A quick tour of this month’s Korean First Thursday openings

The First Thursday of every month in the London art scene is when many galleries tend to have their official openings – when you can tour loads of galleries, get a glass of wine at each one, get to meet the artist, mingle with all the visitors and maybe get to see some of the artworks through the crowds. The downside of having many openings on the same evening is of course that you’re unlikely to get to all the ones you want to. Some of the trendier galleries are in the emerging parts of Hackney – a devil to get to and from, particularly if you need to get to a gallery in Camden, Fitzrovia or the West End afterwards.

This week I’ve been on holiday, so I managed to start First Thursday mid-way through the afternoon, which meant I managed to get to four exhibitions.

First, Sanghyun Kim at MokSpace, near the British Museum. The exhibition actually opened two days previously, but I was lucky enough to find the artist on duty there, and he was happy to talk to visitors about his work.

Sanghyun Kim at Mokspace
Sanghyun Kim with one of his works on show at Mokspace

Kim’s creative process is to lay basic shapes of naturally pigmented Korean paper onto an oiled neutrally coloured paper background. He then lays incense in intricate patterns on top of the coloured paper and then ignites it: as the incense smoulders it burns away part of the coloured paper. The process is inspired by Korean traditional ceremonial practices such as shamanistic rituals for a better harvest or for health and happiness.

The resulting outlines resemble the fractal shapes generated by the Mandelbrot set – part random, part highly organised. The overall compositions are always well planned and structured

For example, one work on show is based on the Chinese character 主 (주인 주, meaning “proprietor” or “boss”):

Sanghyun Kim: Dominant (2012)
Sanghyun Kim: Dominant (2012)

while his “Awake” series are inspired by the butterfly dream of the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (장자). The first in this series is an early work of Kim’s, when he was working with neutral coloured paper. A tiny human figure considers the enormity of a landscape which towers over him like a Hokusai tidal wave:

Sanghyun Kim: Awake (detail)
Sanghyun Kim: Awake (detail)

You can see some of Sanghyun Kim’s work at the Affordable Art Fair in Battersea Park later this month.

Next, a quick tube and bus ride eastwards to Charlotte Road and the Hoxton Gallery, where Kim Ha-young’s exhibition Eat All You Can was in the process of making way for a new show.

Installation view of the last day of Eat All You Can at Hoxton Gallery
Installation view of the last day of Eat All You Can at Hoxton Gallery. The headphones are not part of the show

Kim Ha-young’s colourful paintings look at first as if they are inspired by an LSD-fuelled psychedelic trip. In part, the collection of work is inspired by the Korean consumer society: in an interview for this exhibition Kim commented about a recent trip to Seoul:

What was particularly striking was how, in Seoul, there were so many advertisements for things like plastic surgery and food juxtaposed in the same space. I felt disorientated by the mixture of all these unmatchable things that were all explicitly and fully ready to be consumed.

The cult of beauty and the cult of eating seem to have gone horribly wrong in one series of Kim Ha-young’s work, in which female faces are distorted beyond recognition by what in one picture seems to be swollen entrails.

Kim Ha-young: plastic surgery meets overeating
Kim Ha-young: plastic surgery meets overeating

A quick Number 55 bus ride away is HADA Contemporary in Vyner Street, where Lee Kangwook’s show, Invisible Space, was opening. As an early visitor I managed to get a snap of the artist before anyone else showed up.

Lee Kangwook at HADA Contemporary
Lee Kangwook at HADA Contemporary

I caught him in a room whose walls he had decorated for the show – a one-off work which will be destroyed before HADA can hold its next exhibition. On the plain white walls seemingly random squiggles intertwined, dotted with pale splodges of what looked like ink seeping into the paper in a traditional ink painting. To heighten the imrpression, small amounts of glitter had been added, and the whole effect was like the creation of the Milky Way, with blurs of far-distant galaxies dotted around.

Lee Kangwook: Invisible Spaces (installation view)
Lee Kangwook: Invisible Spaces at HADA Contemporary (installation view)

Some of Lee’s other works, incredibly detailed compositions with overlapping circles and washes of colour also recalled Mandelbrot fractals, like Kim Sanghyun’s work from earlier in the afternoon.

A bus ride to Hackney Central, a journey on the North London Line, and a 15 minute walk through Camden town later, the opening of Hyunjhin Baik’s solo show at 43 Inverness Street was in full swing. A few familiar faces to talk to, but no artist yet: he was roaming NW1 in search of a guitar. While waiting for the artist, if you timed it right you could get a good view of some of his oils:

Hyunjhin Baik at 43 Inverness Street: installation view
Hyunjhin Baik at 43 Inverness Street: installation view

It seems that Baik never managed to find a suitable guitar. Instead, his promised performance was a series of unaccompanied vocals ranging from what seemed to be traditional Korean songs to Freddie Mercury via the sort of songs drunken office workers might sing after staggering out of the noraebang. All performed in a most unusual position.

Hyunjhin Baik performing at 43 Inverness Street
Hyunjhin Baik performing at 43 Inverness Street

The fireplace was very effective as an echo chamber.

Next week’s openings, Lee Jaehyo at Albemarle and Hong Young-in at James Freeman Gallery are fortunately on different evenings, but sadly clash with screenings of Korean films at the BFI London Film Festival. This would never have happened 10 years ago, but such is the increasing presence of Korean cultural events in London that it’s inevitable that you’ve got to make some tough choices about what you want to see. You can’t get around everything.

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