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2008 by Kim Sun-hee

조회 수 14528 추천 수 0 2010.10.09 21:34:02

 Kwon Ki-soo
   A playground of interpretation 
                                                                                Kim Sun-hee


Born and based in Seoul, Kwon Ki-soo works in a wide range of media, including painting, sculpture and video. He is primarily known for his creation of Dongguri, a character that frequently appears in his work. Although human-shaped, Dongurri is an icon formed by certain marks and symbols; a by-product of modernisation in which everything is symbolised, simplified, and mechanical. Dongguri has gained wide appeal in contemporary art circles and has also been used commercially (not necessarily according to the artist’s intentions). The character’s popularity probably came about because it appeals to a younger generation that readily consumes and reproduces popular culture.  

Because of his use of pop language and materials and Dongguri’s flexible application to commercial markets, Kwon’s art has often been classified as Neo-Pop.1 This classification, however, does not seem to adequately describe Kwon’s work. Instead, more emphasis should be placed on the range of meanings and emotions Dongguri conveys, forging a link between artist and audience.  

Certainly, Kwon’s art is not all about Dongguri and extends beyond his often used and much admired symbol. He has continuously created innovative designs, marrying ultra-modern elements with old traditions. He draws on tradition as a means of expressing modern sensitivity, a feature found in his most recent paintings. Kwon’s reinvention of classical Korean motifs might be a natural extension of his study of traditional Korean art, but it is also interesting that his works contain coded messages hidden in layers beneath the surface of the art itself. 

The artist’s favourite motifs, such as plum blossoms, orchids, chrysanthemum and bamboo are drawn from traditional sumi painting. These four plants, fundamental artistic motifs in sumi painting, are also symbolic representations of a scholarly life and of literati culture.2 Each represents one of the four seasons: plum blossom for spring, orchid for summer, chrysanthemum for autumn and bamboo for winter. Like the sumi painters, Kwon uses these motifs as symbols, however, his paintings may be better described in terms of traditional sansui (landscape) painting. Rather than copying nature, sansui painters use form and technique to express their own concept of it. For them, the transcendent values of nature and the universe are not to be conquered but are an innate attitude, the order and reason of which should be studied and followed. Sansui painters express transcendent values by forgoing a visual imitation of what is seen as reality, seeking meanings in the unseen world. Sansui is, therefore, more than a technique; it is a symbol, a paradigm and a fundamental concept.  

Kwon’s recent paintings reflect his continuing use of Korean traditions; in particular, the symbolism of sansui. In Black forest 2 2006 and Color forest 2006, numerous vertical poles represent a bamboo forest, with stem sections marked by colourful ribbons. Dongguri sits on a cube among the bamboo. The cube, in this case, represents a rock — a significant object in traditional Korean painting and literati culture, prized for its abstract qualities. With its conventional shape and colour removed, the valued symbol is given a fresh beginning in Kwon’s work. 

Another traditional motif is transformed in Kwon’s In the fountain 2006. Here, the water fountains symbolise a variety of orchid shapes. Although the lines appear simple and free-flowing, they are actually positioned according to the strict conventions of the traditional sansui style. Rippling water, a recurring theme in the artist’s work, also recalls a common theme in Asian culture — radiating energy. 

Untitled 2005–6, is particularly interesting because Dongguri, who appears in most of Kwon’s work, is gone. Only plum blossoms and ripples remain. Plum blossoms were much loved and frequently used in the literati tradition as a symbol of endurance — the plant bears fruit throughout winter and is the first to blossom in spring. The artist gives special meaning to this and also uses the blossom as a signifier of beauty. 

The video animation, Plum blossoms around a cottage – visiting a friend on a snowy day 2003 tells the story of visiting a friend early in spring, when the first plum blossoms appear. The rather silly but nonetheless adorable Dongguri appears as both the host and the visitor. The painting in the background is by Koran Jungi (1825–54), one of the most important artists of the late Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). The theme of this painting was conventionally used in sansui to display a natural harmony between seasonal changes and the poetic nature of literati culture. In his video animation, the artist converts a form of art considered traditional and highbrow into something contemporary and cheerful. 

Through his work, Kwon Ki-soo continually explores traditional themes and values, which he adapts and incorporates into contemporary art forms. His art is characterised by a creative grafting of past spiritualism onto contemporary materialism, moulded into symbols and icons. Through multiple layers of symbolism and meaning, Kwon offers viewers a playful interpretation of a world where lightness and heaviness can coexist. 
 

Kim Sun-hee is Art Director of Zendai New Art Museum, Shanghai, and a guest curator of Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. 
 

endnotes

1.Neo-Pop, a movement of the 1980s, is characterised by popular iconography and applies mass media communication techniques to ‘package’ complex ideas for a wider audience.

2.The literati were the intellectual elite in Korea. Becoming a member of this class involved rigorous study of Confucian texts and ancient poetry and the disciplined practice of calligraphy to pass difficult bureaucratic examinations for government service.

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