Korean Artist Project with Korean Art Museum
Log in  |  Register  |  Korean    Contact us

Home > Artists > View

Kong Sung-Hun

Kong Sung-Hun, Savina Museum of Contemporary Art


1965, Incheon





Sunken Rock, 2014

Oil on Canvas, 227.3 x 162.1cm

Facebook Twitter Google Plus Email
Prev Zoom Next

History in Nature or Narration in Description

There was a heavy snowstorm when I visited Kong Sung-hun’s studio in Ilsan. On that day when the snow even blinded the near-sight, Kong’s seascapes appeared even more frigid and dreary. Large-scale meteorological phenomena such as windstorms and heavy snowfalls diminish people and make them physically realize that they are inevitably trivial particles of nature. The uncontrollable force of Mother Nature relativizes our contemporary civilization which runs rampant as if it was autonomous by itself and makes it into a vulnerable existence on the thin surface of this earth. Bad weather erases man-made artificial boundaries. As in Kong’s ‘Snowstorm(2011)’, it can make borders between heaven, earth and sea disappear altogether. His recent works encapsulate vast spatial and temporal dimensions. They make us wonder if indeed these are really natural scenes in Korea. Landscapes of the Jeju Island and its vicinity he created since 2011 seem unfamiliar yet not exotic at all. Most figures in the landscapes could be tourists, but they are not in a cozy resort.

Kong’s landscape might have developed from real locations that inspired him in the first place, but the reality has been ambiguously neutralized by the artist. In his works, time is even more uncertain than space. It is unclear, for example, if the man smoking at Taejongdae or the kids throwing stones on the seashore are doing so during the day or night. His seascapes are not those of the deep blue sea, but only painted in blue. The sea is pallid as if it was bruised. Compared to those in abstract paintings, objects in Kong’s works are pretty identifiable, but not precisely specified. They are merely rocks, water, sky and people that could exist anywhere on this earth at any moment in history. They are, however, not formed out of abstract ideas. Kong’s work is an interesting game played on the borderline between reality and non-reality. His landscapes do not put up the artistic creativity - the historical standard of originality in modern art - on the forefront, but also do not fall into the trap of stereotypical subject matter.

Although Kong values reality, it is only a basic device for demonstrating and retelling what lies beyond it. For him, reality has no use for appropriation, appreciation and visual consumption by itself. His painting is not meant for the viewers to find, then read, the hidden meanings underneath, but for them to project and rewrite their imaginations on the margins of the work. In this regard, Kong’s work is neither classical nor kitschy, but rather modernist. The artist described the high sky, the surging sea and the deep valley in a highly detailed manner that it is hard to figure out if they are indeed painted or photographed at first glance. Despite this attention to details, Kong’s works evoke sublime Romanticism rather than ideal Classicism. His landscape, however, is not comfortable enough for a viewer to enter into it and remains distant from experiencing religious transcendence or vague mysticism, which are inherent qualities of Romanticism. These seascapes convey the overwhelming power of space and time. His seascapes of pictorial immediacy can be compared to the real world that cannot be coded symbolically.

The wave in his works is form and strength of itself. Strength generates then disintegrates form. It cannot be fixed or tied down. The wave surging every moment becomes space filled with infinitely repetitive time. In The Wave series(2011), Kong realistically depicts waves foaming white bubbles in ever-changing situations. A transparent window to the world and the medium’s physical property coexist in seascapes with rough brushstrokes. Just like Gustave Courbet’s late seascape painting, Kong’s seascapes link Realism to Modernism. If Kong’s earlier works featuring a leashed dog, vulgarly-lit motel compounds, and pseudo-nature without real nighttime carry metaphorical and satirical messages, his recent paintings have lessened the artist’s direct involvement with the representation. Kong maintains an attitude like that of characters in his work looking at the magnificent, dynamic drama of nature. These anonymous figures turn their backs to the viewer but convey the disturbed state of depression.

Here is the artist’s perspective on today’s hard reality: everyone struggles to maintain an ordinary life, let alone an artistic one. The sea and the sky symbolize an unrestricted reality, but those standing before it are not heroic or tragic figures combating reality. They are neither deeply involved in nor completely excluded from reality. They only took a step back from it. They are unlike the protagonists in his previous video works that made interesting and shocking statements about themselves and the world. “The journey from installation to painting,” Kong said, “brought me to my inner side, but I do not regard myself as hard-core expressionist.” He is consciously realistic and does not expect that something can be created from nothing a typical expectation of a Romatist. He merely represents what he “filters,” “samples” or “feels.” He wants to see the world from a broader, fundamental perspective rather than from that of an onlooker. Since I encountered his works for the first time over 20 years ago, he has become more detached from and cooler towards reality, but his creative passion has remained equally strong. His work represents the outer appearance and inner motive power of the reality that has moved to a more fundamental dimension. The sky and the sea under the control of dynamic natural phenomena is a forum where a more fundamental reality is represented. The Sea, the subtitle of this exhibition, implies that his landscape refers to elemental dimension, rather than concrete objects, and focuses on nature’s inner force. Fundamental elements, such as rocks, valleys, water, wind, and fire, appear in his landscapes. Powerful natural phenomena dominate his works, such as in ‘Snowstorm(2011)’ and ‘Fireworks(2012)’.

‘In Cloud and Hair(2012)’, hair ruffles in the foreground against the background of a cloudy sky, symbolizing a mixture of human emotion and the body in elemental movement. The elements remain fluid, and interact intensely. This is like the beginning of time when order is about to come into being, or an apocalyptical landscape where everything is obliterated into chaos. In this work an abbreviation of the part between the beginning and the end indicates his concern with the creation and extinction of the universe rather than a present representation. Of course in his painting, man and history are also included in the enormous cycles of nature. The real world in his work includes the human body and heart. The primal unconscious, like the sea, is innate in the human body and heart driving consciousness and reason.

In his some seascapes from which a grotesque self-portrait might emerge, the real world appears immeasurable. In recent pieces the landscape itself is like a growling monster. The sky, a canvas of nature engendering any form and color is also like a monster. Kong’s painting generates the primal forces from which everything derives in a society governed by the media. For the artist who has extensively experienced diverse media and studied at an engineering college, painting is a powerful tool to draw out the primal forces. According to him, in media work conception can be separated from its process, whereas painting is a continuum of choice and determination at every moment. Every moment of painting is a challenge, leap, or frustration. Kong explains he feels greater joy and deeper despair because painting is not collaborative but self-initiatory. Unlike media work that can be addressed only with the head or hands, painting has to be done with the whole body. In terms of water, his other theme, Kong depicts it as if swimming in the sea of reality.

Painting does not depend on an ideal perspective or a poor concept. It is the reality the artist experiences with his whole body. The reality is like a raging torrent in which one might be drowned or swept away unless he forges ahead judging its direction and speed. Here, in this uncertain stream, is a painter of the 21st century. Painterly idioms maybe so coded that their sensory quality becomes dull and tame. Painting is similar to children playing a game on the seashore. In ‘Throwing Stones (2010)’, three kids in the foreground throw stones toward the sea under a fierce sky. It is uncertain whether this is a delightful game or a reckless challenge. In ‘The Angler(2010)’, a man fishes in the middle of a raging sea. The brush can be compared to a fishing rod pulling and pushing to catch a big fish.

Fiercely raging waves and the opaque sky over the waves are in a state of primal chaos. Tiny figures in his landscapes keep his paintings from falling into complete abstraction. A small figure is part of the landscape, sharing the artist’s or viewer’s perspectives of the landscape. Images showing only the backs and silhouettes of figures form a greater part of the whole scene than the landscape, especially in those depicting the moment of sunset. In The ‘Sunset-Seopjikoji(2011)’, families and lovers look out at the sunset and a tiny cross glitters over the horizon. Unlike the outstanding spire in Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night, linking heaven to the earth, this cross is buried amid the mundane world. The spectrum of colors Mother Nature generates unfold before our eyes in The ‘Sunset(2012)’, which features tourists watching the sunset glow. Despite the fact that there is a limit to the size of canvas he can handle in his studio, Kong’s landscapes are definitely monumental. In landscape painting, Kong puts more emphasis on nature than man and history. In The ‘Tree(2011)’, drooping tree twigs covering the entire scene are in contrast with a faint vapor trail in the background. He compares lines drawn artificially with the diverse lines in nature. In ‘Brother Rocks(2011)’, rocks under the sky pierced in the middle look over an airplane flying across the sky. The airplane is likely to explode due to the bright light contrasted with the mammoth rock face in the foreground. The vapor trail made by the airplane, a darling of contemporary civilization often used for wars and competition, is fleeting like the wake of a boat in the sea. The trail is more temporary than the lines of rocks and trees. In his work human history is included in natural history. History is described whereas nature is depicted. Kong’s work intends to synthesize the long hostility and confrontation between naturalism and realism by inserting narratives into precise descriptions.

