Hilary Chassé (HC): Thank you all for coming tonight, especially on this gloomy, rainy day. I’m Hilary Chassé and I am the Manager of Asia Art Archive in America, which is the New York mini-hub of Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong. Tonight we will focus on the work of Art Space Pool.
Art Space Pool was founded in 1999 by 20 artists, critics, writers, and other cultural people in Seoul, South Korea. It’s a non-profit art organization with the mission of initiating contemporary art productions and fostering cultural discourse and ideas. Kim Yong-Ik, who is with us today, was one of these 20 co-founders and served as director from 2004 to 2005, I believe. Sunghee Lee, who is also with us, is the current Director and has been since 2015. Tonight we are delighted to have the opportunity to talk about Art Space Pool, this influential space that has gone through many transitions over its 20-plus-year history. Now I’ll turn the conversation over to Kim Yong-Ik, Sunghee Lee, and scholar-professor Sohl Lee who will moderate the discussion. First, there will be a presentation, and then we’re going to open up for questions.
Sohl Lee (SL): I would also like to thank Asia Art Archive and especially Hilary and Jane (DeBevoise) for organizing this event, and Tina Kim and her staff for hosting. I was excited to receive the invitation to moderate this conversation between one of the founders of Pool, Kim Yong-Ik, and the current Director, Sunghee Lee. My first encounter with Pool was when I was starting my dissertation research back in 2008 and 2009 in Seoul and it was exhilarating. I learned so much there and was impressed by its dynamism and spirit. My time at Pool was kind of an expedited lesson on Korea and contemporary art.
This is what you see if you visit Art Space Pool today, and it reflects a renovation that they did back in 2008.
And as you can see, it’s a gathering space for people.
Founded by artists and art critics in 1999, Pool acquired its name by way of a suggestion from one of the founding members Yeong-wook Lee. The word ‘pool’ in English conjures up the sense of a group of people. Imagining this new space as a place to bring people together, Lee, therefore, suggested the name Pool (in English). But Pool is also the title of a posthumous poem by Modernist poet Kim Su-young who died in 1968. ‘Pool’ (or pul) in Korean means ‘grass.’ In Kim’s poem, ‘grass’ can be envisioned as a metaphor for the spirit of persistent resistance of the Korean people—or a metaphor for the masses of people themselves, like the Minjung masses, who were part of the decolonizing and pro-democracy movement in South Korea that began, according to many historians, around 1960 with the April Revolution.
The history of Art Space Pool is bookended by the two individuals here tonight – Sunghee and Yong-Ik. The purpose of today’s presentation, however, is less about building a genealogy, or drawing a family tree, the Pool family tree. Rather it’s about how to imagine a different tomorrow from where we are today, in politics and art, about how to open up the reality of today to imagine something different at a time when no visible social movement exists on the streets. South Korean artists and intellectuals were captivated by such a dilemma in the late 1990s, when Pool was founded. The fact that a small non-profit organization has survived almost 20 years is itself amazing, considering the political, social, economic, and cultural history of South Korea. Pool’s history of survival and perseverance is one that witnessed this history of resistance in art, and it is a testament to the expanding art scene in Korea that Pool actively participated in shaping.
To tell this story for the non-specialist of contemporary Korean art, I would like to provide a little historical background, but in doing so, I may run the risk of over-simplifying South Korean history and art history. In the post-liberation period, starting in 1945 and leading into the 1960s and early 1970s, South Korea saw the emergence of an abstract painting movement, which is known today as tansaekhwaor monochromatic abstract painting. This group of monochrome painters proposed an alternative to the national exhibition system (taehan minguk misul chŏnramhoe, or gukchŏn), an adaptation of the jury system which began in 1949 and was itself inherited from the colonial art exhibition (ch’osŏn misul chŏnramhoe, or sŏnchŏn) instituted by the Japanese colonial government in the Korean peninsula in 1922 until its final edition in 1944. Tansaekhwa artists opposed this form of jury-based national art exhibition, along with the classification of art on which the system was built.
This history of opposition continued when, in the 1970s and 1980s, artists and art critics proposed yet another alternative—an alternative to Tansaekhwa’s disregard of art’s social role. These artists, later known for practicing minjung misul (or ‘people’s art’), felt that some of the abstract painters in the Tansaekhwa coterie lived within the isolated realm of the individual, a world apart from art’s potential role of imagining the collective common and spirit of pro-democracy emerging from various cultural fronts such as literature, theater, music and other artforms. These two camps – the abstract painting coterie and the socially engaged Minjung art movement – constitute two poles of Korean contemporary art, one representing Korean-style ‘international Modernism’ and the other representing social engagement. That binary has been engrained in Korean art history since the 1980s, and it manifested itself in a particular and exciting way in 1999, when Pool was founded. This history is important because in his discussion Kim Yong-Ik will refer to the tension between these two groups of artists that belonged to different generations and harbored different definitions of what contemporary art is.
My first question to Yong-Ik is: may I hear a little bit about the artistic practice you were engaging with in the latter half of the 1990s? I would also like to hear about what led to your involvement in the founding of Pool in 1999. How would you describe your life and artistic activities in the late 1990s?
Kim Yong-Ik (KYI): 이것이 96년의 제 개인전, 서울의 어느 화랑에서의 개인전입니다.
SL (translation from Korean): In 1996, I had a solo exhibition in Woong Gallery in Seoul. These are the installation shots from that show.
KYI: 이쪽 오른쪽의 사진 하나는, 지금 보이는 사진은 1996년 웅 갤러리에서 개인전을 했고 이 개인전의 리뷰를 박찬경이 썼어요.
SL (translation): An artist and critic Park Chan-kyong (b. 1965) wrote a review of this exhibition.
KYI: 그런데 이것은 굉장히 한국적인 미술 신에서 상당히 이례적인 일입니다.
SL (translation): This was quite an extraordinary ‘event’ in the Korean art scene.
KYI: 왜냐면 저는 그 당시만해도 미술 신을 분류를 한다면, 민중미술 쪽 사람이 아니고 모더니즘 쪽 사람이고 박찬경은 민중미술 쪽 사람이었기 때문에 민중미술의 박찬경이 왜 김용익의 전시 리뷰를 썼지?
SL (translation): Because at the time it was generally believed that Korean artists were divided into two camps. I belonged to the Modernist camp, and Park belonged to the Minjung camp, the camp involved in the people’s art movement that privileged social engagement. So at the time many wondered why someone in one camp (i.e. Park) would write a review of an art show by someone from another camp (i.e me).
KYI: 그런데 그 박찬경이 이 전시회의 리뷰를 쓰기 이전에 이미 박찬경과 저는 만난 적이 있고 박찬경은 왜 나를 만나러 왔는고 하면은 같은 민중미술 아티스트 최민화의 추천에 의해 나를 만나러 왔어요.
SL (translation): In fact, before Park wrote this exhibition review, he visited me once on the recommendation of another artist Choi Minhwa, who was active in the Minjung movement in the 1980s.
KYI: 박찬경은 그때 당시 미국유학을 갓 마치고 막 돌아와가지고 한국 미술에 대한 어떤 문제의식을 가지고 있었는가 하면,
SL (translation): At that time, Park had just returned from studying abroad (translator’s note: Park was in the MFA program at Cal Arts studying with Allan Sekula and Thom Anderson), and he was hoping to think critically and problematize Korean contemporary art and its art scene.
KYI: 박찬경 본인은 민중미술에 강한 애착과 관심을 기울이고 있음에도 불구하고, 약간 민중미술에 대한 비판적인 시각을 같고 있었어요.
SL (translation): Although Park always had a deep passion for the Minjung art movement which he was part of in the late 1980s, he also held some suspicions.
KYI: 그것은 어떤 비판의식인가 하면 어쨌든 한국에 모더니즘, 소위 컨템포러리 아트라는 아트 필드가 하나 있고 그 반대편에 민중미술이 있는데 그것이 너무나도 물과 기름처럼 갈라져서 분리되어 있을 뿐, 모더니즘 안에도 분명히 그렇게 민중미술 편에서 욕하는 어떤 탈 정치적이고 탈 사회적인 시각 이외에 어떤 모더니즘도 있을 것이다라고 하는, 그리고 그것을 눈에 잘 안보이더라도 찾아봐야 되겠다. 그래서 민중미술과 모더니즘이 상호 서로 뭔가 주고 받을 것을 주고 받으면서 민중미술이 가지고 있는 과도한 현실 정치에 과도한 몰입, 그리고 그 이외의 것은 보지 않으려고 하는 폐쇄성도 교정되지 않을까 하는 그런 문제의식을 가지고 저한테 찾아온 것이었습니다.
