The minimalist art movement of the 1970s exerts a powerful influence on some South Korean artists, while others create work that is a riot of colour. Claire Wrathall profiles a quartet of the country’s most distinctive talents
In November 2015, Christie’s held its first group exhibition of work by South Korean artists, Forming Nature, which opened in New York before travelling to Hong Kong, and showcased works by figures associated with the Dansaekhwa movement.
Lee Ufan, Kim Whan-Ki, Rhee Seundja, Park Seo-Bo, Chung Sang-Hwa, Yun Hyong-Keun, Chung Chang-Sup and Ha Chong-Hyun, all born between 1913 and 1936, avoided any reference to Western realism and made meditative, minimalist, monochrome paintings instead. Demand for these restrained and refined abstract works, mostly made in the 1970s, had been soaring, as had their prices: earlier that year, Christie’s had sold Kim Whan-Ki’s Montagne Bleue for $1.8 million. And they continue to increase.
It’s no surprise, then, that Dansaekhwa should have inspired the generation of artists born in the late 1960s, such as Minjung Kim (see below). But South Korea’s vibrant art scene embraces artists who work in a host of media and in markedly different styles, too — including Yeondoo Jung, who works principally in photography, but also in performance, video and virtual reality; Kyungah Ham, whose practice embraces embroidery and video; and Lee Bul, arguably the best-known Korean artist of her generation, who began her career with performance pieces and is now making delicate collages on silk velvet.
Born Gangwon province, 1964
Looking at the large-format yet delicately wrought abstracts, subtitled Mekamelencolia, that Lee Bul was making last year, it seems a stretch at first to connect them with the works that made her name. They are inscribed in acrylic paint and ink on silk velvet, incorporating human hair, mother of pearl and dried flowers.
The same might be said of her collages from 2016, also on velvet or leather, with mother of pearl, crystal and shards of reflective PVC panel and PET film. Their delicate beauty and luxurious materials seem a world away from the stinking, rotting fish (embellished with sequins, beads and flowers) of Majestic Splendor, with which she began to garner international attention at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1997, or the disquieting performances with which she established herself after graduating in sculpture at Hongik University in Seoul in her youth.
Yet her recent works speak of themes that recur in her art, notably decay (hence the use of organic matter) and gender. For despite their scale — and the monumental dimensions of the installations for which she is best known — there remains an essentially feminine quality, not to mention a beguiling beauty, to her work.
Born during the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee to dissident parents who, she has said, ‘were in and out of prison’, she had a hard, unhappy childhood. ‘Back then there was a crime called guilt by association,’ she recalled in a filmed interview in 2015. ‘Dissidents and their families were not allowed to participate in social activities with more than 10 people. I realised I had to find an activity I could do on my own. I had this idea that to survive the oppressive censorship of ideology, artistic expression would be the only way out for me.’
Perhaps inevitably, failed ideals are another recurrent theme in her work, notably those of the Weimar-era German architect Bruno Taut. In 1917, Taut produced a series of watercolour drawings of an idealised city in the Alps — published in a book, Alpine Architecture — for which all the buildings would be made from crystal so as to be transparent and to reflect sunlight and the landscape, so seeming to disappear into it. Lee has used this idea as the basis for a series of chandelier-like sculptures made from crystal and mirror, swagged with strings of glass beads and silvery chains, which evoke nothing so much as castles in the air. Taut hoped his imaginings would come true; Lee knows they won’t.
‘What interests me is how people in the past envisioned their future. I’m interested in how such utopian ideals have persisted or failed to persist,’ she has said, observing that architecture is the discipline that tends best to ‘embody all the idealistic visions’ of an era. Mirrors play an important role in her work too, notably in the discombobulating, labyrinthine installations that viewers are encouraged to lose themselves in, structures that play on people’s instinctive need to follow a path and find a way out the other side, a way to go on. In some ways they are a metaphor for our continued existence. Art, she says, is what enables her to ‘endure life’.