Kim Mikyung <'So'(素) : Rereading Korean Monotone Painting through the Concept of 'Soye' (素芸)>

Critique 평론 2002. 12. 14. 01:05


Kim Mikyung(Prof. Kangnam Univ. Art History)

Rereading Modern Art III Symposium Presentation, November 13, 2002.  


'So'(素) :

Rereading Korean Monotone Painting through the Concept of 'Soye' (素芸)

--Thoughts on the Exhibition [White Korea five artists FIVE HINSEK WHITE]

I. White Korea five artists FIVE HINSEK <WHITE>

1.   Preliminary Problems

The exhibition White Korea five artists FIVE HINSEK <WHITE> (Tokyo Gallery, 1975.5.6-24.)is the generally accepted 'official point of departure' of the 1970s Korean Monotone Painting. Numerous criticisms, including those by important writers, such as Lee Il, Suh Seong-rok, Oh Kwang-su, and Kang Tae-hee, generally agree on this point.

Given that Informel and Monotone Painting are commonly considered the two main dominants in Korean modern art history, I began to look through documents and sources in order to find out if there has indeed been any definite art historical argument about the 'official moment' of beginning of the term Monotone Painting and of its artistic, historical, and discursive origin. But to present, I still haven't been able to fulfill my curiosity. This is why I decided to begin from the exhibition White Korea five artists FIVE HINSEK <WHITE>. Although it is repeatedly referred to as the point of departure for Korean Monotone Painting, not much has been clarified in detail in art historical literature so far, as to how it was planned and organized, what it intended to accomplish, and how the works were selected.

First I saw, written on the brownish gray cover of the exhibition catalog, the Korean words '흰색 한색 한국5인의 작가 다섯 가지의 흰색, thenꡐ白 韓國 五人の作家 五つのヒンセク<白>' in Japanese. And the third line reads White Korea five artists FIVE HINSEK <WHITE>, thus phonetically transliterating the Korean word into English and Japanese. Then, there are three trilingual words:

흰색  白 White

I felt that the intention here is modest and careful. That is, the Sino-Japanese word for 'white' '白' isn't written as it is normally pronounced in Japanese 'しろ'. If this exhibition is indeed the official moment of the beginning of Korean Monotone Painting, what is the meaning of 'official'? And, why is it that names such as 'White' Show or 'Monochrome' are customarily being used in debates? I begin with the discussion of this exhibition, In the remaining space of the presentation, I wish to approach the meanings of 'hinsek' and '白' through another concept of '素', which, in the context of art, expands to another term '素芸'.

2.   What is in the Introduction? : Lee Il and Nakahara Yusuke

The introduction in the exhibition catalog was written by Lee Il and Nakahara Yusuke, and Lee's was translated into Japanese by Lee Ufan and was immediately published during the period of the exhibition in the original Korean in Hongdai Hakbo (Campus Newspaper of Hong-Ik University). Nakahara's writing reveals his very careful approach to the exhibition. Throughout his lines, albeit far from short, his general thoughts come through, and one can get a sense of in what ways the terms '白色' and 'White Monochrome' came to be misused in critical writings after this moment of inception.

Stating cautiously, from the outset, that it is difficult to simply sum up Korean modern art, Nakahara writes that he saw neutral-toned paintings in several painters' studios in Korea and that the common characteristic between them was 'white'. He explains that he felt that there was 'something fundamental' in this 'white'. It was completely different from the kind of white produced by eliminating colors, or the extreme of white emptiness achieved via eliminating forms. In other words, it is not a color that one attains, but is the frame of 'a cosmic vision' per se. He writes that it was meaningless to speak of the traits of this 'white' in terms of color 'white', but rather, it felt as if he were witnessing the 'appearance and disappearance of phenomena', i.e., time itself is being born. It is instructive for us that in light of the rampant terminological misuses in Korean modern art history, Nakahara was prudent enough not to apply the term 'white monochrome' to the Korean artists at this moment.