SL (translation): So, when I met Park, it seemed that he wanted to problematize the stark division between Modernist art (i.e. Tansaekhwa) and Minjung art in South Korea which, at the time, felt like oil and water. He must have felt that there was something certainly valuable but not yet visible yet within the Modernist camp, something more than what the Minjung camp harshly criticized: the Modernist camp’s tendency to pursue purity in art and its disregard for art’s engagement with the political and the social. If this division in the art scene was amended and dialogue took place between these two camps, would it be possible to overcome Minjung art’s own shortcomings, such as the blind focus on real politics? I think Park harbored these questions in his mind when he came to visit me.
KYI: 박찬경이 그럼 왜 찾아왔을까? 무슨 연유로 찾아 왔을까? 하는 것이 지금 보이는 그림에 그 단서를 찾아볼 수 있습니다.
SL (translation): Then, why did Park come visit me? For what reasons? An answer to this question is in this installation shot from my solo show in 1997 at the Kumho Art Museum.
KYI: 그것의 설치 계획도가 그 옆의 것이고 똑같지는 않지만
SL (translation): And this is the preparation drawing, slightly different from the final installation.
KYI: 아마도 박찬경은 이 그림에서 제가 얘기했던 모더니즘이 가지고 있는 자족적이고 폐쇄적인 아트 월드의 세계, 자족적이고 작품 내부에서 일체의 탈 정치, 탈 사회를 꿈꾸는 내부의 밖을 내다보려는 어떤 가능성을 이 작품에서 본 것으로 저는 추측이 되요.
SL (translation): I believe that in this installation of three canvases titled Come…Come Closer… Park Chan-kyong saw a possibility within the group of Modernist painters, a possibility that looked outwards and that stepped outside the self-sufficient, exclusionary world carefully constructed within the isolated frame of each artwork.
SL: How does an abstract painting speak to that which is outside the picture frame? How would you describe this particular set of three paintings’ move beyond painting’s self-referentiality?
KYI: 그냥 이것은 세 점의 이 세 점의 그림을 보면서 대답하겠습니다.
SL (translation): Let me respond to that question by sharing how I planned these three canvases.
KYI: 네 이것은 세 점의 캔버스 인데요, 근데 만약에 이것을 이 계획서대로 보지 않고 하나만 따로 떼서 본다면, 그것은 완벽한 의미의 자폐적, 자족적 고립이죠.
SL (translation): The left painting has three dots, and if you only look at this painting without seeing the installation plan as a whole, what you see is nothing more than the painting’s solitary, self-sufficient isolation.
KYI: 그런 모더니즘의 전형적인 작품으로 보여요.
SL (translation): It looks like a typical example of Modernist painting.
KYI: 그러니 이렇게 지금 설치 계획도 안에 이것이 인스톨레이션 됐을 때, 요 하나의 작품은 스스로의 셀프-레퍼런셜한 고립 속에서 벗어나서 주변과 화랑의 벽이라는 공간 속에 이게 스며들면서 자족적이고 셀프-레퍼런셜한 가능성을 깨트려 버리는
SL (translation): But when installed alongside two other paintings like I sketched here, it should be seen as sinking into its surroundings, contextualized within its environment like the gallery wall, thus breaking the myth of Modernist autonomy and self-referentiality.
KYI: 그리고 가운데 하얀, 블랭크로 되어있는 아무것도 보여지지 않는 화이트
SL (translation): I would like you to consider this middle canvas, a white blank where nothing is visible.
KYI: 이 화이트 캔버스는 모더니즘의 역사 속에서 굉장히 중요한 어떤 블랭크의 의미를 가지고 있는 것인가 그 자체가
화이트 페인팅을 한 사람이 역사적으로 누가 있죠? 라이먼? 라우센버그? [관객 중 한명: 아그네스 마틴!] 그 사람들의 화이트 페인팅은 그야말로 화이트 페인팅 내부에 어떤 굉장한 나는 여기서 아무것도 그리지 않겠다 라고 하는, 여기 그려야 될 부분에 아무것도 그리지 않았다는 자기의 주장이 역설적으로 강력하게 담겨있는 그림이라고 저는 생각해요.
SL (translation): What does the white canvas mean in the history of Modernism? In the history of painting, who made white paintings? Robert Ryman? Robert Rauschenberg? [From the audience: Agnes Martin!] I think that in their paintings, this refusal to represent anything on canvas—where something is usually depicted—ironically, brings our attention back to the subjectivity of the painter.
KYI: 그러나 내 작품에 있어서 흰색 페인팅은, 그냥 거기 아무런 서클, 폴카 닷을 넣을 수 없는 위치에 있기 때문에 그냥 아무것도 없는 것이에요.
SL (translation): But the white painting in my work is left completely empty, because it happens to be situated in a section of the wall where no topological markers like polka dots are made.
SL (Additional remarks): So, here, the whiteness of this blank canvas is not a signifier for the Korean partiality to the color white and nature; nor is it a void, which theorists of Tansaekhwa would argue signifies the potential for a new beginning. The white and the literal blankness in Kim’s painting is an index of the (absent) coordinates in the installation plan. The polka dots painted on the other two canvases are indeed less about marks made on the canvas than they are about what denotes the location of the canvas on the wall.
KYI: 그래서 이런 일련의 작품을 보고 박찬경이 저한테 고백하기를 가슴이 뻥 뚫리는 것 같은 느낌을 받았다.
SL (translation): Yes. So, as he confessed to me, when Park saw these paintings, he felt as if a big burden in his heart was being lifted.
KYI: 답답한 모더니즘의 폐쇄회로 속에서 벗어난 그림을 본 것 같았던 거죠.
SL (translation): As if he witnessed a painting that escaped the closed circuit of suffocating Modernism.
KYI: 그래서 아 이 모더니즘의 폐쇄성을 벗어나고, 외부와 손 잡을 수 있고, 현실과 정치를 이야기할 수 있는 가능성을 이 작가와 얘기할 수 있겠다.
SL (translation): Perhaps he thought he could finally, with Kim Yong-Ik, a Modernist painter, talk about the possibility of moving beyond Modernism’s isolationism, working beyond the exclusionary coterie of artists, and talking about reality and politics.
KYI: 박찬경은 나중에 어느 글에서 이렇게 회고를 합니다. 내가 김용익의 스튜디오를 방문했더니 거기에 창작과 비평이라고 하는, 70년대 당시 한국에서 가장 래디컬한, 진보적인 잡지가 서가에 꽂혀 있는 것을 보고 놀랐다.
SL (translation): Park later writes: He was surprised when he visited Kim Yong-Ik’s studio, that Kim had on his bookshelf Ch’angjak kwa pip’yŏng (Creation and Criticism), a radical, politically oriented, literary quarterly (translator’s note: the quarterly was launched in 1966).
KYI: 어쨌든 이것이 설명이 잘 되었는지 모르지만, 박찬경으로 대표되는 소위 민중미술과 모더니즘 작품, 작가로서 분류되던 내가 만나는 계기가 되었고, 그를 통해서 드디어 민중미술 그룹과 제가 연루되기 시작한 것이다.
SL (translation): I’m not sure if I explained it clearly, but it was from this encounter with Park that I began to develop my relationship with artists and critics who belonged to this other camp, the Minjung art camp in the late 1990s.
SL: This is a great story and now you could perhaps move onto the years 1998-1999, when your involvement with the Gwangju Biennale put you in direct contact with the other founding members of Pool in 1999. Please tell us how you took part in this larger wave, at that time, of obliterating this limiting binary of abstraction versus figuration, artistic autonomy versus social engagement.