In the history of Korean art, painting has often taken one of two extreme positions: grand discourse (meta-narration) and trivial description. Minjung Misul(People’s Art Movement) of the 1980s is an example of the former, and hyperrealist paintings of the 2000s is of the latter. The dynamics between modernism and post-modernism is similar to this, involving a generation active in the 1990s. In Kong’s recent pieces, landscape paintings are analogous to naturalist depictions, and his figure paintings to realist narratives. For instance, The ‘Waterfall(2010)’ featuring an abyss circled with rocks, A Man Smoking by a ‘Waterfall(2012)’ depicting a man by a waterfall in a valley, and ‘A Smoking Man-Taejongdae(2011)’ showing a crouching man smoking, stripped to the waist, are enigmatic works questioning the relationship between description and narration. Is the character by the cliff on the verge of suicide due to bankruptcy? The scenes of a vapor trail, brother rocks, and twigs echo the division of the Korean Peninsula.

Kong’s work questions two fundamental attitudes and forms in painting: the problem of narration-depth and that of description-surface. The former reaches its peak in Realism and the latter in Naturalism. Kong’s work lies in dynamics between the two that are complementary. In his work, accurate depiction of nature and natural elements is naturalist. Through scientific observation of objects using a camera he accurately records momentary phenomena and the flow of matter, like a mirror faithfully reflecting nature. On the other hand, his characters have a narrative element reflecting the artist’s perspective of the times. In Scopic Regimes of Modernity, Martin Jay applies the distinction between narration and description which literary theorist György Lukács used to contrast realist and naturalist novels to art history. For Jay, realism addresses a typical, essential depth. Narration produces an essential consciousness of meaning beyond a literary text’s fragmentary, individual facts. Criticism of the naturalist viewpoint being fragmentary exists in progressive cultural discourse of the 1980s in Korea, borrowing confrontational logics from Lukács. In Modernism, A. Eyesteinsson argues that Lukács sees modernism failing to properly reflect the “objective totality of entities” and reflected capitalism’s “broken surface” in a non-mediated manner. Modernism denies “all relationships with entities” and, in terms of content, it is subjective. Lukács criticizes modernism distorting reality, creating confusion in its depiction of the world, and resulting in a perceptual crisis for viewers. He asserts that modernists deprive of our prospects by reducing social reality to a nightmare and depicting this as an absurd world stricken with anxiety.

Lukács’ criticism of modernism based on realism remains, however, confined to a prospect of bourgeois humanism, supporting a classical rather than realist style. And by applying this to art history, perspective becomes a primary departure point. There are two types of perspective in art history: southern perspective, underlining a unified space, and northern perspective, with multiple viewpoints. According to Scopic Regimes of Modernity, Cartesian perspectivism, accentuating three-dimensional space over the two-dimensional surface of a canvas is comparable to naturalism, as naturalist painting depicts diverse form without visual depth or symbolic meaning. In Renaissance art, the world beyond Leon Battista Alberti’s window is “a kind of stage; a space on which characters perform meaningful actions based on text, which is, narrative art.”

By contrast, Northern art prioritizes the world of objects depicted on the surface of the canvas. This world is indifferent to the location of a viewer facing the canvas. Moreover, this world expands, beyond the frame of Alberti’s window. Actors are often used as narrative devices in critical realism or social realism of the 1980s. Actors appear in Kong’s recent work too, albeit away from the center of the canvas, more like an onlooker. To this, Kong’s naturalist concern is maximal, with interest in the fluid surface of the world, rather than actors on it. Viewer gaze moves from a rock to another rock; from a wave to another wave. He places more emphasis on texture forming the world than form in a geometric space. If his painting employs perspective, it is northern perspective, and his dynamic seascapes are Baroque. In Scopic Regimes of Modernity, Jay reviews Heinrich Wölfflin’s Renaissance and Baroque. For him, the Renaissance is lineal, solid, fixed, flat, and closed like the classical style, whereas the Baroque is pictorial, profound, complex, open, and ambiguous. The fluid expression of meteorological phenomena or the sea in Kong’s work does not fix the viewer’s eye, refusing the geometry of one point perspective in Cartesian tradition; the illusion of a homogeneous three-dimensional space seen from a distance with the eye of God. The world has this become ambiguous, and the physical property of oil enhances it further through tactility. The surface becomes opaque with material and demands interpretation. The Baroque perspective creates melancholy too, representing something impossible to represent.

In Kong’s work the sea moves from a surface to surface, generating rootless movement, the color blue with infinite affiliations is equally melancholic. Like Baroque painting, the physical surface on which marks of the invisible are drawn causes magnetism and chaos. In a world not grasped immediately, instead interpreted repetitively, the body returns to the other. The reinstated body scatters over the canvas, and figures become anonymous. Characters on stage with a blurred boundary reinforce enigma; become a medium of a metaphorical narrative. The theme here is transcendental, deviating from the core of meaning, without vanishing. Characters are the only vertical element Kong sets in scenes dominated by low horizons. The anonymous beings are small yet cohesive. They are still parts of nature, more influential parts of nature.

Lee Sun-young(Art Critic)


The Symbiotic Tension between Reality and Art

Realism is much more than a term referring to a certain style of literature or art; it is also an attitude or sentiment for approaching things in the real world, including oneself. Therefore, the concept of realism in the humanities must be differentiated from its physical, scientific application. Just as the rise of Realism in 19th-century art was presaged by the scientific philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach and Auguste Comte, realism evolved in conjunction with the development of the social sciences. In essence, realism represented a new scholarly attitude that derived from the objectivity of the physical sciences. Gustave Courbet, one of the representative Realist painters of the 19th century, defined himself as both a realist and a socialist. His brand of Realism involved seeking the absolute truth of nature through the experience of real phenomena. But from the humanities perspective, realism can be viewed in a different way. Of course, the realism of the humanities must be founded on materialism, critical investigation, and objective facts, but it must also account for people’s response to facts, in terms of their psychology, emotion, and sensitivity. Rather than simply identifying facts, the realism of the humanities can only be consummated by meditation and contemplation of facts. With this in mind, the realism of Kong Sung-Hun is nearing its fulfillment. Whether he is working on installations, videos, or traditional paintings, Kong views realism as a life raft that connects reality and art. Kong’s efforts to reflect reality in his works are not simply an act of mimesis, but a type of ‘meta-mimesis’ that extends beyond existing concepts. The mere creation of visual or surface similarity is not his focus; instead, his works call into question the very act of mimesis itself. His art represents a kind of simulacra, a concept that defines contemporary society and visual culture, but he strives to reveal simulacra in the same way that simulacra reveal contemporary society and visual culture. Kong fabricates stylized contemporary landscapes that critically represent the artificiality of today’s society by highlighting art as artificiality. At the heart of this process are the covert messages that he embeds in the paintings, in order to signal that artificiality does not arise solely from the method of production, but can be equally associated with the consumption of art.


