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Chang Kyum KIM

Chang Kyum KIM, Savina Museum of Contemporary Art


1961, Yeoju, Geonggi-do


Installation, Photography, Media



Water shadow four season 2, 2013-2014

Video installation, 14min

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The Fissure and Gap Between Reality and Illusion

Online exhibitions of Chang Kyum Kim’s images and photographs adopt a wide range of materials and devices, but the crux of his work has been faithful to the basic theme of presenting the fake as real, the false as true, and illusion as reality since 2000. His work received public recognition with the exhibition titled, Sarubia Dabang in 2003, but his principal experiment takes place with his series of still lifes. While studying in Italy, Kim was greatly inspired by the still-life paintings by Giorgio Morandi (1890-1960) who, together with Giorgio de Chirico, were representative painters of metaphysical art, or “pittura metafisica” in Italian. Kim discovered that in still life, a reference to Natura Morta, there are the residues of past memories in a frozen time frame, which he depicts as ‘the memory of absence’ in his photographs and images. As is certainly the case of the visual arts, even technology, with its constant progress, cannot escape its status as empty signifiers as they are both language bound. Thereof, objects do not function as the core of language, but are relegated to function as an alibi, annotated in parenthesis. And nature morta, the antiquated representations from Classicism, became an appropriate metaphor for contemporary art and culture for the artist. In his Dusseldorf exhibition in 1997, Kim presented his experimental works for the first time. He first took pictures of common objects, carved them out of plaster, and drew images on the surfaces of the carvings with a pencil. These were fabricated sculpture; they had the material properties of plaster but their actual sizes were different as the objects were based on photographs, and the table on which the objects were placed floated in mid-air. As each object lost its color, its weight disappeared. Through a process of image making, the original object became open to unlimited possibilities for fabrication, and Kim’s following output befalls to a game played out between reality and illusion.

In his early work, The Pedestal for Images (1998), the textures of one stone is projected onto the surface of another, expressing the object as transformed into simulacra. It is the body of the viewer that exposes the realistic-looking surface as fake when he disrupts that image, casting a black shadow over the real stone. This work demonstrates that the more splendid a surface becomes, the more likely the real (“real” refers to both the object and viewer) appears ghostlike. In this spectacle, which gains autonomy through a kind of fabrication, the viewer is nothing but a shadow stealthily cutting into the image, while the body of the original stone is but an inactive, plain mass. This basic dynamic is found in his later works which deal with individual and communal memory. Kim’s oeuvre has dealt with the absence of the real that underlies the aesthetics of still life and photography, but the real is only one of its many codes and cannot easily be abandoned. The real is inseparable from the traces deeply carved into the artist’s body and soul, from which his actions and thoughts derive. Discontinuity lingers between these codes, like stage lights going black between scenes, and within this discontinuity meaning can be found. For example, Letter (2000), a video installation, sets up a situation in which a man writes a letter to his past self from 20 years ago, whence he remembers his first love. The objects in the video change into various forms as Kim stretches his imagination writing the letter, but as he finishes, only the seedy castings resembling the objects remain. The letter is read in a soft monologue, ‘Nevertheless, what I have been dying to ask is… did you really exist there as I think you had? Did you really exist? Did I really exist?’ The real is as intense as the first love that cannot be held.

Kim attempts to take a step closer to an improbable reality by evoking the passage of time and communal memories. In Water Shadow?Four Seasons (2006-2007), noted as his major video installation, the artist depicts four seasons on a small, artificial pond. In Sarubia Dabang, he projected incarnations of communal memories related to the dabang, a traditional tea room. The frame of a mirror, which left a deep impression in the exhibition, reappears in The Mirror exhibition at the Sabina Museum of Contemporary Art in 2007. His work, Memory in the Mirror (2006-2008) shows that the mirror, used to link broken body parts in a virtual way, holds relevance to the illusion of an individual trying to meet social demands. As in the majority of Kim’s works, illusion is as vulnerable as the real; illusion and the real do not simply exist as a dichotomy, but are rather mates, each with its own center. Some of his works that project his image onto that of great figures, including Honoring van Gogh (1998-1999) and Like a Mao (2004), illustrate the similarity between the mirror and the golden frame of a portrait. As the subtitle of his recent exhibition in Korea, Natura Morta (2010) suggests, he seems to return to the still life. The video installation, Still Life (2007), which was first shown at the Sabina Museum exhibition, is recreated in a different version; one small shelf on the wall of the museum is empty while another is decorated with a variety of bottle-shaped frames. As a fairy-like girl in the video plays around and runs in and out of the bottles like a butterfly, the bottles change color. The fairy exhibits a strong element of fantasy, however, there is the metaphor that a human being animates these once lifeless objects. In the other version, the girl appears and disappears suddenly and turns into a variant form of herself. Objects in the work are all different in scale, and throw shadows in various directions.

