Park Hyun-ki (1942-2000) was a pioneering video and conceptual artist of the latter half of the 20th century in Korea, alongside towering figure Nam June Paik. However, beyond his well-known identity as a video artist, lies a vast body of creative work spanning nearly three decades, notably involving the use of stones as a symbol of the spiritual in nature.
Gallery Hyundai's exhibition, "I'm Not a Stone," is the third part in its retrospective series on the trailblazing artist, preceded by "The Pioneer of Korean Video Art" and "Visible, Invisible," which focused on his minimalist video work and his oil stick drawings, respectively.
Among the ten works on display, some are being shown to the public for the first time since the artist's passing, after being carefully reproduced under the auspices of Park's family members, critics and video engineers who personally worked with the artist.
Immediately upon entering the gallery's basement floor, visitors are met with three small towers, made up of flat stones of varying sizes stacked on top of each other. The knee-high installation is reminiscent of holy, totemic stone towers that used to guard the entrance of Korea's villages in mountain areas, preventing evil from entering the community and bringing good fortune.
What catches gallery-goers' eyes is the juxtaposition of natural and manmade stones. The striking contrast between the coarse, weathered texture of the natural rocks and the colorful resins brings forth the relationship between nature and humans, the sacred and the secular.
The mounds of stones Park as a child witnessed on his way during the mass exodus from the invading North Korean army during the Korean War (1950-1953) became forever ingrained in his memory.
"As we were marching forward, people at the front of the line began to give signals to those in the back to pick up the pebbles, and soon enough, we were throwing at and passing by new heaps of rocks, both big and small," he once wrote in an artist's note. "I remember the piles as peculiar places beyond imagination, as they looked like the home of the gods as well as their graves."
This otherworldly experience ― witnessing people praying to stones ― influenced his decision to employ stones as his main artistic material and carrier of philosophical meaning throughout his life.
Behind the three small stone towers, rocks of different sizes and shapes are scattered all over the gallery floor to evoke the scene of Park's performance at Su Gallery in Daegu in 1983.
By moving rocks from the riverside directly into the gallery space, the artist transformed elements of the natural landscape into an artwork. The connection between the environment and the human is further highlighted as the street sounds Park recorded in Daegu in the winter of 1983 are played and amplified by a microphone hanging from the ceiling. These sounds then combine with gallery visitors' footsteps from the spring of 2021.
In a corner of the room, the archival photos of Park's performance are presented in a slide show. With "I'm not a stone" written on his back, and "Stone and so forth" on his chest and stomach, the artist is seen walking and running naked amongst the stones. Sometimes, he picks them up, crouches down next to one or leans back against them. His physically intimate interaction with the rocks presents him as a mediator between sacred nature and secular human civilization.
Since the late 1970s, Park continued his stone tower project, but took one more step forward, replacing the artificial resin stones with television monitors depicting still footage of rocks.
The nearly four-meter-tall "Untitled" on display on the second floor of the gallery is the tallest piece in Park's "TV Stone Tower" series. Four large, cathode-ray tube TVs are positioned on top of each other, with their monitors connecting the video stones seamlessly together. Like the ancient stone towers, this tall "pile" of rocks, both physical and illusionary, looks down at viewers with a powerful, spiritual presence, even in the dark.