On the Discourse of Korean Art

Artbit Gallery
Jul 17, 2019 6:30AM

On the discourse of Korean Art

The question ‘why talk about Korean Art now?’ is on the same plane as the question, ‘why talk about art?’. In a period when the arts are transcending all genres to integrate, to talk about Korean Art, which only takes a small proportion in the arts, may seem chauvinistic. However, when studying physics, one analyzes the whole universe macroscopically, but microscopically, one analyzes atoms, even protons, neutrons and protons. Where quantum mechanics is not a subordinate concept of astronomy, likewise, Korean Art is not a subordinate concept of art. I believe that thinking about Korean Art is the same as analyzing one of the perspectives within the macroscopic perspective of art. Just as a microscopic perspective is not necessarily wrong, thinking about such small portion of art as Korean Art is the same concept as talking about the arts in general. This is because art can elicit a colossal discourse from a very trifle matter, and one can start from the whole to express his or her distinct emotions.

It is true that art of Korea is not free from the past influences of China. Without any doubt, the Chinese culture in the past has largely dominated the Far-Eastern, Oriental sphere. Hence, it is not possible to rule out these influences when talking about the culture and arts of Korea. However, it is important to recognize that Korea’s art culture has formed another atmosphere under these influences. The Korean culture formed from the processes of subjugation and abandonment. Western Christianity, too, became a new form during its acceptance processes, when it met with the local culture of Korea, such as Shamanism, Buddhism and etc. The Korean culture was established through accepting anything new and fusing them with the existing local traits. The keywords, in the deepest roots of this establishment, are ‘good fortune(福)’ and ‘wish-fulfillment(所願成就)’.

Korean art culture has developed under the desire for ‘good fortune’ and ‘wish-fulfillment’. Such desire was commonly shared from the top of the hierarchy, the King, to the bottom, the working classes, hence, paintings of ‘The Sun and Moon and Five Peaks’ and ‘The Ten Symbols of Longevity’ were given to the King and majority of the court paintings were limited to this atmosphere. Of course, parade paintings created for the purpose of historical records are excluded. Even realistic portraitures of figures are made to pay respect for ancestors, but also intrinsically, for the spirit of the ancestors to protect the descendants. This goes the same for nobleman and literary scholars. While the classical scholars have expressed the ideals of living freely at-ease on the mountains and waters like the Taoist hermits, the common people’s folk paintings can be interpreted in the same manner. Some depicted the Four Guardians to ward off the evil spirit, some portrayed the Ten Symbols of Longevity to wish for good health and longevity and some decorated a newlywed’s room with young children’s paintings to yearn for fecundity. Freshly drawn water, enshrinement of one’s ancestral table at home, guardian tree of the village are also ways to wish for good luck and to ward off evil spirits, and they can all be seen as longing for good fortune, the underlying spirit and consciousness of Korean people. The Art of Korea is a spectrum that visually embodies these longings.

The main motive of <Dream on Top> are the Twelve Zodiac Guardians. “Originally, the Twelve Zodiac Guardians are ancient gods positioned on the twelve points of the compass, protecting the Buddhist chanting the Yak-Sa-Kyung(Medicine Buddha Sutra, Korean medicinal dictionary). The Twelve Zodiac are depicted as gods with faces of rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig and human bodies. This belief seems to have derived from Taoist’s Four Symbols, but the Korean Twelve Zodiac Guardians are closely related to medicinal faith. Records from the reign of Sundeok Queen of the Shilla Period depicts a renowned priest, Milbon, curing the queen and other patients with the Yak-Sa Kyung. The Three-Storied Stone Pagodas in Wonwonsa Temple site in Gyeonju (Historic Site no. 46) was sculpted as te first formative art for the Twelve Zodiac Guardian Gods to protect the defense and as a symbol of national unity.”

I would like to shed new light on Korean Art through appropriating the Twelve Zodiac Guardians to the works of <Dream on Top>. It may seem foolish to pull out the banal topic on the identity of Korean art, but I persist on continuing this unanswerable process, because I believe that no one other than those who have specialized in Korean Art can have a discourse on such topic.

2019 Kim Jung-Ran

Swine on Top, Color on silk, 2019

Tiger on Top, Color on silk, 2019

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