The Storied Space of Korean Dansaekhwa: The 1992 and 2012 Exhibitions
Yeon Shim Chung
Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Theory, Hongik University, Seoul, South Korea
fig 1 Danseakhwa: Korean Monochrome Painting,
March 17-May 13, 2012. Catalogue Cover
National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea
This paper looks at the way two exhibitions of Dansaekhwa — at the Tate gallery, Liverpool, in 1992 and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul in 2012 — created a storied space and narrative of "non-artificial nature" and modernist Korean aesthetics.1
Dansaekhwa is known as postwar Korean abstract painting, which is also referred to as monochrome painting, Dansaekjo. Although numerous terms have been used to describe Korean abstract paintings, the recent retrospective exhibition curated by Yoon Jin Sup in 2012 in Korea clarified the current terms that I deploy in this paper. Dansaekhwa, widespread in the 1970s, marked a concrete contribution to the history of modern and contemporary Korean art, with several landmark exhibitions in Korea garnering critical attention. We shall look at two exhibitions: one outside Korea and the other in Korea, marking a twenty-year interval. Taken together, I want to create embedded stories pertaining to Dansaekhwa, which is said to be non-objective art without any narrative or subject matter. My aim will be to approach this work from a contextual vantage point while replying to the critical writing of Lee Yil (1932-1997), Dansaekhwa's main protagonist critic. It is my hope to reconsider Dansaekhwa as a site or a storied "pictorial and social" space, thus fortifying its salient critical stories and formal innovations.
fig 2 Spirit of Korean Abstract Painting from the Ho-Am Art Museum Collection, May 15-June 30, 1996. Ho-Am Art Gallery, Seoul, Korea. Cover Image: Kwon Young-woo, Untitled. Gouache on paper, 224.5 x 170 cm
fig 3 Park Seo-bo, Eriture No. 41-78. Pencil, oil on hempen cloth, 194 x 300 cm. Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Korea
fig 4 Danseakhwa: Korean Monochrome Painting, March 17-May 13, 2012. Exhibition View at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea. Left to Right: Yun Hyong-Keun, Burnt & Ultramarine Blue, 2004. Oil on linen, 259.1x162.1 cm, Private Collection; Lee Ufan, From Line, 1974. Glue and stone pigment on canvas, 194x259cm, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea; Park Seo-bo, Ecriture No. 101104, 2011. Mixed media with Korean hanji paper on canvas, 180x300cm. Courtesy of the Artist.
1. Dansaekhwa: Lee Yil's "Hwanwon" and "Hwaksan"
Dansaekhwa, postwar abstract art in Korea, was loosely formed in the 1970s and continues to exist in the work of artists of the younger generation. Yet, interestingly enough, this style of work is not a painterly movement or school, but rather a tendency to create work that is "monochromatic," dansaekjo, as its manifestation. This manifestation has never disappeared and has become generationally interlocked.
The 1992 exhibition entitled "Working with Nature: Contemporary Art from Korea," consisted of the first generation of Dansaekhwa artists such as Chung Chang-Sup, Yun Hyong-Keun, Kim Tschang-Yeul, Park Seo-bo, Lee Ufan, and Lee Kang-So. Lee Yil who wrote in the exhibition catalogue defines the work as "post-minimal abstraction that is both post-formalist and post-materialist." This implies the "limiting of the ego in the intellectual sense and a curbing of involvement in the act of painting."2 This first important exhibition of Dansaekhwa for foreign viewers encapsulated the twin forces within its "nature," which appeared in writings by both Lewis Biggs and Lee Yil. "Nature" was also a typical East Asian metaphor, often distinguished from any western counterpart. Nevertheless, Lee Yil did not attempt to radically depart from modernist understandings of abstraction in this exhibition, and this is what I want to discuss here.
fig 5 Critic Lee Yil and Dansaekhwa artists
(Left to Right: Choi Myung-young, Park Seo-bo, Lee Yil, Ha Chong Hyun)
Photo Archives: Lee Yujin
fig 6 Lee Yil, "The Dynamics of Hwanwon and Hwaksan," AG, 1970.
