By Philip Gowman of London Korean Links
With the KAA residency at the KCC having become a regular annual fixture in the latter’s calendar, it is possible for the organisers to plan with greater certainty, more secure in the knowledge that there will be a space ready to showcase their talents. The fifth such programme fell in the fifth year of the KCC’s having a permanent home in Northumberland Avenue. 오방색, O Bang Saek, the five traditional Korean colours, with their rich range of symbolism and associations, was chosen as the theme, and this nicely complemented the theme of Korea’s participation in the London Cultural Olympiad, 오색찬란, which roughly translates as ‘five colours shining bright’.
With the theme chosen in plenty of time, it was possible for the visual artists to create new work inspired by that theme, thus aiding the curator’s task in the selection process. And it was similarly possible to plan the opening performance to harmonise with the theme of the residency.
Dancers from Roehampton University joined as guest performers in a work entitled Bridging Colours, in which the dancers unveiled and re-folded long sheets of fabric in the O Bang Saek primary colours, as if reinterpreting a shamanistic ritual. Guest percussionists brought the audience to attention with their drums, and a small ensemble of musicians playing western and traditional Korean instruments performed a new composition by Jee-soo Shin.
A video of the opening performances can be found here.
Kitty Jun-im‘s work greeted you as you entered the exhibition itself. Her painting is abstract but is inspired by calligraphy, and one of her works was virtually a self-portrait, with her name Jun Im inscribed boldly on the canvas. The background, in reds, blues, creamy yellows, white and black respected the O Bang Saek theme.
The next works to catch your eye as you proceeded through the exhibition were by Soon Yul Kang. She is best known for her tranquil tapestry work, and it was interesting to see a different side to her practice at this exhibition. The most prominent work was A Spiritual Journey, a large white circular collage made of countless tiny pieces of white cotton (something laden with funereal significance), each of which at the word abeoji (아버지) hand-written on it – The repetition of the word forced a meditation on the memory of a beloved father.
Her other two works formed a complementary pair – circles of red and blue like celestial maps . The contrasting colours explore the concept of Yin and Yang, emptying and filling, and visible and invisible in harmony and unity.
Bada Song‘s work references traditional Korean roof tiles – of which one was included in the BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects. While the BBC roof tile was an august Silla dynasty tile from Gyeongju, Song’s are more homely, based on the tiles on the roofs of traditional hanoks, such as those in Jeju where Song grew up. In this exhibition 16 deep blue prints of a roof tile in different perspective views were laid side by side, as if vanishing into infinity.
Joohee Chun’s work dominated the side wall as you approach the KCC’s multi-purpose space. As her first major work since becoming a mother, this work had special significance for Chun. 복 福 Bok – Blessing (2012) involved experimenting with new techniques – it was the first time she had used aluminium, or applied her acrylic layers to unmounted paper. The rich palette of colours respected the title of the exhibition without being bounded by it, and the mauves and purples were particularly effective.
Unmi Li‘s bold acrylics were a re-interpretation of the five elements of Korean culture – wood, fire, earth, metal and water, each of which has one of the five O Bang Saek colours. Her work explores the relationship between the external and internal, the macrocosm and microcosm. The characters in Five Emotions showed feelings ranging from sadness via envy to desire, the range emphasised by the vibrant use of contrasting colours.
Jean Kim‘s pair of works were dominated by the colour black – symbolising deep water and wisdom. In one, her father’s head is sketched in a simple white outline, viewed from above as if the viewer himself is having an out-of-body experience, looking down into a deep pool of unattainable knowledge. In the other work, a grinning face similarly in white outline looks slightly schizophrenic, but again against a background of deep, dark water.
Taehyung Kim continued the black theme, his work being based on recycled black bin bags. His photograph of a melting refuse sack looked like a distant nebula, a galaxy created afresh from waste. And although the raw material for the photograph was black, somehow in the photograph, hints of blue come through.
Sunju Park presented a glass sculpture in reds and blues. The surface of the glass looked as if it had just been sprinkled with water, with large drops seemingly wanting to make their way to the ground, but frozen in time, motionless on the surface.
Bookbinder and restorer Young-shin Kim presented an interpretation of O Bang Saek through her own craft. For her, bookbinding is a form of Gesamtkunstwerk that has five elements: History, Culture, Senses, Science and Craftsmanship. The volumes she chose to present for this exhibition, richly and colourfully bound, were a selection of poems and some recipes from the Joseon dynasty. Definitely too precious to be used in the kitchen.
Miso Park‘s photographs, taken in the area of Jikjisa (직지사) in Gimcheon, (김천) at the foot of Mt Hwangaksan in Gyeongsangbukdo showed a pair of temple roofs with the traditional dancheong colour scheme, while two monks live harmoniously both with each other and with the landscape in which they are set.
Jeesun Hwang‘s work told the story of a journey in five different colour spaces. The work was laid out like a manhwa, with each canvas subdivided into cells in which the three main characters explore the five O Bang Saek colours and grow psychologically and physically as they continue their quest.
Enya Elswood explored the beauty of nature in her watercolours. In her Birch trees, the slender black trunks stand out against a misty white background, while a carpet of yellow flowers and vegetation gives colour to the forest floor.
Eunjung Feleppa‘s paintings inhabit a dreamworld of lost innocence and vividly-remembered childhood. Her colour palette recalls the bright colours on traditional Korean folding screens and fabrics which she remembers as a child.
Dean Shim’s multiple-exposure images showed the same female dancer performing western classical ballet and Korean salpuri, both in white against a dramatic black background. The costume of both dancers was transformed into a cloud of energy by the trick of laying one exposure on top of another, layer upon layer.
Possibly the work which attracted the attention of the passers-by in Northumberland Avenue was the installation by Sooyung Lee and Hyunseok Lee entitled 108 Agonies. The centrepiece was a construction which could have been a stylised city – a 6 x 18 grid of towers made of yellowish-white hanji and wood lit from below – symbolising the 108 agonies with which man is afflicted. From the top of each tower a square character was resting, or from some towers the character was lifting off and floating heavenward, perhaps symbolising the prayers we intone when performing the 108 bows. An animation of these same prayers floating upwards was projected onto the back wall, and faint music in the background made this exhibit one to linger over.
Kihyun Kim‘s Romance was displayed in the KCC’s multi-purpose space – which meant that unfortunately if you visited the KCC over the weekend you were likely to miss this work, as the K-pop Academy were rehearsing their end-of-term song there.
The work shows Shakespeare’s 18th and most famous sonnet, set in a passionate or anguished blood-red typeface against a sombre black background, whose colour perhaps symbolised the wisdom achieved through a painful parting – or maybe the depths of despair. Each letter Y in the text was coloured white – as the artist asks Why the parting had to happen. The words ebb and flow like waves in the sea, while individual letters shrink and grow in font size giving an uneasy feeling of disquiet. In the background, Ccotbyel’s haegeum playing provided a soothing soundtrack to contemplate the text.
The week’s residency of exhibition and performance left one wishing that the KAA was permitted longer than just seven days for visitors to enjoy their work. We look forward to the 2013 residency, to be entitled Collaboration.