Despite its superb literary flair, Lee Il's contribution to the catalog seems not as careful as Nakahara's, however. While the latter refrains from applying the term 'white monochrome' in discussing the Korean artists, Lee writes that these Korean painters may perhaps be grouped under 'monochrome'. Stating, on the one hand, that for painters in Korea, white monochrome is rather an offering of visions that let the world in. His sentences reveal one of the typical characteristics of his criticism'impressionist vagueness and reservation'; these characteristics of his writing, when cited in later writings, are given new leases on life, again and again, and became transformed into a language 'not vague but definitive'.

Lee Il's writing, situated at the very beginning of the history of Korean monotone painting, does clearly demonstrate his affection for the meaning of 'white', albeit vague and reserved. With regards to set terms, like 'People of White Clothes' 白衣民族 and Yi-Dynasty White Porcelain' 李朝白磁, he typically sticks to extremely vague expressions ('meanings beyond simple metaphors' and 'beyond the dimension of mere tastes') and holds back from telling the reader what he implies 'beyond' these simple, mere things. Nonetheless, he does not hold back from defining 'White' 白 as one fundamental language which defines our 'Korean people's' spirit and thought'. He goes on to say that 'more than the 'color white', it is a cosmos and the esprit of nature  breath of life, and the ground in which all the possibilities that live in the same spiritual space as nature can be born.

It is clear that both Lee and Nakahara intended to speak of white in terms of origin, the creation and end of the universe, and life. It is this aspect of their thinking that reminded me of the concept of 素. I began to feel that with this concept, I would be able to look at the phenomenon of white in Korean Monotone Painting.

II. The Situation before the Exhibition

Around 1975, the only evidences of discussion of 'white' in Koreabesides the article in Hongdae Hakbo are short newspaper reports, like the one in Chosun Ilbo (1975.5.20).

In 1971, the result of an interesting statistical survey was reported. Kwon Gi-Duk, a lecturer at Hong-Ik University (age 32 at the time) surveyed people all over the country over the course of 5 years to investigate the 'color psychology of Korean people'. The report shows that, the highest percentage of people chose 'marine blue' (which supposedly symbolizes love) as their favorite color over 'white'. This statistics seemed like a corroborative evidence to me. I don't mean to set up the opposition of marine blue vs. white, but wish to explore the meaning of 'so', which encompasses all cosmic colors.

It is difficult to find any discourse on 'white' or any evidence of efforts to organize exhibitions around the notion. Ever since writing the famous article that introduced Korean readership to contemporary Japanese art in the July 1969 issue of the journal Gonggan, Lee Ufan successively published his other writings, A Preface to the Phenomenology of EncounterPreparing a New Theory of Art (AG no.4, 1971)(AG:Korean Avant Garde Association) and Identity and Location of the Notion of Object (Hong-Ik Misul, no.1, 1972). By doing so, he was in the position of leading the Korean modern art world, while being in the context of Mono-ha in Japan at the same time. Interestingly, however, his articles translated into Korean do not even mention Mono-ha or names of the artists in it.

After Lee and Park Seo-bo respectively opened their one-person painting shows in Japan in 1973, Gonggan again dedicated the September 1975 issue to Lee Ufan. It was yet another discussion of Lee in the context of Mono-ha. As if supporting this particular characterization of the artist, the journal was publishing many articles on Minimal Art.

These synchronized occurrences bring me to the following conclusions:

First, we must recognize that the painters who participated in White Korea five artists exhibition had no mutual connections amongst themselves, and that it wasn't in Korea but in Japan that the crucial formation of discourse'actual opportunity'around 'white' took place. The exhibition took several years of research and organization, but even after the exhibition (just like before it), no sense of camaraderie was there between the artists. I believe that this historical fact must be critically reconsidered when discussing 'white' and the so-called 'Korean identity' in Monotone Painting. As individual artists, Lee Dong-Yeop and Huh Hwang, after the first Independent Exhibition (1972), had been exploring existential phenomena through the problem of 'form'; Park Seo-bo, after his own Muramatsu Gallery show(1973), was emphasizing 'repetitive action'. Suh Seung-Won had been a member of Group Origin (formed 1963) and was producing mostly geometric abstraction. At the second exhibition of Group AG, he presented works, which use white rice paper, and addressed the problem of semi-transparency, but the works went unnoticed. Kwon Young-Woo had also bee working with white rice paper since 1962, but no discourse of 'white' was formed around his work. In other words, all five artists in the 'White Korea five artists' show had different things to say, and no collective will to pursue 'white' in their art was manifest. Instead, what one witnesses is, immediately after 1973 when Park and Lee had their one-person shows, there was a great increase in the number of monotone paintings in their styles at the exhibitions organized by Park, such as Ecole de Seoul, Independents Exhibition and Seoul Contemporary Art Festival. These monotone paintings were being exhibited side-by-side with experimental three-dimensional, installation works that were closely related to Lee and Mono-ha.

