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Hong-Goo Kang

Hong-Goo Kang, The Museum of Photography, Seoul


1956, Shinan


Painting, Photography



Study of Green-White Birch A, 2012

Acrylic on Pigment Print, 190 x 480cm

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Digital Landscapes by a Second-Rate Artist

"I wanted to make fake photographs that are extremely meaningless because I was really irritated by words and theories surrounding art. I wished my photographs to be meaningless, empty, and completely nonsensical."

- Kang Hong-Goo, "Drama set/Fragment/Disguise"


All artists wish to get out of art history and the art system and make something new that is not tied to existing customs. Practically all possibilities may have been explored by their predecessors, however, and at this point when the end of art history is being debated, attempts to make a change may seem meaningless. However desperately one tries, it is difficult to get out of a system that has already been solidified, and any effort to make a difference usually falls into the evil cycle of reinforcing that very system. Nevertheless, artists keep trying because the world they live in, constantly changing through advancements in science and technology and with evolutions of society, encourages them to continue their journey. Now photography, a modern invention, not only is a widely accepted artistic medium in its own right but also occupies an important place in contemporary visual culture. Only a few years have passed since digital photography has been introduced. In that short span of time, it has assumed the role of the main producer of visual imagery of our era and has practically replaced our eye. Kang Hong-Goo has been making digital photographs by manipulating popular cultural images with a scanner. His art evinces that digital photography provides new opportunities for those seeking a mode of expression that fits the time outside the art system.

Kang enrolled himself in an art school as an aspiring painter after having spent several years as an elementary school teacher. He initially majored in painting but soon began to explore a new direction in manipulated photography utilizing advertisement images and film stills. Kang states that the experimentation was in protest against the art system that is based on a standard composed by great, unique works. Kang, who calls himself a second-rate artist, not a top-rate genius artist, has been making preposterous and bizarre fake photographs with images appropriated from the mass media. He deems the use of preexisting images more suitable than a handmade painting in expressing one's inability to resolve the conflicts of everyday life. His preferred display format-prints simply tacked up on a wall-emphasizes the easy and instant nature of computer-generated photography. In Kang's photography, the particular condition of the high-speed modernization of Korean society is combined with his personal experience of it. His photographs have unfolded in a series that explores "location, snobbery, fakery"-the title of his second solo exhibition.


Kang's early scanner-manipulated photography manifests the dis-eases and conflicts lodged deeply in people's minds despite the economic prosperity that has suddenly blossomed: surreal landscapes engulfed in fire ("What Humans Can Do for Trees"), patriarchal homes haunted by monsters ("Home Sweet Home"), and everyday scenes that reveal fears around the condition of the country's division ("Warphobia"). In another series of works, Kang casts himself as the protagonist in stills of fictional films. As the main actor in movies of gratuitous violence and sex, the artist creates dramas that mix narcissism and self-pity. Art here is no longer a serious and sublime medium but is made into a series of stock images one would regularly see in cheap genre movies and commercial advertisements. In these crudely manipulated photographic representations, the artist-the director/actor-appearing in wonky guises turns despairs and disquietudes into a comedy ("Who Am I"). These photographs, made with a deliberate lack of refinement in order to divert the pressure to be creative, are believable representations of our reality, which is far from refined and polished in actuality. When Kang started using digital cameras, his surrealistic montages gradually converged with the impressions of Korean society the artist himself captured. This evolution arose from his belief that the contradictions of reality are greater than the contradictions that he creates.

When the digital camera first became available, its small memory forced Kang to make long panoramic landscapes by suturing many individual shots. These landscapes do not attempt to be faithful representation of the reality through an expansive, level gaze, however. They are recombinations of twisted impressions of a society put together piecemeal. As the artist has stated, Korea has leapfrogged from its pre-modern era to an era of information society in less than a generation, and consequently all kinds of contradictions that reflect the times and spaces that have been bypassed in the process clearly remain. Kang's digital landscapes do not limn a future society ruled by a humankind that has evolved through advancements in science and technology. Instead, they are landscapes that harbor remnants from a process of modernization driven by a fascistic military culture and collective egotism. It is not straight photographic representation but manipulated montages of fragments that can better and more precisely capture a reality distorted and perverted by capitalism and commercialism in the midst of a compressed growth.

