Quite by chance last week I happened to be visiting the offices of one of the sponsors of the HIX Award – though I didn’t know this connection in advance. The HIX Award is open to current art students and graduates of the last two years and is aimed at helping with the transition between university and the professional art industry.
While waiting in the building’s lobby, I was browsing some of the artworks, and noticed a painting by a Korean artist, Minjoo Kim (MA Fine Art, Chelsea). Where there’s one Korean artist on display you can often find another, and sure enough the most prominent installation in the lobby also had a Korean name attached: Byungchan Kim.
The work: Paranoid Paradise (2018). And the medium: “Walking sticks, Wooden plates and Japanese knotweed tea. Dimensions variable.”
An unconventional medium. First impression: an arresting installation of three panels each containing dozens of hand-crafted walking sticks, and two trestle tables containing sepia tinted portraits covered in what looked a thick coating of amber varnish. On closer investigation that varnish was in fact liquid: the knotweed tea.
Later, after finishing what I was visiting the offices for, I passed through the lobby again and found the artist and helpers maintaining the work: laboriously scooping out the tea, cleaning the portraits underneath, and topping the plates up with fresh tea. Without the liquid, the plates looked simply like a relief map: a random assembly of contours, mountains and valleys. But with the dark liquid filling those valleys, a face emerged almost by magic.
The two faces belong to the late Kenneth and Jane McRae, from Rowley Regis in the West Midlands. Kenneth McRae killed wife and then committed suicide in 2013, after developing a paranoia that the Japanese knotweed that was growing on the nearby golf course would spread to his own property.
The artist heard this story, and was intrigued that Japanese Knotweed is regarded as a destructive pest in the West, while in Korea it is valued for its medicinal properties: according to Kim, the plant is even mentioned in the Donguibogam, the Korean medical encyclopaedia completed in 1613. He researched the coroner’s report and the subsequent official investigation, and extracted lines of text from the reports.
These seemingly random words and phrases he then engraved onto 125 hand crafted walking sticks. Why? In Asia, the plant is sometimes familiarly known as Tiger Walking Stick, after the stripey pattern in the stem. The walking sticks in this installation are made with hazel wood.
Kim, who completed his MFA at Goldsmiths in 2018, was runner up in the award, wining £1,000 worth of Cass Art vouchers. The prize was announced in September 2018.