There is a 1 minute introduction to this interview that has no sound.
Yoon Jin Sup: It’s July 11th, 2017, Tuesday. I am interviewing the artist, Kang Un, in his studio today. Hello Mr. Kang.
Kang Un: Hello.
Yoon Jin Sup: You have just had an exhibition in Paris?
Kang Un: Yes, I have.
Yoon Jin Sup: Was it Françoise Livinec Gallery? I know it's such a popular gallery. And it was your first exhibition? I mean in Paris?
Kang Un: Yes, It was.
Yoon Jin Sup: As a solo exhibition?
Kang Un: Yes.
Yoon Jin Sup: Please tell us about what you saw and felt during the exhibition, like some interesting episodes or what it means to you or to Gwangju artists.
Kang Un: 2 years ago, I participated in an international art fair in Korea. A Korean gallery and an American gallery collaborated and prepared a space with about 37m of wall, and I filled it with my big size works of 200’Ho’(~259cm*182cm) and 150’Ho’(~227cm*162cm). I think the director of Françoise Livinec Gallery was impressed by what he saw. Since then, we started talking, little by little, about an exclusive contract.
Kang Un: And last year, there was an art fair in Gwangju and France was the guest-country of honour. So, many of French galleries came to Gwangju and the chief curator of the gallery looked at my work and said "That’s him. I must introduce him to France". So, the exclusive contract was actively negotiated since then. We had adjusted things little by little before, but there still were things to negotiate, so the director of Françoise Livinec Gallery flew to Gwangju and saw my exhibition.
Kang Un: And it took 3 days to finalise the contract. It was due to emotional differences in the point of view between the countries when making a contract. But, in the end, the director of Françoise Livinec Gallery respected my position, and the contract was signed. Everything I wanted was reflected in the contract, and I found that it had unprecedented conditions for Korean artists in France.
Kang Un: Also, Françoise Livinec Gallery has three exhibition spaces. The main space is in the Penthievre street in Paris, and the Matignon gallery is across the street. The last one is École des Filles in a vacation area, Bretagne, Huelgoat which is 7 and half hours away from Paris. It used to be a girls’ school but remodelled to a space where people who are interested in the Orient, collectors, and scholars can have symposiums, forums, and exhibitions
Yoon Jin Sup: Did you have the exhibition at the gallery in Paris only or the three?
Kang Un: Not only the 3. I had exhibitions at 5 places.
Yoon Jin Sup: At 5 places?
Kang Un: Yes. I participated in the Paris Art Fair and also had an exhibition in Venice. I don’t remember exactly, but I had exhibitions in several places. I participated in three art fairs and had solo exhibition in about two places. And the general review of the French critics about my works was "They are visual and phenomenal works which are conceptually free and show some respect for the changes in the atmosphere." And some of the audience said "They make the viewers fascinated". But I don’t know. It was my first debut so, I think I need to see it over time.
Yoon Jin Sup: There will be much attention on your future activities. Let’s change the topic a little bit. I am wondering how your childhood was. How did your sensitivity develop to be an artist? Can you recall your childhood, and tell us about your family background or how you grew up.
Kang Un: Okay. My parents were teachers and I was born in Yongheung-ri, Doam-myeong, Gangjin-gun where Celadon was produced. I was born with an identical twin. Since my father dreamed about a glittering starry night before we were born, he named my twin brother, who was born before me, as Sung which means stars in Chinese character.
Kang Un: However, since we lived in a rural area, there was no maternity hospital, and they didn’t know they were having twins. Forty minutes after my twin brother was born, I came out, and that was a big surprise to them. But my father was disappointed cause he wanted a girl.
Kang Un: So he asked my mother to name me with her dream. And ny mother’s dream was not ordinary, either. She dreamed of pure gold floating in a clear brook, and she was leading a cow to the brook in her dream. But it was not easy to control him because his nose ring was too long. While she was crossing the brook, she saw all kinds of clouds were spreading in the sky so beautifully. After awakening from the dream, all she could think of was the clouds. So, in the end, they wrote my name with only one character ‘Un’,which means cloud, on the birth report.
Yoon Jin Sup: Ah, I think your mother’s dream foretold how your future art will be. It’s a great coincidence. Were you good at painting when you were young?
Kang Un: No. I mean I don’t know. I was not good at studying comparing with my brothers and not enough to reach my parents’ expectations. But, there was one thing that I was good at, painting. I used to see my mother boasting of my paintings to our neighbours. I think that was the first time my talent was recognised by my parents.
Kang Un: That was the moment when I started painting. Also, it seems that my behaviours were funny when I was young. One day, I was painting Mudeungsan Mountain by a pond in Jeonnam University in winter, and I saw some other people painting it with some different paints I had never seen. I came back home and asked my mother what they were. She said that they were oil paints and that the ones I used were watercolours.