A revised version of Still Life (2010), using single-channel video, consists of images and photographs of artificial images pasted onto a photograph serving as a rough draft sketch. This new Still Life is pleasurable rather than contemplative. Rather than hovering in between the real and fictional, it is more definitely fictional. There is a dynamic between something hypothetical and something real even in the hyper-real world that absorbs all objects, humans, and nature, yet the world on screen is more homogeneous. It is a new reality (language) of the postmodern era that rearranges everything in similar codes by keeping a great distance between itself and the real world. To the homo loquens species, reality does not exist onto itself but is always constructed through language, and therefore deconstruction is the flipside of construction. It is an aesthetic and political choice to introduce discontinuity to a linear order that assumes ongoing progress. This is because realism is nothing more than the manifestation of the bourgeois desire to cling to the concrete. Although realism asserts rationality in the world and the possibility of representation, “the factual” itself can be altered through observation or interpretation. In Kim’s works, reality is depicted as a delimited structure, not an eternal one. Kim exposes the looseness of the fragile joints that hold together a constructed reality. As Suzi Gablik puts it when analyzing Rene Magritte, “representation is a complex process which involves more than mere mirroring, or the imitation of objects. It is a symbolic relationship that is both relative and variable.” Kim’s language is not a transparent medium that mirrors reality but a kind of tool that undermines conventional modes of representation. His works expose uncertainty inherent in an objective world. To unveil this uncertainty, he starts with the most common objects. Familiar things are used as the background upon which images are projected, such as a mirror, fishbowl, broken plate, saucer or bottles; a vast array of objects, including toys, appear in the most recent editions of his Still Life sequel.

Rene Magritte adopted a similar strategy of paradoxical combination of precision and imprecision, and defined the components of his work as “an object, the thing attached to it in a shadow of my consciousness, and the light under which that thing would become apparent.” Rene Magritte’s method is “a systematic attempt to disrupt any dogmatic view of the physical world” (Suzi Gablik). Representation, a mechanism which operates with precision in Kim’s artworks, is related to deconstructing representation. This is a strategy of denying representation by means of representation. The obtrusion of a black hole into the real in Kim’s work declares that reality itself is fabricated. Meaning may not reside in the thing itself in an artwork, but it certainly resides within the mind (Alain Robbe-Grillet). The bleak models that appear when the lights go out constitute the viewers experiencing of the object, different from a simplistic projection or reflection of the object. The main viewing experience of his work is this sudden awakening that follow moments of pleasurable contemplation. The fissures of reality, which are revealed through timing and spatial differences, seem rather real. If reality is something alive, it should not be a closed structure but an open one. According to Suzi Gablik, “the more stereotyped these labels and their usage, the more likely it is that the represented will be confused with the representation. The resulting confusion is generally called ‘realism’: when it is present to the highest degree, the two are indistinguishable.” The grammar of “fissure” and “gap” works assertively in Kim’s art, yet it is another form of chaos that exposes the chaos inherent in artlessness. It is a kind of homeopathy independent from a binary conception of reality and fiction.

Seonyeong LEE (Art Critic)


Get Lost Between Reality and Image

“One day Zhangzi became a butterfly in his dream. Whilst enjoying a joyous fly in the spotless air, he forgot whether he was Zhangzi or a butterfly. After he woke up, he finally realized he was Zhangzi.” This is a famous anecdote from Zhangzi’s Taoism theory. Here Zhangzi raised a question whether “he became a butterfly in his dream or vice versa.” Although the purpose of this question is to warn us of the danger of premeditated discrimination, it also helps us to understand the question of representation in art or the relation between reality and image. While this story is based on epistemological dimension, the representation of reality can find its origin from its phenomenological aspect. However, considering the fact that perception and phenomenon are closely interconnected like a circle, it is not worth pointing out disparity between them.