Recombining fragments from the inconsistent and rough surface of the reality, Kang's digital landscapes may be the most appropriate method of revealing its contradictions. His "Greenbelt," which depicts an area near Seoul designated for restricted development, appears to be less a nature's stronghold in an urban environment than traces of aging and deterioration left in the aftermath of a sudden development. An agrarian society centered around villages has collapsed in the inevitable course of urbanization, and the remnants of the process compose not a green ideal but a gray, depressing landscape. On the other hand, his "Drama Set," a "real fake" television film set, is situated in the impression of the Korean society dominated by fakery. It consists of images of people cut and paste onto a set in which the real and the fake are mixed up. Scenes temporally ranging from the period of Japanese colonization and to the present co-exist in a single space, highlighting the fallaciousness of the whole set-up.

"Scene of Ohsoi-ri" depicts an area that was abandoned after its residents were relocated in compensation for the noise pollution caused by the newly built Gimpo Airport just outside Seoul. The work suggests the sense of powerlessness the artist felt in this suburban area that had been sacrificed to the course of development. Even if viewers may not know the tragic ongoing story behind this town inhabited, by garbage and deserted kitchen gardens, they certainly sense in Kang's landscape, whose palette has been manipulated, the gloominess one would experience in a ghost town and creepy ghosts of the past. Like dark shadows hiding under the skyscrapers and flying overpasses of the city, this scene suggests to us what has been cast away in the name of development.

That our living environments haven't changed too much even in this 21st-century digital era is evident in the landscape images the artist has made of a redevelopment area in Bulgwang-dong in the far northern corner of Seoul where he lives. The houses in the image, congregating at the skirt of Mount Bukhan, are no longer places of residence but have become sites of vagrancy and speculation. Demolished for redevelopment, the site has become a surrealistic battlefield where nature and human intrusion go to war. After the houses built in harmony with the natural topography of the mountain valleys are all razed, there will be apartment buildings that advertise nature-friendly environmental living but block the sky with their soaring concrete masses ("Mickey's House" and "Trainee").


The refracted imagery of Kang's digital photography lets shown through its distortions the times that he experienced and the reality of Korean society in which memories and histories are roughly entangled. Although the fragments produced by his digital camera cannot compose perfect landscapes, as long as we are surrounded by a reality that is unrealistic and phony, this may be the unavoidable result. Digital photography is becoming a crucial part of everyday life, and advancements in digital technologies are sure to control the society of the future. Nevertheless, our minds and our surroundings still retain images of the past and the traumas of rapid transformations, continuing to sway us. In some sense, modernization is in the present progressive tense. Despite the great transformation that is the 21st-century information society, the physical realities of human beings and landscapes do not change so easily and still make up an important part of the reality we live in. Kang's digital landscapes are kaleidoscopic images of a society that struggles to be real. 

In order to confront a reality that is more fake than a fake, it is more effective to take a light approach to it than to assume a sincere, solemn attitude. In one work, Kang creates a scene of devastation with computer game character doll he found on a construction site near his studio, turning the doll into earth-shaking military fighter. In such manners, Kang's photography ultimately exhibits the artist's dogged journey like Don Quixote's through a changing world and rigid establishments. Continuing through the 1990s into the present, his landscape series is an autobiographical confession by a maker, who struggles under the weight of institutions and reality but never gives up hope. The present exhibition encompasses Kang's exploration of digital photography over a decade and would perhaps become an example for the popular belief that a second-rate artist in the end becomes a top-rate artist. It would be more meaningful, however, to see this effort as an opportunity to witness as is the landscapes that this second-rate artist has traveled than as an occasion in which an artist's resistance to established art gets integrated into art history and establishment. 

Koo Kyunghwa(Assistant Curator, Samsung Museum of Art, Leeum)


Kang Hong-Goo's Unraveling of Digital Photography: Dreams Compressed

1. Kang Hong-Goos photographs resemble dreams. Deserted streets where time is lost, masses of dark shadows, and strange unidentifiable traces in his photography recall the impressions of nightmares. But to say that Kangs photographs resemble dreams isnt to say that his works represent the strange and familiar scenes we often experience and ruminate on. It is not surface similarities but the structure of dream work that his photography borrows, and furthermore, his photographic therapy is connected to the interpretation of dream. In the ways the narrative and imagery of a dream ingeniously utilize the techniques of condensation, substitution, and symbolization to reconstitute the codes of system and desire, capital and prophecy, Kangs digital photography composes landscapes and imaginations and histories. Brilliantly burning trees, a row of architectural facades with no buildings behind them, a giant barracuda plopped on a street, and someones bizarrely elongated back lounging on a beach. These are some of the images that Kang has borrowed from the techniques of dream. And it is through such techniques that his photography suggests the entities that threaten us from all sides in the reality in which we unwarily live in, or it suggests the condition of that very threat.  

