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Un Kang

Un Kang, Savina Museum of Contemporary Art


1966, Gwangju, South-Korea





Air and Dream-01, 2015

Korean paper, Dyed paper on canvas, 181.8 x 259cm

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Familiar Material, Unusual Impression

   His canvas for 10 years after graduating university is almost filled with clouds in the empty sky and sometimes lonely standing pine tree or the silhouette of mountain seen from far away. His desire for expression that responded sensitively to the needs of the times at the campus seemed to become silent and calm. But, his paintings contain realism that is private and must be fiercely attached. 

   The cloud and the sky which seem to be peaceful and unconscious, and sunray shining between them never sings the praise of peaceful emotion. We need to look into his paintings, being aware of tense peace and hypersensitive meditation. Simply speaking the peace, his paintings may be very monotonous. He polishes his paintings with insistence all day long. What he wants to paint is to reveal the most dramatic and interesting artistic emotion in the space which may be common and neglected. It is interesting for him to embody invisible sense through extremely realistic method or technique.

   He is already recognized as taking his own artistic position in an independent way. He stimulates peace which is not peaceful regardless of prevailing high-tech media or contemporary methodology, and critical sense of political or social issues, reminds us of realism beyond realism and suggests reality of a new angle. He criticizes the vogue of installation works depending on stereotyped realism or methodology prevailed in Gwangju's art stimulate and considers the need to develop artistic sympathy. He believes that painting itself can deliver the truth and draw a great sympathy. In this sense, he must be young artist who is most promising. It depends on whether he can create a great framework or exert his vision and ability to achieve it.

Jang Suk-Won(Art Critic and Director, Director Jeonbuk Museum of Art)


Invisible Border - Changing Asian Art

   Kang Un is an artist who was born in Kwangju. He is still young in his thirties. The ive huge paintings were remarkably attractive among the stimulating works in he Korea Oceania section, which was organized by one of the commissioners, Kim Honghee. His painting has no reference to the Korea tradition or mentality, but shows an impressive tension in its representation. We can see a new painting styke of the Korean young generation in his artwork.

   What the focuses upon and choose and as his motif, is the sky. For eastern painters, the sky has been the vast and eternal space that transcends objectivity. Unlike Western painting in which it is one of the motifs to be visually represented, the oriental sky has never been traditionally an objective motif, whether in Japan, in Korea, or in China.  It is the most challenging motif for eastern painters under the influence of the western style painting, because they do not have any historical heritage in techniques or artistic approach.
   Kang Un faces this fact. The sky he renders stands outside of the oriental tradition. And at the same time, it is not a mere realistic depiction so beautifully finished. It is he who paints, but its natural and non-artificial effect makes one wonder as if the sky itself gave him an impetus to take th brush and lead him to paint its passing moments. His paintings seem to be realization of his obsession enchanted by the infinite variations of the sky. However, he calls his works 'abstract painting'. He, in this turn, faces, the art history from abstraction in modernism to conceptualism. His awareness of his own standpoint in an art context explores possibilities of painting, and his works may be defined as a renaissance of painting, being reconstructed through his examination of the 20th centur art from modernism to post-modernism.
- Extracted from INVISIBLE BOUNDARY Metamorphosed Asian Art
(Traveling Exhibition : Asian Zone of Kwangju Biennale 2000) 

TANI Arata (Gwangju Biennale 2000 Commissioner)


Kang Un: “From Eternity to Here?”