Changkyum Kim’s work is about the question of representation. The answer to this question is displayed through the exploration of the relation between reality and image. Image of contemporary era refuses to be defined within the context of art only; it is a kind of social index which can be consumed in political context in various forms. Kim’s interest in image covers more than art. To him, image is the representation of reality which functions as a sort of image-generator within the context of art, and at the same time, it can also be interpreted as symbols of political, social, and economical environment which help images to be consumed and circulated.

“I gave up sculpture because image took priority over reality,” said Kim. This sentence reminds me of Jean Baudrillard’s comments on modern society such as “images without origin,” “images which is more realistic than reality,” and “image that substitutes reality.” And the way he sees reality as a mere image takes me back to old philosophers’ idea that defined an ephemeral being as a shadow of eternal being. Kim’s strong skeptical view on reality constitutes the philosophical base behind his art and provides conceptual aura.

Since his skepticism toward reality comes from his real experience rather than a mere conceptual play, what he want to say becomes very clear on the basis of solid logic and appealing sympathy. For example, Kim sees the whole procedures of his artworks in which involve his intense labor and invisible spirit projected onto the process as the core of his sculpture, while viewers’ interest is only focused on the aesthetical pleasure of the consequences such as materials, shapes, and colors.

Taking out Cube
in 1998, the juxtaposition of a framed picture of a stone cube and deserted rubbles of stones, well portrays the artist’s mute but very strong aversion to conventional ideas about the question of reality and image in sculpture. 

Pedestal for An Image; 1997~1999 maximizes the mutual intervention between reality and image by projecting moving pictures of the surface of the stone used for the pedestal onto the upper part of the real cubic pedestal. In this artwork, the real base seems to be described as a solid being with depth and specific texture while the image is depicted as an obscure being which takes its ontological reason from superficial flatness that will go away as soon as the power of projector is off. However, what is more important than the distinction between reality and image is that he didn’t provide any clue to crack this disparity. His deliberate tactic to allow mutual intervention is a keyword to understand his art.

Moreover, viewers’ interest in imitation creates meta-sculpture or a newly emerging image of sculpture from a model. Meta-Sculpture and Meta`-Sculpture; 1997~2000, an installation of photos, texts and videos, opens a window of opportunity for the third sculpture based on a pure image instead of reality through the collage of fragmented images from various resources. Here, if we see “meta” as a middling device, “meta-sculpture” means “sculpture about sculpture,” “sculpture emerged from sculpture,” and “sculpture of sculpture.” This sequential logic is based on his experience at a masonry factory. He reassembles his works with the procedures of conceptual art and raises a question about the copyright and originality of what he made for other artists. Kim often employs letters as a narrative element for his artworks. Letters in his artworks sent to a certain person can be categorized as mail art or mail performance. Kim’s employment of letters is a good example of his efforts to practice a simple fact that art is already a part of our life even before it becomes art and the ultimate goal of art is to communicate with people. Moreover, the relation between reality and image is first depicted as mutual intervention and infiltration, but finally boundaries between them become meaningless. This experimental attempt in style is well mirrored in Expected Mistake; 1998, Thwarting-Vision; 1999, and Still-Life; 1999. Even though, the contents are slightly different, they basically follow a common style that projects moving pictures onto various plaster objects which are used as backdrops for a living room and a bar decorated by moving pictures. Plaster objects gain existential force with projected moving pictures. When projected moving pictures go away, the palpable reality of plaster objects becomes weak and the inner white skin of the plaster objects appears from darkness. These artworks that transform conceptual pleasure or logical tension into sentimental experiences raise a question; what is reality and what is image? If we define moving picture as a mere superficial image, then plaster objects are also mere images. Even though these two occupy space with different weight, they are not reality. They are just helping each other to mimic reality. The artist tells us what we see as reality is not reality but image that seduces our eyes. There is no real existence, instead reality consults image and vice versa. What is interesting here is that the epistemological origin (natura morta) of plaster objects reminds of “still life” which indicates dead objects. And it also involves the origin of image (imago) which symbolizes waxed faces of dead people, psyche, phantom, and shadow. Moreover, Jean Baudrillard’s concept of simulation is the creation of the real through conceptual or mythological models which have no connection or origin in reality. Therefore, we can say that his simulacrum is a “ghost,” which is just determinant of our perception of reality - the real. The history of art is not only a mere representation of a perverted reality, but also a mirage of ephemeral series of images. The tug-of-war between image and reality in Kim’s art raises an analytical question about art history which is full of fleeting images. The adjective, “transformed” in Trans-Masterpiece; 2000, the collected images from old western masterpieces, and Trans-Church, the parody of Vincent Van Gogh’s original painting, is a good example to see his strategy to adopt the aura of art history into the process of artwork. Here, the adoption of the original is a residue of expatriation and intervention to relocate the original into new context. Ironically enough, his parasite tactic to the original becomes more influential when the host or the original is more powerful.

