From a recent two-part article in the Korea Herald:
Four emerging artists
by Shin Hae-in
6 April 2006
In recent years, young artists in their 20s and 30s have emerged as the mainstream of the art world, bringing rapid changes to the domestic art scene.
The Korea Herald met four of these emerging artists in their work places to observe their artistic perspectives and hear opinions on the current local art world as well as the whole of Korean contemporary art.
Bubbling with passion and desire, the four young artists that The Korea Herald met each had a unique color. But amid the diversity, they shared the same goal of “following the belief, not the trend.” Also, the four artists agreed that their duty was not to convince viewers of their own perspectives, but to make room for viewers to observe the artworks and make their own interpretations.
Gwon O-sang, 32
The color purple crosses one’s mind at the first sight of artist Gwon O-sang. Like the mysterious color, Gwon is widely known among art fans for his unique artistic views as well as the abrupt transformations he makes in his artworks.
But despite the fact that he is now recognized as one of the most talented emerging artists of Asia, Gwon refused to be dubbed a genius.
“I want to be an artist, rather than a genius,” he said. “Geniuses can never be hardworkers because they trust their talents too much. I’d rather be a hardworking artist than an idle genius.”
Starting from the 1999 “Vacuum-Packed” series, Gwon came up with a diverse series of sculptures – from “photography sculptures” and “planar sculptures” to the recent series of traditional bronze sculptures – surprising those in the art world. His motives, he said, are his thoughts.
“I consider it a duty as an artist to think about how I can survive in the contemporary art scene. And such thinking always leads me to the next series,” he said. “There is a point when an artist can achieve the status of art. When one reaches this point, he can do anything – whether it’s painting, photography, sculpture or even scuba diving.”
While constantly thinking about his next piece of work, Gwon tried not to make a certain frame to fit himself into.
“I believe that I don’t really have to struggle in making a frame, since doing whatever I want will naturally form a frame that I unconsciously store in my head,” he said. “In other words, ‘doing what I want’ is the core of my works.”
Adopting images from magazines and advertisements, Gwon’s sculptures are sophisticated and flashy to look at. For such reasons, he is often criticized as a “commercialistic artist.” But Gwon said that he merely borrowed these images because they represent present times.
“Well, I believe that contemporary art is the fruit of capitalism. I do have the desire to possess and my sculptures actually come from the desire to make and possess something,” he said. “But I don’t think I am a commercialistic artist in the general point of view. The commercial trend for sculptures is to make things small, pretty and long-lasting. But my goal is only to make sculptures that provoke people’s possessiveness and the sense of vanity – the two aspects of capitalism.”
Gwon said that he was also against attaching messages or meanings to artworks. “Contemporary art itself does not have a message. I would feel as though I am deceiving viewers by leading them to a certain meaning through my artworks,” he said. “All I can do is to express what I feel about the current times so that the viewers can make interpretations of their own.”
After choosing to become an artist in middle school, Gwon said he has never regretted the decision. “Maybe it’s because I’m a born optimist,” he said with a smile. “I believe that even if I don’t have good results right now, I will achieve what I want eventually.
After majoring in sculpture at Hongik University College of Art, Gwon made a debut in the art scene in 1999 through his first exhibition with a group of students at Hanwon Museum of Art. Last year, Gwon became one of the eight emerging artists to sign an exclusive contract with Arario Gallery, one of the largest commercial galleries in Korea.
“I am lucky to be living in an era which greets young artists, and I also believe that I am experiencing the most exciting period in Korean contemporary art,” said Gwon. “I hope to see more young artists coming up to the surface in the mainstream of the local art world.”
Park Hyun-jung, 36
For artist Park Hyun-jung, an occupational slump that hit her recently became a chance for a new leap. Refinding her affection for painting, Park devoted herself to the process of painting as if she was embroidering the picture on silk. With such effort, Park gave new meanings to ordinary objects such as diaries, subway tickets, scarves and blouses in her new series of real-size paintings.
“During the slump, I was so obsessed with the techniques of painting and felt so much pressure to bring up big themes for the new series, that the pure passion for painting had disappeared,” she said. “Then one day while I was walking home, the ordinary objects that I see everyday suddenly appeared new to me. And for the first time in a long while, I was taken by the desire to paint them. My first love had come back.”
Beginning with her 1997 solo exhibition “When? Where!,” Park was noted among art circles for her colorful and lively painting skills. But as time passed by, painting began to feel like a routine and an obligation, signaling the need for a turning point.
“These days, people avoid labor by using their brains. But this time, I wanted to test the limitations of labor,” she said. “I felt that was the only way that I could really get to know the objects that I paint, as well as reaffirm the meaning of painting for me.”
Because the current series demanded detailed depiction, Park had to spend over 10 hours a day focusing only on the canvas.
“Yeah, it was hard work,” Park said with a laugh. “As people hear only the tune when they listen to a new song, I want people just to see the objects as they are when they look at my paintings for the first time. And then, just like catching the words in a song, I want people to understand how these objects are real and alive, coming with a meaning of their own.”
Although she hated it, Park said that her stubbornness helped in holding on to her art career through the difficult times.
“I have the tendency to be stubborn and persistent with certain things. This is a part of me that I don’t really like,” she said. “But now I look back, this personality trait helped me become an artist and hold onto my career. For example, I could finish this series without fail because I insisted on keeping to my own manual and closing my ears to outside opinions.”
Park used to have doubts about her career when she came upon a setback or a slump, but now she has learned to overcome them.
“I have realized that although art is my core, it is not my everything. And also, the best results are seen when I don’t bound myself too much and become stressed.”
