2012 Travel Diary 1: Dansaekhwa – Korean Monochrome Painting at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Gwacheon, Gyeonggi-do, Saturday 24 March 2012. Whenever I come to Seoul I always try to get to Seoul Grand Park in Gwacheon to visit the National Museum of Contemporary Art. Even if there isn’t a particularly interesting special exhibition on (and that’s rare), their permanent collection is always worth a browse. This time, the special exhibition is entitled Dansaekhwa: Korean Monochrome Painting – an essential retrospective of what was effectively Korea’s mainstream modern art movement of the 1970s and 80s. It’s one of those exhibitions which make you want to return to consider it again and again.

Singing Man by Jonathan Borofsky in the MOCA's sculpture park
Singing Man by Jonathan Borofsky in the MOCA’s sculpture park

The museum is a brief shuttle bus ride (free, every 20 minutes) from exit 4 of Seoul Grand Park station (line 4). You are deposited at a pedestrian entrance slightly below the museum, from where you are invited to stroll uphill through a peaceful sculpture park with views towards the mountains. Sadly, my favourite sculpture, Jonathan Borofsky’s prayerful “Singing Man” was silent and suffering from lockjaw at the time.

This particular Saturday, entry to all exhibition halls was completely free, so we headed straight for the special exhibition on the ground floor. The exhibition, according to the blurb, “highlights Korean monochrome paintings from the 1970s to the present in the largest such exhibition in Korea, comprising about 150 artworks by 31 representative painters”

Works by Lee Ufan (pictured) and Kim Whanki greet you as you enter the exhibition
Works by Lee Ufan (pictured) and Kim Whanki greet you as you enter the exhibition

The need for a distinctive brand

It is in part an effort to give Korea’s Monochrome Painting a distinctive brand. “Korean monochrome paintings used to be referred to by various names including monotone painting and one-color plane painting, but this exhibition uses the word Dansaekhwa as the official term to denote monochrome painting. As such, it represents a first step towards establishing a branch of Korean art that can take center stage in the international art arena.”

Many of Korea’s best-known artists of the period produced work (included in this exhibition) which can be categorised as Monochrome, for example work by Kim Whanki, Lee Ufan and Park Seo-bo. But nevertheless there are no Korean artists mentioned in the first Google search result for “Monochrome Painting”1. Clearly an omission.

Yoon Hyong-keun's (윤형근) Burnt Umber & Ultramarine Blue dominates the first half of the exhibition
Yoon Hyong-keun’s (윤형근) Burnt Umber & Ultramarine Blue dominates the first half of the exhibition

Korean monochrome: distinctively different?

But this exhibition is not just a branding exercise: it’s an attempt to highlight some of the key differences between Korean and Western monochrome. Unfortunately, the MOCA’s arguments for presenting a distinctively Korean brand of monochrome painting would be easier to understand if there was a readily available catalogue of the show. Normally the museum produces informative catalogues to go with their special exhibitions, which include essays in English. But in a display of staggering incompetence by the organisers no catalogues were available one week into the exhibition. A friend subsequently checked with the museum shop, who confirmed that they had a delivery of only 50 catalogues early in April (more than two weeks after the exhibition’s opening), which immediately sold out.

Chung Sang-hwa Untitled 07-9-15 (2007)Kim Tae-ho Internal Rhythm 2011

Details from Chung Sang-hwa (Untitled, 2007) (left) and Kim Tae-ho (Internal Rhythm, 2011) – “the labour itself is the work”

In their press release the museum talks vaguely about “landscapes of the mind,” which hints at a spiritual input into the work – and those familiar with Lee Ufan’s method of painting may recognise the spiritual content. Alternatively, one of the captions along side a painting by Chung Sang Hwa (정상화) highlight the labour-intensive feature of some of the work: “the labour itself is the work”. Other commentary suggested that the repetition of the individual tiny components in these works established a resonance – and certainly the dots of Kim Whanki and Lee Ufan or the parallel lines of Park Seo-bo are more than the sum of the parts.

The exhibition highlights

MOCA’s press release draws particular attention to a space “containing only pure mono-color abstract paintings from the 1970s and 80s.” For me, this was probably the least satisfying room, which had little to say to the audience beyond fields of colour which looked straightforward but which on closer inspection seemed to involve a certain amount of laborious brushwork. MOCA also noted the first public appearance of Lee Dong-youb’s (이동엽) “best” painting, Situation (상황, 狀況). “This painting reminds me of the white porcelain of the Joseon Dynasty,” said a learned Japanese critic at the time of its first outing in 1972. It is not one of the paintings which stick in the mind from the exhibition, and had to do an internet search to remind myself of the work.

Detail from Kim Tschoon-su Ultra-marine 1034 (2010) - inherits the mantle of Kim Whanki, Lee Ufan and Quac in-sic
Detail from Kim Tschoon-su Ultra-marine 1034 (2010) – inherits the mantle of Kim Whanki, Lee Ufan and Quac in-sic

But if these items were for me the low point of the exhibition, seeing paintings by Lee Ufan (이우환) and Kim Whanki (김환기) in the same room together was a revelation, highlighting parallels that I had never before considered. When placed together, the familiar blue dot-paintings of Kim found echoes in the meditative repetition of Lee’s From Point series. It’s probably a parallel that was obvious to many, but not to me until I saw them together. In the next room the works by Quac In-sic (곽인식) continued the theme, while everywhere you looked there was rich food for thought in considering the influences of artists from the 1960s on artists working today. For example, the glass panel shattered by a bullet hole (Quac In-sic, Work (1962)) found direct echoes in the Lee Yong-baek’s video installation Broken Mirror (2011) on display in the Korean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year. Similarly the almost sculptural work in hanji by Chung Chang Sup (정창섭) and Kwon Young-woo (권영우) is picked up by Han Ki-joo (for example Trace (2005)) which was on display in the 2008 exhibition of contemporary Korean art at the KCCUK.

Ahn Jung-sook: Tension
Ahn Jung-sook: Tension

Later work in the exhibition seemed more sui generis. The optical illusions produced by Noh Sang-Gyun (노상균) with his sequin works which appear three-dimensional, and by Ahn Jung-sook (안정숙) who uses light and shade to trick the eye into seeing two colours where there is only one (in the series of works called 긴장, Tension), are intriguing, and the Braille-like work of Koh San-Keum (고산금) seems to continue the tradition of monochrome calligraphy while also referencing contemporary news or historical documents.

Noh Sang-Gyun: 3D effects with sequins
Noh Sang-Gyun: 3D effects with sequins

It is of course tempting to draw parallels between some of the Korean monochrome artists and those working in the west – such as between the colour field paintings of Yun Hyong keun (윤형근) with Mark Rothko, or the Park Seo-bo (박서보) Ecriture series with similar works by Cy Twombly. But by providing the broad context of the other Korean artists producing Dansaekhwa the exhibition makes a good case for a certain distinctiveness. I’ll be more sure of this once I get my hands on one of those elusive catalogues.

Links:

  • Dansaekhwa: Korean Monochrome Painting runs at the National Museum of Contemporary Art until 13 May 2012. Further details on the MOCA website.
  • The exhibition moves to the Jeonbuk Museum of Art, Jeonju, between June 8 and July 15, 2012.

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  1. Needless to say, it’s a Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monochrome_painting, accessed 18 April 2012. []

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