KYI: 제 3회 광주비엔날레가 구성이 되면서 전시 총 감독이 최민이라는 분이 총감독으로 위촉이 되었는데, 최민은 바로
SL (translation): Choi Min (b. 1944) was appointed as the director of the third edition of Gwangju Biennale, originally to be held in 1999.
KYI: 그런데 그 분은 민중미술 1세대인 현실과 발언의 창립멤버였어요.
SL (translation): A well-known art critic since the 1970s, Choi was a founding member of Hyŏnsil kwa Parŏn (Reality and Utterance), one of the first Minjung art collectives (translator’s note: the collective was founded in 1979).
KYI: 그래서 누구나 예상하기를 광주라는 도시가 원래 좌파들의 정신적인 고향? 최근 근대사에서? 당연히 최민씨가 그렇게 된 것이 당연하게 여겨졌고, 그리고 그 분이 전시기획위원회라는 위원회를 조직했을 때 좌파들로 채워질 것이라고 생각을 했어요. 그러나 그렇지 않았어요.
SL (translation): The city of Gwangju is a symbol of the 1980s pro-democracy social movement, and Choi, being an important figure of the 1980s pro-democracy art movement, was a natural pick as an artistic director for the Biennale. When he formed the exhibition committee, everyone thought that he would bring his friends from the 1980s on board. But that was not the case.
KYI: 좌파, 아주 골수 좌파들 다 배제되었고, 민중미술 작가들도 다 배제되었고 물론 당연히 모더니즘에도 골수, 보수적인 사람들도 배제되고
SL (translation): He avoided the people who belonged to the extremes of these two poles, that is, the two extremes of Modernists and Minjung artists.
KYI: 나와 같이 양쪽에, 이쪽과 이쪽에서 색깔이 모호한 사람들로 위원회가 채워졌죠.
SL (translation): Instead, he filled the committee with individuals like myself, who had ambiguous relationships with both of the highly politicized poles.
KYI: 얘기가 길어지는데 얘기를 꼭 해야 돼, 할 수 없는데.
SL (translation): So, why did Choi make such a move? This part of the story gets long, but the following is a very important point that merits elaboration.
KYI: 왜냐하면, 왜 최민씨가 그렇게 했냐면, 광주비엔날레가 2회를 거듭하고 3회에 들어가면서 이미 광주비엔날레가 너무 한국 전체 미술 신에서 좌파들의 전시로 게토가 되는 것을 최민씨는 원치 않았어요.
SL (translation): By the third edition, the Gwangju Biennale was becoming quite ghetto-ized; it was becoming a playground for only Minjung art people, those people clearly identified as leftist critics and artists. Choi wanted to change this.
KYI: 그래서 이제 저 같은 사람들로 채웠는데, 그런데 불행하게도 광주비엔날레 재단과 최민 총 감독의 부딪침으로 인해서 최민 감독이 갑자기 해촉이 된 거예요.
SL (translation): However director Choi was fired in the middle of the preparation process because he had clashed with the bureaucrats at the Gwangju Biennale Foundation.
KYI: 그때 제가 포함된, 최민 감독에 의해서 위촉된 광주비엔날레 전시기획위원회. 거기에서 광주비엔날레의 재단이 굉장히 폐쇄적이고, 감독의 권한을 너무나 전시 기획 하나에만 집중시키고 있고, 쓸데없는 인력이 들어와서, 공무원이 모든 일들을 처리해 재단 자체가 관료화 되어 있고, 이래가지고 감독이 자기 소신 것, 재량 것 일을 할 수 없는 구조이기 때문에 개선해야 된다.
SL (translation): In the spirit of true reform, Choi called for a re-evaluation of and change to the bureaucratic administrative structure of the Biennale, where the parameters of the artistic director’s powers had become very much limited. The artistic director’s responsibility was limited only to curating the exhibition, while government officials and civil servants drove bureaucratization of the entire foundation.
KYI: 그것이 건의가 받아지지 않고 오히려 답이 해촉으로 왔어요. 너 그럼 그만둬.
SL: But this call for change was not accepted by the bureaucrats at the Gwangju Biennale Foundation, and the result was the forced resignation, the firing, of its artistic director.
SL: Let me jump in here and provide a set of relevant, contextual information. This is an article that Kim Yong-Ik wrote in early 1999 to discuss in a public forum his involvement in the Gwangju scandal around artistic director Choi Min’s dismissal. Choi was someone who wanted to negotiate between the two positions of power in the South Korean art scene, but after he was fired, Oh Kwang-su, a critic and the foremost supporter of the Modernism camp, became the director of the 3rd Gwangju Biennale. As Kim Yong-Ik writes in this article, this incident recalls the ghosts of the battles that took place in the 1980s, rather than moving beyond them. The 1990s marked an important historical moment when individuals like Kim Yong-Ik, Choi Min, and Park Chan-kyong sought to imagine a different art scene for South Korea after democratization. And this incident in Gwangju showed that Choi and others like Choi were still facing hurdles. Kim Yong-Ik is an important player because he is not only an artist but also an activist, always engaging with other individuals, artists, critics, or curators to change the rules of the art system. Whether it was how a gallery was run or how a bureaucratic administration was run, he was always engaged—or at least willing to discuss with others the matters on the table. Here I want to introduce a round table discussion from 1985 titled ‘To Broaden the Horizon of Democratization of Art’, published in Kong’gan (Space Magazine), a very important interdisciplinary monthly that since its founding in 1966 has covered architecture and art.
KYI: 예술의 민주화라는 말을 지켜내기 위해서 … 이 타이틀이 내가 발언한 것에서 뽑아낸 거예요.
SL (translation): The title of this article ‘To Broaden the Horizon of Democratization of Art’ was taken from something I said during the round table. Everyone liked what I said.
SL: Another excerpted quote was:
민중미술의 개념을 작품 자체라든가 그 내부에서 찾으려고 하면 안될 것이고, 작품의 제작과정이라든지 소통, 발표 이런 동적인 것에서 찾아야 되는데 요즈음 자꾸 마찰을 빚는 것은 정적인 기존 개념으로 동적인 민중미술을 보려하기 때문이죠.
‘We should not find the concept of Minjung art in the work of art itself or the inner workings of the work. Instead we have to find it within the “dynamic” aspects of the work such as the production process and how the artwork is exhibited and how it communicates with the audience. The conflict often found today comes from [the mistake of] seeing the “dynamic” Minjung art with the existing terms bound by the “static.” ‘
SL: I wanted to share with all of you this quote from 1985 because this is one of the smartest things I’ve ever read about the problem of the engrained politics of South Korean art, which incidentally and maybe unavoidably, reflects the Cold War politics in which South Korea was implicated. Abstraction had come to mean liberation and individual freedom. And on the other hand, realism and attention to reality had come to be seen as a dangerous thing by the South Korean government who had an anti-communist policy. But when Minjung art works in the multiple forms of flags, banners, funerary portraits, and badges proliferated the public space of streets and university campuses, it made little sense to analyze these works by employing the methodology originally devised to analyze two-dimensional works in an art gallery. The difference between Tansaekhwa and Minjung art could not be drawn along the line of styles (abstraction and figuration); the difference lay in the fundamental understanding of what art is and what it can do. Kim Yong-Ik was attuned to this point as early as the mid-1980s, and continued to question the relationship between art and society in the 1990s leading up to the founding of Pool in 1999.
Sunghee Lee (SHL): Maybe I can talk a little bit more about this. This information [the photograph of the discussion and the resultant manifesto] is from Pool’s historical archive. When I asked Kim Yong-Ik about this, he told me that this [event and manifesto] was the formation and foundation of Art Space Pool. During this gathering, people talked about the problems of the Gwangju Biennale. He was the leader of this discussion. The group kept issuing press releases and arguments. Although Kim was not involved, a group of artists actually made a postcard about how they felt about the government situation and the institutional problems at the Biennale, and they made an exhibition to show the postcards. We are now digitizing these materials.
