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 first started producing experimental work in the mid-1960s, but it was with his emergence as president of Group 4 (formed in 1970) -- staging a funeral for the strongholds and prestige of Korea's establishment art -- that he became an indomitable artistic force, someone who would spend a lifetime being uncompromising with the world. This is not to say that he never made concessions, never acceded to the world. Anyone who met him for even a moment would know how innately uncompromising he was, but being uncompromising and refusing to compromise are two different things. Kim’s uncompromising nature as an artist owed to his spirit of refusing to compromise with the kind of establishment strongholds and prestige described above; now, perhaps ironically, is uncompromising spirit has itself become a symbol for the avant garde. He was a stranger from a strange land who perfected his uncompromising aesthetic through the “estrangement effects” of the worlds he “created” -- which explains why the word “first” so often appears in describing his work.
From the SeMA exhibition, it appears as though the curator imagined creating a “curation space” by reconstructing the Kim's aesthetic in algorithm form. The focus of the reconstruction was not on Kim’s oeuvre as a whole, but on his work from the 1960s and 1970s, representing the pinnacle of his artistic events. It was an exceptionally rich period: not only did he serve as a leader for such avant garde groups as Painting 68, the A.G. Group, and Group 4, but he also worked in a wide range of forms -- “happenings,” installation art, mail art, body painting, land art, conceptual art, experimental film -- as a way of resisting the loss of the avant garde spirit under the military government’s repressive anti-Communist policies, the artistic accommodation and academism (advocated, in particular, by the Korea Art Contest) of the times. Refusing to let himself be bound by any one genre, he practiced a form of art where each of his products carried its own potential resonance. With their algorithmic lines, the curator of the SeMA exhibition structured his work by group: the works from his Painting 68 period, the happenings by Group 4, and the “conceptual art as time” of the A.G. Group. And in this territory of mediating incident, where the lines converged and split again, gaps began to appear at certain times, certain works, and certain actions. These were the things that had never come to pass, that had survived only as records of experimentation with installation art or conceptual and logical events, things that could not be made because of the various constraints imposed by the times. With the, the algorithmic map was completed, the absent works recreated, restaged, and reproduced. The time period covered roughly a decade from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, overlapping with events from South Korean political and social history (the anti-Communist “patriotic policies” of the Third Republic, economic development plans, the Saemaul(New Community) Movement and the emergence of the Yushin Constitution) and art history (the memorial sculpture of the Committee for Sculptures to Honor Patriotic Martyrs, the activities of the “Recording the Korean People” painting movement, and monochrome paintings).
Flashing forward 40-odd years, the curator assembled testimony to all the events planned and performed by the young Kim Ku-lim and input them into the museum of the imagination to limn a magic lantern montage. Here was The Meaning of 1/24 Seconds, the country’s first experimental film, made in 1969 but not screened publicly until 2001 (the original is now lost). There was Space Construction 69, the first work of electric art, shown at the Painting 1968 exhibition. There, too, were Situation, from the 1971 Paris Biennial, and Medium 2, shown at the 2nd A.G. Group Exhibition in 1972. Four decades later, these works had made a return, restored or recreated, along with a reproduction of the light art piece Spatial Structure 69, in acrylic rather than plastic. From Phenomenon to Traces was planned in 1969 as a wrapping project, a massive ice cube measuring 3 meters to a side and draped in red fabric. It would take until 2013 for this work to be realized. The 8mm film Civilization, Woman, Tone (1969) greeted the public for the first time in its 45-year life. All around the exhibition space, the curator had placed slide projectors to symbolize the magic lantern montage. Some of them actually showed films, but others were linked to the works before them only in a conceptual sense. If we take Kim’s artistic vision as something characterized by an ever-present creative vigor -- “aging but not worn, old but not trite"-- then the slide projectors illuminating the montage may have been magical illusions through which Kim and the viewer could come together.
One easy way to create an algorithm artificially is to make spaces of galleries, long and short, or the rooms, courtyards, and gardens attached to them. It is a process that involves partitioning and reconnecting the different spaces with windows, pillars, walls, and corridors. Indeed, this may be the best way of creating a Kim Ku-lim algorithm. But in this case, the curator did not make any physical distinction between the walls dividing the different artworks and the spaces between them -- the hallways and courtyards. The art was situated in a framework where the entire first floor of the Seoul Art Museum was left completely open, without any kind of partitioning. The result was akin to the landscape that André Malraux created with his Musée Imaginaire, where he splayed images of artwork over the ground. As the viewer traveled from one artwork to the next, walking and stopping, she perpetuated the algorithmic relationship herself, viewing and pondering each bit of evidence corroborating the aesthetic events planned by the artist. She could travel left or right; it didn’t matter. She could start in the middle and wander randomly from one side to the other. Wherever she ended up, she could once again see the whole of the space. The curator was also kind enough to include a detailed “diary of aesthetic events” beside the artwork, and even an artistic chronicle that put Kim’s work side by side with the important social, political, and artistic events happening in Korea at the time.
Kim Ku-lim’s artistic vision could be described in the words of Lim Geun-jun: “an experimental art of multifaceted transformation that negates the identity of its own reference points.” Even today, Kim continues developing new works and products that are uncompromising with art and uncompromising with the world. His many drawings, photographs, paintings, sculptures, installations, and media are characterized by a vibrant, present-day vernacular. In planning this exhibition, the curator went back to the source of his aesthetic and reconstructed the aesthetic bombs he detonated. But the most important thing about this exhibition may be that it truly brought Kim’s aesthetic into the realms of art history and criticism. The book published with the exhibition is filled with research and criticism that are every bit as polemical as Kim’s art. Through reading this research on the first generation of contemporary Korean art, we can learn about how Korea art met the West, how it harnessed its own artistical subjectivity out of this meeting, and what this contemporaneity means anyway. Not only that, but SeMA’s selection of someone who reacted against the mainstream of Korean art in the 1960s and 1970s as the first veteran artist is itself a way of fixing the balance in Korea’s art history.
*All Images provided by Seoul Museum of Art, Seoul.
Gim Jong-gil began his writing career in 1993 as a playwright. He later published art criticism in the monthly Misul Segye (Art World), but his career as a critic truly began in 2005 when he was awarded honors for criticism by a newcomer by the Korea Critics’ Association. Other honors include participation prizes for exhibition planning at the Lee Dong-seok Exhibition Planning Awards and Art Monthly Awards, as well as a Curator of the Year Award, a Natural Art Theory Award, and a Kim Bok-jin Art Theory Award. He has planned the exhibitions Gyeonggi National Highway 1, Big Sister’s Back, The Power of Gyeonggi Province, and Political Art since the 1990s: Enfants Terribles, Here and Now, and co-written books such as The Five Wheels, 100.art.kr and Korean Historical Conceptual Art, 1970s and 1980s. He currently sits on the board of directors for the Peace Museum and serves as vice director of the Green University Institute of Life Culture and a senior researcher at the GyeongGi Cultural Foundation.