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.
Few if any people would argue that Kim Ku-lim deserves a place among the first generation of Korean avant garde artists. He experimented in seemingly every area of art, all the way from painting and object art to “happenings,” land art, mail art, body art, experimental film, engraving, and video. He was also involved in dance and other forms of performance art. His is a career spanning over 50 years since the late 1950s, and it continues even now, as he stares down 80. The Seoul Museum of Art’s recent retrospective Like You Know It All is devoted to honoring the art, life, and achievements of this avant garde luminary.
Kim’s place in contemporary Korean art history is tied events that have unfolded since the late 1960s. If we decide to use terms like “experimentation” and “avant garde” to describe it, then he clearly belongs among the very top names in the development of contemporary art in Korea. Over a period of time stretching from Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule through the Korean War and on to the modernization drive of the 1960s, the pictorial experiments of the Informel artists slowly but surely made their way into the mainstream. By the early 1970s, while most of the leading Informel pioneers -- the Korea Modern Culture Art Association, Byeokjeon, the ‘60 Artists’ Association, and Actuel -- were focusing more on monochrome painting, Kim and other “happeners” were exploring a world outside of “tableaux.” The sudden institutionalization of the Informel artists, part of their shift away from experimentation, is inextricably tied to the political situation in the art world of the day, which more or less revolved around the Korean Fine Arts Association (KFAA).
Around this time, the Korean art world was shifting its focus from national to international exhibitions. The KFAA international subcommittee became a battleground where artists with events like the São Paulo Biennial, the Paris Biennial, and the Cagnes-sur-Mur International Painting Festival under their belts fought to win selection. The international event spots were essentially reserved for the select few artists who held hegemony in the KFAA -- and the core contingent was none other than the monochrome artists of the ‘70s, the inheritors of Informel. At risk of simplifying the matter (and coming across as somewhat schematic), there are few words more apt to describe the art from this period than those coined by art critic Lee Il: “proliferation” and “reduction.” Methodologically speaking, Kim and the other happeners were trying to “proliferate” art, while the monochrome art kept pushing the envelope of reduction, maximizing the density at the center of the canvas. These were two completely different approaches, so any discussion of their relative merits or flaws is out of place here. Suffice it to say that the former was about extending the scope of art, while the latter affirmed the value of reduction by internalizing a characteristic aesthetic dominated by the color white. The reason this monochrome movement was able to stay strong in the painting world in the face of fierce resistance from Minjung art in the politically turbulent 1980s is because of the artists’ unswerving conviction about establishing and developing an independent aesthetic -- a fact attested to by the strong interest and academic attention shown to the field by modern art scholars and critics from the 1990s onward.
And then there was Kim Ku-lim, who remained firmly outside the monochrome mainstream. His avant garde activities are well known -- from Korea’s first work of mail art (Relics of Mass Media, a 1970 collaboration with Kim Cha-seop) to From Phenomenon to Traces (1970), a demonstration of the same time frame as the West’s land art; Funeral for the Art of the Establishment Culture (1970), an event staged to mark the formation of “Group 4”; and The Meaning of 1/24 Seconds (1969), a pioneering work in experimental film. All the different titles given to Kim today -- “art heretic,” “experimental artist,” “Korea’s avant garde” -- are a testament to his Promethean accomplishments in the field of avant garde art. Yet for all that he did, the art world has been very stingy indeed in judging his work over the past several decades. He did place second of a list of “artists who should be reevaluated” in a 2011 survey by the Kim Dal-jin Art Research and Consulting Institute, but this is, if anything, evidence of just how underappreciated his artistic abilities have been.
The SeMA’s retrospective Like You Know It All (its name is taken from a 2009 film by director Hong Sang-soo) is, as the title suggests, an ambitious attempt to explicitly “reevaluate” Kim’s underestimated oeuvre in a new way. Audiences were surprised to see reproductions of the kind of mammoth works that would be nearly impossible for an average gallery to show. It was quite a victory for the exhibition -- these were works that had been impossible to realize back in the day for a variety of reasons, not least the lack of understanding of avant garde art. Realizing a work of art is one of the biggest frustrations for the artist, so perhaps an art museum exhibition was the only way to embody such a prodigious artistic imagination. In that sense, the exhibition was an important opportunity both for Kim Ku-lim as an artist, and for the viewers who had longed to see his unrealized work over the years.
This exhibition was meaningful in another way: it gave hope to many artists who have been struggling, often under very difficult working conditions, to develop works of experimental and avant garde art. It is especially instructive as a tacit lesson to the artists who are abandoning the creative spirit in the face of commercialism, a beast that grows ever fiercer with each passing day. The artist, it tells them, must have one and only one focus: his or her artistic vision.
I discussed this issue in the foreword to the book for a 1995 exhibition I planned called Spatial Rebellion: Korean Three-Dimensionality, Installations, and Performances, 1965--1995. I was looking back on a few of the artists from the 1967 Young Artists' Alliance exhibition, passionate experimenters who had suddenly quit. What effect, I wondered, did this abandonment of the artist's spirit have on their subsequent artistic life? An exhibition is more than just a physical occurrence. Its meaning lies in its resonance, the echoes it stirs. In that sense, the Seoul Museum of Art retrospective on the work of Kim Ku-lim is a valuable and important moment in art history.
*All Images provided by Seoul Museum of Art, Seoul.
Yoon Jin-sup graduated from the painting department of the Hongik University College of Fine Arts and earned a master's degree in literature from the same university's department of aesthetics. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Western Sydney in Australia. During his undergraduate years in the mid-1970s, he worked with the avant garde group S.T producing experimental work in painting, three-dimensional art, installations, and performance art. Since being selected at the 1990 Dong-A Ilbo spring competition with a piece called "Why Not Sneeze, Rrose Selavy?" he has also been involved in criticism and exhibition planning.
He has planned some 70 exhibitions in Korea and overseas, including A Cross-Section of Korean and Japanese Contemporary Art (featured at the 3rd Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju Museum of Art), Spatial Rebellion: Korean Three-Dimensionality, Installations, and Performance 1967--1995 (Seoul Museum of Art), Virtual Boundaries: Korean and Chinese Media Art Today (Han Ji Yun Contemporary Space, Beijing), and Korean Monochrome Painting/Dansaekhwa (National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea). He has also served as curator for the first and third Gwangju Biennale events, commissioners for the 50th Sao Paulo Biennial and Triennale-India (2004), director of exhibitions for the 3rd Seoul International Media Art Biennale, and chairman of the Korean Art Critics' Association. He currently serves as vice chairman of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), a professor at Honam University, and a honorary professor at the University of Sydney.