17 October – 30 November 2003
Meet the artist; Chun, Kwang-Young at the opening on Thursday 16 October 6-8pm
Newcontemporaries is proud to present AGGREGATION in association with
Chun, Kwang-Young is an artist who uses distinctively Eastern materials to make sculptural works of universal distinction. It is a testament to the far-reaching appeal of his art that over the past decade Chun has held exhibitions not only in his native Korea, but in Japan, Germany, Switzerland, numerous cities in the United States; and even Bangladesh. In every locality and every language, Chun’s work articulates a set of highly-suggestive, poetic ideas.
While his finished pieces may attain mammoth proportions, Chun’s building blocks are deceptively simple: scraps of Korean mulberry paper covered in printed calligrams are wrapped around triangular pieces of Styrofoam. The wrappings are held in place with a paper string also imbued with characters. Each piece is then attached to another, leading to an infinite series of constructive possibilities. The final work may be a tableau that seems to lurch from the gallery wall, a freestanding pillar, or a jagged sphere that dangles in space. Some of Chun’s pieces are as flat as a pebbly pavement, others may undulate like the walls of a cave. The size of each fragment has an impact on the way we read a work, and the shadow-games that play across its surface. At times we might be looking at a map of the cosmos - or at some rough sample of the earth’s crust. Each piece is readable, metaphorically, as both microcosm and macrocosm.
Many commentators have sought to emphasize Chun’s ties with national tradition by discussing the significance of mulberry paper in Korean culture. In pre-modern Korea, mulberry paper was more than a surface for writing or drawing, it covered the walls and floors of houses; it was used to wrap food and medicine. The paper also has a tactile, sensuous dimension, clearly signposting its origins in the organic world. In typically Eastern fashion, the qualities of the paper were often discussed in spiritual terms. The critic, Ou, Wang-Su, for instance, talks about the humbleness, modesty and gentleness of mulberry paper “which keeps its vitality without a showiness”.
Such qualities are present in even the most gigantic of Chun’s Aggregations. The soft, grayish surfaces, covered in ink notations, are the very opposite of materials such as bronze or marble that are meant to signify strength, stability and longevity. On the contrary, Chun’s paper surfaces suggest fragility and transience. The works may look solid from a distance, but they could be easily damaged or disarranged by the human hand. In this, there lies a potent metaphor: individual lives are formed by a process of aggregation – the incremental accumulation of experience and knowledge. But at the same time as we move forward in our understanding, we are slowly dying; our cells are no longer reproducing themselves at the same rate, and the long fade to black has begun. So too with civilizations, which begin to die at the height of their power and prestige. One need only look at the contemporary predicament of the United States, the world super power par excellence, to see how external and internal factors are gnawing away at the foundations of that mighty edifice.
For Chun, “aggregation” is conspicuously neutral term. It suggests a geological rather than a political formation – a belief that events have their own, self-sustaining momentum, regardless of our artful plans and intentions. Every piece of paper in these sculptures has had some kind of previous life – as a book, as a greeting or a wish for good health. By combining and recombining these fragments in random juxtaposition, Chun creates an image of all human knowledge and endeavor. So much paper, so many books, so much time and effort spent in researching, writing and publishing texts that end as anonymous scraps. By transmuting these fragments into sculptural units, Chun gives them a new life, but in a way that ironically mocks their original identity. We look at these tightly-packed fragments and see how each piece of paper differs slightly in colour and texture – each variation is proof of an independent existence now consigned to the past. Since we may read only small snatches of text – presuming that we are capable of understanding the characters – there are no complete narratives, only a mosaic of ruined sentences: tiny snippets of sense, brief snatches of inspiration, banal moments rescued from oblivion.
In some senses, Chun’s works are monuments to futility. They embody the Eastern fatalism one finds in Buddhist and Confucian philosophies: that there are ultimate limits to all forms of human pride and ambition. To the Buddhists, what matters most is to look beyond earthly strivings; to the Confucian, the goal is the correct conduct of life. Chun’s Aggregations are cultural artifacts that send us back to the original senses of the world “culture” – in English one thinks of something growing from well-tended soil. In Chinese, as Simon Leys writes, “the word ‘culture’ (wen) originally meant ‘(natural) patterns’, such as those formed by hair on the pelt of an animal.” Chun invites us to closely examine the skin of each work, as though these surfaces hold the key to some fundamental cultural truth.
One might take this even further. In the Analects of Confucius, the scholar Zigong, claims that “nature is culture, culture is nature. Without its hair, the skin of a tiger or of a leopard is just the same as that of a dog or of a sheep.” Chun plays on this underlying affinity between nature and culture, making works that freely advertise both their cultural belongings (printed characters, architectonic forms, etc), and their natural ones (mulberry paper, forms suggestive of growth and encrustation). His constructions may be labour-intensive, but the final result has a metaphysical character that eludes easy classification. These works seem to be both solid and ephemeral - feats of human ingenuity that echo the patterns of natural growth. They are distinctively Korean but speaking a language that may be understood by everyone. We don’t need to be able to read the characters on Chun’s paper wrappings to appreciate his unique contribution to that transnational conversation we call contemporary art.
© John McDonald
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