When I was a young teenager, I came across this pearl of wisdom, ‘Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.’ As a Type A planner at the time, I thought this was silly advice because I firmly believed if you were careful in your planning, you could control everything in your living situation. But, as you know, life has its own way of proving itself. Soon enough, I was proven wrong as so many exciting things that had happened in my life since I left high school could be summed up as ‘a series of fortunate, unplanned surprises’ – including my professional encounters with Korean art in my early career and, just a few months ago, this invitation to dive into the artistic scene in Gwangju in April 2023.
After one week of rapid email exchanges and anxiously waiting for an express visa, I arrived in Incheon on a breezy Sunday morning. I spent the first couple of hours at the airport, quietly sipping coffee and enjoying some downtime while waiting for the other delegates who were flying from Bangkok and Singapore to land. When we finally gathered, the four of us continued our journey on a bus to Gwangju. It was a five hour drive, with two stops along the highway so by the time we reached Gwangju it was already 4pm. We had an early dinner nearby and met delegates from Taipei. It felt like a long day since we were on the road for most of the time, but I knew this was only the beginning of a week full of art – and I was excited!
The trip officially began, and we had an extensive schedule ahead of us. We started the day with a short introduction session at the hotel. I finally had the chance to meet with fellow delegates I had not met yet, who flew all the way from Hong Kong, Paris and New York City. In total, there were about 12 of us in the group of museum professionals, gallerists, and independent writers.
Our first visit in the morning was to the studio of the artist Kang Un. His studio was located in the city, in a 5-storey building that he divided into a gallery on the ground floor, followed by a working studio and library, living space, and storage. Kang Un shared about his practice and how his paintings became his philosophical expression. I learnt that his name carries the meaning of ‘cloud’, which partly inspires his creative exploration of the relations between color, emotion, and nature. He is particularly interested in the colors of the sky and influenced by his experiences of growing up in the rural areas. In a way, painting becomes his method of recollecting and rearranging memories as he often includes text in the form of repeated writing to symbolize the human mind. In addition to painting, Kang Un has also been working with video art, which for him is a form of merging paintings.
Artworks in Kang Un’s studio
In the afternoon, we visited the artist Lee Maelee in her studio that was divided into a gallery, storage, and a working space. Lee Maelee’s art started as an inquiry on self-existence, which in her case was initially represented with high heels as she used to wear them so often that it almost felt like an extension of herself. She showed us her early works, which consisted of high heel sculptures and installations made with mixed media. Over time her practice has expanded into a deeper philosophical investigation of human existence. This is marked by a shift in material choice, from carbon-made and artificial materials that she incorporates in her early sculptures to organic materials – such as the gold mineral – which she included in her later paintings. It was also during this same period that she began to integrate writings from the Book of Genesis on her paintings. Nowadays, she believes that her artistic practice is ultimately her way of questioning our origins and our human longing for a place to belong.
Lee Maelee’s early works and her current exploration in incorporating gold inscriptions
Our last visit of the day was to meet with the artist Lee Lee Nam at his museum – which he created to enable public access to art and his work. Lee Lee Nam is a media artist and of all the artists that we plan to visit on this trip, I was actually quite familiar with him because one of his works was once exhibited in Jakarta, at the first Korea-Indonesia Media Installation Art Exhibition. Again, philosophy plays an integral part in the artistic practice of Lee Lee Nam. But, while Kang Un’s philosophical approach relates to nature’s color and Lee Mae Lee looks into our origin, Lee Lee Nam’s philosophical inquiry was deeply influenced by the Eastern way of thinking and how it has shaped his way of perceiving life. He explained how he got into media art during the late 1990s as media technology became more widely accessible and how he had been using this ‘new media’ to conduct a deeper investigation into the old-age questions: why was I born? Who am I? His latest works, which was presented at the Gwangju Media Art Platform dealt with these questions and the way they direct our understanding of death, life, and joy through a reinterpretation of historical events and the Chinese classical paintings.
Overall the first day was insightful. Immediately, I noticed the variety of artistic practice in Gwangju and how art is very much integrated into the public life in this city.
Lee Lee Nam’s exhibition at the Gwangju Media Art Platform
On the second day, we went to the countryside – about 30 minutes from the city center – to visit Kim Sangyeon. His place was a former barn in the middle of a field, which he transformed into a colorful, open-floor studio. Kim Sanghyeon studied painting in China, which sparked his interest in the spiritual history of printmaking. Influenced by Eastern philosophy, his works in particular and his approach towards life in general deals with questions surrounding the coexistence between humans and nature. Upon returning from China, he made the conscious decision to live in the suburbs and immerse himself in the rural life, away from the hustle-bustle of the city. This is because he believes that in Korea, infrastructure for transportation, technology and communications in small towns is equally accessible as they are in big cities, which means small towns, like Gwangju, which has its long history and rooted local customs, can also become global hubs like Seoul.
Kim Sangyeon showing us his scroll painting
We were back in the city by lunchtime. In the afternoon, we visited the artist Woo Jae Ghil, who also had built himself a museum. Woo Jae Ghil is a senior artist, a living legend perhaps – he is 82 years young and has started created artworks around 1955. He showed us his early drawings, where he made sketches of his school and the people around him. His works are influenced by abstract expressionism, where he uses colors as a medium to express who he is and the experiences he has gone through. The Woo Jae Ghil Museum is run by the artist’s wife, Director Kim Cha Soon, who is a visionary powerhouse herself. She was generous to share how they started building the museum, organizing the artist archive and producing art merchandise before it was popular practice. As this power couple seemed to have lived through it all, when asked about what they hope to achieve next, the artist candidly admits that he wishes to keep on making art and reinventing himself.
Woo Jae Ghil and Kim Chan Soon explaining the artist’s decade-long career
Following these two inspiring visits, we continued our journey to the Gwangju Museum of Art to see two exhibitions. The first one is a woodcut and painting show by Bak Kyung Hoon, commemorating 75 years of the Jeju Island Massacre, which to a certain extent parallels the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. By coincidence, we came just in time to see the opening ceremony of the second exhibition, A Speck of Black Ink by Kim Hosuk. Then, just as we were preparing to leave, we had an invitation to the Netherlands Pavilion of the Gwangju Biennale in one of the museum galleries. We had a sneak peek around the space, which presents the research findings made by the Court of Intergenerational Climate Crimes on the impact of colonization (and later on globalization) to biodiversity and extinction.
By then, the day had started to get overwhelming – in a good way, as thoughts and ideas went through my mind, but if I had to select the highlight of this very eventful second day, it would be our last gallery visit. It was yet another impromptu plan, we got information that there was a group show of young emerging artists at a nearby museum wing and we decided to swing by.
The show was called Phase Variations, featuring a variety of themes and materials explored by four artists: Kang Wonje, Yu Jiwon, Kim Doki, and Ahn Junyoung. What I enjoyed the most from this show (and what I’ve observed as a tendency in many emerging artists) is the courage to experiment with materials and breaking down traditional barriers. For example, in her work that talks about heat and material transformation, Kim Doki actually ignites a candle inside the gallery space and creates a large wall-to-floor installation of melting wax. Seeing this work after meeting a senior artist like Woo Jae Ghil, serves as a personal reminder for me about the duality of life and living in the present, because as you mature with age, there comes wisdom and experience, but while you are young you have the privilege of pushing boundaries.
Kim Doki’s The Melting Sun in the Night presented as part of Phase Variations Group Show