A scientific look at ancient Korean art

Jennifer Barclay reports on the Anglo-Korean Society evening at the Korean Cultural Centre, 16 June 2009

Short documentaries on some of Korea’s ancient cultural artefacts were shown at the Korean Cultural Centre on 16 June, presented by members of the non-profit Korean Spirit and Cultural Promotion Project.

Matthew Jackson and Hang-Jin Chang, who graduated together from Oxford University in 2004, are familiar figures to anyone who supports Korean cultural events, dressed in traditional Korean clothing – striking on Matthew’s six foot six frame – to give away free books about Korea’s history and culture. Matthew now proved himself an excellent speaker as he introduced an evening of highly informative art appreciation.

sokkuram

Take the Sokkuram Grotto – a cave temple 1,300 years old (above). Did you know just how remarkable it is that the engineers of the day could construct such a cave from granite blocks using no mortar? The design allowed for only one millimetre of error in ten metres – something unheard of in today’s building apparently, which allows for one millimetre of error in thirty centimetres.

The patriotic hyperbole could have been toned down slightly; the narrator somewhat overstated the case that the Sokkuram Grotto was better than the Inca temples and that the ‘exquisite’ ornaments on the golden Sarira Casket, ‘the acme of brilliance’, made it ‘unmatched by any similar reliquary in the world’. On the other hand, some of the content really was superb.

The Sarira Casket
The Sarira Casket

For example, it was fascinating to watch a modern-day attempt to reconstruct one of the wind chimes the size of a match-head that were found in the Sarira Casket. Gold granules so small they are impossible to see with the human eye, soldered on for decoration with such accuracy and knowledge of the craft – today’s artist failed to complete the task with the same perfection, leaving the solder showing. Did the ancient craftsmen have the equivalent of today’s microscopes? And why did the artist strive for such perfection on decoration invisible to the naked eye?

A similar point was raised by the film on Koryo Buddhist paintings from 700 years ago, where pieces that look simple at first glance, such as Fifteen Thousand Buddhas or Five Hundred Arhats, are in fact made up of myriad Buddha faces, their minute differences and details almost impossible to discern without a magnifying glass. These hanging paintings are often kept rolled up. How does the paint survive on the silk after so many centuries? Instead of mixing the primary colours made from ground minerals, thus weakening the materials, the artists achieved tones and shades by painting on the back of the canvas as well as the front, filtering colour to make it more muted – again, one feels there is much science behind the art. Surprisingly, only thirteen of these paintings exist in Korea, while over a hundred are in Japan.

Francesca Cho, 'North & South 1', 1997
Francesca Cho, 'North & South 1', 1997

The theme was Exploring Korea’s Cultural Legacy from Past to Present, and we had a tantalising glimpse of Francesca Cho’s contemporary paintings inspired by the Korean alphabet. The curator’s speech was unfortunately a little hard to follow and left me wanting to know much more about how and why Cho decided to overlay hangul on the rich, warm colours and delicate, serene textures of the Cycle of Flying Dragons. Discover more when the paintings go on show at Fulham Library 16-19 July.

By delightful contrast to all of this, the Korean Cultural Centre itself was covered with the brash and humorous shapes of manhwa, Korean comic books and graphic novels, and we had a rare chance to flick through the wide range on display – many of them translated into English for the American market. Now there’s a fun idea – re-write my book Meeting Mr Kim as a graphic novel, add a bit more love…

The Anglo-Korean Society was serving drinks and nibbles after the show, encouraging people to stay around and mingle.

The Manhwa exhibition continues until 24 June.

Jennifer Barclay reports on Korean cultural events for London Korean Links and occasionally The East and the Anglo-Korean Society, and is the author of Meeting Mr Kim: Or How I Went to Korea and Learned to Love Kimchi.

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