SL: Now Sunghee is talking about how history continues and is re-visited within Pool through the material evidence of the late 1990s conflict. The work of the ‘Pan-Artist Committee for Normalizing the Gwangju Biennale and Abolishing Bureaucratization of Cultural Administration,’ which was led by Kim Yong-Ik and which included a broad group of artists in South Korea, petitioned against the censorship of the Gwangju Biennale, and gave an impetus for artists to start thinking about revolutionizing the institution by creating a new form of art institution. Taking down the authoritarian government back in 1987 was a step towards democratization of society, but for contemporary art to flourish, the very structure of art institutions had to transform too. So Art Space Pool—at the time of its founding called Alternative Space Pool—included among its founding members writers, critics, and artists who contributed to the journal Forum A. Launched in 1998, Forum A, as in a forum or foruma, also refers to a space, an open space, a public space, where discussions about art and art criticism can take place. Kim Yong-Ik was a contributor to this journal, especially in the beginning.
The next image is of Insa-dong in the 1990s, where Pool was located at the time of its founding.
SHL: There is actually no photograph of the exterior of Pool from that era. I found these slides (of Insa-dong), though I don’t know who took them. But I think it is interesting to see what that era and the area of Insa-dong looked like at that time.
SL: What was it like to actually walk through these streets in the 1990s?
KYI: 어쨌든 인사동 하면 한국에서 미술 1번지였죠. 그러나 풀이 거기 들어가서 인사동에 대한 미술 1번지라는 관념을 가지고 거기 들어가서 몇 년간 있었어요. 한 5-6년간 있는 동안에
SL (translation): Insa-dong was at that time the Mecca of art and the art market. Most of the art galleries in Seoul were located in that district. Pool stayed in Insa-dong for a total of 6 or 7 years, so from 1999 to 2006 …
SHL: About 7 years
KYI: 그 동안에 인사동이 급격하게 상업화되면서
SL (translation): Insa-dong changed a lot during those 7 years; it gentrified and commercialized.
KYI: 임대로가 엄청나게 올라가고,
SL (translation): And the rent prices went up a lot.
KYI: 사람들은 분주하게 왔다갔다하지만, 풀은 주 도로에서 약 20m 밖에 떨어지지 않았는데, 그렇게 많은 인파들이 다녀도 풀에는 아무도 안 들어와.
SL (translation): Insa-dong became very crowded. But even though Pool was only 20 meters from the main street of Insa-dong, the big crowds never came to Pool.
KYI: 어쨌든 그래서 인사동에 대한 실망이 굉장히 컸어요. 우리가 이미 7년 동안 굉장히 기막혔고,
SL (translation): So by the end of 2006, we were left with disappointment. A sense of being stuck pervaded over 7 years.
KYI: 마침 또 임대료를 챙기려는 건물주가 우리에게 임대료를 올려달라는 것도 아니고 그냥 나가달라고.
SL (translation): And, the owner of the building came to us one day and asked us to leave. Instead of first demanding a higher rent, he just told us to leave.
KYI: 왜냐하면 그 장소에서 음식점을 꼭 하고 싶었던 사람이 건물주를 설득해서 우리를 내보낸거지.
SL (translation): Because someone wanted to open a restaurant, which of course would be more profitable.
SL (Question to Kim in Korean): At that point your relationship with Pool became a little more remote, right? And then after a few years you returned as a director in 2004.
KYI: 2004년? 2004년 대표, 2006년.
SL (translation): Yes, I returned to Pool to serve as the executive director.
SL (Question to Kim in Korean): I would like to hear what was it like to become an executive director of this space? What did it mean to become a director of an art space as an artist?
KYI: 풀이 이제 작가와 비평가들이 모여서 만든 단체죠. 장소 하나 얻어서.
SL (translation): As you heard before, Pool began as an organization of artists and critics.
KYI: 그래서 명분은 뭐 한국미술의 대안적 가치를 추구하겠다.
SL (translation): The larger motivation Pool aspired to was to pursue an alternative route, an alternative value system, for South Korean art.
KYI: 그래서 장소를 빌려놨으니 임대료도 내야 하고 운영비도 마련해야 했는데.
SL (translation): But to rent a physical space, you have to pay rent, and you also need an operating budget.
KYI: 멤버들이 그런 일에 무능했어요.
SL (translation): But artists were incapable of thinking about administering and operating a space, because they were artists.
KYI: 평론가들도 마찬가지고.
SL (translation): Same goes for critics.
KYI: 그러니 전전긍긍하면서 누구나 대표를 맡기 싫어하는 거예요.
SL (translation): The organization always suffered. No one wanted to be the head representative, the director.
KYI: 왜냐하면 대표를 맡으면 자기도 뭔가 도네이션을 해야 하고, 어쨌든 돈을 만들어와야 하니까.
SL (translation): Because if one took on the position of the representative or the director, it meant you were forced to donate your own money to foot the bill, or find other people to pay the bills.
KYI: 궁지에 몰려서 그 일이 저한테까지 온 것입니다.
SL (translation): So I reluctantly accepted.
KYI: 운영비를 어떻게 좀 모아서.
SL (translation): I was forced into a corner to accept.
KYI: 그리고 제가 다방면으로 운영위원들을 보강하기도 하면서.
SL: What I did was add more board members who could make donations.
KYI: 그래서 2년 동안 동분서주 했었죠. 그게 2년 동안 제가 한 일입니다.
SL (translation): For 2 years, I was very busy, always here and there and everywhere.
SL: This kind of episode is important for our discussion, because Park Chan-kyong at one point said, ‘the failure of Minjung art, its failure to survive the age of post-democratization, post-1987 in South Korea, was because Minjung artists were oblivious to how capital operated.’ This comment referred to the intellectuals’ inability to adapt to the age of global capitalism that had a huge impact on 1990s South Korea, and also, more specifically, referred to artists’ unwillingness to work within the system of capitalism, as if their adaptability to the rules of the new age would mean a major compromise to their political agenda. They didn’t know, for example, how to run a space, how to run a space successfully. If you are going to revolutionize institutions, you have to be willing to learn how to run an institution in addition to having an ideal, a goal to pursue. In a conversation with me earlier today, Kim Yong-Ik recounted how those two years were incredibly difficult for him. He wanted to step aside and not be involved with any work at Pool for a while. But things began to change between 2006 and 2008 when a new director came in. Because Pool was having difficulty administering the organization, they thought that it might be time to find a professional curator who could run this space rather than the artists and critics running it on their own.
SHL: In 2010, Pool finally found a curator who could run the space and curate exhibitions. They merged the executive director and artistic director positions, putting only one person in charge of everything.
SL: Yes, Heejin Kim took over in 2010. This is also when Pool changed its name from Alternative Space to Art Space Pool. A year later, in 2011, Pool organized Kim Yong-Ik’s solo show. These are installation shots of the show. How many years did Heejin Kim serve as the director of Pool?
SHL: About 5 years.
SL: This was a very important period for Pool, because Heejin was the first professional curator, who then became a director at Pool. She tried to expand the area of involvement for Pool. One area was supporting individual artists by offering resources, such as organizing their archives, updating their CVs in both Korean and English, and having their portfolios ready to be sent to curators at home and abroad. Kim Yong-Ik was actually one of her target artists. In addition to receiving a solo show at Pool, an anthology of his writings was edited and published. In fact, Kim Yong-Ik has been a prolific writer since the 1980s, and his writing continues today on his Facebook page. His writings are amazing. Heejin pulled together the portfolio of Kim’s works from the 1970s until today, and made something close to a catalogue raisonnée that could then be circulated among curators and potential collectors. In short, Heejin developed programs that helped artists to find a way to be financially self-sufficient by working with art institutions like museums, galleries, and collectors, as much as the [government entities providing] public funding for the arts.
I would also like to mention that for many artists the history of imagining what could happen beyond what existed then in Korea has always been about survival and the tricky relationship with the state government. In the early 2000s, opposition party government leaders began to expand cultural funding. In the beginning, Pool was an artist-run alternative art space, but just as it reinvented itself as simply an art space operated by a professional curator-cum-director, it began to receive government funding. So for Heejin the most important revenue stream was government funding. She also entered into some commercial activities on behalf of individual artists, making portfolios of the artists’ works and raising funds from annual fundraising shows. Compared to the gallery scene in Chelsea, the art market in South Korea was still at a very rudimentary stage in its development. Or perhaps the size of the Korean contemporary art market will always pose a different set of challenges for artists. While attempting to bridge the gap between the commercial market and the art-making scene, Heejin also developed local and location-specific art projects. By ‘local and location-specific,’ I mean rooted in cities outside of Seoul. Artists would visit different cities and develop art projects that made discursive engagements with the sociocultural histories of those particular sites. Projects that focused on underserved areas of the country were granted government funding that also, to a certain extent, supported Pool’s operating budget. And, finally, Heejin focused on international outreach, which was familiar to her since her curatorial position before coming to Pool, between 2006 and 2009, was at the Insa Art Space, a subsidiary of the Ministry of Culture.
