Like You Know It AllIn the spring of 2012, the Seoul Museum of Art launched a series called the SeMA Thee Color Exhibitions, focusing on the colors blue, gold and green. Last year, it looked at youth and middle age; this year, the focus was on old age. One of the questions the museum may have puzzled over was whom to present as Korea’s “first veteran artist.” Dead or alive, his presence as the first subject of an SeMA exhibition would make the event into something quite different from an examination of the young or middle-aged artists working today on art’s front lines. Instead, it would be an occasion for reﬂecting, academically and critically, on the artistic achievements of a particular person. This would certainly be a huge burden for any museum, or artist. The person SeMA ultimately picked - hadto pick -- was Kim Ku-lim. Despite his never receiving any kind of formal art education, Kim’s work in the 1960s and 1970s was nothing short of an artistic event, something that rattled contemporary Korean art as we knew it.
Kim Ku-lim is a pioneer in the experimental Korean art that emerged in the post-Informel days of the 1960s. A 2011 questionnaire by the Kim Dal-jin Art Research and Consulting Institute had him ranked second among contemporary Korean artists in need of reappraisal. But the title of this exhibition, Like You Know It All (borrowed from a movie by director Hong Sang-soo), poses a question about this still-neglected figure and his place in art history. The space is somewhat scattered; nothing is there to obstruct the viewer as she moves about freely. She sees painting work from the Informel days and the 1970s, drawings, plastic sculptures in neon hues, conceptual installations, videos, and archived materials, all spaced at intervals along the way. At once chaotic and free, the exhibition offers a chance to see the eccentricities of this avant garde non-know-it-all in a fresh sort of way, without being steered around by the curator’s ambitions.
The exhibition was designed to focus on Kim’s work in the 1960s and 1970s, but the focus is definitely on the late '60s. These pieces include the electronic Spatial Structure, a reproduction of a 1968 work that is being shown for the very first time here; the experimental film The Meaning of 1/24 Seconds (1969); the mail art of Relics of Mass Media (1969); the land art of From Phenomenon to Traces (1970); and an archive of his events with “Group 4.” This short period of his career was positively packed with an eclectic variety of experiments that qualify as “firsts” in contemporary Korean art. Traces, in which a large block of ice melts away over time, testifies itself to the traces of time, with only a red sheet of fabric in the middle of the hall to show for it. This trace itself feels like a kind of long-running performance, a glimpse at the gulf between the 1970s, when Kim’s work was rejected by the establishment, and today, when he is honored as an avant garde pioneer.
These experimental proclivities of the late 1960s, caught between the post-Informel and pre-Monochrome eras, were seen by modernist critics like Lee Il and Oh Gwang-su as marks of stagnation or signs of a turning point. Realist critics like Seong Wan-gyeong took them for “empty gestures,” their lack of social consciousness dooming them to failure. The experimental art of the 1960s was reexamined in the 1990s by historian of art Kim Mi-gyeong and represented in a 2000 feature exhibition by the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, but art history’s evaluation of this period remains stuck on the wrong side of the crossroads. To say that the place of Kim Ku-lim in contemporary Korean art history needs to be reevaluated is to call for another interpretation of the late '60s in general. And the first question in need of asking has to do with the social implications of his work, so neglected from the standpoint of modernist critics and their “proliferation of media and form.”
The Korean cultural community was shaken recently by news of the passing of author Choi In-ho. Once dismissed as a “pop fiction” writer, Choi has since been unanimously vindicated, his work now seen as a realist literature that approaches the urban modernity and alienated lives of the 1970s with a contemporary sensibility. The late 1960s was a time when the economic development push of the authoritarian Park Chung-hee regime was beginning to bear fruit. Seoul was turning into a modern city; young people shocked their parents’ generation with blue jeans and miniskirts, while rock and psychedelic music were broadcast into the public’s sensory network. Ironically, these popular and youth culture trends were both products of the country’s modernization and attempts to escape from it.
The state was fervently anti-Communist, its emphasis set squarely on political order. This early “decadence” was a red flag to the authorities, much as the hippie culture of the early decade had been, or the 1968 student revolutions in Europe. This attitude toward living, this desire to awaken individual consciousness and separate the autonomous self from the whole, signaled a qualitative change in society, moving it inexorably from authoritarianism to democracy. As in letters, as in music, so the youth culture of the 1960s and 1970s was a form of resistance, a subculture rising up against the establishment -- not through politics, but through culture. And it is a frame that also belongs to the decade’s experimental art. In this context, the very shattering of notions of “form” in these events and avant garde art carried a “post-statist” agenda that was nothing short of subversive.
One of the most noteworthy works in the exhibition is The Meaning of 1/24 Seconds. This experimental film, directed by Kim and starring Jeong Chan-seung and Jeong Gang-ja, shows some of the artist’s poster work and stills. The notes call it a portrait of modern ennui, but the whole story lies firmly out of our reach: due to technical problems, the work was ultimately released in abbreviated form as Untitled. Since it was projected, not on a screen, but on Jeong Gang-ja and Kim’s leotard-clad bodies, critics paid more attention to the performances of those bodies than the images presented on them. In 2000, Meaning was presented in digital format at a National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art exhibition -- its first restoration to its original film format. It had taken that long for Kim’s first experimental film, made in 1969, to become a decipherable “open text.”