Kang Un: So, I brought some oil from the shop, mixed it with my watercolours, and tried to paint things. My mother looked at me and smiled. She told me that there was special oil to mix with paints and bought me a new sketchbook. Anyway, with the first experience of getting recognition from my parents and the recognition from my teachers who posted my painting at the back wall of the classroom, I felt an interest in paintings naturally, even though I was an introvert child.
Yoon Jin Sup: You mean you experienced that when you were in elementary school?
Kang Un: Right
Yoon Jin Sup: I think you were precocious. Also, looking at your activities and the various media you use, not only paintings but media art, photographs, and panoramas etc., I see you are very creative. Was there any background that you could build your creativity on when you were young?
Kang Un: What can I say about creativity? I think I believed in myself. For example, because I lived in a special area, Gwangju, I could take part in the Gwangju Biennale while I was studying theory in college . So, I could see local and international aspects at the same time. So, beyond the simple concept of knowing, I got an idea that I would have to trust myself.
Kang Un: I think that played an important role in developing my creativity. And, you know, when I am working on some art work, there is something I see dimly, but I cannot define it. I know there is something inside of me. There is some chaos that I cannot define. I think that I must know that there is some chaos inside of me, and I must trust myself and the chaos inside of me.
Yoon Jin Sup: You mean self conviction?
Kang Un: Yes. So, sometimes, I tell younger generation of the artists that they must trust themselves. I think that if you found something you can say "that’s it." You must keep working on it for about 10 years or so, without following the trends of generation, then you will finally can go into your own working world.
Yoon Jin Sup: The reason why I ask you about creativity is because your parents were teachers. We normally think that if your parents are teachers, your educational environment or your parents’ educating attitude must have been strict, normative, or sometimes oppressive. I am wondering if your parents were open minded or something. Could you please tell us if you have any episodes related to that?
Kang Un: After becoming an adult, when I was actively working on arts, I created a video art work called ‘Pure Form-Fountain'. It was related to my childhood memory when I was living in an official residence. I used to draw things with a stick and water by the fountain. I knew that it would disappear soon, but I continued to draw and had much fun. After growing up, I started to impart some meaning to acts of drawing conceptual, momentary and fleeting things. So, based on the memory, I took my children to a small village school in Iseo.
Kang Un: There was a small fountain. I chose the place and the same atmosphere as when I was young, and set up a video camera. My children started draw things freely like orchids, chickens and so on with wood sticks dipping into the water, or spraying water in the playground. I edited what I videotaped and completed a work which I called ‘Pure Form-Fountain’.
Kang Un: I expressed children’s pure acts of art whether they are conscious or not, and how they find enjoyment doing the work. After presenting it, I got a review saying "The existing video artists are quite cold, conceptual and provocative, but I was touched by your work that made me feel so warm."
Yoon Jin Sup: So, your childhood experience is reflected into your children, and didn’t it also appear in your first video work in 2005, like drawing with water on sand?
Kang Un: Yes, I haven’t left for a big city but rather I went to a rural area from Gwangju. It was in 1998 and 1999, the Soviet Union was disbanded and the Eastern bloc was changing, so the utopia of the 20th century was broken right under my nose. So, I left for the countryside to find something more Korean and more permanent. Along the way of…um…wait, what was the question?
Yoon Jin Sup: I mean there was your media work of drawing on the ground with water which disappears and changes to a figure… That must be related to your childhood experience, right? Let’s move on…
Kang Un: Wait, so, the activities in my childhood and other works I created while I was staying in the countryside were related to the work as well. And I was selected as a member of the second Ssamzie Space artists group.
Yoon Jin Sup: Was it Amsa-dong?
Kang Un: In Amsa-dong for six months and in front of Hongik University for one year, so total one and half years, I stayed there as a second artist group member. And there was an interesting story. Ssamzie Space was the first residence program in Korea, so they normally recruited artists who studied in Korea and from overseas whose ages were in the middle of 30s or late 30s, but I was also selected as one of them, even though I never studied in overseas.
Kang Un: I was wondering what happened, and the director said "Other artists have experienced learning different cultures and languages in other countries which is the process we normally think of studying abroad."
Kang Un: "However, Kang Un moved from a big city to the countryside, Hwangsan-myeon, Haenam, the southern end of Korea, and Damyang, Hwasoon, and so on, and continued his work there. He has been in different environment comparing to the other artists, but he may have been through the process of finding his identity in another way. So, in the broaden meaning, we can say he is also the one who studied in overseas."
Kang Un: As I entered Ssamzie Space, I was able to get close to the contemporary art that I used to know conceptually and learned from textbooks. While seeing the works of my colleagues, I thought that I could do something of my own with the various media and my feeling and ideas. I think that experience had influenced my works little bit, and since then, I started use various media.