Kangs photographs, therefore, are not mere copies or scans of dreams as they may seem at first glance. And heres the reason why the childrens story of the photo studio of dreams cannot apply to his work. Kangs photographs are dreamsor more precisely, the screens upon which dreams are projected. As we enter the theater, we are confronted with bizarre, preposterous, and fearful situations that unfold in front of our eyes in real time. His digital photography is not premised on past tense, on which photography is ontologically dependent, and a sorrow for things past, or its future-tense form, i.e., death. In that his work is a present-tense experience of dreams, it perhaps resembles cinema. But Kangs photography is closer to a rear-screen projection made with light shone in front of the viewers eye than to the cinematic projection, in which light is thrown from behind the viewers head. On the horizontal widescreen of his photography, the viewers head-on confrontation with the camera blurs the consistent focus of the image, and the overlapping screens and obvious seams twist the retinal contemporaneity. Kang obliquely comments that just as a dreamer does not make his dreams, the photographer is not the agent of his photography. According to the artists set-up, we the viewers build up spatially these present experiences, in which reality and unreality, and guilt and desire crisscross. Kangs photography creates, just as our dreams do, architectural labyrinths in which our bodies can spontaneously respond to crude, abrupt, and absurd situations.


2. In the present exhibition, viewers find lures that tempt them into a site of super-fast demolition and super-sized construction where one may have an experience of surrealistic sublime, a maze-like place that one cannot tell if it is a dream or a reality. They are toys that the artist must have found on construction sites in the periphery of a city. A toy housecalled "Mickeys House" because Mickey Mouse is painted on itsticks out among enormous excavators and piles of scrap metals. Mickeys house appears in front of a row of houses on the brink of being reduced to powders, on some precarious garden fence in a shantytown, on snow, or on a green lawn. Even within a single scene, this toy house can function as a metaphor in the sense of Home Sweet Home or as a metonym in the sense that it is meant to belong to a household. In another vein, it is an icon if the formal similarities were to be focused upon, and an index when the generative relationship between the toy and the photograph is considered. The toy house, which is especially outstanding against an achromatic site of ruination and construction and the monochromatic nature because of its brilliant palette, also operates as a kind of hypertext that connects different individual photographs. Does this mean, then, that the artist intends to play games of signs with this toy?

If we were to make a distinction, the focus here should be on not sign but play. In other words, the focus of this photographic series should be on the artists processi.e., roaming around to find the found object and creating some witty simulations with it when he spots appropriate scenes. This aspect of execution in the series is once more emphasized with the second toy, which the artist has named the trainee. According to the artists research, this toy takes its form from the fictional character Kazuya Mishima, a martial arts warrior in a Japanese computer fighting game. Kazuya jumps on dangerous electric wires, hops over shattered glass, and climbs over precipitous walls. Kang titles his photographs, in which this trainees posture and size freely change, according to a lexicon of Chinese martial arts novels. Following the trainees role-playings, viewers see him in an encounter with Mickeys house in one scene, and while engrossed in such a visual pun, our eye often loses the contexts that the toys are situated in and get comforted by the indexes, i.e., the toys.    

