Gallery Hyundai presents Lee Kang-so’s performance, photography, video and installation work from the 1970s.
Art Radar looks at Lee Kang-so’s oeuvre and delivers dialogue between the artist and the Gallery Hyundai regarding Lee’s experimental works.
“Disappearance” is the title of the work that Lee Kang-so introduced in his very first solo exhibition in 1973 at Seoul’s Myong-Dong Gallery. It also portrays the world of Lee’s practice on the experience of order, time and existence of nature that has been created and extinguished. “Disappearance” showcases Lee Kang-So’s ten experimental masterpieces from the 1970s to provide an opportunity to re-examine and appreciate his work in depth.
A pioneer in contemporary Korean art
Lee Kang-So (b. 1943), based in Anseong, Korea, is one of Korea’s representative contemporary artists and has been continuously experimenting with various media, such as painting, printmaking, video, performance, installation, photography and sculpture. He graduated from Seoul National University in 1965. In the late 1960s, he founded the ‘Shinchaejae (new system) group’ and started to work on contemporary art in earnest. In the years of 1971 and 1972, he participated in the ‘AG (avant-garde association) group’ and began to show innovative works. In 1973 and 1974, he directly planned the “Korean Contemporary Artists Invitational Exhibition” and the Daegu Contemporary Art Festival, and gathered contemporary artists who had a desire for an experimental art practice.
At the Daegu Contemporary Art Festival, Lee encouraged and supported artists to connect with a broad range of experimental arts, such as events and happenings, avant-garde, visual art and land art. Lee also produced work in various media like installation, performance and video art, under the influence of Western artistic practices such as happenings, events and performances. Consequently, in the 1970s, Lee was in a process of constantly investigating the exchange of new art forms with his own language, and confronting the existential problems that necessarily came into his practice in a rapidly changing contemporary era such as the 1970s.
Lee moved to New York in 1985 as a visiting professor and a visiting artist at the State University of New York, Albany, while he was working as a professor at the Gyoengsang National University, Korea. In 1991, he participated in the Triangle Artist Workshop and joined the Studio Artist Program at MoMA PS1 for two years.
His work is in numerous national and international, public and private collections, including the National Museum Of Contemporary Art, Seoul, Korea; Seoul Metropolitan Museum Of Art, Seoul, Korea; Daegu Art & Culture Hall, Daegu, Korea; Open Air Sculpture Garden Asadal, Gyeongju, Korea; The International Museum Of 20th Century Arts & Cultural Center, Laguna Beach, California, USA; Written Art Foundation, Frankfurt, Germany; and Mie Museum of Art, Miegen, Japan.
This exhibition at Gallery Hyundai is organised chronologically, with Void (1971) exhibited at the first basement level. Void is an installation work that provides a sense of the artist’s memory of a reed field in the 1970s: the artist directly moved the reed field found at the Nakdong River to the indoor exhibition hall.
Void was exhibited in the second Korean Avant-garde group exhibition in 1971. This installation deals with the problem of existence by providing an experience of walking through the still and desolate reed fields. This work is about the disappearance of reed fields, an issue communicated by the artist through dry reeds fixed up with white plaster and cement. Through the ‘stuffed’ natural elements, Kim conveys the image of loss and death and his grey vision of a 1970s reality.
Disappearance moves a phase of 1970s ordinary life to the sterile, white cube gallery environment. At the Myeongdong Gallery Solo Exhibition in 1973, Kim bought the entire tables and chairs of his favourite pub at that time and moved them all into the exhibition hall. His iconic work Disappearance, Bar in The Gallery (1973) is recreated on Gallery Hyundai’s first floor and presents Lee’s interest in the concepts of the cosmos, systematic nature, and becoming and disappearance. Lee presents an opportunity for audiences to share in his private memory of an intimate place.
This performance invites audiences to engage and join the scene. Viewers are free to sit at a wooden table and on chairs to reminisce and experience the traditional pub (chumak) scene of the 1970s, have a glass of makgeolli (a Korean alcoholic beverage) and snacks, and naturally participate in the artist’s performances and transforming the exhibition space into a place where visitors, works and writers communicate. (All proceeds from the makgeolli and snack sales will be sent to the Child Welfare Fund.)
The second floor consists of works from the mid- to late 1970s. The chicken performance work Untitled-75031 (1975) was presented at the 9th Paris Biennale in 1975. The artist tied the ankle of a chicken to a wooden pillar, and then released the chicken in the exhibition hall to roam freely. Lee placed gypsum powder around the tree structure to track the chicken’s movement. In this installation, Lee controlled only the length of the radius of the chicken’s movement and did not restrict the chicken’s behaviour. This ‘Chicken Performance’ embodies the traces of time in a limited space and the reaction of the audience to the whole.
Untitled-75031 reveals Lee’s consciousness about the relationship between the work’s world and the physical world. What is left from the performance in the exhibition space are only photographs, the installation and the traces of the chicken’s movements. Viewers ultimately only see traces of the chicken, prompting them to question the existence of the creature and raises their curiosity about the disappeared chicken. Through the restrained movements of the chicken, Lee also illustrates the limit of existence.