1. Artificiality as the Essence of Art?

From early on, western art philosophy directly associated art and technology: “ars” in Latin, as well as “techne” in Greek. In this context, art is oppositional to nature. Art was the condition of being inspired to imitate nature, as well as the product of that condition. Thus, according to the tradition of Plato and Aristotle, art is paradoxically non-creative. But by the early days of the modern period, artparticularly visual art, i.e. paintings and sculptureswas placed on a pedestal as “ars liberalis”. Then in the 18th century, Charles Abbe Batteux defined the term “fine art”, helping to re-establish art as a creative act and paving the way for the “genius” artists who performed such creative acts. As time has passed, however, this definition has been widely disputed. At the same time, due to the pursuit of purity in fine art, or “art for art’s sake”, art has largely lost its basis in craftsmanship and elements of production. This shift away from the skills of production might be interpreted to mean that art has lost its essence of processing or reproducing nature. In reality, however, it simply means that new methods of processing are being employed, marking a return to art’s essential status as technology. Science and technology have expanded and developed by borrowing aspects once associated with art, and in turn, art has appropriated various elements of technology. Indeed, the art world of today, dominated by video art, media art, and installations, would not be possible without advanced technology. Although Kong was educated in the fine arts, he has never restricted himself to traditional methods. After graduating from the Department of Painting in the College of Fine Arts at Seoul National University in 1987, he began following the path of technology, rather than art. He transferred to the Department of Electrical Engineering at the same school, where he learned about technology that had been abandoned by art. Recalling his time in art school, he said, “When I remember myself at art school, I felt like I was always walking on air, like 30 centimeters above the ground. After graduation, I felt vain. I didn’t know where my footing was as I tried to become a painter. So I wanted to start all over again, but this time starting my art from a very concrete and distinct foundation. I knew that I needed more than the vapor of the air in order to do fine art, which is the only art that deals directly with materials.” In engineering school, he acquired the technical knowledge that was not available in art school. At the same time, he began focusing on idealism, not simply in the name of purity, but as an empirical and critical attitude guiding his practice. While this attitude can be seen in his video and kinetic installations based on technology, it is even more active in his paintings.

Contemporary art has been largely defined by the aspiration to overcome the limitations of art as mere mimesis. Various efforts in this direction have led to the establishment of diverse new genres, movements, and styles, but more profoundly, they have shaped modernity as a time unlike any other in the past. Kong seems to have spent his 20s reflecting on this irrefutable truth, and his reflections can be seen in his continuous artistic experimentations and exhibitions. The causes of those reflections might help to illuminate the reasoning for his unusual career path. First of all, in the 1980s, Korean art was floundering in a dispute between the formal binaries of figurative vs. abstract art. In the simple formal order, art was a tool for producing sensual beauty under the false name of “purity”, but according to Kong, a better term for it was “flatness.” And for him, the opposite of this “flatness” was “reality.” The abnormal development of abstract painting was a historical fact for Korean contemporary art. Korean abstract art had not only become de-politicized, it had entered a realm of such intensive idealism as to be completely cut off from reality. Extremely abstract paintings, exemplified by Korean Monochrome paintings, became simply decorations that had lost the essential spirit of Korean art. What’s more, these decorations were highly praised in abstract, erudite language that was incomprehensible to any ordinary person. Art was left with only color, form, and material. It became a thing inside a white cube, existing only to be praised with unfathomable words and sold for unrealistic prices. As art became more systematized, it not only took over the form of modernism, it annihilated the previous ideas of modernism that it had once actively embraced. By then, art had completely lost touch with life, i.e. reality. At the other end of the spectrum was Minjung art(People’s art), which arose as a critical response to the de-politicized abstract art. Minjung art condemned the formalism and elitism of institutionalized art, and actively criticized contemporary society as a whole. Accordingly, it remained outside the art system, and took realism as its existential foundation. At that time, Korean society was repressed by anti-communism and the industrialist ideology of the military dictatorship, so artists were afforded very little space for their creative thoughts. Thus, in Korea, Minjung art represented the first artistic attempt to resist the reality defined by the reproduction of virtually identical thoughts and products. Of course, most Minjung artists were educated within the art system, and their art was not completely innovative. It was basically an extension of the advanced style of “Social Realism”, in that it actively embraced the proletariat culture and promoted the passionate participation in social reality. In other ways, Minjung art can be associated with the ideals and methods of Pop Art or Realistic Expressionism. For a while, Minjung art seemed to provide a possible way to overcome the limitations of existing Korean art, but in the end, it could only expose its own limitations. Kong was attending art school in the midst of the grand debate between institutionalized art, which had the backing of academia, and Minjung art, which supposedly represented the will of the common people. For Kong, neither movement provided a satisfactory outlet for his creative drive, so he basically hovered somewhere beyond the boundaries of the two. Forced to look elsewhere for the key to opening reality, he turned to technology.


2. Installations and Videos: Machines That Have Lost Their Practical Function

One of the most unique developments in contemporary art since the mid-20th century has been the rise of installation art, which is basically an advanced form of the traditional genre of three-dimensional sculpture. However, installation art transcends the basic representational aspect of sculpture, i.e. sculpture’s independent existence as a created artifact, by placing greater emphasis on the relationship and context that exists between the work and the audience. Art installations are characterized by infusing a seemingly neutral real space with artistic meaning through the construction or arrangement of impermanent structures. Furthermore, installation art simultaneously reflects the theatricality of performance art and “happenings”, along with the redefinition of space inherent to Land art and Environment art.

For Kong, installations represent the universal value of reconstructing the world he perceived and experienced. On the other hand, through installations, an artist can strategically manipulate the presence of objects and concepts from the systems of industrialization and civilization, thereby granting them an entirely new meaning. For example, in his installation Blind Work, Kong removed window blinds, a contemporary update of curtains, from their intended usage, and formally converted them into a completely different signifier. But what new meanings does he hope to achieve through such processes? First of all, Blind Work can be classified as Kinetic art, because there is movement generated by electricity. But that movement is not just physical, because it is augmented by optical illusion, which would seem to place this installation within the realm of Optical art. But it also functions somewhat like a mobile, which is an object used to embody fundamental movement or time. From this perspective, Blind Work represents the successive development of contemporary sculpture during the 1960s and 70s. But for him, this work emerged from his contemplation of the (sub)consciousness of contemporary people, who have utterly adapted themselves to life in a mechanical environment. In this case, Kong chose to use window blinds, but he could just as easily have opted for fluorescent lights or kitchen utensils. However, blinds seem to be an appropriate choice, since they can either block or permit the passage of light, and because they can easily go from being flat (two-dimensional) to vertical (three-dimensional). For Blind Work, he painted one side of the blinds with different colors of fluorescent paint, creating a veritable spectrum, and then covered the backs with aluminum tape for a reflective effect. He then rigged the entire structure to an electrical motor so that the blinds incessantly flip and shift. The mechanical movement causes a constant flicker of reflected light and color that basically overrides any possible literate or theoretical interpretation, effectively filling the vacuum of meaning with an attitude of “instant” gratification. His machine works are conglomerates of contemporary art influences, integrating Daniel Buren’s meaningless lines, Victor Vasarely’s optical illusions, and Alexander Calder’s drifting movement. Perhaps these works may be seen as final projects for Kong’s own independent study on contemporary art.

He separates concepts from their universal definition and context, and then arbitrarily decomposes and re-assembles them to form a new system of meaning. Along with his mechanical installations, he also created a series of “useless” installations or happenings, such as Art is Expensive: Getting Admission Fee, in which he analyzes the logic of the work through a flow chart, thereby exposing the mechanisms of art consumption. Artwork Vending Machine, an installation consisting of an electronic display board and vending machine, represents his cynical response to a society and system that define works of art as luxury goods. In these electrical installations, Kong was able to apply some of the technological expertise he acquired in engineering school to attack the fallacy of art and art discourse, and rearrange the elements and principles of contemporary art. From a technical point of view, the machines themselves are quite impressive, but even more notable is the switch of semantic values that occurs when Kong manipulates the intended function of the machines.

Kong’s machines recall the ideas of Gilles Deleuze, who theorized that machines are not independent entities with a fixed nature, but rather constituents of a relationship that can only be defined by their role within that relationship. When a machine becomes an artwork, it loses its original function, and its relationship is fundamentally transformed. So, are Kong’s machines artworks? To cite Kant, an artwork is a material that exists in a pure condition defined by its own purpose, rather than the intentions of others. Kong’s installations would seem to meet this definition, but in addition to their ostensible artistic purpose, they convey another more critical message about the world he experiences. But at the same time, his installations do not function in a straightforward critical way, by using high-tech gadgetry to symbolize capitalist ideology. His messages are more manifold and metaphorical, so that his works expertly communicate in a language that is multi-vocal. Machines can be a tool for making rhetoric and meaning more elaborate, but they can also become their own language. Kong plays with the “words” of his rhetorical compositions in a carefree, almost comedic style, reminiscent of Ludwig Wittgenstein. But he is not satisfied playing such games merely on the conceptual level. Through his happenings and installations, he extended his games to the experimental stage, but they would be realized even more powerfully in his paintings.