SHL: These activities (at Insa) were also funded by the government.
SL: Right, the Insa Art Space is funded entirely by the government, as it was a state-run gallery and think tank for artists. At Insa Art Space, one of Heejin’s most successful projects was the exhibition Dongducheon: A Walk to Remember, a Walk to Envision from 2008. This exhibition was planned as part of the New Museum-initiative called Museum as a Hub, which served as a network of small-scale, alternative art spaces across different regions of the world. Dongducheon: A Walk to Remember, a Walk to Envision was a research-based, participation-driven project that also produced an exhibition at the Insa Art Space and the New Museum. Some of you in the audience might have seen the exhibition several years ago at the New Museum. Of the participating artists, Ko Seung-wook, Kim Sang-don, and Rho Jae-woon were already affiliated with Pool and siren eunyoung jung later became involved in various projects at Pool.
To fast forward to this decade, or 2014-2015, it should be noted that Sunghee assumed Pool’s directorship in a different phase of life for Pool. And there were particular challenges that were posed around the time that Sunghee was brought on board. On one hand, there were changes in the political situation in South Korea. On the other hand, there were changes in the funding ecology. So I would now like to hear more from Sunghee.
SHL: Thank you Sohl. Let me introduce myself again. As Hilary mentioned, I was previously a researcher for Asia Art Archive so this evening feels a bit like a homecoming. And, in fact, the first time I came across Pool was as Asia Art Archive’s Korea-based researcher around 2011. I then had an opportunity to curate a group show called Low Burn: Low Voice connecting Hong Kong and Seoul at Pool as a guest curator in 2014. At that time it was Heejin Kim who ran the space, but her hands-on involvement had decreased and another chief curator was in charge of Pool’s programming. However, at that time…how would I say it…there were people who said that Pool had lost its founding spirit…
SL: The original spirit…of its founders in 1999.
SHL: Yes. In 1999, Pool was a non-profit alternative space, but by 2014 and 2015, what was the position of the alternative space? At that time the director of Pool was about to leave to take another position. So there was a void … As I visited Pool more often, I was asked as a curator to come into the discussion about the future of Pool, which was then led by the artist siren eun young jung. The questions were: what should Pool do? How could Pool continue? It was a meaningful chance for me to understand the difficulty of running an art space and how an art space operates. The discussions continued over a period of two months, eventually leading to the development of a task force led by a group of artists and curators. In fact, this was a continuation of an ongoing discussion that happened every 3 or 4 years at Pool. The question was: what should Pool do now?, but there was no answer. To summarize, they then more or less asked me, could I run the space?
SL: Why do you think that they needed you?
SHL: I don’t know. Maybe, they just liked me. (laughing) Or maybe it was the same as the situation with Kim Yong-Ik: they needed someone who had an in-between perspective. Maybe they needed an objective view from outside. Not an insider. But I had to ask myself , ‘what should I do?’ And what else I can bring? In 2014 there were many artist-run spaces, opened by young artists in their 20s or 30s. They needed a space to show their work and didn’t want to rely on the art establishment. They didn’t want to work with old organizations or art spaces. I realized that Pool was not young anymore, so it needed to have a different approach.
SL: This was when the South Korean art scene witnessed the second boom in alternative art spaces, after the first boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s to which Pool belongs.
SHL: Yes, it’s a complicated story. After neoliberalism, young people were feeling kind of lost.
SL: What year was this emerging alternative art space boom?
SHL: 2013 and 2014.
SL: The interesting thing is that Art Space Pool or Alternative Space Pool, as it was called then, was the first space to open in 1999. But by 2005 there were two dozen spaces across Korea that called themselves alternative art spaces. During the first phase of the boom in alternative art spaces, all these organizations were non-profit platforms, established to incubate young and emerging artists and provide platforms and resources for building their work. And they shared ideas of how to enrich the art scene as a whole, even though each space had its own agenda and specialization. For example, Art Center Nabi was founded in 2000 to focus only on the junction between technology and art. Some spaces only gave solo shows to lesser-known young artists. During this time, Pool continued to respect their inherited legacy of the 1980s, to privilege the art of resistance and cultural movements, and to think about how to change institutions from within.
SHL: So, I asked myself, what else can Pool bring to the scene? What I decided was that an important aspect of the program would be to provide support to artists who may have been overlooked. This includes not only young artists, but older artists as well. We tried to cover all generations, not only focusing on young artists. Second, we identified specific artists, whom we felt could benefit from a long-term relationship with Pool, to develop their art production and publications. But when I joined in 2015 I didn’t realize that our funding had been cut by 50%. So there was no money, which was something I didn’t expect. But two years have now passed, and we have been working on building a self-sustaining space.
SL: Government agencies stopped giving Pool the funding it had in the past.
SHL: In the past funding kind of flew in.
SL: Yes, in the decade of the 2000s, the government gave a lot of money to support these alternative spaces. Many critics and art historians think the injection of massive amounts funding in the 2000s made these small art spaces reliant on government support. It was the government, the state, the leftist state run by opposition leaders, who pursued this policy. The government was both the state and the civil society. Or, the government became sort of a spokesperson for the civil society that the activists represented in the 1980s. In short, after democratization, the dynamics between the public sphere and the government began to change, so that the role of public intellectuals, artists, and activists (like those members of Pool) was not predetermined as that of opposing the state. For about 10 years, from the mid-2000s, Pool relied on government funding and its operating logistics adapted the agendas and rules of the government funding agencies. But when the conservative members of government came into power in 2008, there was a massive redirecting of cultural funds, which impacted the day-to-day operation of Art Space Pool. And gradually from 2008, and especially after 2013, Pool received little government support, either from the Arts Council Korea or from the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture.
SHL: Exhibition calendars were even determined by the government’s funding schedule. For example, in January and February there are no exhibitions organized by non-profit artist spaces in Korea, because they are waiting for funding that would arrive later in the year.
SL: Yes, that is the case in Korea. A lot of people say that this funding structure with its heavy reliance on government funds was actually harmful for developing a healthy ecosystem for the arts, because the government can change hands and there can be a sudden changes in priorities.
SHL: I am not sure exactly when government funding started to shrink or how it affected other art spaces. As far as I know, the volume of government funding for art has gradually been cut. But, not only because of decreased government funding, but also to find a way to self-sustainability, some art spaces (for example, Project Space SARUBIA) initiated memberships to ask for donations and held fundraising exhibitions. However, as I mentioned earlier, in 2015 Pool’s funding was cut in half without any specific explanation, but other art spaces were ok. We later found out that we were on one of the art and culture blacklists organized by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism under Park Geun-hye’s order. Pool had organized fundraising shows from its beginning period, but in 2015 there was no other choice but to urgently organize a fundraising show. It turned out to be quite interesting because we tried to approach it in a different way. For me, fundraising exhibitions [are not only a way to raise funds, but they are] also a good opportunity to engage people and a new generation of artists. So, I would ask …
SL: Give me your works!
SHL: Yes, [I would go to the artists and say] give me your works. (laughter) In 2015, when I started as director, I invited 60 people to donate works. And it was not just a donation, because when the works sold, the artists got a percentage of the sale price. We let the artists choose the percentage. This is a shot from the 2015 fundraising show. It was called 2015 Pool Rising.
KYI: 이중에서 제일 큰 작품을 데리고 갔어.
SL (translation): I brought the largest work there, as it turned out.