Becoming and Extinction (1974) is an installation work that emphasises the cross-sectional story of everyday life. A straw mat is placed on the exhibition floor and over 200 apples are stacked on it. Alongside the straw stool, Kim wrote down the cost of one apple with a bowl for the money and lets visitors act autonomously. Through this work, the distribution process of a product is reproduced inside the gallery, while inducing the intention of visitor’s free will and the speculation about materials and creative imagination. (All sales of the apples will be forwarded to the UNICEF fund.)
Untitled-75032 (1957) is an installation of three deer bones, which was also presented at the 9th Paris Biennale in 1975. Lee bought deer bones from Daegu Seomun Market and painted them in white, silver and black, and then re-assembled and restore the shape of the deer on the chalk drawing. With this work, Lee tried to symbolise the existence of the disappeared deer and visualise his idea of time and reminiscence of existence.
Painting (1977) is the trace of a nude performance work, in which Lee painted his body and wiped the paint off with a canvas cloth. In the process of painting and wiping directly on his body, Lee felt the physical presence and the sensation of his body. Lee provoked the viewer to perceive his presence, while looking at the cloth that wiped off the paint from his body. This work was also exhibited in 1978 after the nude performance in 1977.
A dialogue on art practices
Gallery Hyundai conducted an interview with Lee Kang-So to find out more about his practice and experimental works on the occasion of his solo exhibition at Gallery Hyundai, Seoul in August 2018. Art Radar here features an extract from the original interview (PDF download).
How do you feel about reproducing the work of the 1970s at Gallery Hyundai in 2018, after 40 years?
Some of my work in the 70s has been reproduced occasionally in galleries and museums. However, there were many times that I felt unsatisfied with the space or environment due to the conditions of exhibitions that were unsuitable for my work. Thanks to the suggestion and consideration of Gallery Hyundai at this time, I am exhibiting installations and process-oriented works that can be reproduced. This is the first time that I am reproducing my work so intensively, but I want to strive to make a solid exhibition with proper placement of works.
It’s been a long time since I have created the works, but I have a lot of interest and expectation about what kind of experience they will provide to the audience and myself as well.
The title of the exhibition “Disappearance” is also the title of your work that was shown at your first solo exhibition at Myong-Dong Gallery in 1973. Why was the work titled as Disappearance?
The term, disappearance, still remains to be very desolate to me. I was raised to appreciate art under a particular education system of an ‘ivory tower’ (the term refers to an educational environment of intellectual pursuits disconnected from practical concerns of everyday life) whereas the nation and society were in difficult state. I was very much fortunate to be given an opportunity to have my very own solo exhibition at the only contemporary art gallery at that time in Seoul, which I have turned it into a bar. And I am pretty sure, it must not have been a pleasant experience for general audience.
Back then, I was a young man who just left the ‘ivory tower’ living out of an ideal dream, painting in teal, confronting myself with the real world in grey. And I reminisce this grey world to be a place where it was shrouded in fog, feeling as if I was floating up in the air, getting lost heading back home.
Unlike other performance art pieces at that time, Disappearance was completed with the participation of the audience. It was an artwork that overturned the boundary and position of the artist and the audience. What triggered you to present such a performance art piece? It is believed as a very meaningful work for both Korean art history and also for you as an individual artist.
One day, I visited a bar in the daytime to treat my senior at the university who came to see me. Although I feel the same now, but the bars at that time were intimate places like coffeehouses today. While exchanging glasses between the two of us at a lukewarm bar without any customers except for us, my gaze stayed on the wooden table and chairs. It seemed as if I was listening and seeing the sound of many people and an illusion full of smoke from cigarettes. The traces of rubbing off countless cigarettes on the table and chairs, burnt marks made by hot pots, and incessant mopping by the worker at the bar – all these seemed to make noises together. But all of this disappeared at once. I was there, and my senior was sitting in front of me, but we were there and not there at the same time. I could not prove it precisely. I could not be my senior sitting in front of me, and he could not be me. The bar I was experiencing could not be the same as the place he was encountering. Where were we?
That experience was so fresh for me, so I immediately bought a chair at the bar. But I felt it was not enough, so I bought all the tables and chairs at the bar and left them at a corner of my studio. That led to my solo exhibition.
As a result, the goal of the work was to provide the audience with an opportunity to re-experience and reflect on our own situation that we had been mindlessly experiencing by separating an aspect of our everyday life into the gallery. The role of the artist is up to this point, and the audience will be free to participate the work and have time for one’s own experience that others cannot know.
Looking back, I think that the realization of some works at that time was done out of luck. This is because these ideas were able to be linked to my latter installation works, sculptural pieces, and paintings.
Void, a work originally presented in the second A.G. Exhibition in 1971, fixated reeds growing along Nakdong River using cement and transported them to the exhibition. The work looked as if you moved the natural environment of Nakdong River directly to the exhibition, stirring the identity and structure of the space of an art museum. Seen as an extension of Void, the group performance art presented at the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Daegu Contemporary Art Festival under the names of happenings or events are also very interesting. Outside the exhibition space, how did nature influence the experimental artistic activities at that time as a stage and artistic materials?