3. To Paint or Address the World

In order to fully appreciate Kong’s paintings, you must stare at them deeply for a long time, because there are many details that initially go unnoticed. Of course, the same might be said of almost any artist, but it is especially true in Kong’s case. Reality is reduced to a condition of vision, but our vision gets tied up trying to determine whether his scenes are real or artificial. At first glance, his paintings look like photos, so our vision initially tells us that we are looking at a scene produced by a digital camera. Over time, however, with careful examination, we can begin to see his painterly acts throughout the surface of his works. Other levels of reality emerge, as we discern the process of imitating nature, as well as the action and intention of the artist. Kong himself observes scenes and objects with deep precision, and he forces us to do the same through his works.

One of the primary concerns of 19th-century Romantic paintings was to challenge the sublime. At that time, the magnificence of nature was regarded with a pantheistic religious awe. Landscapes of nature never seemed to offer any solid footing for human inhabitants, and thus were more representative of a transcendental existence than any physical location. With artists such as Caspar David Friedrich, landscape paintings, which had once been considered a mere background for history and humanity, attained the level of religious works. This trend can be elucidated by the circumstances of the time, particularly advancements in natural science and the spread of the industrial revolution throughout Europe. Suddenly nature became regarded primarily as a resource for human industry, and was thus subject to exploration and development. But the Romantic landscapes served as an antithesis to such ideas by depicting nature as divinity, as an independent, unapproachable entity. Now, more than 200 years later, nature seems to be in dire need of human protection, even as it repeatedly emasculates human reason and resistance by unleashing its destructive power through terrifying natural disasters. When such catastrophes occur, people inevitably proclaim the magnificent and celestial power of nature. But within days or even hours, life gets back to normal, and such thoughts are forgotten as we resume our steady consumption of nature.

Despite being created under completely different circumstances, Kong’s landscape paintings are quite similar to Friedrich’s in terms of composition and sentiment. But while Friedrich portrays nature as transcendental and sublime, Kong’s version of nature is artificial, as is any sense of the sublime that emerges from the paintings. In his series of works with the theme A Night in Byukje, which he has presented in several different exhibitions, Kong presents an environment that has been manipulated for human convenience and comfort. In this regard, the differences between the two painters become more vivid. While Friedrich found his landscapes by scouring the harsh, desolate mountain ranges of Silesia or the shores of the North Sea, Kong simply had to look out his window or wander around his own neighborhood. But both Friedrich and Kong can create images of a lake, valley, ocean, or sky that impart the utter solitude and isolation that is the inevitable condition of every human being. The landscapes of both Friedrich and Kong hint at the existence of an absolute that cares nothing for our highest hopes and expectations. But while Friedrich adopts a religious attitude in attempting to capture the divine manifestation of nature, Kong seeks to contrast nature’s indefinite movements with the myopic views of industrialism and capitalism. Kong’s rhetoric becomes evident in the numerous artificial elements to be found in his paintings. In fact, in Kong’s works, nature seems to be emerging from artificial settings, rather than vice versa. For example, the paintings in his exhibition Neighborhood Nature stir our anxiety by showing elements of nature that appear to be quietly biding their time amidst human construction, as if they were conspirators in some divine plot. The people occupying his landscapes are typically engaging in the most banal daily activities, like eating, drinking, and relieving themselves. Despite the overall sense of unease, the people are very nonchalant, as if they were mechanical entities immersed in an artificial environment of their own creation.

Kong has an amazing capacity for exaggerating certain aspects of ordinary settings to create scenes that are highly amplified and agitated. This creates an interesting duality, as the somewhat callous attitude conveyed by the mundane setting is eventually overpowered by a cynicism that controls the entire painting. What’s more, this emotional structure is the exact rhetoric that he is trying to convey. The paintings from the series A Night in Byukje appear ugly, dismal, grotesque, and above all else, ironic. This attitude is very different from the simple sentiments expressed by artists who aspire to pure realism. But this cynicism is not merely Kong’s rhetoric; it is the very essence of the reality that he experiences and represents. By his adding his own brand of factuality to existent scenes or facts, he produces a deformed structure wherein reality becomes surreal and fantastical.


4. To Create Dystopia

Every political ideology dreams of its own utopia. But like Thomas More’s imaginary island, a utopia is an imaginary place that can never exist. But that will never stop people from trying to enact the conditions for a utopia. In fact, contemporary Korean history is filled with such misguided attempts. After being devoured by chaotic events, Korea became possessed by a psychopathological conviction to construct an artificial utopia. But rather than being the main subjects of this utopia, the Korean people were used as the machinery to build it. An entire nation of individuals was reduced to pure labor, as 99% of the Korean population diligently worked, ate, breathed, and reproduced solely to achieve the goals set by and for the elite 1% who ruled the society. In order to resolve and relieve their desires, they constructed the most artificial natural environment, which Kong came to regard through the concept of “neighborhood nature.” “Neighborhood” can mean the area in the vicinity of a place or thing, but it also suggests a psychological closeness that goes beyond physical distance or proximity. Similarly, “neighborhood nature” can refer to elements of nature that are artificially implanted in an urban zone, but it also means the compulsion to create such areas. In general, “neighborhood nature” means a local park built in order to improve the health, happiness, and recreational lives of people living near one another, or people living within a certain area that comprises a district. Here, more concepts emergesuch as “local residents” or “neighborhood district”that were born around the time when human life and the environment began to be systematized. These ideas have the power to categorize and redefine reality as a tool or objective truth, and such power is deeply rooted in the human unconscious. But “neighborhood nature”, as an amalgam of nature and desire, is often a veneer to conceal humanity’s relentless capitalist and mammonist drives. Kong exposes this pretense through his own particular brand of realism. Somehow, from the most ordinary scenesa motel, a local festival, a tourist spot, an empty lot awaiting development, an artificial lakehe is able to divulge the political aspects of contemporary society. But the relationship between his images and reality is not merely notional or conceptual, nor is his political commentary overt. He has an innate sense of the ethics of realism, which involves not only staying true to reality, but also avoiding any attempt to imply or force a judgment. Still, his paintings have a critical and seditious edge, in that they reveal the dystopic aspects of a supposed utopia, unlike the politicians or real estate developers who routinely attempt to do the opposite. His video and conceptual works are perhaps even more overt in their defiance, and such political dissent places Kong in the margins.


5. Beyond Realism

Throughout the 20th century, artists experimented with various ways of representing reality. Even those styles that are not explicitly defined as realism can still be easily associated with realism in numerous ways. Any form of art that aimed to remove itself from reality or realism was relegated to mere decoration, an artistic parlor game. But for Kong, “realism” is more than just an aesthetic axiom; it is something fundamental, like Kant’s categorical imperative. He views the form of realism as one of various methods he can employ to convey his message. Thus, realism functions as his manual for communicating through art.

Can a fact be expressed in words? Or can language contain truth? Kong has clearly spent time contemplating such questions, and his works provide many answers. While some of those answers seem almost improvised, as if transmitting his reflex response to a situation, others are more refined, and are clearly the result of prolonged thought and revision. One clue to his feelings can be found in the titles of his works. For an artist, choosing titles for works can be a very interesting process. Before the rise of postmodernism, the trend was for contemporary artists to title their works with serial numbers or the main color or compositional feature. This practice reflects the tendency to delve deeply into the formalism of a concept, which came about after the musical concept of the “opus” was incorporated into visual art by Malevich and Kandinsky. Of course, such titles reflect the ideal of anonymity that is inherent to modernism, where individuals are merely constituents of an overlying structure. In such case, rather than a name, one’s identity is better designated with a resident registration number, military service number, class year, telephone number, address etc. Of course, collective groups have been known to provide their members with names in order to convey an illusory sort of individuality. But for Kong, titles are an important signifier of an artwork’s meaning. He uses his titles to mark his paintings as individualized, singular entities, as something unique. For example, as we ponder the odd image of noodles placed in a doghouse in his Globalization and Nationalism, the title hints at the contemplative distance that bridges concept and reality. Nothing is as it seems to be, even facts or so-called “reality”. Every aspect of reality comes to us distorted by our senses, organized by our language, and adjusted by our politics. Kong plays with these and other concepts in his paintings, thereby reverting the reality we have defined with our language back to the true reality, by relying solely on the existing power of language. A title can never serve to define the reality or actuality delivered by an artwork, but it may cast doubt upon it, or at least reactivate our thought process. Rather than serving as a definitive conclusion, Kong’s works furnish more clues and opportunities to investigate that which we had previously thought was a conclusion.


