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Exhibition visit: Chun Kwang-young’s Mulberry Mindscapes at Bernard Jacobson Gallery

Somehow, the recent acquisition at the V&A of Chun Kwang-young’s Aggregation10-SE032RED, placed as it is in a glass display case, lacks the impact of the new works by the distinguished artist currently on at Bernard Jacobson Gallery in Cork Street. Because of the glass, you can’t get right up close; and because of the compactness of the Samsung Korea gallery you can’t take many steps back to enjoy it from afar. And if you do press your back against the cabinet opposite to get the best view, there are reflections from the glass which distract the eye.

A close-up of one of Chun Kwang-young's works
A close-up of one of Chun Kwang-young’s works at Bernard Jacobson Gallery

So going to the Cork Street gallery is a must. You can get right up close to the works, close enough to read the individual characters on the hanji paper which wraps the styrofoam triangles; close enough to see the neatly-tied knots which secure these integers which make up Chun’s compositions; close enough, if you’re feeling wicked and no-one is looking, even to touch (though we would not endorse such behaviour).

Installation view
Installation view

You can then stand back and admire the subtle gradations of colour in the works, some of which recall the minimalist dot paintings of Kim Whanki, others of which are more like lunar landscapes. Behind the craggy mountain ranges formed by aggregations of larger hanji triangles, the smaller, densely packed triangles are shaded darker as if they are in the mountains’ shadow. Gaps between the triangles recall the random street patterns of a mediaeval city, the cracks on the skin of a pachyderm or imaginary canals on a Martian landscape.

All the works can be enjoyed up close or from afar, on their own or as a collection. But what are they all about?

Chun Kwang-young talks about his life and work at the Art Workers Guild
Chun Kwang-young talks about his life and work at the Art Workers Guild, Queen Square, on 14 March 2014

At a talk at the Art Workers Guild in Queen Square on 14 March, the week of the exhibition’s opening, Chun gave some background to his current working style.

His artistic career started in the 1960s when he was one of the few Koreans successful in winning a government scholarship to study abroad. After undergraduate studies at Hongdae, his postgraduate studies were at Philadelphia College of Art, where he experienced a completely different style of learning: in Korea there had been a keen focus on traditional techniques, and subject matter was chosen by the professors, with all students painting virtually the same painting; in America there were as many different art works and media as there were students. Coming from a poor, third world country (Chun weighed only 40kg when he arrived in Philadelphia), the freedoms of the US were bewildering. His artistic response was to adopt abstract expressionism as his style. But on his return to to his home country his style was seen as too avant garde, when the prevailing school in Korea was the Monochrome movement. “I became like an orphan,” he explained in his talk, “and I was ostracised.” That was when he sought to adopt a style which was sufficiently distinct from the Korean artistic mainstream, but still rooted in Korean tradition.

One of his childhood memories is visiting his great-uncle’s traditional pharmacy store. In this store, all the medicinal herbs were wrapped up in little triangular parcels. This memory stayed with Chun, becoming what Chun calls part of his “database”. Chun’s medium references this memory from his past, but also references traditional Korean bojagi (wrapping cloths); and most importantly of all is Chun’s insistence on using traditional Korean mulberry paper, hanji, to do the wrapping.

More than this, Chun only uses paper from books originating from the first half of the 20th century. He tears the pages out from the old books, which he picks up in second hand shops. The books can be on any subject, from children’s books to philosophy, and can use either Korean or Chinese script. The content is not important. What is important is this: “The paper contains the souls of the people who have touched that page over the years. By using pages from these old books, I am putting the spirit and culture of our ancestors into my work.”

As Chun’s interpreter spoke these words, I felt an almost chilling sense of connection. Only two months previously, at a talk at a gallery less than 100 yards away from where we were sitting, another Korean artist, Kwon Jukhee, had said almost exactly the same thing. For her, the energy of a book’s previous owners is one of the things which gives life to her work.

Chun moves on, returning to his theme of bojagi. “What is important about bojagi is that, while the shape is not perfect or regular, you can always squeeze one item item into the package. If you’re using a rigid box you can only fit in a fixed amount. Bojagi symbolises the generosity of the Korean spirit, the jeong.”

Contrasting edges
The edges of the works are sometimes carefully bounded; and at other times spill chaotically over the edge

As if reflecting the flexible capacity of a package wrapped in bojagi, with some of Chun’s works the little triangular units seem to spill over the edge, unrestricted by a frame, while in others, the more restrained and composed works, the packets are bounded by a regular hanji frame.

Continuing on the theme of traditional Korean materials, Chun insists on only using natural dyes in his work – organic ingredients such as ash from burnt rice stalks for his blacks. “To a Korean, there are many different shades of white and black,” he says through his interpreter: “we see with the heart.” And it is certainly true that his more monochrome works seem to have an almost infinite gradation of shades between white and black.

Aggregation 2014
Aggregation 2014

This leads us on to the meaning of Chun’s compositions. While they can certainly be appreciated as purely abstract works, the cracked, broken surfaces are loaded with significance. “I hear people’s conversation: they say, ‘this is the best moment in Korean history. We have everything we need, we are well off.’ But 100 years ago, when we had nothing in material wealth, at least we had heart. Now, we have no heart.” Hence the arid, cracked surface of his landscape, which are “landscapes of my feeling.”

The oval indentations, like craters in a lunar surface, are designed as a “warning sign” to people who are living today, he explained to his London audience. In the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, he has a further explanation:

The black spheres and whirlwind-like images in my work are the expressive outlet of my conscience regarding the numerous pieces of information that are censored, fabricated and cut off. They mean the destruction of historical facts and the damaging of truth by dynasties and governments all over the worlds … The blackened pieces that nave no words were derived from old books that no longer retain their value, that of communication … the pieces that are blackened represent death and nonexistence and are a final requirement for the numerous lives that are no longer existing on this earth. (Chun Kwang-young in Mulberry Mindscapes, Skira Rizzoli Publications Inc, 2014 NY)

While the exhibition at Bernard Jacobson Gallery contains a generous range of Chun’s recent work, it does lack examples of another strand of his practice: sculptures which look like representations of asteroids, designed to be hung from the ceiling. Chun’s desire is for the sculptures to be hung so that they are perilously close to the ground. “They must be only very slightly floating,” he says, “to give an uncomfortable feeling.”

One of his most recent works in this vein is more irregular in shape, like a human heart. It is Chun’s tribute to the traditional Korean grandmother. “These women have lived all their lives confined within a small boundary,” he explains. “They were never allowed to express what they wanted. They worked hard and only lived for their families. At the end of their lives, they are exhausted. Their hearts are all burnt out.”

It was a fitting metaphor on which to end Chun’s talk at the Art Workers Guild, after which he was signing copies of the beautifully printed, hanji-bound catalogue of the different phases of his work.

At Bernard Jacobson Gallery, until 17 April 2014, you have the opportunity to buy one of Chun’s stunning works. You’ll need a fat cheque book. But for a hundred pounds or so you can buy one of his little triangular packets, wrapped in a page from the Analects of Confucius, and decorated in gold paint: when aggregated with other such packets, the visual and conceptual possibilities seem endless.

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