In this way, in Kangs work is a mixture of ideological signs, political landscapes, and the willfulness of execution all mixed in different ratios. One of the most distinguishing characteristics of his work is that it keeps pushing viewers outside its frame. That is, objects like Mickeys house and the trainee in his digital pictures are read more productively alongside images, such as squatter pics or required elements on the DCinside website, a ground zero in popular contemporary Korean visual culture.1) Seeing Kangs photographs one is naturally reminded of the current social phenomenon of digital invalids abusing such images, and this is how the significance of Kangs photography may be understood from a different angle.2) Now that the digital camera, the scanner, and the Photoshop have become cultural necessities, and blogs and homepages constitute a standard of ones social education, the drive that places his work in museums is not the inertia within the art system that has made photography a viable artistic medium but may be found in the power of cultural popularism that renders arts courtship of photography powerless. And perhaps in an inverse reaction, Kang, an artist especially sensitive to the speed of change in mass media and technology, has fallen for the attraction of board games rather than digital games; instead of creating manipulated images out of required elements with computer programs, Kang has been capturing landscapes with actual toys. This capturing also includes evidence of living in this era, in which distinction between actual things and hybridized things itself has grown meaningless.


3. Kang Hong-Goo is not only an artist but also an author of books on visual cultures and has previously worked as a TV personality and a lecturer. In other words, he has taken on multiple roles over the years. Fittingly for someone who has mastered a variety of cultural texts including sci-fi movies, detective novels, horror comics, and martial arts pulp fictions, Kangs photography contains in it the artists history of cultural education. His cultural literacy, however, does not manifests itself in his photography simply in terms of broadening the range of references and selections but becomes more obvious in the ways in which he practices intertextuality. While his work exhibits, for instance, a range and diversity in its parodies and pastiches of Quentin Tarantinos films, Manets nudes, Meindert Hobbemas landscape of village roads, and Kim Jeong-Hees traditional Korean landscape, what is more notable is the ways and processes in which these sources are quoted.  

In his earlier work, Kang often made photomontages, for instance, cutting and pasting his own portraits within appropriated film stills, advertisements, and other commercial images. This method of editing, which was limited to juxtapositions and partial combinations of images evolved into a more complex recombination of whole picture frames through overlappings and repetitions. Consequently, he began to make his own photographs more frequently, and effects such as exaggeration, distortion, shock, and alienation, rather than mere collision began to characterize his work. Furthermore, as he started to apply the more complex montage techniques which surpass typical genre films and narrative conventions to horizontally expansive individual works and a series of works produced around the same time, the series even earns certain monumentality.

If we consider Kangs photomontages with his own writings, the data he has collected, sketches, drawings, and still photographs, his photographic theory seems to be more akin to John Heartfields rather than El Lissitzkys. As art historian and critic Benjamin Buchloh has argued, in the wake of Lissitzky, photography, now as factography, has established a cultural literacy, with which it educates the public. If the Russian avant-gardists aspired to supercede the material limitations of constructivist sculpture by circulating thousands of mass-produced photographs, in our era, digital photography has made possible a single picture to self-replicate into thousands and distribute them in the same resolution. Of course, Kangs factography conjures a far more dystopic vision than the utopian one of the Russian avant-gardes.

Kangs panoramic photographs not only mobilize all kinds of texts before and after themselves but also encompass sounds and smells. In that light, they are quite multimedia. Especially notable from his body of work is the series of images made from a town called Ohsoi-ri near the Gimpo Airport in Seoul. The repetitive placement of an image of an airplane flying low through the series of the landscapes of the town, which are all 280-centimeter long, effectively conjures the effect of the oppressive loud noise an airplane would produce in proximity. The pool of water in which a dump truck has crashed is rendered with an exaggerated perspectival technique, again making viewers effectively imagine its rancid stench. While optically traveling through this landscape strewn with piles of trash, fields of green onions, airplanes in the air, and discarded shoes, all appearing in the same resolution, viewers feel with all senses the fact that Ohsoi-ri has lost its placeness and has been absorbed into a temporal zone of development.

This naturally formed village, which is marked on the map only with the designation of Ohsoi Crossroads, is plainly edited into a space of future holocaust in Kangs photomontage. The vanishing point in the photograph replaces the town hall, from where one allegedly could have surveyed the whole village visually, and becomes a symbol of the massive conspiracy of development. The vanishing point of the perspective that organizes this image is emphasized like the conspiracy theory that explains the whole world. It lucidly visualizes the power behind the rumors that the townspeople were driven out by arson and that even children were murdered. Just like all conspiracy theories, the vanishing point in Kangs photograph is indescribably seductive and fatal.