6. Fragmented Conclusion

There are two reasons why this conclusion is “Fragmented”. First, it is my admission that my summary has not done justice to Kong’s art. Second, it is because his works are strategically fragmented in order to set up an artistic progression to connect past, present, and future.

Of course, every artist can create diverse or consistent works according to their own will and capacity. The formation and development of an artistic direction and style belongs to an artist’s own independent domain, so it is an inviolable area that cannot be breached by others. Kong’s works are unquestionably diverse, in terms of genre alone. He has created installations, videos, performances that have left the audience somewhat perplexed, and also organized happenings in which he altered a concept in some very literal way. But in the end, for this exhibition, he chose to feature his paintings, which might be viewed as traditional. Of course, his current interest in painting may not be final, and I would not be surprised to see him trying something new in the future. I do not wish to give the impression that I am openly in favor of artists arbitrarily working in different genres or instigating randomness, because of some post-modern inclination. But I do think that the best way to conclude this article is to simply arrange some fragments, rather than attempting to contain Kong’s art within fixed categories. If I were to toss out a few possible interpretations of Kong’s art, I would have to begin with his works’ relation to reality. But rather than a reality formed by pure representation, he addresses a twisted, distorted reality, that is further modified by his own cynical attitude. Maybe it could be called a “virtual reality”, a term that he has used as a title for one of his works. In any case, his reality represents a different system of factuality from the one most of us live in. Therefore, in this postmodern 21st century, his somewhat traditional-looking paintings are better classified as alternative, rather than retro.

Second, this alternative can be viewed in relation to a few concepts that address contemporary society, such as the “body without organs” or Deleuze’s machines. Third, Kong’s art recalls a prevailing theme of postmodernism, perhaps best expressed by Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation: “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation.” Similarly, Kong uses an artificial art to depict the artificial landscapes and circumstances of contemporary society. Kong’s innovative working method enacts a dual mode and logic, through which he uses his artistic imagination to maneuver reality in such a way as to allow us to process the surreal elements embedded therein. But the surreal-ness of Kong’s art is not some conceptual spectre floating above reality, because he incessantly applies that surreal-ness to address reality.



Jung Rak Kim (Professor, Korea National Open University)


A Boy Called the 20th Century


In the 20th century, we were all boys. So we were inexperienced, rough and foolish. Since the 20th century was the century of boys, we were generally childish, awkward in certain aspects, crafty in a child’s sense, and naïve. The 20th century was the century of a boy with the measles, and sick as he was, the child was merciless as well as pitiable. In the 20th century, too many people were killed. Like a kid dropping candle wax on a row of traveling ants, we killed each other without thinking. For a short period of time we dreamed of rational lives; this time passed, and we turned a blind eye to each other’s rationalizations for the sake of our pan-global desires. And then became incoherent.



After a major war between brethren at the end of colonization, and carrying the dead bodies of the unremembered, the survivors lived for “survival.” In a period when people were about to go from survival to life, to the artist who was born in the mid 1960s, what was the 20th century? For an artist who met “his boyhood” in a time when the age was the wound, a hungry machine, how were those times engraved? As I stand before Kong Sung-Hun’s works, I question. The word “modernization” comes to mind. Then I add the “word” of the Park Chung-Hee era, “modernization of the homeland.” I laugh but taste an unpleasant flavor in my mouth. We memorized the Charter for National Education, “pledged” the Pledge to the National Flag, waved flags while standing on the roadsides, and chanted, “Let’s unite and live well together” like a prayer to Buddha. Then after a few decades, just like that, hybrid, imitation-type “love hotels” appeared in Ilsan, in Jangheung, here, there and everywhere, like bamboo growing after the rain. Wedding halls resembling love hotels were built, and houses, parks and streets designed in the same fashion were constructed. Monuments of our minds. Kong Sung-Hun’s works print these things. While using the methodology of “artificial,” through which they were made, he pushes them to the extreme. To the artist it is fascination and hatred. It is a trace of existence left on the artist’s body, prior to the act of work. To repeat myself, Kong’s work is a statement about the history of South Korea (in this case South Korea does not mean “South Korea” as in South / North Korea, but “particularly” means the vacuum of South Korea without its “North”), or the history of “South Korean modernization.” The artist overlaps the dreary times, draws out history from the most unhistorical scenes, recomposes them and spreads them before us. This is shrewd skill.



Kong Sung-Hun is an artist who is quick to respond to time. To time? No, to problems.

According to the chronology on the back of his pamphlet for this exhibition, it is his tenth solo exhibition. As I looked at the titles of his earlier exhibitions, I was happy to think that my impressions of the artist were correct. He was responding and speaking about the times he had seen.

91: Blind-work-At one point, the artist worked with “window shades” called blinds. While painting rainbow colors on the neutral material, and overlapping them in a round shape, the artist “played” with the “window shades.” Since in this “blind game” the subject of the game was “blind,” it could be seen as a cold smile towards the popular song called “Post-Modern,” and an alibi for the artist’s own work and position. While playing, he gained an alibi for his being an artist, but was perhaps injured as well subsequently by the alibi. Because he played even though he was unable to, in order to endure that fact, he would have had to erase his existence about half to become transparent, or become shameless to the extent of insidious. Considering that the title of his third solo exhibition was “Struggling,” his attitude was most likely the former.

‘93: Project for Perfect Realty, Perfect Flatness- paradox, lies. Because the artist literally does not exist through a downright lie, perhaps he was trying to constitute/present a certain “concept” that could be presumed? There are certain situations implied by the words “reality” and “flatness” in the art of Korea, and certain weight these two words carry in the jumbled ecosystem of Korean art. The strategy was to neutralize and dismantle such aspects of the words through the comedy of rhetoric called “perfect,” and the popular word “project,” respectively. This was a statement by the artist on the awkwardness of contemporary art, and moreover, the starting point of “artistic ambition” to realize “perfect reality and perfect flatness.”

Among Kong Sung-Hun’s works, there is something called Open-Doors and Ultra-Nationalism (Gae-bang & Guk-su). Kong replaced the Korean terms for “open-doors” and “ultra-nationalism” with puns which mean “Dog-Room (House)” and “Noodles.” A bowl with swollen noodles in it lies shyly inside a faulty plastic dog house. The reason I could only see this pun as a pun was because if the artist was expressing such a severe sense of contempt towards the language activity of his times, then I thought the weight he felt in our history must also be significant. It was like he saw the hot despair lying under the cold gaze.

‘97: Struggling- Kong Sung-Hun’s work is generally ambivalent. It is comic and wretched. Around the time of this exhibition, I heard that the artist made his own projectors in order to project images of his self-portrait crawling like bugs. He made about 80 of them. For someone like me who has never made even one thing like that, it is hard to imagine the hard work involved. But clearly it must have been severe labor. Why did he do it? There must have been practical matters such as economic issues, but more likely, it seems that he wanted to overlap his “struggling” labor with the projected image of worms crawling. Simple labor to create identical products and the simple video images resulting from such labor. The “exhibitionism” of showing the “insectized” self, and the circulation of repeated labor to prove its authenticity. Linking together of the wretchedness of comedy and the comic aspects of wretchedness. I believe that such circulation is inherent in Kong Sung-Hun’s Night, which is to unfold hereafter, in a somewhat different form.