   The 10th solo exhibition of Kang Un presents his recent works produced from Ip-chun(first day of spring) to So-man(beginning of summer) of the year 2005. Throughout the variety of media and methods applied to the works, from oil painting, relief, collage, installation, photography to video, the artistic approach characteristic of Kang Un is consistently immanent in terms of subject matter and aesthetics of work. With a naturalistic sensibility, the artist takes subject matters from nature, especially from humble elements of pastoral sceneries in neighborhood such as clouds, patterns on sand beaches, wild flowers and fountains. What is embodied through his work is a primordial purity inherent to natural phenomena and energy rather than natural objects themselves. These are pure forms, rooted in the principle of natural generation and circulation that transcend any artificial formal logic of formation or will of creation, underpinning the basis of the artist’s physical, spiritual and aesthetic ground.
   In the pursuit of pure forms, Kang Un captures the eternal yet ever-changing faces of the sky and cloud patterns reminiscent of the cycle of creation and disappearance in his oil paintings, and casts casual traces left by flowing tides on sand beaches through his paper relief work. Texture of woods imprinted on wet papers and gentle blurring of a single brushstroke in light colors are also representations of pure forms grounded on the inner rhythms innate in spreading and diffusing of pigments. The artist takes a further step to seize the pure forms by using natural materials like flowers, woods and stones. The folding screen made of patched oriental papers, on which collages of dry vines, wild flowers, new sprouts and tree leaves are attached, is resonant of nature’s pure forms. The square structure constructed with aged stone and wood reflecting the structural rules of traditional gardens is also in accordance to pure cosmic forms.
   Starting from oil paintings of clouds, Kang Un has moved to paper relieves of waves on sand beaches and imprints of wooden texture in light colored inks and most recently to objetsmade of stones and woods and installations of dry flowers and wild vines. This is a shift from drawing to making, or better, from “representation” of images to “presentation” of real objects themselves. The artist returns to the quality of primitive index art prior to the emergence of art as representation by presenting reference objects rather than relying on representation. As was the first mural painting that consists of hand marks splashed with pigmentson a cave wall, his paper relief of wave patterns, imprints of wooden textures in light colored inks and the folding screen of dry vines and flowers are certainly in the line of index art where nature’s principle and logic of generation are imbedded.
   Indexes that indicate physical and ontological accords between signifiers and objects, i.e. those which function as traces or pronouns -as in the examples of footprint, weather vane, shadow and mirror image-constitute not only the aesthetic core of primitive arts but also that of contemporary visual media such as photography and video which produce reflected images. As if accommodating the implication of indexes situated at the two extreme poles of the art history, Kang Unemploys photography and video to approach the pure forms of his own. The artist’s photographs show images of wild vines that provided an initial inspiration for his folding screen work. Thephotographic traces of the vines and their physical manifestation are juxtaposed through the display of the photographs and the folding screen next to each other.
   The video is a documentary that recorded a scene of family excursion, but thematically visualizing pure forms. Captured in his video work, the indexical phenomena of circular waves images on fountain water at a small school in countrysideand water patterns drawn by children’s hands on the fountain reveal the pure forms of nature, reminding us of the video’s aesthetics of reflection as index media. In this video work, the water waves and patterns are featured as an index of pure forms, while the subjects who generate the phenomena are the children. The children and their innocence are the very represenation of pure forms. The artist asked the children to write down poetic phrases he recited on papers on which dry flower petals are added creating a sort of drawings with poems. In the handwriting of the children, as in the dry flower petals, reside pure forms.
   Kang Un seeks after pure forms in nature and children’s innocence that is most similar to nature. His quest for pure forms have begun in clouds of the sky and continued to trees, plants, water and stones of the earth and finally to children who resemblenature. This transmigration from the conceptual, abstract and eternal nature of the sky to the concrete, material and ephemeral nature of the earth is the moment when the artist’s aesthetical shift from representation to presentation occurs.
   Eventually, the move from representation to presentation as a proposition of contemporary art is an epistemological shift from the sky to the earth, from the eternity to the ephemerality and from the ideal to the real everyday life. His search for pure forms has now transferred from the sky to the earth and harsh lives firmly rooted in it. Just as the Bodhidharma achieved the spiritual enlightenment through enduring mortifications, the artist has finally attained a lesson from here on the earth after having spent nearly 10 years in a lone studio with poor conditions located in the middle of a rice paddy in a village of Dong-bok, Hwasun. If asked to give a title to this exhibition, I would name it as “From Eternity to Here,” the subversion of the well-known movie title “From Here to Eternity.” 