The work is clearly experimental, a montage of images lacking a defined narrative, but the star of the 10-minute show is without a doubt the city of Seoul, circa 1969. It starts with the Cheonggye Elevated Highway before going on to show a collage of buildings under construction, bridge posts intersecting in geometric lines, a racing movement along the highways, the daily lives of its protagonists. Interspersed with this are scenes of people walking on isolated alleyways and roads and other fragments of city life. As captured from the perspective of urbanite Jeong Chan-seung, neatly dressed in his black suit, the Seoul of 1969 is like a modern version of the vertiginous urban life experienced by the title character in Park Tae-won’s 1934 novel A Day in the Life of Novelist Gubo. The Meaning of 1/24 Seconds is less concerned with the essence of media, as its title would seem to suggest, and more with critiquing the rapid changes wrought on the city in 1969 -- archiving something that would soon enough be taken apart.
The Seoul of 1969 was the very embodiment of modernization. Its spectacle, blending the verticality of the Samil Building with the flexible curving of the Cheonggye Elevated Highway, was shown in magazines, in newspapers, in film as an icon of development; thus amplified, fantasies of future society began a powerful driving force calling the people of South Korea to serve their country as pillars of industry in the modernization drive. And yet -- tick, tick, tick, tick. With these counts erupting at one second intervals, the film shows its maker’s apprehensions about the vision of the city transforming. Kim Ku-lim’s urban imagination is a subversive presence, heralding the ruins that follow the building.
Kim’s resistance to the state system is more apparent in his activity with Group 4. Actionists like Jeong Chan-seung, Bang Tae-su, and Jeong Gang-ja staged Situationist events like Condom and Carbamine (May 15th, 1970) and Event on the Overpass (May 16th, 1970) to reveal society in all its absurdity. Dismissals of this satirical aesthetic as “empty gesturing” or “lack of political avant garde consciousness” are a misreading, a failure to catch the historical frame. The high point of Group 4’s activity was the ceremony that marked its formation, held on June 20th at the Sorim Tea House in Euljiro, Seoul. Kim presented himself as “president” and read a statement that was an obvious parody of the “Charters of Natural Education” handed out to various committees (recalling the Cabinet). He promulgated a vague philosophy called muche, or “incorporealism.” Related in the weekly Sunday Seoul under the title “Psyche and Go-Go Dancing at the Sanctuary,” the avant gardists’ somber ceremony was, if anything, a cynical realists’ skewering of the statist planning of the military government, which was then gearing up for the repressions of the Yushin era.
The events and avant garde of the 1960s were more tabloid fodder than serious terms in art discourse. But in focusing on gossip rather than art, Kim Ku-lim’s performances were laden with satire and cynicism toward the people in power. The concrete behemoths of the Cheonggye Elevated Highway, once icons of modernity, have been taken down, disappearing into history with the 2005 restoration of Cheonggye Stream in downtown Seoul. Here was the subversive imagination of Kim Ku-lim -- whose 1970 photo collage Art of Incomprehensibility had predicted the destruction of the “mighty” modern city -- now becoming a reality. But culture is short, and art long. The utopian imaginings of ‘60s and ’70s industrialization may be gone, but Kim’s avant garde “gossip fodder” has now entered contemporary art history, invited in 2012 for Tate Modern’s A Bigger Splash1) exhibition.
The exhibition's third chapter, "Inundated," lampooned contemporary Korea society amid today's global era. This section was mainly propelled by the work of Hwang Gyu-tae, Bahc Yi-so, and Choi Jeong-hwa, starting with Hwang's 2010 piece Copy, which depicted a landscape of simulacra in an age when appearances and even ambitions are mass-produced, and concluding with Choi's recent piece Flower of the Future, which looked like an omen of ominous events. Bahc Yi-so's vision, which appeared amid a cloud of controversy during the postmodernism of 1990s Korea, appeared even more poignant than even before. Her work Your Bright Future, the title piece of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's 2009 exhibition 12 Contemporary Artists from Korea, seemed to act as a poetic embodiment of the exhibition's overall theme, celebrating 70 years of Korean liberation.
Since the 20th century, there has always been a lag between Korea’s contemporary art and global art. Seen from a contemporary, 21st century perspective, the 1960s and 1970s look like a brief reversal of post-modernism and modernism. If the 1970s were “late modern,” then the late 1960s were when the sea change away from modernism truly began. Kim, a native of Sangju in the province of North Gyeongsang, never received a formal art education. He worked in a textile factory. He was, in short, a long way from the academism of artistic circles. But in the late 1960s, when the post-war modern artists were struggling listlessly through the retreat of Informel, he was quicker than anyone to capture the signs of post-modernism. He mailed us a letter, filled with a comprehensive art that blurs the boundaries of dance, fashion, theater, and film. The time has come to open it. And when we do, this, perhaps, is what it will say:
“You have just watched a relic of Korean experimental art.”
*All Images provided by Seoul Museum of Art, Seoul.
Kim Mi-jung earned a doctoral degree in art history from Hongik University in 2010 with the dissertation Public Art of Korea in 1960-70s, On Public Monuments in the Park Jung Hee Years. Today, she lectures on Korean modern and contemporary art at the same university. Her focus has been on analyzing Korean postwar art from a political and social perspective, including such topics as remembrance and commemoration of the Korean War, Korean Informel art under the Park Chung-hee regime, and “Korean” modernism and nationalism. In 2007 and 2011, she took part in the painting and sculpture sections of the Cultural Heritage Administration's Basic Research on Modern Culture project, and in 2008 she participated in a study of Korean War art by the Korean War Commemoration Committee. She is currently involved in further research on public monuments as historical remembrance.