Second, after having received the initial attention in the field of experimental art in Korea, Lee Ufan again emerged important in Korean Monotone Painting. This, however, appears to have been motivated more by the individual interest on him; because Lee was, at the time, closely thought of in connection with Minimal Art and Mono-ha, he was placed in a bit of distance from the problem of painting or the discourse of White. As a result, criticism since this historical moment has overlooked the linkage among Mono-ha, Lee, and experimental art in Korea, and instead overproduced numerous writings that directly connect Lee in relation to the discourses of Mono-ha, Minimal Art, and Monotone Painting.

Lee Dong-Yeop: debuted at the First Independents Exhibition (1972) with paintings of semi-transparent cups against a white background. At the FIVE HINSEK show, he presented images of melting cups on neutral-colored canvases. What his paintings address wasn't the problem of white tone per se, but rather: 'if the cup is a container of the universe, ice is the existence in it; through depicting the processes of melting and evaporation of ice and the resulting emptiness, the painting suggests the fungible or inconstant nature of things. Nonetheless, the indistinct white-toned background was already there in all of his paintings, and the Japanese organizers paid attention to this aspect of his work.

Suh Seung-Won: I have tried to discern undercurrents of Korean Monotone Painting by looking at his works, in which he pastes rice paper in layers (1971. the 2nd AG Exhibition). His work has only been discussed with regards the geometric abstraction he did as a member of Group Origin, other experimentations like this have not received attention. The rice paper he had been using for printmaking since the late 1960s has a very particular subtle feel. His works at the FIVE HINSEK show were also of geometric forms. But they are also notable for an overall neutral nuance, which would have impressed Yamamoto visiting Suh's studio.

Park Seo-Bo: Before the FIVE HINSEK show, Park exhibited his paintings at Muramatsu Gallery in 1973. Those paintings didn't engage the discourse of 'White', but instead suggested the problem of physical action through repeatedly drawn pencil lines. That is, it was only in 1973 that he showed any white paintings, and before this moment, his works were greatly different. In the occasion of his one-person show at Myungdong Gallery in Seoul (1973.10), he talks about 'Yi Dynasty-period potter pinning the wheel' in an interview. The statement connects the act of pure, egoless pulsation and repetitive line drawing, with the white color of Yi-Dynasty white porcelain.

Huh Hwang: The tripartite paintings he presented at the first Independents Exhibition (1972) show an image that resembles a pillow floating hazily. This work still appears to me to be about a 'form' that melts into the canvas, rather than about 'monotone painting.' In that sense, I agree with the position that points out the problem of 'form' (Chiba Shigeo). Huh recounts that he threw a pillow on the wall in a motel room, and the form of the pillow that fell and landed crumpled on a white mattress was the inspiration for the work. His words, then, support the idea that his work is both about 'form' and fundamentally about the problem of 'white'. But at the FIVE HINSEK show, the conclusion that the form of pillow is about 'white' was drawn.

Kwon Young-Woo: As early as at the 1962 Annual National Exhibition he showed works that use white rice paper (with punched holes). In 1966, at Shinsegye Gallery, he also showed a group of works of rice paper. Although visually Kwon's work approaches the concept of 'So' 素, this taciturn artist seems to have not reached a self-discourse about his white, the materiality of rice paper, and its translucency. Kwon simple-mindedly describes that he just worked with rice paper lying around him, but it was Tokyo Gallery in Japan that kept an eye on the nuance of his art. I feel that the ambiguously impressionist characterization of 'Korean-ness' or 'people of white clothes' must be surpassed. I also feel that the recent position that sees his work as 'closely affiliated with Mono-ha' must be substantiated.