Kim Hong-hee (Art critic and Director)


Some Thoughts on Kang Un’s Art

   Artist Kagn Un typically belongs to the so-called ‘Gwangju biennale generation.’ It is so in the sense that he could not only recognize Seoul as equally as other localities in Korea while he himself was living and working in Gwangju, but also be well informed of international art trends and meet in person many contemporary international artists while working in the province. This is a cultural environment strikingly different from that of the previous generations of artists and, in this respect, his generation may be regarded as the first beneficiary of the changed situation. This new generation was baptized with the historical turns largely subsumed under the terminology of “post-89,” the post-Cold War order, post-ideology, and globalism. Even though the almost twenty-year-old biennale unfortunately repeated retrogressive evolution, these artists were allowed to directly face and explore the multiple link-points between locality and globality on various levels, without the mediation of Seoul. As far as I experienced, Daein Market in Gwangju was more interesting and even far more cosmopolitan than Insa-dong in Seoul. This is one of the meaningful scenes and positive atmospheres developed from the biennale. Indeed, Kang’s work born of these surroundings in which he was formed, or the settings which exposed him to both locality and globality, is brighter and more spirited than those of his predecessors. It has undaunted dignity and beauty. Because he knew very well, he could stay out of and not imitate the international trends, and therefore, managed to maintain his unique style.
   At first glance, you may have suspicion that his paintings may be too superficial or super-flat. However, when you turn around ... you will inevitably find yourself wanting to see them again. This is because you are captivated by what the Yuan dynasty painter Huang Gongwang (1269-1354) called “feng-shui in paintings.” In short, with clouds, Kang arranged feng-shui (literally meaning ‘wind-and-water’) in the sky. “Wind is a manifestation of the movement of Qi and water is a condensed form of Qi.” This is a sentence which has occupied my mind since the moment when I saw his paintings of clouds for the first time 10 years ago, even though I am neither an art historian nor a person who likes to quote ancient people’s texts. Later, I looked for and saw Huang’s paintings and writings and I found that they were more impure, heavier, and more artificial than Kang’s clouds. It seemed to me that Huang’s idea of “feng-shui in paintings” corresponded more to Kang’s paintings, than Huang’s own works. Now and then, I feel myself fully emptied and purified before Kang’s paintings.
   A famous Ming and Qing painting theorist Shi Tao’s aesthetic thought on painting that “the cosmos is revealed through one brush stroke and nature with ten thousand strokes” may seem too much of imagination. But nevertheless, it has good reason to receive considerable sympathy from the East Asian painters who have ever tried to paint landscape. It may be true. It may be impossible logically, but thoroughly possible in spiritual terms. Furthermore, when considered in connection with the supreme principle of Buddhism, whether Hinayana or Mahayana, “first attain enlightenment, then save the people from sufferings[上求菩提下化衆生],” a painter is quite the same as a monk. Shi Tao himself was a Buddhist priest. I saw a Shi Tao in Kang’s recent ‘one-stroke painting’ and I also thought Kang’s physiognomy resembled an arhat. Kang’s one-stroke painting of ‘drawing on water’ and feng-shui-looking clouds form an antithesis to what the supreme Buddhist principle said. If the feng-shui relates to the life of people in that it is ultimately a practice of praying for wealth, prosperity, health and longevity in this world, Kang’s one-stroke refers to nirvana to escape from the sufferings of life. Then, the artist could be considered qualified as a senior disciple of the Buddha. Placed in Gwangju, a city that called in all tough and strong international biennale artists, Kang’s painting looks all the more pure and simple like a lotus flower blooming in the confusion. Perhaps, someday in my older years, I may find myself staying with him in the same small temple.

Yun Chaegab (Independent Curator)


Play : Pray – The relationship between the poetic imagery and mental imagery

   In Drawing a Stroke on the Water, I tried to go into the intuitive essence of art, ‘play,’ through expressing infinity by one brushstroke like a play with water and paper. Also, in Air and Dream, I tried to ‘pray’ as this work involves prayer and the meditational practice of layering small and subtle-colored traditional hand­made paper. I intended to take out the burden of daily life and embrace nature. - Artist Statement –