Among Kim’s series of Van Gogh paintings, Homage to Admiration Toward Van Gogh 1, 2; 1998-1999, which adopts Van Gogh’s flower image and self-portrait image respectively, projects the original images onto white monochrome plaster canvas that mimicked the fast and brisk brush strokes of Van Gogh. Various methods he uses to mythologize the original are designed to maximize the dramatic impact and allow his artworks to speak more than a simple attempt to blur the distinction between reality and image. A gold coated classical frame with flowery decoration, a bar that keeps off viewers’ close approach, and various texts such as an introduction to a museum, an essay about the exhibition, and letters are all appeared as devices to create the tension between reality and image. The bullet proof glass to protect the painting, the surveillance of a guard, the alarming sensor that gives off warning signal to approaching viewers, and the astronomical price of the original are also functioned for the same purpose. The tautological title of his artwork is a sign of Kim’s effort to explore the real identity of the reverence for Van Gogh. Kim finally comes closer to the true nature of the veneration by employing various devices to fabricate the feeling of respect for the image of Van Gogh. The aura of the painting comes from institutional devices rather than the painting per se. Therefore, when we encounter the original what we can appreciate is just a fleeting image without any palpable specificity. From Kim’s projected self-portrait image onto Van Gogh’s self-portrait and his revised version of Van Gogh’s letter to Teo, we can find his interest in interactivity between the original and his art. Literary, narrative, and autobiographical elements play very important role in his art. These factors help viewers to feel what he wants to express. Among his many tactics to maximize sympathetic impact in his art, the time travel that calls back him from the past is often applied to his self-reflecting artworks such as , Trans-Selfportrait, 1984-1999, con-versare, 1999, Letter, 2000, and <Water-Shadow, 2001. Like Kim’s other artworks, Letter explores the relation between reality and image by overlapping projected images over plaster models. What is new to this artwork is narrative element, or narration that is added to emphasize the self-reflecting aspect of his art. In this artwork, the artist in the present writes a letter to the artist in the past. This time-warped illogical hypothesis reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges’s novel that depicts another alter ego in the same reality where one already exists. The artist asks, “Were you (the artist in the past) there? Was I (the artist in the present) there?” The reason why Kim uses the past sentence originates from the incomplete awareness of his identity which always requires his past. The composition of the past through self-reflecting recallection is as vague as cloud. It is a formless redundancy with projected present desires. His narration ends as soon as the projected image disappears from the plaster mold. If there is no ‘I’ from the past, there is no present ‘I’ who finds his or her existential root in the past. There is no physical evidence of ‘I’. There only exists empty name and concept. Am I real or just an image? Like a butterfly and Zhangzi in Zhangzi’s dream, ‘I’ of the past and ‘I’ of the present are overlapped. In his sound-mixed work, Water-Shadow, Kim adds splashy sounds to the projected water image on the stone basin that has hollow surface. A sequence of dialogue; “Speak to me,” “Do you remember?”, “Go away,” “Don’t leave,” “But,” “I missed …,” “really?” is interupted by water falling sound. Even though these words have very concrete meanings, but sooner or later, their semantic orders are dismantled and scattered into the splashy sounds. This installation deals with the existence of crippling human being who are suffering from communication blockage caused by deformed meaning of words. And the surface of the water symbolizes a mirror which functions as a self-reflecting medium. The fluctuation of ripples on the surface is strong and weak at the same time. This dichotomy represents the violence of time that nibbles away our past memories wich are already imperfect. Based on slide projectors and video installation, Kim's art employs a plaster model, which is often used to testify the existence of fictitious images rather than reality, and audible texts to maximize his meditative installation. Through clear conceptual processes and solid visualization of image, he seems to succeed in conveying the relation between reality and image which constitute two main axes of representation, whilst maintaining lyrical sentiment throughout the whole process. Using moving pictures in moderate and static way, Kim amplifies the dimension of our thought on images to the extent of the existential question of human being. The asthetics of image can be found in deep consideration.

Choonghwan GOH (Art Critic)