III. One Possible Perspective: Japan

1.   Tokyo Gallery

During the period between its opening in 1951 and the 1975 FIVE HINSEK show, Tokyo Gallery presented various kinds of exhibitions. The Gallery played an important role of presenting important young-emerging artists in the Japanese art world. Some of the exhibitions that are notable with regards to Monotone are Y. Klein (1962.7), E. Castellani (1968.2), L. Fontana (1962.10 and 1970.9) et cetera. Also the artists, who will later be connected to Mono-ha, Iida Shoji, Sekine Nobuo, Takamatsu Jiro, were shown. In April 1968, Tokyo Gallery and Muramatsu Gallery opened the important Tricks and Vision show together. Especially important for my interest are two shows: Yi-Dynasty Portraits and Folk Paintings (1972.9) and Lee Ufan (1973.9). From this list of shows, one can deduce that Tokyo Gallery was clearly paying attention to young artists who will lead monochrome and Mono-ha, as well as to traditional Korean art and, of course, Lee Ufan.

2.   Yamamoto Takashi and His Aesthetic Standard

One can find almost unfailingly mentions of Yi-Dynasty white porcelain in the discussions of Korean Monotone Painting. But the serious discourse of white porcelain and the critiques of Yanagi Muneyoshi's aesthetic of sorrow, which began with Korean Japanese writer Kim Dal-Su, are quite complex problems that require separate discussions.

It is indisputably clear that the philosophical atmosphere of neo-Confucianism prevailed in the Choson-Dynasty period, and that the natural, plain beauty of white porcelain was loved widely by the royal court as well as by commoners. White porcelain, however, was not the definite standard of beauty. One cannot find any specific documented historical aesthetic discourse around it.

The history of Japanese penchant for Choson-Dynasty tea utensils is long. Since Takeda Jyoo praised Koryo-Dynasty tea utensils and Choson-Dynasty porcelains in the 16th century, the great sage of Japanese tea culture, Senno Rikyu is known to have especially preferred Choson tea bowls by anonymous potters for their quiet force coming from the simple, unadorned shapes. This Japanese preference is inherited from the 15th-century figure Murata Shuko's spirit of wabi-cha, which pursued deep spirituality within 'simplicity' through the way of tea. This traditional Japanese fondness for Korean porcelains came down to the colonial-era successors, Yanagi Muneyoshi and Asakawa Takumi. In this very tradition, I believe, there lies the concept of 'so', simple, modest, and unadorned in appearance, but full of infinite spiritual depth.

I also suspect that Yamamoto Takashi's aesthetic standard is quite in line with the historical Japanese perspective on Choson-Dynasty white porcelain. According to Lee Ufan, Yamamoto was a military man stationed in Korea during the colonial period, and as a dealer of antiques, was knowledgeable about Korean antiqity.

Clearly, this personal history is not irrelevant to the fact that he showed Choson Dynasty paintings and folk pictures as well as Lee Ufan at his own gallery. And one sees this personal taste and biography behind the organization of the FIVE HINSEK show. Moreover, I suspect Yanagi Muneyoshi's impressionist/sensual appreciation of Yi-Dynasty porcelain had always been latent in the Japanese aesthetic subconscious.

Joseph Love also mentioned Yi-Dynasty porcelain in his review the Tokyo Gallery show. Nakahara Yusuke says in 1982, I think that Koreans are truly a people of no colors. Oshima Seiji, in turn, states, one gets certain delicate and sensitive, and poignant and forlorn feels, based on the color white, which inherit from the aesthetic consciousness of Korean tradition that links back to Koryo blue porcelain or Choson white porcelain. (1983)

And here, we can add to Lee Il representing the Korean voice; he himself writes deference to nature, technique without techniques, Choson-Dynasty white porcelain etc.