Kim Daljin Archives, Seoul, Korea
fig 7 Chosunilbo (October 7, 1973)
fig 8 indépendants de Séoul 1974 & 1975
As Dansaekhwa was making its formation, Lee coined the terms "hwanwon" (還原, reduction) and "hwaksan" (擴散, expansion), in the catalogue preface of AG [Abbreviation of Avant-Garde] Association's exhibition.3 In his essay, Lee defines "Hwanwon" as "[the] Dynamics of Expansion and Reduction" for the 1970 AG exhibition:
From the most rudimentary forms to the events that happen along the prolongation of the everyday, or from the most fundamental and direct experiences to the material as the coagulation of concept, today's act of art is an all-out challenge against art itself and throws away all coxcombry. The significance of art at its most primary state lies not in it being "art." but in it being a confirmation of life. Today's art aims at that primitive significance…4
In this writing, Lee emphasizes today's act of art as "rudimentary forms," a "primary state," and a "confirmation of life." He continues to define "hwanwon" and "hwaksan" with the following:
Art as a "declaration of anonymity" is in itself naked art. Art reduces to the most fundamental self and at the same time expands into a state of life before art was art. What is in between such expansion and reduction is neither a certain history nor a dialectic. What lies there is a complete and true dynamic of existence. It is because a true creation lies in the awakening of this existence.5
This exhibition of AG configured the essential idea of Korean modernist criticism and pictorial traces. According to the article entitled "AG in 71 in the eye of the Japanese painter," printed in Hongdaehakbo,6 Suzuki Yoshinori (鈴木慶則) responded to the AG exhibition in Seoul, noting that:
On my stay in Korea, I could see one aspect of contemporary Korean art which, without exaggeration, is never known in Japan, and, in particular, it was fortunate to see 'AG 71' under the title of "Reality (現實) and Realization (實現)" at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (Kyeongbokgung). I assume that, considering the theme of the previous AG exhibition in 1970 as "the dynamics of hwaksan and hwanwon," AG notices the rudimentary state of nature, and parallels its structure with the confirmation of life.… I could realize, to a certain degree, that it was similar to the feeling that I drank Coca Cola with its Korean trademark. The emerging white text of Korean [Hangeul] seemed to be fresh and new, something disparate from the taste of Coca Cola.7
By interpreting "hwanwon" as an art that reduces to the most fundamental self, Lee and the Dansaekhwa artists would later create a critical site for modernist practices of abstraction in Korea. Modernist "Reduction" as the rudimentary form of art and life is also evoked in the Park Seo-bo one-man show at Myong-Dong Gallery, which ran from October 3 to 10, 1973. In an interview with a daily Korean newspaper, Park said, "my work is an action, not an expression."8 In this early solo exhibition, Park noted that only a "pulse" operates in his work and in a way it is "far niente (無爲)." Interestingly enough, in Park's remarks, "being modern is the crisis of image," of the artist in "negation" to tradition. This negation speaks elegantly to the auratic impulse of the avant-garde and it works as a modernist claim à la Clement Greenberg. In the accounts of Lee and Park in the early 1970s, there is also the coincidence of encouraging artists to return to the Zero point in art. First let's look at Lee's text:
In other words, art converges toward the most fundamental and singular state, while at the same time permeating into the complex cells of scientific civilization, or transposing into an unfamiliar material, or expanding into an act of no-contemplation in a pure sense. Has art already ceased to be art? No. If we were to in any context talk of "anti-art," it would still be under the name of art. The task presented before us today is to give new meaning of life to the art that has returned to its Zero degree [point].9
In this Zero degree of art, Park elaborates his own line as being original and singular, noting that the copious retroaction on canvas enables us to feel its resistance, and its impulsive sensation leads us to the interior of canvas. This process recalls the road to reach Tao.10
On Park's exhibition in 1973, critic Yoo Jun-Sang also expressed the idea of Park's work returning to Zero point,11 as Park criticized Euro-centered art as a result of the Western perspective of having humans at the center of a composition looking at a thing (事物). In the interplay of negation to tradition, Western (and Modern Japanese) aesthetic values and practice, these Dansaekhwa critics and artists expand their art as an anti-art form, struggling to create the utopian Esperanto of abstraction in Korea. It was Park Seo-bo who was committed to promoting possible changes to the Korean cultural economy for art and wished to show the work of these artists abroad. Apart from his solo exhibition at Myong-Dong gallery in Seoul and Muramatsu gallery in Tokyo, the Indépendant de Séoul in 1974 was fruitful in disseminating the practice and formal concentration into abstraction known as Dansaekhwa.12 A series of exhibitions and criticism began to establish the legacy of Dansaekhwa, resulting in modernist myth of Dansaekwha in Korea and culminating in the 1992 exhibition at Tate Liverpool.