SHL: You can see Kim Yong-Ik’s work in this slide. And later the Seoul Museum of Art acquired this work. I think many museum curators found these shows interesting. They liked to come to get an idea of the artists that Pool was presenting. It was quite successful. We thought of it as something that could take place every two years. I didn’t do another fundraising show until 2017, during this time we spent all the money we had raised in 2015. We organized another fundraising show this year (in 2017). It was also successful, but it was harder. Art museums now have their own issues; directors change, and so on. So this year museums did not make any acquisitions. Instead there were acquisitions by individuals.
As I mentioned, in 2014 I had the chance to curate an exhibition at Pool as a guest curator. The previous director of Pool, Heejin Kim, was planning to make a change in her career, so she had less day-to-day involvement in Pool. Also, at that point, many people in the Korean art field believed that Pool was at a crossroads.
You could say that Pool originally had two focuses: First, Pool was committed to fostering a critical ‘discussion’ culture. Pool’s early members founded a magazine called Forum A that was a leader in alternative art commentary and criticism from 1998 to 2005. Second, Pool was always focused on developing the younger generation of artists.
But by 2014, some people thought that Pool only carried on this historical legacy but lacked the energy or vitality it used to have.
As I mentioned earlier, when I started at Pool in 2015, due to the sudden loss in funding, we decided to hold a fundraising exhibition, called Pool Rising, which included works from about 60 artists, ranging from Pool’s founders to emerging young artists. Actually, the sense of urgency around this exhibition brought together many artists and energy. So it was truly a ‘gathering’ that recalled Pool’s original founding spirit. And museums and commercial galleries, along with members and the public, purchased works from this show, allowing Pool to meet its budget for 2015 and 2016.
This past March, we held the second edition of Pool Rising, and we were able to meet our budget for 2017. One interesting thing was that the buyers in this year’s exhibition were all Pool members or individuals from the public, not institutions. To me, this suggests that it may be possible one day for Pool to move forward without relying on government or institutional funding.
SL: Sunghee has prepared a slide show about Pool’s recent projects as well as a publication project.
SHL: Now I want to quickly mention several of our recent projects that I thought you might find interesting.
First, we were involved in the publication of the artist siren eun young jung’s book, Trans-Theatre. siren eun young ung is a feminist artist who has focused on the genre of Yeoseong Gukeuk for about 7 years.
Yeoseong Gukgeuk is a genre of Korean opera and musical theatre performed exclusively by women. It started in the late 1940s and became very popular in the 1950s post-Korean War period. Today, it has almost disappeared. During her Yeoseong Gukeuk Project, siren eun young jung recorded the actresses’ preparation process (including makeup and rehearsal and the moment the actresses appear on stage) and their daily lives away from the stage, and she used these materials to create performances. Her project is a fascinating examination of the ‘unfixed gender’ in this historically unique genre.
The book Trans-Theatre incorporates texts taken and edited from the artist’s doctoral thesis and discusses not only a brief history of Yeoseong Gukgeuk but also its socio-political context. Also, the book gathers texts written by an aesthetics scholar, a curator, a gender researcher, and an art critic that attempt to analyze and evaluate the Yeoseong Gukgeuk project from diverse perspectives.
SL: One of the major tendencies you find among contemporary Korean artists, I would say, is that they not only do archival research and use documents within their works, but they research heavily. For example siren eun young jung wrote her doctoral dissertation on all female theater and gender politics framed within the context of Korean history. So hers is very much a historically informed art project that is multi-medial in its manifestation. That’s why she takes time—a long time—to produce each iteration of the project that is still ongoing.
SHL: The next artist I want to speak about is Kim Jung Heun who was born around the same time as Kim Yong-Ik.
KYI: He’s one year older. [김정헌 선생님] 46, 난 47.
SL (translation): He was born in 1946.
SHL: [When I started working in the art field,] I had not seen him produce work for about 12 years. At that time he had become an art administrator, the member of the committee and the chairman of the Arts Council Korea (2005-2008), the chief director of the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture (2012-2015), and an art activist.
SL: Kim Jeong Heun was also a founding member of Reality and Utterance, the Mingjung art collective founded in 1979. Choi Min, who got fired from the 3rd Gwangju Biennial directorship was also one of the dozen founding members (as discussed previously). In the 2000s, when Kim continued his activity as an activist within the government, one of the posts he held was the head of the Arts Council Korea, a subsidiary of the Ministry of Culture which distributes funding to art spaces, art projects, and artists.
SHL: But when the government changed it, he was let go, and as a consequence he began to have time to produce more work.
So in 2016, we organized a solo exhibition for Kim Jung Heun, who is now in his 70s. The exhibition was called Kim Jung Heun: Paintings of Thoughts, Thoughts of Paintings. This was part of Pool’s ongoing effort to recognize an older generation of artists who have continued to express a vital and experimental spirit. Over the course of the former President’s harsh administration, Korean citizens lost hope and tried to find ways to express their emotions. This exhibition was actually the artist’s first exhibition in 12 years, and in the show he presented recent works that criticized the President and her governing style and policies with a uniquely sharp sense of humor. He also expressed his sympathy for the Sewol Ferry Incident in works titled Even hope is sad and Sewol Ferry illuminated by the light of 4,160 candles. The show was widely covered by the media, and critics found the show to be a meaningful examination of his art practice and his ideas on the nation and society.
SL: And he brought in different types of crowds to Pool, right?
SHL: Yes, he is an amazing person, and this show brought in a wide audience of older people and activists, and when anyone asked him a question, his answers took up to an hour.
SL: And one thing lead to another, because you subsequently organized a show of his drawings, right?
I think it is a very fitting commentary on the situation of today’s generation of young Korean artists, but that is the subject of an entire other talk.
SL: Thank you, Sunghee. To end, here are some recent pictures of a gathering at Pool which show it is still a forum, an open space for discussion and presentations by artists, curators, critics, and historians like myself. This is a view of one of the openings. Openings at Pool are always great, some of the best parties in Seoul!
We would now like to open the floor to questions, but before we do, I would like to ask a question to both of you. Kim Yong-Ik, what is Pool to you now? Is your memory of it good?
KYI: Good and bad. (laughter)
SL: Sunghee, I would ask a similar question. What is Kim Yong-Ik to Pool today? He was so involved in various stages throughout Pool’s history.
SHL: I would say that Kim Yong-Ik is still a very active artist, not merely a historical figure. We all still want to visit his studio and talk about his art, and he really tries to give honest comments and criticism about Art Space Pool’s exhibitions and programs.
SL: When Sunghee and I talked this past week, we decided we wanted to avoid delivering a solely celebratory tale of this art space. We wanted to help you become aware of its criticisms as well – the primary criticism was that this space had become too inward looking and had developed a community that was perhaps a little too family-like. As in any family or closely-knit community, there are pros and cons that accompany one’s involvement. So my question is: how does one make Pool once again an open space, where all people feel welcome to contribute a different opinion than yours?
KYI: 누구 전시를 욕했대 내가? 풀에서 한 전시? 나는 되게 독설가예요.
SL (translation): Did someone say that I have criticized an exhibition organized at Pool? Yes, I have. I have a sharp tongue.
SL: Perhaps, what Pool is still trying to do is to offer a space where different voices can coexist.
SHL: Yes, I think that’s it. That’s actually a good way to think about what we do now.
SL: Great. Thank you very much — both of you.
SL: I look forward to your questions about Kim Yong-Ik’s work or the history of the South Korean art scene. Maybe we’ll take three questions and try to answer them together.
Audience Member 1 (AM1)/Artist Sung Ho Choi: Actually, I would like to clarify my understanding of the foundation of Pool. I know Mr Kim and his work. He was 3 or 4 years ahead of me in college in Korea. But I’d like to know more about the motivation for founding an art space like Pool. And, who were the initial members of Pool at the time of its foundation.
Also according to my understanding, during the Minjung period, artists did not organize art spaces, nor did they hold administrative positions. However, later, you talked about how art spaces started to get government funding, and as a result, some criticism arose that Pool became too family-oriented. Were you talking about the Minjung period or the phase that came next?
SL: I see, so [you are asking about] the history of the institution alongside the history of the art scene more broadly within the political history?
AM1: Actually I have one more question. Did Kim Yong-Ik pursue other administrative positions after his Pool experience. And did he have this kind of job before the Pool experience? And does this kind of work energize you and make you want to do more? Or is it something that you are done with and now and back to making art?