2000: Dog, Night- So that I could write, to find out what people thought about Kong Sung-Hun, I typed “Kong Sung-Hun” on an Internet portal site, and an interesting text popped up. The text is from the blog of someone called “camel.” It is a bit long, but let me quote part of it.

he, who had worked with installation art, suddenly presented paintings of reactionary orientation. Artist and art critic Park Chan-Gyoung waged a direct attack on his paintings using the expression ‘the betrayal of Kong Sung-Hun.’ What use is fine painting (he called it painting-painting) in the 21st century post-modern era? The contents of his attack can be summarized in that sentence. But Kong’s position against Park is firm and clear. He responds to Park’s criticism that paintings are unable to maintain a critical distance in the Brechtian sense with the so-called ‘glazing’ technique he used. But if that indicates the strange oil paint surface seen in western classical paintings that resemble ‘shiny’ Formica gloss, I can say with confidence that he clearly enlightened us that what was in the picture-frame was not the real thing but a painting, a fictitious product of expression

I did not know that Kong Sung-Hun and Park Chan-Gyoung had had such a conversation. While looking at this passage, I thought they must have had a fuller conversation than mentioned in the text, but for some reason they both seemed wanting. I also thought it was a variation of misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the conditions for a painting to exist. Since we are no longer living in the age of Solgeo, it is clear that a painting is a sort of “virtual reality,” which is something that objectifies the world transcendentally. Why do we need public discussion about that? Why are we so pathetic? I believe the reason Kong Sung-Hun came back to, or just came to painting, or painting-painting was so that he could seriously respond to the “Project for Perfect Reality and Perfect Flatness,” which I called “ambition” earlier. This is because of the physical conditions of the painting, as the only place this contradiction can be solved.

Are dog and night metaphors? I thought that if such common motives were adopted as some kind of symbol, then the artist must be hesitating before the world he is trying to talk about. He is test-driving the painting. Standing before a comprehensive world that cannot be specified

There were many dogs at Kong’s home at Byeokje, where I visited a few times. I did not ask whether they were the artist’s dogs or just strays. Dogs and night as objects of paintingSince night is a focused flat plane, and there are many dogs around, as far as the artist is concerned, they may serve as good material to test reality and flatness (flatness that includes the space beyond flatness).

From 2001 to 2005: Night at Byeokje- The artist held 5 solo exhibitions under this title. (The title of his exhibition at Berlin in 2002 was Night View around My Home. In other words, it was Night at Byeokje.) This amounts to one “Night at Byeokje” exhibition per year, and if we include Dog, Nightin this work category, he used the themes of Byeokje and the night in six among his nine solo exhibitions. What was it about the “Night at Byeokje” that made the artist focus so much? I can think of three reasons.

They are the flatness of the night, the reality of Byeokje, and the historical aspect of the “Night at Byeokje.” (Though there is also the factor of convenience, as it is a location near the artist’s home, let us omit thatI feel like I can hear Kong Sung-Hun’s voice saying “But that’s very important” but anyway) These reasons are studied, carried out and made to exist in the works in succession.

Everyone knows that a painting is flat. Also that illusion creates spaceNight is an infinite space, but is also a space-plane of twisted illusion, which sometimes looks like it is flat due to the wall of darkness. As the dog, which does not indicate anything but simply exists, enforces the flatness of the night, a “virtual plane,” probably a visual hallucination, is objectified through the chain reaction of the sign called “Dog,”emphasizing the flat plane called night in the space painted in the flat plane called the painting. The artist re-verifies the common sense of hallucination through his work. The anxiety held by the act of painting in this era is the other side of this verification process. The gloss on the surface is the technical aspect as well as the full stop of that verification.

Night at Byeokje seems like a psychological projection of South Korea. It is that universal. It is a realistic representation of the structure called South Korea. “Byeokje” is the actual place name, and the virtual place name. It is a space that is not the suburbs, but it is not that it is not the suburbs. It is not the city, not the country, nor is it a non-rural, non-urban area. Because the center is gone, it is not the center, but it is not that it is not the center, either. It is not the homeland, and not a foreign land. It is that sort of space. It is an existing miniature of such a space in which we live.

Night of the shabby raw thingsModernization, having lost its rationality, turned time and space into a ghetto while rationalizing its raw desires. “Night at Byeokje” thus is given-acquireshistorical context.



The title of this exhibition is OutskirtsLeisure. “Night at Byeokje” has been settled, I thought. The artist now crosses the stone bridge he has been just tapping on. The scene he sees on the other side of the bridge is the outskirts and the leisure. But the exhibited paintings are paradoxes of the exhibition title. The objects painted are manufactured outskirtsactually “inskirts”and the leisure is not something enjoyable, but devices for a compulsive leisure, which must be enjoyed. This is evident in the roads leading out to the suburbs, the gigantic parks, the monuments, and the sports arenas. The background of the only person who is acting as a subject in the exhibited worksa person evading some sort of duty to indulge in fishingis the apartment complex in which he lives / in which he is unable to live. The artist lifts out our portraits from Sports Arena, where people walk continuously for self comfort within incoherent time and space, Lake Park, where family members endlessly confirm their love in a creation similar to nature, and Motel, where one loves / must love without end.

He shows that we have fallen as our own comfort girls, and reveals this artificial world. It is an overlapping paradox. The artist stresses artificial things as raw things in order to hate, and is captivated by the artificiality of the emphasized rawness. That is how Kong Sung-Hun’s works represent “history.” It is a method that does not accuse or explain the appearances of South Korea, which has been intensively destroyed since the late 20th century, but hates them through an existentiality that is seduced by them. Or perhaps it is a method that proves that the outside is in fact the inside through an assembly of pain without an inner aspect. To exaggerate slightly, I think they are the scars of those who spent their boyhoods in South Korea in the late 20th century, or to exaggerate even more, scars left by the “century of boys” known as the 20th century. Therefore, in an era filled with commercial activities by normal people posing as insane, it seems that the way of the artist, who endures cold insanity by pretending to be normal, is an important method of responding to such fundamental scars. Thus, in a ghetto which cannot be reversed, the ambivalent circulation of emotion called seduction and hatred provides a “viewpoint” to look into the madness of the era in which the external became the internal.



Several years of the 21st century have passed in a fashion that seems to aggravate and develop the nightmares of the 20th century. We are still unable to free ourselves from the “spell of the boy” that was cast upon us in the 20th century. This is so in terms of the whole world as well as the Korean peninsula. Of course it is also the same with the space of life where our bodies touch, known as South Korea. Our bodies are at a loss in the rapid retrogression towards the 20th century. Kong Sung-Hun’s works ask us how we are going to remember our immaturity and live through it. In other words, we should live to stop the retrogression of “immature rationalization” and find out how to advance toward a mature life in the artificial light. When the light and colors of artificial light are so beautiful that they give us the shivers, that is the moment when they are painted so that we may find the path, and when the colors are shining with light.

Hwang Se-Jun (Artist)


Excuses of Someone Concerned with Art (Interview with Myself)

1. Deviation

Kong Sung-Hun B (hereafter Kong B) : As far as I know you seem to have been mainly interested in criticism of Fine Art or Art, in other words art about Art. In today s interview, I want to use your work as a sort of spectroscope to go over the spectrum of a rather large theme called doing art in Korea. First of all, you have a peculiar personal history. After majoring painting in college, you transferred to the department of electronic engineering and graduated there. Then you studied painting again in graduate school. Were you looking for means to put food on the table?

Kong Sung-Hun A (hereafter Kong A) : At the time I was too naive to worry about food on the table. Anyway though I mentioned this a few times, there were two reasons. One was that I wanted to solve some technical aspects of the works I was planning, and more importantly, I wanted to improve my physical constitution.

Kong B : What do you mean physical constitution?

Kong A : When I think about when I was in school, I felt like my feet were floating about 30cm above the ground. After graduation I felt empty. I wanted to become an artist, but was in a loss where to put my feet. So I wanted to start over in art, beginning with something more definite and concrete. In order to be good at fine art, which is the only kind of art that uses matter, it would take something more than just transient ideas.

Kong B : What exactly are the transient ideas that made you feel limitations?

Kong A : Well, there is a seon(zen) poem I memorized when I was in college.

山是山 水是水 : A mountain is a mountain, and water is water

山不是山 水不是水 : A mountain is not a mountain, and water is not water

山是水 水是山 : A mountain is water, and water is a mountain

山是山 水是水 : A mountain is a mountain, and water is water


I was unpleased with myself, rushing to understand the second and third lines even before I could understand the first line of the poem. I was chanting “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form (空卽是色) without knowing what ‘Gong()’ or ‘Saek()’ were. Ultra-logic that did not go through the stage of extreme of logic made me fall into a sense of emptiness. So I wanted to start all over from the evident fact that what ‘is’ is what ‘is’ and what ‘isn’ t’ is what ‘isn’ t’.

Kong B : You seem to be speaking with Monochrome painting, or Korean Minimalist painting of the 70s in mind.