Yoon Jin Sup: Was Jeong Yeon Du involed in the first group of Ssamzie Space then? He became a famouse artist now
Kang Un: Yes, the artists from the first, second, and third are all famous, like Hong Soon Myeong, for example.
Yoon Jin Sup: Hong Soon Myeong?
Kang Un: Hong Soon Myeong. Including Ham Kyeong Ah from the second group, other artists are also actively working now, and there are more from the next generation as well. The atmosphere was very good at the beginning and we were sponsored by Ssamzie a lot. I had come to Seoul from the countryside for the first time in my life and stayed there for one and half years. During that period, I learned a lot. And it was suggested that I participate in other residence programs later, but I thought I needed to be more solitary to find my own identity, so I moved back to the countryside.
Yoon Jin Sup: Where do you mean by the countryside?
Kang Un: I went back to Dongbok.
Yoon Jin Sup: Dongbok, Hwasun…
Kang Un: Yes.
Yoon Jin Sup: I see. So, when we see your childhood and your school life later…what year did you graduate the college?
Kang Un: I graduated it in 1990. February, in 1990...
Yoon Jin Sup: You graduated college in '90 and entered it in 1983, and you entered the military midway?
Kang Un: Yes.
Yoon Jin Sup: So, if we talk about that time, the Gwangju Democratization Movement occurred in 1981 and you entered art college two years after that. Can you tell us about the atmosphere during that time, and the types of paintings you painted in school before you enter the military?
Kang Un: When I entered college, it was a very academic educational space, and there was a big flow of art people art in the student body. The Gwangju Democratization Movement occurred when I was a high school first grader, and I joined the demonstration, too. When I entered the college in 1983, there were more riot police on the campus. During that time, everyone placed emphasis on the role of arts.
Kang Un: However, I put more stress on indirect contents and what I can tell through my paintings rather than a direct struggle. So, I did not join the struggling group but decided to do sharing humanism arts which is different to people art that I used to think. Also I tried to draw things social participatory. So, I read the press and scraped social issues, and made my works like Shin Hak Cheol’s descriptive realism.
Kang Un: Also, I went from the South Sea to the East Sea and drew some landscapes, and also did various works. And as my graduation work, named ‘Geumnam-ro’, I put 10 pieces of 100Ho(~162.2cm*112.1cm) paintings together that show grotesque pieces of human flesh scattered on the roads, and it made my teacher angry.
Yoon Jin Sup: Then, your paintings are, did you say utilitarian art?
Kang Un: Yes, utilitarian art of humanism.
Yoon Jin Sup: Humanism. So, did you mean to differentiate your works from people art, then?
Kang Un: Somewhat, yes. For example, if some work is utilitarian but does not contain humanism, I don’t think it is good. I think I put emphasis on communication a lot even then. Why? I thought the audience wanted to feel something lyrical and clear. Maybe that was the time I thought that paintings may or may not be able to change the world, but like lyric poetry has come down in history, lyricism was playing a role of keeping our purity in our selves. So, I think I wanted both of them.
Kang Un: Also, a newly arrived theory professor in the college taught me about figurative art which is different to people art, academic art, and minimal art. I could widen my mental vision through studying.
Yoon Jin Sup: When we see an artist’s works, since I am a critic, I see many cases of artists, and I sometimes find that childhood memories or environments play an important role. In your case, you have done various forms of works with the subject, cloud. And, you were born in Gangjin, participated in residence program in Ssamzie Space, and moved to Dongbok, Hwasun, which means you returned to the nature to work.
Yoon Jin Sup:So, part of the natural environment became a motif of your work, and when we see the time, it was when you were doing some experimental work of social utilitarian art. And it is also shown in your next works which are about clouds, like the one you described the sky specifically and pine trees and forests are contradistinctively shown under it. When was the time exactly?
Kang Un: When I graduated college, there were changes in the society. While watching the art of 20th century globally being broken up, I thought that I must find something more permanent and more Korean. I had to do something. At that time, Sikim-gut in Jindo went through my mind, which is an exorcism that heals the living and the dead. I thought that it is an implicative content of contemporary art. There are performance, pictorial factors, dance, and so on. I watched it and decided to get close to original contemporary art.
Kang Un: So, I went alone to find something, even though I was married and had family. I went to Hwangsan-myeon, Haenam-gun that is near the entrance of Jindo. I saw scenery there, which does not exist anymore because of the disaster prevention equipment. Before blocking up the river mouth, it looked like a very wide lake, even though it was the sea, salt water. The sky and the land were all projected onto the sea.
Kang Un: While looking at the scenery, I thought ‘Ah, I have lived with stepping on the earth, but I never had affection for it. Then, putting rationality aside, there would be no intellectual transparency that has spread of emotional charge and sentiment.’ So, I settled down in Haenam, and since nobody asked me to come to Jindo anyway, I painted things very hard like Van Gogh. But, six months later, I ran out of money and felt ashamed of myself coming here to be like that.