I believe that, in general, the Japanese perspective on Choson white porcelain is still colored by the ideas of passive beauty, lonesomeness, and sorrow beauty. It was yet again resurrected forty years after Yanagi's time in 1975 by FIVE HINSEK show. My intention here is not to simply disparage the Japanese viewpoint. It is one possible way of appreciation and discourse, and one has an absolute liberty of aesthetic reading.

Nevertheless, if the Japanese-organized FIVE HINSEK show connects back to Choson white porcelain, which in turn links up with Yanagi's individual point of view, then, it is also necessary for us to reconsider why is it that Korean Monotone Painting has been consistently thought to embody the Korean identity.

IV. Concept of 'SoYe' 素芸

'SoYe' that I wish to formulate means an 'art'芸術of 'so'素.

A while ago, I was impressed with a poem that I saw brushed on a Choson white porcelain pot.

             White surface seems typical of the sky

             Empty within, lets all things in

             Words withheld, all may pour into the sky

             Clear or not, all enter

This little poem seems to represent my intention to see Korean Monotone Painting through the concept of 'SoYe'. Admittedly, my knowledge of Eastern philosophy and Chinese philology amounts to very little. The reason why I am attempting this sort of interpretative exercise in spite of my lack is because I do know a little bit about how the concept of 'So' operated in Korean culture. Of course, it is ultimately necessary to trace the origin of any Sino-Korean word back to its ancient Chinese origin, but for now, I would like to suggest a way of thinking about the term/concept, with the hope that other more knowledgeable researchers will supplement and correct my trial in coming years.

There are several common points in the literature on Korean Monotone Painting. That is, in the painting, what one finds is not the color white, but the cosmic 'nature'; Mu 無 is not empty, Gong 空, but overflows 充溢. In relation to So素, the other philosophical notions I am thinking of, for instance, are: from the Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra (般若波羅蜜多心), Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; feeling, perception, intention, consciousness are also the same (色卽是空空卽是色 受相行識 亦復如是); from Laozi老子、bear without possessing, nurture without leaning, being and non-being bear each other, and although the way 道 is empty, one can endlessly scoop from it without exhausting it.

In Korean language, there are expressions, such as Sobok 素服, (a white robe worn when someone has passed away), and make the soup 'So'. The reason one puts on the Sobok is not merely because it is colored white. Instead, it encompasses the condition in which, through death, the departing soul connects this world of phenomena and that world of spirits, as well as the state of simultaneous all and emptiness. The old expression of making the soup 'So' was replaced during the colonial period by the Japanese word 'Chiri' ちり; while both styles of cooking will produce same clear soup, the two words fundamentally refer to two different things.

The clarity of 'So' is, though it may feel lucid and transparent like sunshine, includes in it all the colors present in the universe. 'So' is 'white' that is like the ray of the sunlight. In the abovementioned poem, Choson white porcelain sees the white background as typical of the sky (or having the characteristics of the sky); though completely empty inside, it holds everything and all things; without discriminating between things clear (or clean) or not, it ultimately looks towards they sky (the cosmos). And it is this concept of 'So' that can broadly encompass what Korean Monotone Painting desires to speak of.

The concept of 'So' can comprehend not only the FIVE HINSEK show but also individual artists' notions of art making: the 'act' of 'the Yi Dynasty-era potter unperturbedly spinning the wheel' (Park Seo-bo), 'naturally occurring white' (Kwon Young-Woo), the translucency of rice-paper that surreptitiously communicates the inside and out (Suh Seung-Won), 'Ying and Yang' or 'the state of Mu' (Lee Dong-Yeop), or the white-toned image of a pillow hazily floating in the monotone screen (Huh Hwang), and so forth.

It goes without saying that this conceptual exercise must be further researched, and applied to individual artists in more detail and depth. It is the rather regrettable state of the field that histories of ceramics and folk art, and studies of 'Korean Identity' have not had been given enough philosophical, discursive depth. Despite prevalent discussions, no serious aesthetic discourse originates from the history of ceramics written by Yanagi and the scholars afterwards, or the discourse of Korean identity doing the same with a systematic historical reflection. It is quite a pity that the perspectives, like Yanagi's, still have to be invoked and resorted to in the very formation of the Korean identity.