Kong A : To a certain extent yes, but actually it is just my own problem. I still have words like spirit, soul, nature, human, freedom, ‘Do(the Way)’ and ‘Gi(life force)’ crossed out from my vocabulary dictionary. Rather, they are in parentheses. I thought that because such universal words have poor connotations compared to their denotations, they could easily be made to mean something else depending on the user. To be more severe, I thought those concepts could easily be exploited. So I had to put a hold on my interest in art, which largely relied on such concepts.

Kong B : Even if it is obscure, or cannot help being obscure, doesn’t visual art, which relies on universal terms, perform a transcendent function of art, in the sense that it reveals the insufficiencies in reality in a way closer to ideals?

Kong A : Sure. But with regard to transcendence, the issue of from must come before the issue of to. If we overly pay attention to the issue of to the transcendence can easily become fiction. Before raising my head to look at the stars, I wanted to confirm where my feet were first. That is because the feeling of the earth touching on the bottom of my feet felt much more real than the revelation thrown by a light that shined several tens of thousands of years ago. I would never deny the values implied by the universal terms. It’s just that in art, such universal values should be talked about through more specific and individual terms. Essentially, this is even more so in the area of art, where the time variable is inevitably limited, in the same way a short story suggests totality through a slice of life. The method of asserting universal values through universal terms seem more appropriate for politics or philosophy.

Kong B : If so, I am also curious about your position on Minjung Art, which continued throughout the '80s when you were in college. Minjung art(Korean Art Movement for political Democracy in 1980’s) surely started from a perception of reality.

Kong A : But minjung art also uses the universal term minjung (grass-root people).

Kong B : You reject all words with a high level of abstraction.

Kong A : Pretty much.



2. Style - Consistency

Kong B : Now let us talk about your actual works. According to a slide I saw at the seminar of Forum A, which was held during your last solo exhibition, the styles of your work are diverse to the extent of distracting at first glance. They include everything from painting and charcoal drawings to electronic media.

Kong A : Is “distracting” or “diverse” a problem?

Kong B : Well, I believe that the role of an artist is to endlessly present questions and search for answers with a consistent viewpoint about the silent worldeven if that answer can only reveal one side of the hidden truth or reality. In that sense, to say that your forms are diverseconsidering that the form is a vessel in which artists contain certain significances they discovereds perhaps to say that you have not been able to find a consistent stance about the world you are trying to reveal. What do you think about this?

Kong B : I can’t deny it. I also doubt whether there is some sort of “fixed and hard nucleus” inside me that can be called identity. I feel severed from all valuable things that are worthy of taking on as faith. Even if I had such a nucleus, I wouldn’t be able to explain it. I would just have to act and think according to how the nucleus vibrates, as a being that surrounds the nucleus with flesh. How come movie directors can cross over to various genres such as mellow, action and history, but artist can’t?

Kong B : There is a need to distinguish between a screenplay writer and a director. I want to use the word artist as something that includes value. People use the title director just for someone who directs a film, but if that director pursues a certain worldview of his/her own, and that perspective gives us valuable insight, then that director may be called an artist.

Kong A : . . . . . .

Kong B : So if the diversity of your style originates from a consistent intention, I am curious what kind of strategy it has. If being schizophrenic about paranoia is post-modernism, would your case also be in that category?

Kong A : Well, I don’t know. But if postmodernism means anarchistic rejection of rationality or reason, I can clearly state that I am not that case. And I believe that we can’t discuss post-modernism in Korea, which is a surrealist nation(?), in the sense that modern, modern and post modern are all mixed up in a place where there are too many things where they shouldn’t be. The substance is obscure as it is, and how can we match it to a ruler borrowed from overseas? Such plagiarism of theoretic views and plagiarism of value measures are even more of a problem than plagiarism of art works.

Kong B : The conversation is going off course.

Kong A : Yes but I must say one more thing. In my personal opinion, even Picasso may not be an important artist to us. The four-dimensional perception system of the cubists was not a revolutionary change for us. Though the heliocentric theory was an incident that almost got Galilei beheaded over there in the West, when practical scholar Hong Dae-Yong talked about it, the Korean envoy to China and the high official of the Tsing Dynasty merely said it was an interesting thoughtsomething trivial to talk over drinks.

Kong B : I agree that we must establish our own perspectives. But the problem is that it is too complicated to discuss here and now. Let us talk about that later if there is a change, and come back to the issue of style.

Kong A : Very well. First I want to tell you that my work has consistency in its own way. Of course it is not consistency of the form, which is sought through series, but a consistency of distance, or a consistency of phase. You spoke about art for the sake of art earlier, but I wanted to place my coordination as someone looking at culture and art as close as possible to the origin. Though I don’t know if it is possible to stand at the origin of the coordinates, still I wanted to see art in a proper way through the phase difference of the waves from various forces interfering with art or culture, which had always felt strange to me.

Kong B : If so, what you felt as various forces interfering with art, assuming from what was revealed through your work.art work vending machine, receiving a fee at the entrance of art museums, etc.they would be things like the institutionalization of art or commercialization of art under capitalism.

Kong A : Basically that is true. In these days’ terms, I wanted to take away the foam from art.

Kong B : If we can say that contemporary art used the “alienation effect,” which took objects away from their context of everyday life and made then unfamiliar, as its key strategy, in your case you also seem to have had an intention to alienate art. In the issue of style as well, we can understand that you quoted or adopted various expression methods of art while maintaining your distance from art. Don’t you mean your work style became more diverse as a result of that?

Kong A : You can look at it that way.

Kong B : But haven’t you ever felt discontent about yourself for not having a unique individual style that makes your work your work?



3. Style Individuality

Kong A : When I was doing the work that created disputes with art that started with the capital letter A, I did not have such discontent. I didn’t care even if someone looked at my work and said it wasn’t art. I myself called my self a person concerned with art rather than an artist.

Kong B : That’s very self-deprecative. Did you have some sort of love-hate emotions from a one-sided love towards art? I feel a certain desperation.

Kong A : It was about the fact that art was not an important social event.

Kong B : Historically, there weren’t many eras in which art was treated importantly. Isn’t the importance increasing in the modern age?

Kong A : I don’t know about the West, but in Korea I thought art had no social influence. Of course since the 90s, crowds of people flooded the retrospective of Namjun Paik at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, art related articles were reported often in the media, and solo exhibitions of young artists in their 30’s or 40’s received a lot of attention. But in my eyes such trends seemed not to prove the influence of art, but looked like attempts to create spectacles, include art in entertainment, and commercialize art. I felt that art was not truly relating to most people’s lives.

Kong B : That perspective is too pessimistic. The attitude of the consumers is possibly inappropriate. But expectations that are too hasty are not good in barren cultural soil. Gresham’s law that says “Bad money drives out good” can act in the opposite direction in the case of culture. When one gets sick of bad money, they look for the good. Perhaps we can call it the “educational function of bad money.” In that sense the increase in culture or art is initially positive, even if the attitude is not appropriate.

Kong A : That could be the case. Anyway, the fact that I noticed was that even though art was socially a circumferential event, ironically it was continuously being mythologized. For example, almost unlimited freedom is allowed to artists and the public envy their free lives(?). But if an artist is free, it means that he/she is without responsibility, and that he/she has no power. In a never-transcendent society, and a society where only economic logic dominates, the mythological things are pushed back and become mirages. They loose their realistic active force. And then I thought that only the exterior without mass could be the object of consumption that could supplement what is lacking in reality. In other words, it is not the work that is appreciated, but according to the formula that the amount of the wrapping is the measure for the development of capitalism, it is the strange life, sudden behavior, protruding actions, looks and prices of the works of the artist that are appreciated(=consumed). And it seemed that the so-called unique style of the artist performed the mere function of a label on the package.

Kong B : Since the age of Romanticism, which sang the song of victory over rationalism, the various mythological coloring of art also had the aspect of counteraction against the era of total secularization. In other words, to preserve the easily contaminated, appropriate isolation from reality is necessary.

Kong A : I was questioning the use of art, not the original aspects.

Kong B : And, can an artist exist without a unique style? In other words, isn’t style a necessary condition to be an artist?

Kong A : Maybe that is so. That is why I called myself a person concerned with art. More than anything, I wanted my works to make an announcement rather than an expression, and in order to do so I thought I had to avoid easy styles. Especially I wanted to avoid sensuous styles.