Kang Un: I was agonising for a while and saw clouds were floating slowly in the sky. That time, I had a thought that three factors of nature are time, space, and light. They are also the elements of painting and I found that they merged in the clouds. I thought ‘that’s it!’.
Kang Un: In essence, the elegance of art is a very abstract concept. So, in the case of our ancestors, they used to draw the Four Gracious Plants to emotionally convey the abstract elegance. That made me to think that once I could emotionally understand the abstract concept with clouds, then I can pass it onto other people. That was probably the most crucial motive.
Yoon Jin Sup: I see. So, when I see your current works and your other monochromatic works like ‘Drawing a Stoke on the Water’, I think they are very poetic. They are emotional, sensuous, and poetic. So, I think there are some elements of poetry melted into the paintings, and it is connected to the humanistic emotions that we just talked about. Can you tell us about the reason why you adopted such elements into your works?
Kang Un: Maybe it’s my inclination, but I think it might be a gift from nature as well. One more reason that I started to concentrate on clouds is that… as I said before, I suddenly left to a countryside after living in the city for one and half years. But I was so bored of the same sceneries, the same people, and the same roads every day there. No matter how hard I study with patience, I could not overcome the boredom.
Kang Un: But one day, I found dramatic and interesting emotions in the sky. Clouds look different depending on the Sun’s location and the weather. Since they are informal and abstract shapes, and look different depending on time, space, and light, I thought they are like implicit poetry.
Kang Un: And, the reason why I often used poetic diction is, I found that I was solemnly thinking about myself while I am watching the sunset or the sunrise. I thought that was my own time.
Kang Un: I could not express it with a certain word, so I used the term ‘inner rhythm’. ‘Pure form-inner rhythm’ which means there is inner rhythm in my mind when I look back on myself at the purest state. It is like some music I hear at an electric shop and I don’t even know what it is or who made it, but it makes me emotionally intensified. I found the elements in the countryside. Since then, I was interested in implicative poetry, and it is also connected to my actions, like the ‘Drawing a Stroke on the Water’ and the ‘Air and Dream.’
Yoon Jin Sup: Speaking of ideas for poetry, there is Mudeungsan Mountain, and we can say many poets have recited poems about it. You have also created a media work about Mudeungsan Mountain, right?
Kang Un: Yes, I have.
Yoon Jin Sup: Please tell us about it.
Kang Un: It was at the Round Table exhibition, in the 2012 Gwangju Biennale. I was selected as an artist from Gwangju. They were recruiting integrated artists. And I, as a painter, was doing some humanistic research with an engineer, a video artist, an installation artist, and a communication artist. We thought that since the Asian Culture Complex just opened, there must be some groups that can collaborate, so we were doing some research voluntarily.
Kang Un: I thought that it would be worthfull and we can show our local patriotism if we draw humanistic Mudeungsan Mountain, not a physical representation of it. And we were selected to participate in the Round Table of 2012 while we were working on the research.
Kang Un: So I was contemplating a lot about what we should do for our first work. I reached the idea of doing something about Mudeungsan Mountain, but I was thinking what we should do about it. One day, I was contemplating and wandering here and there. And, I was drinking beer at the Sigyeongjeong Pavilion after midnight and saw the signboard written with ‘sig’ and ‘yeong’ which means ‘rest’ and ‘shadow’ in Chinese, respectively, and the overall meaning is that it is where even a shadow stops and rests. So, I looked up about it little bit more.
Kang Un: It was a story of the Fisher of Zhuangzi. It was very simple. There was one person who hated his footprints and shadow, so he walked very hard to avoid them. But the footprints and shadow always chased him. He thought that it was because his effort was not enough, so he ran very hard and died in the end. If he hated his shadow, he could have rested in shade. And if he didn’t like his footprints, he could have stopped. It was easy but he couldn’t do it and reached a bad end.
Kang Un: Listening to his story, I felt like Zhuangzi, from 2,000 years ago, sent me a letter. It is very different environment compared to 2,000 years ago. But if it was so important to a human beings even 2,000 years ago, what is rest for the modern people then? I kept contemplating with my team, bibimbap, and got an idea that it is like a heart.
Yoon Jin Sup: A heart?
Kang Un: Yes, it is. We normally think that a heart never stops, but medically, it beats twice and has a short break between beats. It is like modern people can take a short break, but not a long rest. Then, let’s make a discussion about modern people’s rest likened to a heart. How do we make it? We started studying about consonants and vowels of Hangeul, the Korean alphabet.
Kang Un: To study the theory of Hangeul creation, I looked up some books about it, but there were so many Chinese characters to explain it. So I had hard time to interpret them. But eventually, we decided to build houses with the consonants and vowels.