   Gaston Bachelard said, ”The imaginative power of our mind is based on two distinctively different roots,” in his book, Water and Dreams. One is enjoying the leaping point of a new start, like various illustrative and unexpected events, and another is digging into the origin of being to see the primary and eternal elements within1.
   Bachelard’s two types of imaginative power are associated with the characteristics of the artist’s creative process. They are also connected with the title of Kang Un’s exhibition, Play : Pray.
   Imaginative power can create the shape of ‘nature (cloud)’ endlessly without ‘reality (nature)’. It also stimulates the artist who is trying to find out the foundation of the natural elements (cloud, air, water, and etc.) and express their characteristics visually.
   Play : Pray summarizes Kang’s art in short. ‘Pray’ is the subject of Air and Dreams, in which he searched from his earlier series, ‘oil painting cloud,’ to the recent series, ‘handmade paper cloud.’ ‘Play’ is the subject of Drawing a Stroke on the Water which went further from the cloud series. 
   First of all, from the literal point of view, ‘play’ is behavioral and ‘pray’ is psychological. Drawing a Stroke on the Water shows ‘play’ as part of his working process: Kang placed handmade paper on the acrylic board and sprayed water in the air, and water drops landed on the paper. However, Air and Dreams was made through the contemplating process of adding one layer of thin paper after another to build up the multiple layers. This work exemplifies the ‘pray’ part, as this is a meditational practice, emptying the self except the only necessary stuff. 
   However, this could be perceived totally differently depending on the viewer’s point of view or background. For example, if we look at Drawing a Stroke on the Water through a different viewer’s point of view, the action--‘one dot one brushstroke (Eastern painting tradition)’ without self-awareness--could be seen as a meditational practice. Then, Drawing a Stroke on the Water can be also read as based on ‘pray.’ Air and Dream can be interpreted differently as well. The action of the artist filling the canvas with pieces of handmade paper can be read as based on ‘play’ apart from the artist’s intention.
   Like this case, Play : Pray can be read differently depending on how we find the meaning of the creative process, either focusing on the action or the mental. Although Play : Pray is contrary in meaning, the interpretation and the meaning the artist is seeking is not completely separated. As reason and emotion seemed opposite but they are not divided completely, Play : Pray represents the fateful relationship which repeats itself in the creative process. 
   In order to understand more deeply about the relationship between Play : Pray, we need to look at Kang’s art closely. 
  Every day, Kang tried to express the existence of clouds and nature, by revealing the irregularity and infinity that the shape of a cloud has. It has been over twenty years pursing the world of reality where no one has ever been--the world of Idea or what the artist is hoping and dreaming through his painting.
   Kang’s clouds can be categorized as oil painting clouds and handmade paper2 clouds. Since 2000, the oil painting clouds show the depth and broadness of Kang’s sensitivity dealing with nature truthfully without pretentiousness or exaggeration. Those paintings came from the emotional experience when he looked at the sky in the countryside. He vigorously tried to capture the various characteristics--without an ounce of lie--color, shape, and movement of the clouds he saw at the landing strip in Naju city, east part of Hwasoon.
   Gaston Barchelard said, “Clouds are one of the dreaming and ‘poetic objects.” Like Barchelard’s expression, a cloud is one of many elements that create the world, and it leads people to the dreaming world. We associate the slowly moving cumulus with peacefully wandering sheep. Also, when we see the fast-moving cloud, we think about teleportation. Goethe analyzed the clouds and specified as ‘nebulous, cumulus, cirrus, and nimbus.’ As he told us about the different characteris­tics and symbolic beauty of each cloud, the cloud is the subject that gives a certain inspiration or dreamy quality. 
   Kang’s cloud oil paintings are filled with passion to capture all the changes of the cloud like Charles Pierre Baudelaire’s description3 about a landscape, “all these clouds with fantastic and illuminating shapes, the quiet darkness, and the vast green and rosy color blocks overlapping each other in the air…” They contain a lot of conflicted phenomena happening in a human’s life such as creation and extinction, peace and rage, happiness and sadness. In contrast with the visually strong oil painting clouds, the handmade paper clouds show the intention to express the sky as an infinite space as well as void. Small pieces of differently colored handmade paper are densely layered on the canvas like the colors of the sky as time passes from sunrise to sunset. The overlapped small areas on the canvas are naturally divided into bright and dark sections.
   The sky goes deeper as the process goes on; feather-like light and thin handmade paper pieces got scattered, overlapped, and piled endlessly. The small handmade paper pieces are densely placed and created layers. According to the number of layers, the shape and heaviness of the clouds differ. The desperation of the artist who wants to reach to the real world and a space of dream becomes floating clouds. Although the intense dynamic of the oil painting cloud often found in fast brushstrokes capturing the sky has disappeared, the thorough research and contemplation on the cloud went further. This is when we can see the difference: the weight of being seems different between this early cloud series and the present one. 