Until the first and second exhibitions of Shinchaejae in 1970 (the group held two exhibitions every year for eleven times until 1976 as research presentations), there were works that had been heavily influenced by pop art. In the third exhibition in 1971, we considered ‘pop’ as a modernist remnant that did not fit us. So we broke away from it and took on new attempts.
In the A.G. Exhibition in 1971, I presented a work that filled the exhibition space with a field of white reeds. The work accidentally reminded me of the reeds of Nakdong River that I went along from time to time when I was a child. It reminded me of the midst of the giant reeds that densely populated the field in the summer, the playful children tanned by the sun padding the waters in the swamp, and the dreary sound made by dry reeds rubbing against each other by the strong wind in one winter, which made me think of myself wandering in some strange domain. The work was created by an idea that I would move the reed field into the museum although not exactly in the same shape, letting the audience walk through it. I am curious what kind of feelings and thoughts the audience will experience in another space filled with reeds. We are living in a world where we have to change the habit of seeing the world by simplifying it through concepts.
After returning from the 9th Paris Biennale in 1975, I thought about what I had to do in the art movement. I thought that art in its all areas, which did not only include traditional genres such as two-dimensional paintings and sculpture but also installation, performance art, and video art started to form new history. I thought such influence had to extend their territories in the Korean art scene. So, at the 3rd Daegu Contemporary Art Festival in 1977, there was an additional happening and event at Gangjeong beach along Nakdong River, outside the exhibition in the Daegu Citizen Hall. I think it was a meaningful attempt as the first occasion where dozens of artists presented their works. In the next year, there was a presentation of events in Naengcheon in Dalseong county, and presentation of performance art pieces by Korean and Japanese artists was held at Gangjeong beach in the 5th Daegu Contemporary Art Festival. I believe the art festivals since 1980 sufficiently fulfilled their roles. So, I have been focusing on my own work since then.
Looking at your works such as Untitled-75032 (installation piece with deer bones) or Becoming and Extinction (apple installation), one cannot but think about the meanings of ‘traces’ and ‘existence’ once again. The ‘traces’ and ‘existence’ that you brought into the exhibition space are connected to the images of ‘loss’ and ‘death’.
It is said that the traces, existence, and presence and nothingness are things that do not stop. If nothingness is materialized, it becomes a presence while a presence goes back to nothingness. Since the complete ‘nothingness’ or ‘presence’ cannot be realized, both are considered in a flexible manner in the Chinese philosophy and there are notions that substances are presence and nothingness. In Buddhism, the worldly things created by phenomena occurring under the conditions of causes and environments (緣起, dependent origination) are meaningless and empty. Lao-tzu suggested that we should practice Wu wei (無爲, non-action), the way through which nature operates, in the human society.
Modern physics tells that even if a human being dies and disappears, the elements remain unchanged and remain with the universe. All these discussions are that all elements of the universe are functioning in an organic relationship.
You once said that you wanted to have a direct conversation about your works Untitled-75031 and the ‘pheasant’ piece. Looking at your works at that time, it seems that there were many cases where your works used animals and plants – either they were dead or alive. Why did they become the subject of your work?
In the case of the pheasant piece, there was a stuffed pheasant from a specimen room that had been kept at my studio for still life paintings. I placed the stuffed pheasant and drew traces of footprints on the floor, and it showed that it moved along what I had drawn. At that time, I thought that anything around me could be the subject of my work. However, I had serious questions about the languages of being or existence.
It seems that Painting is a work that best reveals your anguish about ‘existence’ and ‘traces.’ You painted your body and wiped the paint with a canvas cloth. You then drew circles around the remaining cloth. Your thoughts on existence that you must have felt through your skin in that process, and the experience of the audience that would sense your presence through the photo documentation and the cloth… Furthermore, this work can be considered as a performance, photography, and sculpture, but for audiences, it is also confronted as a painting under the context that you ‘painted’ the paint on a flat canvas. Did you perhaps reflect your thoughts on the flatness of ‘painting’ in this work? How did you first start this painting performance and how did it influence your subsequent paintings?
Painting, or so-called the ‘nude performance’ was done with ease and lightness. It was done with an idea that how easy and tactile a portrait could be, if it is not done by a traditional method but by wiping out a canvas cloth, and so it was done as a performance after renting a photo studio. While organizing documentation recently, I found out that the work was done in 1977 and it was exhibited at Seoul Contemporary Art Festival in January 1978 (held at Deoksugung, the National Museum of Contemporary Art [now MMCA, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art]).
And I experimented with the new painting that I was thinking about in 1975 with basic studies of the canvas cloth and images. Then while I was spending a few months in Paris to participate in the Paris Biennale, I was convinced that it would be possible to interpret the traditional forms of painting and sculpture in a new contemporary way. I have been exploring about painting until now and experimenting with sculpture since 1981. If my installation work comes out of organic relations, I think my painting and sculpture are also related to organic structures.
Soo Jeong Kang
“Disappearance” by Lee Kang-So is on view from 4 September to 14 October 2018 at Gallery Hyundai, 14 Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea 03062.