The title piece of the exhibition is a blank piece of paper carefully presented on a wall. It is a good representation for Kim Yong-Ik’s work, as you look closer there are further layers of meaning, which are revealed often to show a lack of arrogance.
The blank piece of paper has three embossed Korean texts, one of which reads:
‘I believe my works are still valid. I just have to decide to live within my monthly salary. One must work beyond self-consciousness and avant-garde traditions…’
The statement is a good moniker for this collection of the artists life work. The statement is positive and defiant about the value of the artists own work however it contains the implication that maybe it’s not worth anything at all. The extended quote highlights the other themes in the artists career, humbleness, accessibility and a defiance of art labels.
The gallery is chronologically set out and has work from the early 80s up to many pieces made in 2017; the pieces are grouped in periods of work and themes. The most accessible pieces are a collection from the 80s up to 1990. These include line drawings, simple layered card which are wall mounted and the large bright red MDF boards. These are all cleverly cut to interact with the architecture of the building and suggest space and movement. The red pieces are bombastic, they are active, and have the feeling of large scale graffiti piece. However these are not the strength of the exhibition, they feel a one liner compared to the rest of the work on show as they lack the rich layering, narrative and cultural pointers that characterise the rest of the work on show.
Much of the work has text scribbled on it, dirty unruly hand written notes and instructions which extend to the walls of the gallery made over time added to with each exhibition. Unlike the title piece these aren’t inscribed or embossed enshrining words as pearls of wisdom but scribbled on plastic with ball point pens and permanent markers. They are written in Korean, however full translations are provided, they are meant to be read by the viewer and invite us into the artists club. The writing is explanatory, irreverent and pokes fun at the artist and the art world. The text simultaneously manages to be accessible, explanatory and still gnomic it doesn’t impede varied readings of the piece.
This irreverence is drawn through all of the show, work is reused, written on and dirtied. Identified as a modernist early in his career Kim Yong-Ik has spent his career getting away from modernist perfection whilst working with typically modernist motifs. The art works are presented wrapped in various packing materials. The art materials themselves are a rebellion against expensive pristine ‘pieces’, they do not use expensive paints and materials but grass and fruit juice scrubbed into the canvases and card. He is not trying to make expensive pristine art but something far more accessible, it lacks ego.
This all is best illustrated by one of the tongue in cheek, scribbled texts on plastic wrapping:
This artwork is not considered a very good one, because it doesn’t satisfy the five points I have set as a good artwork.
The five points I have set are:
Firstly, a good artwork should require the least amount of energy to produce.
Secondly, a good artwork should require the least amount of money.
Thirdly a good artwork should not require any specific technique and should be easily reproduced by anyone.
Fourthly, a good artwork should be easy to transport.
Fifth, a good artwork would be okay if it gets torn, crushed, or dirtied a bit.
This work fails to meet the fourth point, since I can’t roll this up and carry around, or maybe it is also not meeting the third point.
The show is also characterised by its cultural specificity, the artist is of Korea and referencing Korea, its cultural background, heritage and politics of that country. Most obviously displaying this cultural context is the ‘Coffin’ series. He has packaged up his own works into varied packing cases of cheap timber with old pieces of his work overlaid with acetate and traditional funeral poems scribbled over the top. They are shrines to his work with religious and folk motifs, poking fun at the artist and his life’s work, gaudy funeral pieces to dead work. The most dramatic piece in this series ominously hangs over the entrance to the gallery space, Aerial Burial (2015). It is a cask which holds all of the artist’s published writings and exhibition catalogues, which was originally hung outside and, as the catalogue explains it was ‘the artist’s wish that the work be struck by lightning, destroying his writings and cauterising the earth’
One of the most interesting piece is An Installation Made of Damaged Two Pieces (1998) and Packed Materials (2016), (2016 and remade in 2017). It is tucked in a corner and looks like left overs from the set up, which rather embarrassingly on initial viewing did fool me into thinking it was a pile of rubbish. My interest in the piece is partly the fact that I was convinced by this fairly obvious trick, but also the text supplied by the artist (written August 2017), this time not written on the piece but alongside the other translations. Kim speaks of the “politics of ambiguousness” in that it is difficult to immediately identify the piece as artwork and uses elements considered as trash, it is intentionally located such that it might be waiting to be carried away. He relates this ambiguity as a metaphor both for his in-between status between “socialist/populist and modernist art” (in itself a question distinctly of the Korean art world and Korean political culture) but more poignantly, ‘My assertion is that it is also a metaphor for many of my parent’s generation who have crossed the line of life and death based on their decision to be a leftist or rightist, and those who kept a political middle ground’.
As you experience the exhibition you realise that the artist is not an aloof impenetrable elitist, as you could easily think on entering, but that he is having a joke, often on himself. These aren’t one liners that declare how clever and witty the artist is, but have a subtlety and humility, layered up over time, retrospectively critiquing and questioning the work that has come before. There is a punk sensibility – anyone should be able to make art, it should be easy and cheap, it should be just as good ripped and crumpled and it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. This sensibility runs deeper, its cultural background speaks of real questions and real people, political context and wider jeopardy outside of the art world. As you peel back the layers of the exhibition it gently poses questions, makes jokes, invites, excites and engages; tempting you to delve deeper and find out more. Kim Yong-Ik wants you to be a participant.