V. Tendencies in Korean Monotone Painting since the White Korea Five Artists Exhibition

As abovementioned, the problem of 'white' wasn't really discussed around the time of the Tokyo Gallery exhibition and for a long time afterwards. Of course, the important large-scale exhibitions, like Seoul Biennale organized by Group AG (1974), and the First Ecole de Seoul (1975) and the First Seoul Contemporary Art Festival (1975), organized by Park Seo-bo, included many works that quickly followed the footsteps of Park's and Lee Ufan's monotone paintings exhibited in 1973. But these exhibitions were obviously not meant to be for monotone paintings per se; there was no statement of intention, and non-2-dimensional and installation works of experimental tendencies, led by Group AG and related to Lee and Mono-ha, were exhibited alongside the monotone paintings. It is, therefore, difficult to repudiate the criticism that Ecole de Seoul was hardly an ecole. The Independents exhibition, which began in 1972, also came under critical fire by 1975.

Yet again in Japan, the large-scale exhibition, Korea: An Aspect of Contemporary Art opened (1977, Tokyo Central Museum). The conventional art history of Korean modern art traces the trajectory of Monotone Painting from Ecole de Seoul and FIVE HINSEK to Korea: An Aspect of Contemporary Art. The last exhibition, however, also presented non-2-dimensional and installation works alongside monotone paintings, and its organization took more than a year and a half. As the exhibition was opening, Nakahara wrote in Asahi Journal (1977.7.1) about Ecole de Seoul in relation to the characteristics of Monotone Painting, and, in Bijutsu Techo, discussed Monotone Painting in the context of 'anti-chromism' as witnessed in the Korea exhibition. In general, there seems to have been interest in Korean modern art in Japan around 1977, but in contrast, Korean modern art history has dealt with these exhibitions only in terms of Monotone Painting.

To be precise, these exhibitions dealt with too diverse styles and too many issues for the discourse to focus on Monotone Painting. Furthermore, both frequently-mentioned FIVE HINSEK and Korea: an Aspect of Contemporary Art were organized by Japanese institutions, and we must question where the center of the discourse around Korean Monotone Painting really was/is. While Nakahara was quite sensitively cautious about even using the term monochrome with regards to the monotone paintings in 1975, by 1977, he had no qualms about writing strong feels of monochrome and monotone and reading paintings via the concept of materiality.

In Korea, the interpretative situation was even more odd. Monotone Painting was termed 'Minimal Art', and Lee's art was linked up with both minimal art and monotone painting. It is still necessary to discover by whom and in what context Lee's work and monotone painting as a style began to be wholesale characterized as 'Korean-style minimal art'. (So far, I have located articles by Chang Suk-Won and Won Dong-Suk from 1984.) As Minjung Misool came into emergence in the 1980s, Korean Monotone Painting faced severe oppositions. Chang and Won both wrote with no sympathy for Monotone Painting, and the school faced unfavorable receptions in international shows.

Commencing with Chiba Shigeo's 1989 article On Mono-ha (Gonggan, March 1989), more and more articles on Mono-ha were published in the 1990s. Though it is quite encouraging to see these studies done, I still feel that if Mono-ha had been introduced more systematically in the 1970s, art historical research on experimental art in Korea and Monotone Painting would have been more efficiently done.

Instead what we see is the perennial terminological confusionmonotone and monochrome are readily transposable with each other. And some studies have even claimed to 'discuss Mono-ha from the context of Minimalism' or 'Monochrome Painting is related to modernist painting based on Greenberg's theory, rather than on Minimal Art.

We need to recognize, therefore, that the aesthetic discourse of Korean Monotone Painting has been dealing with the vague notion of 'Korean-ness', while hopelessly entangled in the chaotic discursive matrix that mixes particularized Japanese perspectives and unsystematic discourses on Mono-ha and Lee Ufan, and without any methodical understanding of history and philosophy of Korea. My intention was, albeit feeble, to attempt to find the concept of 'So' within Korean history itself, and, by doing so, to find a means to begin a structure of discourse on Korean Monotone Painting in the idea of  SoYe.