SL (Korean): So we can try to answer the final question first.
KYI: 풀을 시작하기 전에 있었던 전 단체인 광주비엔날레를 정상화하기 위한 거기 대표. 그러니까 최초의 대표. [광주비엔날레의 정상화를 위한 범미술 위원회] 그리고 그것이 바로 나의 작가로서, 스튜디오 안에서 은거하던 내가 공생애[公生涯, 개인의 일생에서 공무(公務)나 공공사업에 종사한 기간], 마치 지저스가 공생애를 시작하듯이, 공생으로 나온 계기가 되어가지고. 그래서 그 뒤로 아트스페이스 풀 대표, 공공미술추진위원회[아트인시티] 대표, 또 저쪽, 세종시 개발을 위한 퍼블릭, 공공미술추진위원회[행정복합도시 공공미술 프로젝트: 종촌-가슴에 품다] 대표. 대체로 공공미술과 관련된 단체 대표를 계속 역임하면서 공생애를 계속 이어왔어요. 그런데 그것이 갑자기 창작에 에너지를 줬느냐? 그 질문 했지요?
SL (translation): The first administrative position or directorship I held was with the Committee formed to protest the dismissal of Choi Min as the artistic director of the 3rd Gwangju Biennale in 1999. The Committee’s official name was the ‘Pan-Artist Committee for Normalizing the Gwangju Biennale and Abolishing Bureaucratization of Cultural Administration.’ That committee work gave me the motivation to come out of my studio for the first time. As an artist, I came out of my studio in order to serve what we call in Korean, kongsaengae, a period in life served for public work or the public good. And soon after, I served as the founding member of Pool, the director of Pool, the president of ‘Art in City’ (a Ministry of Culture-initiated program that commissioned public art projects in cities outside Seoul), and the president of ‘Public Art Project for Sejong’ at the time of the state government’s development of the Sejong city as a special region for government administration. My so-called ‘life for public work’ continued as I took these mostly public art-related positions, one after another. But [you ask] how this work gave me the creative energy to produce works? That’s the question, right?
KYI: 그런데 그때는 이미 창작에 대한 에너지가 다 고갈되고 절망에 빠져있는 상태에서 공생애를 시작한 거예요. 그게 나의 예술가로서의 절망을 벗어나는 한 방법이었어요. 그것이 나의 창작에 에너지를 줬다는 것은 거꾸로 주는 걸 뭐라고 하죠? 긍정적인 게 아닌 마이너스 방향으로, 부정적이다. 그러니까 창작을 더 안 하게 되는 거죠. 그런데 그것이 창작을 안 하다 안 하다 결국 막바지까지 가니까 다시 거기서 반전이 시작됐다는 거죠. 그래서 다시 작업을 하게 되는 거죠. 묘하죠. 그 관 작업 같은 게 있으면 보여줬으면 좋겠지만, 없을 거야 아마 여기는. 넣어놨어요?
SL (translation): These public posts actually energized my own art production. I began to live the ‘life of the public work’ when I had already been in deep despair and exhaustion. I considered this new direction a way to overcome that despair as an artist. When I say that I gained creative energy from this new life, I mean that I gained the energy, let’s say, in the reverse way. Not in a positive sense, but in the negative sense. This is how it worked: at first I began to produce even less work, but toward the end of a long period of making little work and then no work, a process of reversal began. So I resumed my creative work. Very peculiar. Very odd, isn’t it? It’d be great to show my recent works, the Coffin series, if we have a slide.
KYI: 저 안에 들어있는 것이 옛날 작품이에요. 죽은 사람을 싸는 수의, 수의를 이렇게 ??고 있는 그래서 박스는 관이고요, 거기에 쓴 거는 명정(銘旌)이라고 죽은 사람을 위해 쓴 글이라고 생각하시면 되요. 그래서 저 작업 이후에 거의 절망에 빠져서 저걸 작업을 한 다음에 한참 상황이 변해가지고, [이솔: 선생님 이거 몇 년도였어요?] 2015년. 나의 생각이 변한 게 아니고 갑자기 주변에서 나한테 관심을 갖기 시작했어요. 전화가 오거나, I want to see your works. 드디어 창작의 에너지가. 절망에 떨어진 다음에 마지막까지 떨어진 뒤에 드디어 다시 또 희망이 오는구나 라는 것을 제가 체험을 했어요.
SL (translation): What you see in the boxes are assemblies of my old works. The boxes shroud my old work like coffins. Written on the boxes are inscriptions for the dead, like funerary streamers. But after I made this series, things began to change. [SL: When was it? What year was it exactly?] 2015. Not that I changed. But other people around me started paying attention to my work, old and new. They started calling me, and saying, ‘I want to see your work.’ So this is how I experienced a renewed sense of hope. The creative energy returned to me, finally, after I had fallen to the bottom of despair.
KYI: 그럼 최성호 아티스트에 대한 답은, 조금 됐는데 지금, 최성호 씨가 기억하는, 오래간만에 만난 거예요. 한 43년 만에 만난 거예요. 30년? 40년? 그 동안에 내가 어떤 생각을 했는지 모르기 때문에 저를 지금 봤는데 내가 모더니즘 작가로 아마 기억하고 있을 거라고 지금 생각을 해요. 그런데 그 모더니즘이라는 것이 한국에서의 모더니즘 작가로서 노릇을 한다는 것은 굉장히 괴로운 일이었어요. 도대체 한국에 모더니즘이라는 게 가능한가 하는 질문도 하게 되고그리고 한국이라는 나라는 과연 모던화된 나라인가? 뭐 이런 여러 가지 질문을 끊임없이 내 작업에다 포함시키면서 작업을 했어요. 그런 끊임없는 고민이 나의 건강을 갉아먹기 시작했어요. 그래서 엄청나게 몸이 쇠약해지면서 정신도 쇠약해지고, 어디에선가 탈출구를 찾아야 되는데 이 모더니즘을 일단 내가 버려야겠다. 그러면서 민중미술 하는 친구들에 대한 계속적인 애정과 관심을 갖게 되었죠. 그들이 별로 날 좋아하지 않아도. 그래가지고 민중미술 작가들과 어울리게 되었고, 그 다음 나의 캐릭터가, 너는 원래 모더니즘 출신 아이가 왜 민중미술하고 그렇게 같이 오랫동안 놀고. 상당히 오랫동안 같이 놀았어요. 그런 가운데서 어떤 기운이 솟았냐 하면, 어떤 기류가 형성되었냐 하면, 모더니즘과 민중미술의 대립이 지겹다. 이 사회, 아트 신에서.
SL (translation): This explanation may respond to the question posed by artist Sung Ho Choi. We haven’t seen each other for about 30, if not 40 years. So I think Sung Ho is probably remembering me as an abstract painter, the Modernist artist that I was back then. But when it comes to the quest of Modernism, I have to say that it was such torture to sustain my life as a Modernist, the so-called Modernist abstract artist in Korea. I would ask, is the practice of artistic Modernism in Korea ever possible? Has the country of Korea ever modernized? While I tried to reflect on these questions in my work, all these questions and worries affected my health. My body became weak; my spirit lost energy. So as I decided to find an exit strategy, I thought I had to first and foremost abandon Modernism [that I have learned and I have known in Korea]. At the same time I began to harbor interests in those fellow artists in the Minjung art camp, even though they did not like me at first. I hung out with them for quite a while. (Translator’s note: Kim here refers to the period of the late 1990s.) In the midst of this [personal journey], a surge, a new wave emerged in the Korean art scene and in Korean society—that we’d had enough of this division between Modernism and Minjung art.
KYI:그게 최민씨가 나를 그 저기로 전시기획위원회. 그리고 광주비엔날레와 관료적 문화행정을 철폐하기 위한 범미술 위원회 위원장이 된 것도 그 이후고. 김용익은 아마 이쪽과 저쪽에서 뭔가 모더레이터, 아마 합리적인 생각을 하면서 어떤 미술, 아트 신에서의 활동을 잘 이끌어 줄, 수습할 수 있는, 대결을 완화시키는 이런 생각을 했어요 사람들이.