If we understand style simply that it is material formalization of an artist’s unique individuality, and that individuality is something which comes out from physical constitution or peculiarity, then it becomes easy for style to rely on the vague thing referred to as sense. It would be a trite story that good style comes from polishing good sensibility. However, I think that art is an area that appeals to sensibility, but that alone is not enough. Concepts such as “sense” or “instinct” are like a black box. In other words, they indicate a certain function hidden within humans, but do not explain anything about how they operate. With such mushy sensibility, it seemed impossible to make myself a cane for a long journey, and being so naive would make me susceptible to the seductions by even small flowers on the roadside, making it difficult to become a trustworthy guide. Most of all, sensibility on one hand could have been grounds for art of the past to transcend time and move people, but did not seem to have the power to advance on its own or decide on the future. Ultimately, in the case of art sense is something we must carry along and not put up front in the lead. So if someone excessively stresses sensible style, to me it sounds like a naive and corny gospel saying that only love can save the world. The things that are too beautiful that they possess me somehow always feel shameless. Was it a lengthy explanation? To put it simply, style is nothing but a device or structure to enable what the artist is trying to say, so I just search for the forms that can best reveal the concepts of my work. I thought there was no need to be overly obsessed with style. No one is buying the works anyway.



4. Meida

Kong B : I believe we can call your method of approaching art the method of “elimination.” It is in the sense that you eliminate the variables you consider unnecessary or inappropriate one by one. Consequently, be even eliminating the style, you are evaporating your own qualities as an artist. In other words, considering the reality of the art world, where diverse styles from traditional oils to high-tech works are overflowing, the diverse styles of one artist can easily be buried. A more consistent and powerful voice would have the competitive edge. But if we take the trouble to look, you also have a style of the stylesa sort of meta-style. Perhaps we can call it literalism, as said by Chan-Gyoung Park. That is so in the sense that most of the works can be reduced to words. This is particularly noticeable in the relationship between the work and the title. And a reductive position can be seen also in the media. Like the works of your most recent solo exhibition, you generally prefer low-tech works achieved by handiworkcontrary to the expectations provided by your credentials of graduating from the department of electronic engineering. Please comment on this point.

Kong A : First of all, I don’t have the money or technology to use high-tech. Born in a country that directly entered the contemporary times without experiencing early stages of modernization, I have always had the desire to experience the technology of the early stages of industrialization. The technology of that era, when individual inventors were working actively, felt more comfortable to work with, in the boundary of my capabilities. Because they were the form before technology was mythologized, they feel more honest. Today’s black-box-like science and technologyin which you know the input and output, but the advanced technologies function like a magic boxrelatively reduce my intervention. Somehow they seem to emit the sweet smell of utopia, making me reluctant to use them.

Kong B : In art the media plays an active role to interfere with the form and contents of the work. Not all expressions are possible in all media. If that is the case, new media will promote new forms of art that appeal to new sensibilities, and broaden the possibilities of expression in art. Wouldn’t that be the role of technology art?

Kong A : Of course. But I don’t want to be classified as a technology artist, and I am not interested in combining technology with art. As always, it is one of the issues we always drift by superficially, but one of the attitudes we must be most cautious about in the issue of adopting technology as a medium of art is what I call “externalist scientism.” Scientism is an attitude that gives blind trust to the rationality of science and progressiveness based on a misunderstanding about the methodologies of science. Externalism is formalism in the worst sense. This belief creates an easy equation that anything that uses state-of-the-art media is state-of-the-art art. “The newer, the better” becomes the grounds for value judgment. This attitude accommodates itself with commercial journalism as a variation of avantgardism in only the external sense. According to their logic, if neon was already brightening the night streets of Shanghai in the 1930’s and televisions became household appliances in 1929, how can they be more advanced than traditional paintings done in acrylics, which were developed fairly recently? I believe there is no reason for art to call for high-tech because of an inferiority complex to science, which considers innovation as its top value.

Kong B : I doubt anyone would judge art in that way.

Kong A : Hopefully.

Kong B : Let us talk about something different. If one of the plans of modernism was to break down the borders between art and life, I believe today’s video art or computer art can open such possibilities as well. What is your opinion?

Kong A : In traditional art one needed significant practice and talent until they could become skilled in that medium, however, one can produce the image he/she wants with relatively less effort in the case of video or computer. Such media, which are getting easier and more powerful every day, will probably keep spreading until the last person on the end of the earth uses them. To tell you about my personal taste, I am not attracted to signal processing art, which lacks texture. It is like caressing a woman who has perfectly smooth skin without even one flaw, but is cold-blooded. Art that refuses to be matter and exists only as digits appears to be a sign of hygienic mysophobia. I prefer tactile sense, sensuality that smells like sweat, and the kind of sensuality that can be seen in the film “Trop belle pour toi (Too Beautiful for You).”



5. Transformation

Kong B : You must have had difficulties doing such diverse works. How was it?

Kong A : I always felt I was beginning anew. If I had painted, my skill would have improved, but since my work was changing all the time, I felt like nothing was accumulating. Sometimes it felt like wringing out a rag from which not a drop of water would come out. There was no such thing as inertia in my work.

Kong B : While most artists are fixed to their styles, you seem to work attached to an origin and endlessly circling it. The method of maintaining a point of origin and carrying out the work after making a conclusion in advance could cause creative constipation. Too much nutrition sticks to the blade of analysis. But now another question arises. Though your work might have been consuming to you, how productive was it for our art scene? In other words, if literature criticism is literature about literature, and art criticism also carries value as literature about art, then does your work, which is art criticism through art, have such active value as art? Of course it could have the function of looking back and reflecting on art, but that is only a passive role. To stand at the origin is easy to become regressive. The position of the origin may widen your view, but it may not be able to give any guidelines about which direction to go. In short, the productivity of your work depends on how many discourses you produce about the premises of art.

Kong A : I cannot but admit that the work I did so far had its limitations. Disputes are productive only when there are counter responses against the disputes. The world that sells torn blue jeans, which look like an expression of resistance, is too generous to disputes.

Kong B : Perhaps there is a reason that your objections took place within the art museums.

Kong A : I guess so.

Kong B : If that was the case, the landscapes you showed at the 1996 MANIF exhibition seemed unusual. There is a need for explanation.

Kong A : First of all, I wanted to paint well. And there was something I wanted to test out. If there was someone who thought my painting was good in the commercial spaced known as the art fair, I wondered if they would buy it even if it was painted with dust. From a distance no one can tell that it was a dust painting, but it was evidently very dirty if you were close to it.

Kong B : So, did you sell it?

Kong A : I sold one at a cheap prince. It was the first and the last.

Kong B : Since the dust painting, you began to produce slide projectors, using your body as subject matter. While your previous works tried to reveal the contradictions of the external circumstances with the artist concealed, the slide works appear to show traces of self-consciousness. Did you give up starting disputes?

Kong A : It was just a change of focus. The contradictory situation clearly existed, but its substance seemed to be off target. If that was the case, I thought that I might be experiencing symptoms caused by pressure created by the situation.

Most of all, I was sorry to dispute art any more. It seemed too feeble for me to keep picking on. I felt like a bully causing harm. If hypocrisy is the absence of intentions to practice good, harm-causing is the absence of courage to do good, the cowardice caused by lack of confidence about the result of the good behavior.

Kong B : In a way, to practice art brings about a situation where one must keep making excuses rather than asserting something. The development of art theory seems to be evidence of this. In the past a silent agreement was possible between the artist and the general art public on what art could or couldn’t do, but nowadays, we face a situation in which artists must made definitions about the role and righteousness of art, and carry out their art based on such determinations. If we look at it this way, it seems that you must have been making zero adjustments for a long time. The perverse image of you floating and struggling in your solo exhibition last year titled “Struggling” seemed to reveal the fact that you were looking at your self as the final object to zero-adjust. Returning to your self from the situation seems to suggest the beginning of a certain change. Like Hyun-Do Kim once said, I expect you’re your transformation to become increasingly interesting. Though it seems like a tentative conclusion, don’t you think that in our art scene a good work of art can perform the role of criticism?

Thank you for your time.

Kong A : Thank you. I did my best not to make irrelevant remarks.

Kong, Sung-Hun