Kang Un: For example, if you architecturally arrange the consonants and vowels of ‘쉼(rest)’, which is from the ‘sigyeongjeong Pavilion(where even shadow stops and rests)’, you can make a house. So we thought we should keep working on this and started to build houses with Hangeul, like ‘House in a mountain’ and ‘Forest, Breath, Rest and House’. At the same time, we inserted various incidents and events of Gwangju as sound effects and started to build all the houses in the world.
Kang Un: It created a sensation, so we interacted with the audience and made them take part in, by telling them about sigyeongjeong story and asking them the question, "what is your rest?". Someone said "Having barbeque is my rest.", another said "Sleeping enough on Sundays is my rest." There were many different kinds of rests.
Kang Un: But one said something we haven’t expected. He said "I have never thought about rest in my life, I just lived how my life goes, but you guys gave me a chance to think about it, so I will think about rest in my life from now on." We just felt rewarded when we heard his comment.
Kang Un: Another comment was, Professor John Rajchman visited the Biennale and left a compliment saying "Other works are very normal as much as you can see in other Biennale as well, but the ‘Forest, Breath, Rest, and House’ is a special one that you can see only in Gwangju Biennale." We were thankful for the chance that we could draw humanistic Mudeungsan Mountain with keeping our local identity. And, if we have a chance, we are planning to make the best use of Arts and Creative Technology Center of the Asia Culture Center.
Yoon Jin Sup: So now, when we see the content, you installed about 20 layers of large screens, which is made of mesh fabric, spaced them at regular intervals and then projected the images from the front, then the sides, and from the all directions, right?
Kang Un: Yes.
Yoon Jin Sup: You projected consonants of Hanguel, such as siot(ㅅ) and mieum(ㅁ) on the screen, and dispersed consonants and other images like cloud and hair are continuously projected too, right?
Kang Un: They are called particles of lives.
Yoon Jin Sup: Pardon? Particles? Particles of lives. And they disperse when and audience come close and take some actions. So, we can say it was interactive and audience participatory. And I feel that you guys tried various changes in the work.
Kang Un: Yes, we did.
Yoon Jin Sup: I see. And, you participated in Gwangju Biennale only once?
Kang Un: No, I did one more time in the year 2000. It was called new millennium, so I participated in with pure painting works that expressed how the sun slowly goes down and rises on a large canvas People normally think that there are specific forms of contemporary art works for Biennales, but I couldn’t agree with that.
Yoon Jin Sup: Oh, you couldn’t?
Kang Un: At that time, my works were in the section of Korea/Oceania. All works of the Korean artists including mine were not in the Asia section. A Japanese curator, Tani Arata was in charge of the Asia section and he was thinking of taking the works at Asia section to a traveling exhibition in Japan.
Kang Un: But there were no works of Korean artists in the section. So he selected four Korean artists, Byron Kim, Kwon Sowon, Lee Sunju, and me. And he wanted to pick a representative from us to take part in a symposium. He was thinking deeply and picked me. I was very surprised.
Kang Un: He picked me and wrote about my works on the introduction of the catalogue saying, "Asian artists, especially the ones from Southeast countries such as Japan, Korea, and China do not specifically describe the sky. Their works are landscape painting of the sky that privatise the sky. It was a way of privatising the subject as if we paint cloud and mist on the top and the valleys of the mountain when we draw a landscape. There are no traditions trying to visualise it."
Kang Un: "However, I think that a Korean artist who studied Western arts challenges it with a new perspective from an Oriental point of view is a style of a new young generation."
Kang Un: And one said "It was not like a man drew the sky, it was like the sky made him actualise some delusions. It was so natural." And another said "It is a work that maximised the renaissance of painting and he realigned modern and post modernism to develop his own painting style." I was so touched by the comments, and my dreams got bigger. It was a moment of big recognition in my personal history. When I was in difficult situations, I was more enthusiastic in order not to be against their expectations.
Yoon Jin Sup: I see. So, you mean that Tani Arata, who was the director of Uchunomia Gallery at that time, picked you out from the Oceania section to hold an exhibition, and it is connected to a travelling exhibition in Japan, right?
Kang Un: Yes.
Yoon Jin Sup: I see. And there is a monochromatic work titled ‘Drawing a Stroke on the Water’ which is developed from, or we can say added on the works of clouds. You postulated the ‘Theory of one dot and one stroke’, so please explain it to us.
Kang Un: It was in 2005 when I was exhibiting ‘Geumnamro’ at Mori Art Museum. I extended the kinds of media used at the exhibition. As the media changed, I was able to stay in a state of working on the new work. So, I put various contemporary art together, what I felt and experienced at Ssamzie and Gwangju Biennale, and my basic identity, and poured them into the various media such as pictures, reliefs, videos, paintings, and wash drawings. But I got more distant from commercial galleries. My works were changing into something, way different to the commercial art works.
Kang Un: No. Before that, I was a so-called blue chip artist, when I was doing cloud paintings.