Park said that she was happy to see young artists of her age rising as the mainstream, but she tried not to be too burdened about being one of them.
“I don’t think that being an emerging artist means that you have to feel the duty to always bring in something new or follow the newest trend,” she said. “Maybe such thought made it possible for me to ignore the new trends and focus on the simple process of painting in this series.”
And Park also made it clear that she was against the move to create star artists or mainstreamers. “Art should not be observed with capitalistic perspectives,” she said. “Forming a mainstream means making the rest nonmainstream. And this makes art a difficult sector for the general public as well as those artists who failed to join the mainstream trend.”
Lee Dong-wook, 30
For artist Lee Dong-wook, art is “something fun” that naturally became a part of his life.
It isn’t conviction or having a goal that motivates him. He simply chose to become an artist because art seemed like the most exciting thing to do and thus, he believes that art should come easily and naturally.
“I don’t believe in doing something for the sake of it, and the same rule applies to art,” he said. “Since the very beginning of my art career, I never set a goal that I wanted to pursue. I believed that art was something to find amid my everyday life. Art is just a part of my life and doing what I like to do naturally become a part of my work.”
This young artist with twinkling eyes insisted that he was a hard-worker who managed to achieve things only after immense work. But from the way he talks, it was obvious that Lee was among the few lucky people who was born with talent.
Since his first solo exhibition in 2003, Lee has been recognized as one of the most innovative artists of Korea with his “Inbreeding” and “Mouthbreeder” series. Placing tiny models of humans inside cans, boxes, water tanks and almost anywhere, Lee has been proving his limitless imagination.
Lee said that such ideas just “popped into his head.” “I don’t try to find a motif. Rather, thoughts pop into my head when I look around the usual things in my life,” he said. “In other words, themes naturally come along when I’m doing things that I like.”
Although the artist seems to be shouting out various messages through his tiny installations, Lee said that it was up to viewers to make their own interpretations.
“I do my work simply because I want to and because it is fun for me. I don’t intend to force people to feel the same way, nor aim to convey a certain message,” he said. “I just want to give viewers a chance to feel something or anything by observing my work. That’s all I can and should do.”
As an artist who considered urge and liking as the cores of his artworks, Lee said that the hardest part was waiting until he felt the urge to do something. “When the days are good, I finish a piece in a day, but when the days are bad, I can’t even finish one in a whole month,” he said. “I think the hardest part isn’t really the making, but the waiting until I feel the urge to make something.”
But Lee did not consider the bad days as a slump.
“My career has been too short for a slump,” he said. “I, of course, have bad days when I don’t want to do anything. But I try not to lay any special meaning on them since they just pass by naturally.”
Together with artist Gwon O-sang, Lee joined the group of Arario Gallery’s exclusive artists last year. Although he rarely talks about his works with other people, he often discusses art and his works with other Arario artists, he said.
Lee will be holding his next solo exhibition in Seoul Arario Gallery in September. But as with his past style of work, Lee said that he had nothing planned yet. “I’m sure something will turn up as time comes,” he said with a shrug.
At first glance, artist Lee Min-hyuk’s dark and powerful paintings remind viewers of Vincent van Gogh or perhaps Edvard Munch. But despite his resemblance with the two most renowned masters, Lee dubs himself a “nonmainstreamer.”
“I was an oddball from birth,” he said. “But now I think about it, perhaps that oddness led me to art and made me an artist today. I believe that my senses are much more developed than most people, and such sense seems to become the passion and desire when I work.”
After graduating from Mokwon University School of Arts in Daejeon, Lee came to Seoul in 1998, where he found the motif for his current “City Journey” series. The dark and gloomy depicts of his “City Journey” series came from his times of wander, most of which he spent on the streets of Seoul.
“Every time I felt empty and lonely in the city space, I took random photographs of the city, which later became the materials of my paintings,” he said. “I wanted to capture the speed of the city, and my feelings of exclusion and isolation.”
With such dark paintings portraying Seoul, Lee was selected as the artist of the year in the Joongang Fine Arts Competition last year and was also awarded a prize by Seoul Arts Center as the most popular artist in 2005. As expected, Lee said that Van Gogh was his favorite artist who had influenced him greatly.
“I admire Van Gogh’s works and his life. He especially influenced me during my middle school years when I was a sensitive teenager. Such influence seems to continue through today,” he said. Since 2003, Lee has been living in his workroom, which is also an office for his internet shopping mall lovee.com. Realizing that it was impossible to make a living solely on art, Lee opened the online shopping mall in 1999, selling various art materials and tools.
Although the workplace becomes ice-cold during the nights, Lee does not keep a heater in the room. “I had to work on the shopping mall during the daytime, and thus, had only a limited amount of time to work on my pieces compared to other artists,” he explained. “The cold room helped me stay awake during the nights and spend the time as efficiently as possible.”
From personal experience, Lee said that Korea was not the best country for artists. “I consider it impossible for most artists in Korea to make a living solely on art. I realized that one can never do art without making sacrifices,” he said. “But I try not to think too much about the disappointments. I know that I am still among the few lucky artists who got the chance to show their works to people.”
Lee said that he experienced the happiest moment of his life during his first solo exhibition which ended last month at Gallery Sang. The several months of cold nights suddenly disappeared from his memory during the happy month, he said.
“Frankly speaking, I hope I can make more money in the future for the sake of my work,” said Lee. “Right now, money will help me focus solely on painting, which will lead to better results.”
Lee plans to continue working on his “City Journey” series for a while.
“There are more parts of the city I want to cover,” he said. “I don’t think I will have much to worry about until the end of this series since it came by along with my real life. But I may have to go through some agony coming up with the next theme.”