4. Kangs landscape photographs, as seen in the Ohsoi-ri series, at first glance seem composed around single viewpoints. But on closer inspection of their operations, it becomes clear that their internal and external texts cross with one another, imploding the perspectival spaces. The photographic perspectives Kang realizes in his work often interfere with themselves, as exemplified by Furgitive 8 (1999), a photographic recreation of Hobbemas painting, The Alley at Middelharnis (1689); Kang obstructs the vanishing point on the horizon line with a self-portrait. This kind of disruption operation is also evident in the artists trademark method of manipulated composition. In his Who Am I series, the artist replicates his self-portrait into multitudes, dispersing the viewers gaze throughout the picture. After graduating from handmade processes to digital cameras and computers, Kang has been employing picture-suturing as the main method of disrupting the viewers gaze. He states that his main objective there was to make large-scale landscapes out of digital pictures. Although he has not been able to accomplish the objective due to technical and financial reasons, he was able to create, after quite a few trials and errors, stitched, horizontally expansive landscapes that are panoramic in effect.  

In terms of the way of seeing that is required, panorama pictures share similarities with handscroll paintings. While most of Kangs photographs are shown in full lengths, viewers can rarely see the whole pictures in a single viewing. Consequently, they can view only sections and must put them together in continuum like the frames of a moving picture. In Kangs panoramas, the viewers gaze encounters each one of different camera gazes that are sutured in individual frames, which are slightly overlaid upon one another or distorted. The eye scans these long pictures from left to rightor in the opposite directionin temporal manners. There is the obvious distinction, of course, in that one views a handscroll painting by rolling and unrolling, while a panoramic photograph is seen by the viewers body moving along the length of it.  

The most representative handscroll-style photographs in Kangs work can be found in the The Han River Public Park series. Presenting group portraits of people enjoying walks in the park with distant sights of skyscrapers and massive bridges in the backdrops, these photographs may be considered a kind of typical genre pictures on the subject of a lazy holiday. Strewn with people bearing comic facial expressions, pairs of lovers and groups of friends, homeless and drunkards, and periodical appearances of Ronald McDonalds and flying kites, all of which are unfailingly captured by a relaxed cameras eye, these pictures provide much to read for viewers.

Here, what grabs our gazes and guides the temporality of visual appreciation in this over-five-meter-long panoramic picture is not the several vanishing points marking the picture but the horizon where the river and the park meet. The method of viewing required by this beautiful landscapeone follows the picture horizontally following the flow of the riverplaces The Han River Public Park less close to Impressionist paintings of parks than to traditional scroll paintings like Jang Taik-Dans Chungmyung sangha-do,3) which the viewer unrolls into a section of a manageable length at a time to see unfolding scenes of transportation of cargos, changing lifestyles and households, and streets tightly surrounded by buildings. Admittedly, to make this comparison only based on similar viewing experiences while ignoring the obvious differences in terms of time, location, and medium might be a risky set-up for understanding broadly the work in question. In that sense, perhaps better comparisons may be found in a tourist village that recently opened in China or the film set for a recent Korean movie with a storyline set in the Song Dynasty, both of which are based on Jangs handscroll painting. At the same time, Kangs photographic series, in ways that are highly distinct from such realizations or physicalizations, creates a kaleidoscopic world that can broadly address traditional genre painting, its epistemes and structures of sensibilities, and even the self-referentiality of mass media.


5. Is the film set, said to be based on the streets depicted in the handscroll painting, a fiction? If people can enter to enjoy the view of the set, does it become a reality? Is the fantasy-action-melodrama said to be being shot in the set a fiction? If the movie is actually made and widely released, is the theater showing the movie real? Or, is the handscroll painting, which creates this endless linkage of representation of representation, an original? Or is it a copy of something else? Pressing pauseon this dizzying series of questions and playing the landscapes we are looking at frame by frame in a slow motionthis is how Kangs series of drama sets operates. Kang made the series by taking pictures of sets in actuality. As seen in the images per se, these sets, which were created for historical or martial arts dramas, do not look anything like what we encounter when watching the films and TV dramas. Aided by the intervention of high-definition cameras, editing techniques, and cutting-edge computer graphics, films and dramas these days reveal very few detectible fissures or seams.

