In 『Logique du sens』(1981), the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze discussed the temporality of “aiôn.” The temporality with which most of us are familiar is linear, arranged into past, present, and future; in other words, “chronos.” Unlike with the temporality of chronos, in aiôn time, the present does not succeed the past, but instead is subdivided ad infinitum into past and future, in both directions at once. The present is a brief instant on the boundary between the past and the future. Strictly-speaking, even this brief instant cannot be said to exist. As soon as this instant becomes the present, it is immediately morphed into the past, with the future galloping forth at a frightening speed. While visiting 《NAM Tchunmo》, the first exhibition of the 2019 season at Leeahn Gallery, I was overtaken by a feeling that this venue existed in the alternative temporality of aiôn. By saying this, I don’t mean it in any philosophical or abstract sense. What I mean is rather that the visual style that was permeating the exhibition venue blurred my sense of temporality. As I stood there, my gaze was becoming subdivided ad infinitum into NAM Tchunmo of the past and NAM Tchunmo who is yet to come. I also witnessed the NAM Tchunmo of the past coming face-to-face with the NAM Tchunmo of the future.
NAM Tchunmo (1961-) was born in Yeongyang, Gyeongsangbuk-do. He graduated from the Keimyung University College of Fine Arts and earned a Master of Fine Arts from the same university. He splits his time between Daegu and Cologne, Germany. NAM has had a string of solo and group exhibitions in Korea, France, Germany, the US, and China. His works are in the collections of the MMCA, the Kumho Museum of Art, Daegu Art Museum, and the Seoul Museum of Art. He was the winner of the 2010 Ha Chong Hyun Art Award and the 2012 Kumbok Culture Award Art Prize.
If one were to describe NAM Tchunmo’s art in one word, it would be “line.” His lines are furthermore closely connected to Korean tradition: “In traditional Korean painting, lines are drawn on paper in ink not only to create contours of things, but also to render perspective. In other words, you can realize a perfect painting using only different shades of black, without resorting to any colors. I am fascinated by lines for their boundless expressive potential…1) Joseon-period painters drew orchids or bamboo trees using just a few lines. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors to create works that are about lines themselves.”2) NAM is best known for works made of various combinations of U-shaped modules (hereinafter “U-shaped module works”).3) In my opinion, these works are the results of his ongoing attempt to tap the inexhaustible expressive potential of simple lines. U-shaped module works were first shown to the public in 1998, in his solo exhibition at Sigong Gallery. Initially, modules cut to a long U-shape were displayed at regular intervals in a manner to emphasize the rigidity and strength of straight lines. But later works featured various different types of lines, created using even-sized units that are almost square in shape.
NAM’s interest in lines is also unmistakable in two-dimensional works like his black and white line drawings. However, in his early U-shaped module works, NAM appears to have been more focused on bringing out the physical properties and expressiveness of fabrics than exploring the visual potential of lines. In the U-shaped module works that were created between 1997 and 2007, modules are made of solid or patterned fabric which was hardened by applying sheer polycoat (synthetic resin). The resin-coated fabric was then glued onto an acrylic panel. The goal in placing the fabric against a transparent acrylic panel appears to be the maximization of transparency. As this preserves the translucency of the fabric, its colors and nuances become better highlighted. Around this time, the artist also created three-dimensional works that underscored the soft and flexible properties of fabric and installation pieces that were set up on dazzling fabrics in vivid primary colors spread out on the floor. All of this suggests that the artist was then more keen on experimenting with fabrics than exploiting the visual potential of lines.
However, from 2007, the artist started to place U-shaped modules on canvases instead of acrylic panels. NAM explained this decision to switch to canvases by saying that using acrylic panels, he could only create works of limited sizes due to their heavy weight. But changes that occurred around this time were not restricted to replacing acrylic panels with canvases. The artist also started using undyed cotton fabrics, at the same time as coloring the modules using acrylic paint; ostensibly a move toward a greater degree of pictorial quality. These changes had the effect of emphasizing the expressiveness of lines. Also of note is the fact that the artist began his 〈Beam〉 series in 2007. Following the switch to canvases, his work appears to have noticeably gained in conceptual clarity, and the 〈Beam〉 series attests to this fact. The series consists of several variations on the theme “beam,” with titles such as 〈Beam〉, 〈Stroke Beam〉, and 〈Spring Beam〉.
The key elements of the 〈Beam〉 series are U-shaped units that are combined in various different ways. These units are precisely what NAM calls “beams,” which in this review are referred to as “modules.”4) Starting in 2007, the word “beam” was also used in the titles of his works, suggesting that the artist had a clear direction in mind from this point on. Beams being basic elements of the skeletal framework of a building, this choice of word seems to suggest his intention to show only the most basic structural characteristics of lines. The various remarks made by the artist about related topics also appear to support this idea.
One thing that is also important to note here is that the English word “beam” is used in his titles, rather than a Korean word meaning “beam.” The English word “beam” is used in Korea mainly to designate beams in industrial structures. Most casual viewers associate NAM’s works with minimalist art. However, visual minimalism alone does not make a work of art minimalist. What is more essential than any visual element in minimalism is attitude. In the West, minimalism is considered a classical example of the “nachträglich” avant-garde, an artistic movement in response to “late modernism” that dominated the 1950s-1960s along with pop art. This is because minimalist artists either borrowed industrial production techniques or included everyday commodities in their art. In NAM’s case, what makes his work akin to minimalist art is his use of standardized materials and styles that are evocative of industrial structures and processes. The fact that he calls the basic units composing his works “beams” and employs methods that are reminiscent of industrial standardization seem to further echo a minimalist attitude. Meanwhile, my choice of the word “module” is also no doubt influenced by the industrial aspect of his art. The question then is: Beyond superficial similarities, is NAM a bona fide minimalist? Does he espouse the spirit and aesthetic of minimalism?
In order to be able to answer this question, one needs to dig a little further. The industrial aesthetic of Western minimalist artists stems from an anti-auteur attitude. By adopting techniques that are used in industrial production, they sought to avoid personal or direct involvement in the creation of artwork. Their goal was to prevent a work of art from becoming a unique object that reflects the individual personality of an artist. By so doing, they attempted to dismantle aesthetic beliefs that were the pillars of modernism, and more particularly, the concept of “author.” During an interview conducted in 2012, NAM made the following remark: “When I started working on my line projects using three-dimensional media after having worked mostly with two-dimensional media, I particularly focused on how to form and arrange spaces. But it seems that at the end of the day, a painter always returns to the original purity of painting.”5) Although this was a remark made as an answer to a question regarding circumstances in which he came to use vivid colors, his mention of a return to the “original purity of painting” is nonetheless significant, as this touches something essential about who he is as an artist. Does this mean that NAM’s work is the result of a return from minimalism to modernism? The short answer is no. In my opinion, NAM’s work has always been modernist in essence. There are undeniably certain similarities between his work and minimalist art in terms of visual style. But NAM was brought to such a visual style through a journey of his own, which was in part an exploration of lines as used in traditional Korean art and in other part experimenting with the physical properties of fabrics. Rather than arising from a minimalist attitude, his work was born out of an attempt to reconceptualize tradition and augment the expressiveness of matter.