Yoon Jin Sup: Oh, they were sold very well then.
Kang Un: They were very popular.
Yoon Jin Sup: You mean they were commercially popular?
Kang Un: When I decided to start new experimental works, I was totally separated from commercial galleries. And I had hard time while working on it for almost seven years. During that time, I thought that since I took a Western education, I used to use Western materials with no doubt, but I was approaching my forties, so why don’t I use my own expression? I wanted to express the universal sensibility of the people, who have used water for farming and painting for a long time, in a modern sense with my own media and language.
Kang Un: While I was contemplating the method, I accidentally looked in a picture framing shop. When they were framing, they kept doing the actions of sticking and detaching the pictures over and over, and the air and time were also running in there, and they were overlapping. It seemed very meaningful to me. I thought ‘when white overlapped continuously, eventually it becomes an infinite blank space, an infinite space.’
Kang Un: Since then, I decided not to use paper materially because many people had used paper so far. I wanted use it in a completely different way from them. Among the existing senior artists, very minimalist artists had created many monochromatic works, and some minimal works had been done by some artists before. But I wanted to do some work that I think as ideal postmodern with my own feelings. So I tried various things and started the works titled ‘Air and Dream’ and ‘Drawing a Stroke on the Water’ at the same time.
Kang Un: ‘Air and Dream’ is made by attaching naturally dyed Hanji(traditional Korean paper) over uncoated hemp fabric, then layer the thinnest chopped Hanji over and over again, and make the layers of the air, like the work you see in front of us. And then, I express clouds and the wind on it. By doing so, I was able to express the visual clouds and the invisible wind and air.
Kang Un: The making process of this work is repetition of the same actions. I keep sticking it over and over and over until I really have no idea. In the process of sticking until there is no idea, I was able to overcome my personal difficulties that I had that time. So I called it as a work of prayer that made me able to transcend time.
Kang Un: And another work titled ‘Drawing a Stroke on the Water’ is a work of forming a stroke. I found it accidentally while I was drawing on a table. Normally, artists of Oriental drawing draw on a blanket, but I was doing that on a table. One day, I found a glass plate under the table and I did drawing on it. And then, I found that there is air between the paper and the glass plate. I thought I could visualise it, so I placed Chinese drawing paper (Hwasoenji) on an acrylic plate, sprayed water on it, and then, drew a short stroke with a brush.
Kang Un: Then it spreads around on it and forms a shape. The reason why the work is attractive is, it forms very different shapes depending on the temperature and humidity of the day, and the condition of my body. It also depends on how I attach the paper. They look roughly similar, but the expression of the air is very diverse.
Kang Un: So, creating different works, depending on my condition and in sensitive environment, was like play for me, and I thought it was like my picture diary. While I was working on the works for the exhibition ‘Play : Pray’, I found myself was working on ‘Drawing a Stroke on the Water’ in the morning, and ‘Air and Dream’ in the afternoon.
Kang Un: The format can be very different, right? But the contents are the same. For example, ‘Air and Dream’ shows that the water contained in the air becomes a cloud when it goes to the stratosphere and meets the cold air. So I expressed it as ‘Air and Dream’. ‘Drawing a Stroke on the Water’ is, I found that air bubbles appear very clearly, when I draw a stroke on the air in the water.
Kang Un: Don’t you know the saying ‘Drawing even a stroke makes you become enlightened.’? I thought it was possible, but it was visibly too dry. So I used baechaebeob (back painting). And then, when I turned it over, I got all the details. So, I had some kind of Oriental thoughts like a potter making pottery. I mean, the role of the potter is until when he glazes the pottery and puts it in a kiln. That is what humans can do.
Kang Un: However, it can be a masterpiece when it is united with the fire which is uncared energy of nature. Like the preceding, my work is also created differently every day, and it is made when my energy is united with the elements of the nature, so I started drawing it every day.
Yoon Jin Sup: Is it something like a coincidence effect? Contingency?
Kang Un: Yes. It is a coincidence, but it became a work of carefully observing the surrounding environment and myself, my physical actions.
Yoon Jin Sup: If the thing, combined with your physical actions, is not contingency… when you used back painting, you don’t know what happens at the backside anyway, do you?
Kang Un: No.
Yoon Jin Sup: So, we thought it was contingency but you said it was a bit far from it. Then, what do you think it is?
Kang Un: It think it is a kind of energy. For example, there are temperature and humidity, and my action of drawing a stroke is added on them. The action is made by my breath and my body. And there are also other elements changed, depending on the day’s weather, environment, and conditions. Observing the changes was playing for me, and I felt it was like my abstract picture diary.
Kang Un: If they were same all the time, I wouldn’t have felt like that, but you know, I can write a diary specifically, but as a painter, I thought I could write it abstractly. So I was working on the two works, 'Drawing a Stroke on the Water' in the morning and 'Air and Dream' in the afternoon.