2. Korean Modernism's Double Fate: Modernist Negation vs. Modernist Nostalgia
From the beginning of Dansaekhwa to the 1992 exhibition in the UK and the 2012 exhibition in Korea, there were no serious studies on the paradox of Lee Yil's "hwanwon" and "hwaksan" concepts, except for a few scholarly articles by Chung Moojeong.13 There was, however, revisionist condemnation of Lee Yil's critical perspective and other Dansaekwha critics, targeting them as descendants of colonial historicism, in particular in their critical defense of white color and monochromatic verisimilitude in their exhibition titles and articles.14 In other words, the modernist painterly practice coexists with modernist nostalgia returning to the origin and the past, unlike the Western concept. Once Lee's "Hwanwon" (還元) designates modernist abstract practice in the same way as Western abstraction; it also plays its double, ambivalent role in designating the return to the origin in the context of nostalgia. Here, I want to bring up the double-fate of "hwanwon" and discuss the calling of "returning to the origin," the literal meaning of "hwanwon."15
As a backdrop to Dansaekwha, Lee Ufan's recent interview with Yoon Jin Sup is worth quoting.16 Lee, both as witness in Korea and observer in Japan, recalls the era:
It was the time when everyone's life was frozen up in extreme poverty; it was the era of [the] abstraction. This was the background of the monochrome. With the destitute minimality in impoverished life in one hand [and] the oppressive military government on the other hand, the monochrome appeal was an ideal fit. Employing single color or the technique of repetition was chosen as an effective collective style for the purpose of expressing the will to resist.17
This statement leads us to think of the sociopolitical and economic conditions of Korea in the late 1960s and 1970s. Political opinions were easily censored, and the ideological debates of the Right and Left were fierce. At the same time, President Park Chung-hee focused all his efforts on modernizing South Korea, effacing, to some degree, the genealogy of tradition.
Beneath this landscape, what makes "hwanwon" intriguing and polemical, even problematic is to think of what "the origin, the original or the original condition" means. To return where? And what is the Zero point, and how does it differ in the Korean context? The former is the symbolic place or site to return to and the latter is a pictorial condition to return to.18 My intention here, unlike revisionist art historians, is not to criticize why Dansaekwha artists turned toward political abstention and formal experimentation. Rather, by looking at original sources, I want to bring up the concepts of "hwanwon" and "the Zero point" within the identity of Korean abstraction.
fig 9 Five Hinseku White, May 1975, Tokyo Gallery
fig 10 Chung Sang-hwa, Untitled 73-12-11, 1973. Acrylic on canvas, 227.3x181.8cm
Courtesy of Hyundai Gallery, Seoul, Korea
fig 11 Suh Seung-Won, Simultaneity 70-26, 1970. Oil on canvas
130 x 162 cm
fig 12 Lee Kang-So, Untitled – 91182, 1991. Reproduced in Working with Nature. Exhibition Catalogue (Tate Liverpool, April 8 – June 21, 1992), p. 111.
Lee Yil wrote his essay on "white thinks of" in the exhibition catalogue of "Five Hinseku White," viewed in May, 1975 in Tokyo Gallery, with works by Lee Dong-youb, Suh Seung-won, Park Seo-bo, Huh Hwang, and Kwon Yungwoo. To the critic, "the white" is not the limitation in the use of the color of white as its literal meaning; rather, it operates in the "imaginary field" of all possibilities. Lee Yil also notes that, "To our artists, the white monochrome is rather a proposal of spiritual vision accepting the world," unlike Western monochrome painters in search of new possibilities of painting.19 Monochrome, the literal meaning of a single color, is being used from this moment, although these artists did not employ one color at all. To the critic, the return to the original condition was evoking the Koreanness in the state of Zero degree in writing and in art making.20 In struggling to formulate the Zero point in art, Park also attempted to create the locality or singularity of abstraction, in the emphasis of physical and repetitive performativity. To the critic and painter, the type of Dansaekhwa was not a simple painting, but a "field" of performative involvement. In other words, the act of "a painting is a painting is a painting is a painting…" Thus, the painters accumulate their anti-art form or informe in the gestures of their hands and bodies.
In interpreting the color of white literally, however, Joseph Love, one critic of this exhibition wrote in the Japan Times, Sunday, May 18, 1975: "Despite geographical nearness, it is rare to see a full scale exhibition of Korean art in Japan. There is a sense of isolation, almost sadness in it after the Koryo Period and one can still detect it in contemporary art." At the end of this article, however, his tone is calmer: "The main interest in contemporary Korean art is not in symbol, figuration or space, but in exploring textures… [the] thing which the artist makes becomes a symbol of itself and each textural incident takes on weight more than in other abstract style… an art that falls into no trap of false nationalist traditionalism while preserving its roots—i.e., a true radicalism."21 The true radicalism is challenged by avant-garde artists whom the government pressed into service to create "minjok girokhwa (民族記錄畫)", documenting the progress of Korea. These types of figurative paintings, following the realist style preferred by the Korean government, lessened their reputation as avant-garde modernists.22 However, Korean abstract painting still lingers in works by the next generations after Park in artists such as Kim Tae-Ho and others. (fig 13) 23 Still the performative act of painting and physical resistance is visible in their laboring with layers of paints. The modernist practice and nostalgia were completely obliterated in the 1992 exhibition in UK, under the umbrella of "[Dansaekhwa] Korean artists working with the nature."
