speculation. I have always been rooted in the logic of oriental philosophy, and it is natural for me to perceive painting as a space, not a flat surface. I now consider painting as a bowl an individual can make to fill with one’s voice, movement and thoughts in a harmonious, beautiful way, without any conflict.
What is the process by which you turn your idea into an artwork?
When I approach my art-making process, I consider looking and thinking as two starting points. Expressing how these two aspects “do” and “act” as a work is the least I can do as an artist in our society. Also, “doing” to me does not end at finishing one work, but includes the process of continued research and efforts to make the work. Though some of my works convey the time put into my work’s process, there are instances when it is unseen. Even if the process is unclear from the finished product, I hope my viewers engage with their own thoughts and individual lives to find out what they want to and need to do to interpret the work. As they walk throughout the installation, I hope they would, in turn, question the artist and work: why I used such material in this shape and form. As their contribution to the “doing” part of the work, they will then answer these questions depending on their movement throughout the piece and share their thoughts and the present.
What is particularly exciting to you in your upcoming projects that you would like to share with our readers?
I am participating in the Liverpool Biennial this year with the work Land, Sand, Strand. Here, ‘Land’ implies the painting, ‘Sand’, another land that indicates what the painting are placed on and, finally, ‘Strand’, a kind of stream made of the movement from viewers and artist to wander between the ‘Land’ and ‘Sand’. My ongoing series “Mat” will also be continued, and will consist of hwamunseok in “Mora”, which is totally different from previous works. I hope to hold a painting exhibition after finishing the “Mora” series.
Soo Jeong Kang
“Black Mat Oriole” by Suki Seokyeong Kang is on view from 27 April to 12 August 2018 at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania (ICA), 118 S. 36th Street Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.
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