   The cloud doesn’t have any certain shape. It is atypical and hard to be described as one shape. Therefore, it is actually impossible to depict ever-changing nature on a canvas without any omission. In fact, it represents the particular image reflected in the artist’s mind, not his eye. In this point of view, his handmade paper cloud is not a physical representation of the object but the expression of the image in the mind of the artist, who wants to realize the meaning of the life through clouds. Kang said that “the cloud I saw in my adolescence was about dreams and wanderlust; however, the cloud I see now in my recent years is about confession and humility, about how small and weak humans are.” Like Kang said, the cloud is ultimately the artist’s mind, like open soul and open space. From this point of view, Drawing a Stroke on the Water is much closer to the imagery in the mind. It is understandable for the artist to interpret small water drops as ‘human mind.’ The human mind is also his mind. The search of the mind continued in Drawing a Stroke on the Water. 
  Drawing a Stroke on the Water and Air and Dream show different environments and circumstances. Drawing a Stroke on the Water can show various results because the way the water drop forms, and the range and shape of the water smudge differ depending on the humidity and temperature. In all these steps, chance works stronger than the artist’s intention. Therefore, the work is hardly completed as the artist expected. Just like the cycle of nature cannot be stopped, Kang’s work process involving running, dripping, and forming cannot be controlled. If we look at the way of expression, Air and Dream is the result of repeated efforts (There isn’t any special incident as it was crucial to accumulate the repeated action.), and Drawing a Stroke on the Water is the accidental effect when the water and air meet at the certain moment. This accidental character­istic is exactly what the artist wanted. With the accidental quality, Drawing a Stroke on the Water brings up the meaning of practice to take care of one’s body and soul. Betting everything on ‘one dot and one brushstroke’ means equally emptying everything. It seems like filling something, but nothing was filled, or painting something, but it doesn’t shape anything. If we look for a meaning of this in Eastern philosophy, we can find the connection with what Lao-tzu said when he saw the obscure beauty of nature: “the shapeless shape and the image without certainty.” 
  Air and water are from the same elements scientifically. A cloud is an aerosol comprising a visible mass of liquid droplets or frozen crystals made of water or various chemicals, often in white or gray. Therefore, a cloud is a light liquid mass. That liquid mass meets wind and forms shapes and disappears repeatedly. Drawing a Stroke on the Water is also the formation of liquid mass mixed with paints on the handmade paper. A cloud moves in the aerial space, and water moves on the surface of the ground. A cloud and water, however, are not completely different chemically. 
  Fundamentally, the exhibition Play : Pray is a study on the real world searching through poetic and mental imageries. Air and Dream emphasizes the behavioral aspect like depicting the visual image. Drawing a Stroke on the Water can be interpreted as a mental image rather than focusing on the action. However, they both share the same goal: recursive study and query about innocence, essence, and origin through Kang’s formative langue. It is the process to recover the true nature of oneself by stepping aside from the civilization and system. It is the artist’s choice to bring the natural environment from outside and depict it on the canvas, but approaching to the center of the inner sense after taking off the outward appearance. The point is how deeply can he look at the inner-self without the outer shell. Baudelaire said that it is harder to escape from the beauty of nature than refusing ‘meteorological beauty.’ Like he said, Kang’s cloud paintings, created with his own forma­tive language, have irresistible beauty. Simultaneously, cloud paintings show his practice to include the real world depicted as clouds through numerous hours of difficult process. ‘Nature’, as metaphysically defined ‘reality’, is the current state of ‘cloud’ in Air and Dream. In the process, he stepped aside and tried to empty himself and created Drawing a Stroke on the Water as his mental practice. Kang started from a philosophical question, searching for ‘reality’ and through ‘cloud’ he reached to the world of reality (Idea). In summary, his work is the journey of seeking invisible and intangible ‘reality.’ In this journey, the artist boldly left the viewer’s share to find. He hopes that we can look for the world of reality together that he wanted to feel and discover. That is the true message the artist Kang Un wanted to deliver through Play: Pray.
1 Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams, 2014, Moonye Books, p. 8
2 In this article, specific characteristics or material elements of the handmade paper were not discussed because handmade paper was not considered as only material that Kang Un used to express the world of reality.
3 Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams, 2014, Ehaksa, p. 348

   “At birth, my name bears a cloud (Un 雲 means a cloud). I might have a very sensitive place deep in my body.” (Quotes from artist statement) To him, the cloud is destined to be connected with him.

Byun Jong Pil (Art Critic and Director, Yangju City Chang Ucchin Museum of Art)