fig 13 Kim Tae-Ho, Internal Rhythm 95-30, 1995, Mixed media on wood panel, 162 x 131 cm
3. Unfinished Project of Dansaekhwa: The hidden voice of Dansaekhwa artists and after their stories
The 2012 exhibition of Dansaekhwa was a curatorial attempt to "stir the ashes of Modernism and rekindle the embers" to contemplate the span of forty years of the art in Korea. In terms of museographical sense, the exhibition was successful in bringing Modernist issues in Korea but its exhibition design itself silenced the sociopolitical frame and failed to create "the storied space" of Korean modernism's double fate, as I noted above.
fig 14 Ha Chong Hyun, Counter-Phase, 1971. Newspaper and paper, dimension variable
fig 15 Ha Chong Hyun, Work 74-06, 1974. Oil on hemp cloth, 153 x 116 cm
In relation to a political voice, Ha Chong Hyun's early works, especially Work 71-11, Counter – Phase (對位) of 1971, consists of newspaper stacks on one side and paper on the other side. The use of a newspaper stack on the floor is very new in the sense that this medium of books and newspapers corresponds to the age of the art of the [modern] city. Ha employed books and newspapers, media disseminating information when he was actively involved in AG period (1969-1973) as well. At that time, Korean newspapers were highly censored and the censored sections were covered with white spots. Any article by a political voice criticizing the Korean government and the president was completely obliterated line by line. In 1972 and 1973, the artist produced the barbed wire on a panel in which the reverse part of the canvas is knotted with wires. Ha's use of wire, newspaper stacks etc. lies in his artistic credo, stating:
The art of this century compared to the one preceding it unravels itself in city environments. Challenging factors such as mass production, quickened flow of information, urban rationalism and its indifferent attitude, various geometric forms of city architecture, stacks of gas tanks and towering presence of chimneys, all of which remind in their anonymous realm of monuments, proved to be decisive in subverting the established order of artistic concepts. … a process of synthesizing different modes of artistic expression, from painting, sculpture to architecture and design, will experience a serious field expansion.24
By placing contemporary aesthetics in the changing city environments, Ha expands the medium of tableau to other materials and installation pieces, signaling subdued yet discernable political voices. Although this kind of experiment was short-lived in his AG period, "experimental art" in the late 1960s and 1970s produced Lee's terms of "hwaksan" [expansion] of modernist and postmodernist thoughts in art and life. These two terms coexist in the "vernacular" development of Korean modernism and postmodernism from 1960s to 1990s.
fig 16 Ko Young Hun, This Is a Stone, 1974; Reproduced in Joseph Love, "The Roots of Korean Avant-Garde Art," Art International, volume XIX, (June 15, 1975).
fig 17 Ju Tae Seok, Railroad, oil on canvas, 193.9x112.1cm, Private Collection
In considering Dansaekhwa critically, we also need to explore the work of the students of several Dansaekhwa artists, acolytes who went on to develop the next generation of Korean abstract painting, as well as the New Realist Painting, the so-called New Image Painting (Neo-Imagism in Lee's words), preferring the return of images in their paintings. Often painters of the latter, preferring images in their paintings, were openly criticized by the first generation Dansaekhwa artists. In a recent colloquium with Ko Young Hoon, Ju Tae Seok, and Kim Gang-Yong, figurative artists in their late 50s and early 60s, that were taught by Park Seo-bo and Ha Chong Hyun, Kim recalled that "when I painted a brick, endless brick, it was not a real object of brick… Thinking of Dansaekhwa mentors, my brick was an object that led me to think in an abstract way. The brick was not the real one, although viewers tried to connect with the real things."25
As thick as the surfaces Dansaekhwa artists created, their works revealed layered, storied narratives of pictorial and social space in relation to "hwanwon" and "hwaksan." Lee's critical terms and Dansaekhwa grew out of great social upheaval and repression as well as urbanization in Korea in the 1970s. In the paper, I discussed the double fate of "hwanwon" as the modernist negation toward abstraction and modernist nostalgia returning to the origin, which I call "vernacular" Modernism in Korea.26