Kang Un: So I titled my exhibition held at Post Art Museum and Savina museum as ‘Play : Pray’. At the exhibition, I said that ‘Air and Dream’ was a work of praying, cause it took lots of time, and ‘Drawing a Stroke on the Water’ was a work of playing because it was a work of one brush stroke. However, the audience thought that ‘Drawing a Stroke on the Water’ is very meditative and it is a work of cultivating mind, so they thought it was a work of praying, and ‘Air and Dream’ was a work of ‘Playing’ because it expressed the wind playing.
Kang Un: I found that depending on the viewer, depending on whether you put the focus on the body or mind, it can be changed in a various way. And one more thing I realised was that I am the one who creates art works, but the final completion is done by the masses, so I got more composure in my mind. So, I do not care if it is monochromatic or not.
Yoon Jin Sup: While listening to your story, I got an idea that your repetitive actions of cutting and sticking dyed Hanji is, in some way, very similar to repetitive actions of the doyen Dansaekhwa (monochrome painting) painters and tactility.
Yoon Jin Sup: But, even though it is monochromatic, there are various shapes that make us to imagine clouds, right? So, we can say that Dansaekwha doesn’t quite fit to the concept or definition of pure abstract. Then, when you work on it, do you have specific images in your mind? I mean, to make the images, do you take pictures or something? Or do you use some fictional images that you created in your mind?
Kang Un: I can say I use both. For example, even though you take special pictures with a camera, it is not really connected to the work. No matter how many pictures you take, there are not many used in the actual works. Since clouds disappear in a very short time, the more important thing is the feeling. If you observe clouds carefully, you may find layers in them. From the lower layer to the middle layer and the upper layer, their shapes change, depending on the state of atmospheric pressure.
Kang Un: And the kinds of clouds are also different, depending on layer. At the beginning, I started with the images that I had in mind, but I found that they are so similar. The more I do the series the more similar patterns they have got. I couldn’t accept that either.
Kang Un: Because nature changes all the time, it never gets the same shape. The reason why I was so attracted to clouds was that even though all other subjects have their own forms, they don’t have any concrete forms. I realised that I was not interested in natural objects, but in natural phenomena, and I was putting much importance on the circular elements of the nature’s pure energy.
Kang Un: Also, the reason why I titled my recent exhibition as ‘Touch the Air’ is because I realised that I have touched the air all the time so far, so I wanted to express it in an abstract way. I have consoled my anxiety by getting information from senior artists or art books, but now I am in the process of finding it by feeling it with my instinctive five senses.
Yoon Jin Sup: So you started cloud works from oil painting at the beginning and moved to Hanji works which means that it has changed from painting to making, and from playing to praying through the repetitive actions. You also participated in international Biennales like Prague Biennale and Gwangju Biennale?
Kang Un: Yes, I did.
Yoon Jin Sup: Please explain to us when and what Biennales you have participated and what the achievement was.
Kang Un: I don’t know. In the case of Prague Biennale, it was a Biennale held in Eastern bloc and mainly focusing on paintings. There were many flat surface works, paintings. I brought two of my works. One of them was ‘Emptiness beyond Emptiness’ that I expressed petals were blowing by wind and falling down, so the shapes were made by the wind. The next one was the one before ‘Air and Dream’.
Kang Un: And at that time, I was also working on ‘Drawing a Stoke on the Water’, too. When I was working on those works, I was invited by many other exhibitions including one in Milano. But, I had had exhibitions overseas before that, and thought that overseas exhibitions are necessary but, in many cases, they are very consuming.
Yoon Jin Sup: Oh, there is consuming aspect.
Kang Un: Yes, and if I am very careful about conditions when I am signing an exclusive contract, some might say I like money too much, but in my defence, there are very limited numbers of art works that I can create in one year. Also, to constantly create works without being stuck in a rut, I have to allocate time. When I considered all of these things, I thought I would only do some necessary exhibitions.
Kang Un: And since the Prague Biennale, I had an idea, ‘There is no rush. If I continuously work on this for about a decade or so, there would be someone who will recognise my works at an appropriate time.' And also, 'When I am close my mind to overseas, I cannot get recognition from overseas, but if my mind is opened all the time, I might be able to be recognised internationally sometime.'
Kang Un: And one more thing I strongly felt was that there was no point to bring something very common in Korean art to overseas. I personally think that only the works which are very local and unique, and also containing special and social issues or cultural issue can draw some attention as art works. So I decided to head to somewhere where I can keep thinking of my current and future works without caring of trend, and introspect my self.
Yoon Jin Sup: While you were working on the cloud works, You have done somewhat big scale works like engraving, photography, and other media art through collaboration. Now, you are back and concentrating on cloud arts, but what about your future work? Do you have any plans to do some experimental works in the future? Please let us know more about your future directions.