In Kangs photographs, it is the dross in gold one would seldom see in movies and dramas that takes the center stage. Soaring apartment buildings are visible in the far background of the TV drama Age of Outsiders,4) and people dressed in current fashions along with cars appear in a scene supposedly set in Japanese colonial period. Even worse, one of the photographs zooms in on the backside of the façade of a mock Dongdaemun5) and a pile of trash thrown in front of it. Kang even leaves the seams and traces of the suturing of these pictures. These anachronistic indexes dispel the usual effects of black-and-white photographstaste for things past, symptoms of art photography, and evocation of nostalgia. In such ways, Kangs photographs of drama sets distort the future tense of digital photography, which seems to exponentially self-replicate, and the past tense of slowly discoloring black-and-white photography.

All of Kangs landscape photographs are captured by the artist busy on his feet on a variety of contemporary sites from nearby towns to distant tourist spots. As if a documentary photographer, he deals with the existence of contemporary sites and specific incidents or people. Paradoxically, however, these landscapes all appear as if they have been just excavated after having been submerged under water for a long time. One sees deserted, desolate streets, garbage stuck here and there like waterweeds and mosses, collapsed buildings, and mere traces of urban structures, and the survivors roaming these scenes of devastation seem like mummies that are just awakened. In the submerged landscapes, Ohsoi-ri and Apgujong6) become sites for pillaging, and Sehando and Gosagwansudo turn into plunders.7)

Through its era of development in Korea, the monstrous forces of the desire for super-modernity, imagination of civil engineering, and economic fascism have razed or sunk peopled towns and storied villages. As if nothing had happened, then, high-rise buildings and massive apartment complexes are built up, or highways and dams are laid down. In recent years, the former sets of popular TV dramas and movies have become tourist spots, bringing considerable profits to local governments. In a similar way, those places that have been sunk in sacrifices may one day emerge like ghosts and start attracting people to them. Finally, our dreams and unconscious have turned into currenciesno paper money but those that circulate invisibly via the magnetic strip of the credit card and the bytes of the Internet banking. Are all these waking dreams, or precognitive dreams, or deja-vus? Thats what Kang Hong-Goos photograph keeps asking us.


1)DCinside (http://www.dcinside.com) is a highly popular Korean website that vends and provides information on digital cameras. It has become one of the most visited site and has also emerged as a leading voice in contemporary Korean Internet culture. One of the sites features is its galleriesa kind of discussion boards where users can upload their digital pictures. The squatter pics and required elements are keywords in the galleries: the former referring to a kind of place holders that users can upload in order to prevent their entries from being deleted; the latter refers to images provided by the site on regular bases as challenges to the users to incorporate and produce their own witty entries. The Korean neologism, Chalbang, rendered here as squatter pics is a contracted word of Challim bangji, which literally means Prevention of cutting. (Translator)

2) The term digital invalid refers to someone who is addicted to the Internet to the detriment of his/her mental and physical health.   

3) Jang Taik-Dan is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese name Zhang Zeduan, a court painter who lived during the transition period from the Northern Song to the Southern Song Dynasty in China. Chungmyung sangha-do (Qingming Shanghe Tu, in Chinese, translated alternately as Going Upriver on the Qingming Festival or Peace Reigns over the River) is his best known surviving work. A handscroll about 10-meters long, the painting has been traditionally believed to depict the city of Kaifeng and surrounding natural landscapes, an interpretation which has been recently challenged. The painting is currently in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.  

4)Age of Outsiders(Yain shidae) was a wildly popular Korean TV drama series. Its storyline revolves around Kim Doo-Han (1918-1972), who was abandoned at an early age and grew to be a Robin Hood-like figure during Japanese colonial period. After Koreas liberation in 1945, he became a politician.

5)Dongdaemunliterally, East Gate”—is one of the four major gates and accesses into the town of Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Currently it stands close to modern Seouls downtown.

6)Apgujong is one of the wealthiest and trendiest neighborhoods in Seoul.

7)Sehando and Gosagwansudo are two of the most famous and celebrated surviving traditional Korean paintings. The former, a spare landscape of pine trees with an accompanying calligraphy, was painted by Chusa Kim Jong-Hui, an early 19th-century figure and arguably the best calligrapher in Korean history. The latter, by Kang Hee-An, a 15th-century literati painter, depicts a lone scholar (or a Taoist sage) enjoying a mountainous landscape. The title can be translated as Painting of an Virtuous Man Watching Water.” 

Baekjisuk (exhibition planning, art criticism)