Kang Un: I am already in my fifties. I wanted changes every time in my twenties, thirties, and forties. I changed every decade. Nowadays, I am deeply thinking of what is the work I have to do in my fifties. Um…but these days, I think a lot more about what the concept of drawing is. So, I am thinking of continuously working on the ‘Drawing a stroke on the Water’. I realised that I was putting more importance on the action of drawing, not the relation between object and drawings.
Kang Un: So, I am planning to challenge the work ‘Drawing a Stroke on the Water’ from one stroke to further. I will move my studio and try to find what kind of meditative abstract painting will come out, when I put more meaning on the action of drawing itself and if it can play role of mediator between the Eastern and Western art.
Yoon Jin Sup: Um… I see. And since you are an artist, I guess you must be in some dilemma between being a commercial artist, and being a, so called, museum-oriented artist when you think of international relations. In that aspect, I think collection is also very important. Once you were a popular artist that commercial galleries were enthusiastic to get some works from, but you hoped to be an artist of large museums, and I think it is becoming realistic. Please tell us about public collection and your works history briefly.
Kang Un: Um…Of course, as a modern artist, I need to make some money to create better and larger scaled works. I would like a balance between the two things anyway, but sometimes, there are things that were possible at commercial galleries but not now. That is, I think the important thing was that if you prepared an exhibition at a museum, you could constantly go forward with your own topic. However, commercial galleries want you to create a certain quantity of themes and works. I had difficulties with that, but anyway, I am focusing on museums since 2005.
Kang Un: So I could go forward with maintaining my own topic. So my works could be housed at many museums such as National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul Museum of Art, Geyonggi Museum of Modern Art, Gwangju Museum of Art in Korea and Mori Art Museum, and some spaces of Samsung in Roppongi, Japan, and also in many other museums and public offices. It was a great luck for me.
Kang Un: And while working on experimental works, I thought that, once I used to be a blue chip artist at commercial galleries and I quit it in my 40s and spent all I had earned, after that, I faced more difficult situations, so I had to fall into debt. Later, I recovered due to the exhibitions at Posco Art Museum and Savina Museum.
Kang Un: I often think about what the important virtue that an artist must possess is. When I am thinking of what the sincere mind that sustains me to keep drawing is. I often think that a person who paints does not sell his paintings(Geulim) but rather sells his shadow(Geulimja)
Yoon Jin Sup: Oh… I see.
Kang Un: If I keep going forward without missing what I want to do, regardless of whether they are sold at commercial galleries, or auctions, or housed at museums, I think I can reach the state that I can self-power myself. So, now, when I think ‘what paintings mean to me’, paintings are not something I experienced, but are an experience itself.
Kang Un: So what I meant by saying I want to work with the air on my future work ‘Touch the Air’ was that there must be something produced while working on that. I am also wondering how it will develop, and will I be aware of that. Also, even though my economic problems were solved by ‘Air and Dream’ and ‘Drawing a Stroke on the Water’, I sometimes think that I must challenge vested interests to expose my presence as an artist.
Yoon Jin Sup: It must have been not easy to live as a full time artist, and your wife must have played a big role to make you succeed as an artist. How about that?
Kang Un: Um… Yes. When I left home for the first time in my thirties, my wife was a first curator at the Garden Art Gallery.
Yoon Jin Sup: Um...I see
Kang Un: So she completely supported me. As I got separated with commercial galleries and started experimental art works, we had to sell our house and the site for my studio. Normally housewives hate selling their apartments. My wife allowed me to do that with saying, ‘an artist has a time and life is very limited’. I have a spouse who can share the beauty next to me.
Kang Un: Um… didn’t I build all the houses in the world through the collaborated work called ‘Forest, Breath, Rest and House’? It was a dedicating work to my wife. My wife was suffering from cancer that time and I could not give her the physical house that she wanted. So I wanted give her many houses in the drawings. Um… I don’t know. Speaking of that, I have faced many difficult moments. But 'what is drawing, what is the sincere mind to have modern and romantic thoughts as an artist', I am still wondering about that.
Kang Un: Nowadays, the world is saying, not ‘I think, therefore I am’ by Descartes, but saying, ‘I consume, therefore I am’. Also, some twenty first future report says that the world will become an Alphago age and the roles of human beings will be greatly reduced, but nevertheless, I think the role of artists must be necessary in the future, and I want to be an artist who sublimates human’s sincere heart in art works.
Yoon Jin Sup: I see. I think the dedicated effort of your wife and support from your family made it possible for you to succeed. And hope you to put more effort on it and become a world star in the future.
Kang Un: Thank you.
Interviewer: Dr. Yoon Jin Sup
Director of photography, audio and lighting: Francois Saikally
Video editor: Dr. Bob Jansen
Transcription & Translation: Stacey Kim
Director: Dr. Bob Jansen
Technical & assembly: Dr. Bob Jansen