SL (translation): And that’s when I was selected as one of the exhibition committee members for the 3rd Gwangju Biennale, and then the chair to the ‘Pan-Artist Committee for Normalizing the Gwangju Biennale and Abolishing Bureaucratization of Cultural Administration.’ People thought that Kim Yong-Ik was someone who could moderate the two sides and maintain a logical, rational assessment of reality.
KYI: 풀도 애초에 시작할 때에는 그런 대결의식을 좀 우리가 우리 이 풀을 주변으로 해서 불식시키고 좀 더 나은 다른 차원의 아트 신을 만들어보자는 그래서 그 구성위원들이 아까 제일 왼쪽에 나온, 나 있었고 민중미술 작가로서는 그렇게 많지 않았어요. 뭐 홍익대학교라고 하는 홍익대학교와 서울대학교가 저를 양분하고 있는데, 뭐랄까 미술계의 헤게모니? 그러나 거기에 교수들은 다 되게 보수적인 사람들이죠. 그런데 그 헤게모니를 또 균형을 맞추고, 홍익교수, 서울대학 교수. 또 뭐 이렇게 하여튼 자꾸 균형을 맞췄어요. 좌와 우, 헤게모니에 홍대와 서울대 이런 균형을 맞춰가지고 운영위원을 조직했는데, 이름을 기억하자면, 최성호씨는 기억하고 다른 분들은 모르지만, 서울대학교 교수 1명, 홍익대학교 교수 1명. 경원대학교 교수인 나, 또 제3의 대학에 있는, 서울도 아니고 뭐도 아닌 한성대학교 교수 1명[홍명섭]. 뭐 이렇게 해가지고 균형을 잘 맞춰가지고 시작을 한 거예요. 그래서 이것이 우리가 그 동안에 좌우 대립, 뭐 역사적으로 남북 대립서부터 시작되어서 미술 ?? 했듯이 한국미술협회와 조선미술동맹가? 미술가동맹 뭐 이런 계속 내려온 뿌리깊은 대결, 그리고 민중미술과 모더니즘의 대결 이것을 조금 신을 복잡하게, 너무 단순한 대립 신을 좀 중층화 시키자 그래서 거기에 내가 창립위원으로 참여를 하게 되었어요. 커미티 멤버들? 위원회? 운영위원회. 6 or 7 나중에 여덟 명까지.
SL (translation): In the beginning, Pool was thinking the same thing. How could we move beyond this division? The [Pool] founding committee members included me, and not many from the Minjung art camp. And when I held the directorship of Pool from 2004-6, I tried to strike a balance on the board by inviting people from the left and the right sides of the political spectrum and from different universities. One from Seoul National University, one from Hongik University, myself from Kyungwon University, and Hong Myung-sup from Hansung University. All this was [an attempt] to overcome the simplistic opposition that exists in the Korean art scene, and to form an art scene with multiple layers.
AM1: How many people were on the committee?
SL: You mean the board? Usually there are 6 or 7 board members, but all together there are about 25 people, past and present board members, who are active in Pool.
AM1: Actually the previous incarnation of Pool was The 21st Century Gallery.
SL: No, that is not true. When Pool was founded in 1999, it took over the lease of a basement space in Insa-dong which previously housed The 21st Century Gallery, an art space run by an important Minjung artist Choi Min-hwa. But The 21st Century Gallery is not a previous incarnation of Pool.
AM1: As I understood it, Pool represented more Minjung artists.
SL: As I talk to Yong-Ik and begin to think about Pool in the context of a longer history which goes back to the 1980s and the 1990s, I realize that it is not possible to build the history of Pool only on the legacy of 1980s Minjung art. At the time of Pool’s founding, the story was a little different and a little more complex than just that. I would like for us to understand that the late 1990s was when many artists and critics like Yong-Ik recognized the need for a new type of alliance. It was also when a new horizon for the Korean art scene opened up, like an aperture. Maybe we’ll take a couple more questions.
Audience Member 2 (AM2): Regarding Minjung which is actually written in Chinese….
SL: Sino-Korean characters, yes…
AM2: Does Kim Yong-Ik feel Art Space Pool democratized contemporary art for common people? Did it reflect the art movement of the common people or was it still restricted to an intelligentsia, the elites of Korean society?
KYI: 민중 아트는 굉장히 여러 가지로 레이어가 많은. 지금 질문하신 레이어는 70년대 중 초반에 했던 시민판화학교 이런 것들. 뭐 공장 근로자들이 같이 저녁에 모여 판화를 찍던 그런 민중미술 말씀하시는 거예요. 시민판화학교 그런 것들이 있는가 하면, 풀 중심으로 벌어지는 지식인들에 의한, 지식인들이 민중을 향한, 어떤 민중을 위한, 지식인들에 의해서 이뤄지는 민중미술이 있고, 민중 자신에 의한 민중미술이 있고 이렇게 레이어가. 그 사이에 또 작은 레벨들이 있지만 크게 둘로 볼 수 있죠.
SL (translation): Minjung [as an aspiration and an actual artistic practice] is diverse and has multiple layers. The audience member seems to know only one layer [or aspect] of Minjung art—the so-called ‘Citizen Art School’ and its print-making workshops for factory workers in the evenings after their work hours. Besides these Minjung-oriented art programs launched by Minjung, there is a Minjung art movement by artists as intellectuals who aspire to an affinity with Minjung [at the time when South Korean society was undergoing a pro-democracy movement called the Minjung movement]. Of course this two-part categorization of Minjung art does not do it complete justice, because there are smaller distinctions within these two categories.
KYI: 그리고 요즘에 민중을 위한 미술, 소위 말해서 아까 말씀 드린 시민판화학교들이 70년대 있었다면, 최근에 있는 민중에 의한 미술이라는 센텐스에 어울리는 건 소위 말해서 퍼블릭 아트, 커뮤니티 아트, 커뮤니티 아트에서도 관객 참여형 예술이라든가 이런 것들이 거기 속하는 거죠.
SL (translation): If we ask whether or not something like ‘Citizen Art School’ from the 1980s exists today, it might be possible to look at community art practices and public art projects.
KYI: 그리고 풀이 그런 커뮤니티 아트에 관심을 갖고 그런 교육, 강연, 실제 프로젝트를 계획하고 있죠.
SL (translation): Pool has a substantial investment in public art projects, and, in that vein, it runs education programs and symposia.
HC: I think that’s a good note to end on. First, we want to thank you Kim Yong-Ik for sharing this fascinating history with us. We also want to thank Sunghee and Sohl for their insightful contributions, and a special thanks goes to Sohl for doing double duty today.
Image courtesy of Sunghee Lee and Art Space Pool unless otherwise noted.
Kim Yong-Ik (b. 1947) first unveiled his Plane Object series in 1974 while under the tutelage of Park Seo-Bo at Hongik University’s Department of Painting. During the 80s and 90s, while the domestic art scene was strictly separated into Minjung art and Modernism, Kim sought to retain a middle ground by actively engaging in environmental and public art projects all the while producing important writing that developed his artistic philosophy. From 1999 to 2012, Kim was a professor in the Painting Department of Gachon University (formerly Kyungwon University)’s College of Art and Design. He also served as a founding member of Art Space Pool, an alternative space established in 1999, and then as its director from 2004 to 2006. Kim was the subject of a comprehensive retrospective that examined his 40 year-long practice at Ilmin Museum of Art in 2016.
Sunghee Lee is the Director of Art Space Pool in Seoul, Korea. She has curated and co-curated solo and group exhibitions that include BONUP: Art as Livelihood (DOOSAN Gallery Seoul, 2014), Low Burn: Low Voice connecting Hong Kong and Seoul (Art Space Pool, Seoul, 2014), and Floating, Concrete (DOOSAN Gallery New York, 2016). She was previously the Researcher for Korea for the Hong Kong-based Asia Art Archive (AAA) and an editor at Art in Culture magazine. Lee’s multifaceted practice encompasses documenting the Korean art scene, editing, translation, and curating.
Sohl Lee, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in contemporary East Asian art and visual culture at Stony Brook University, New York. Her interdisciplinary research interests include the aesthetics of politics, activist art, vernacular Modernism, postcolonial theory, historiography, and curatorial practice, and she is currently completing a manuscript tentatively titled The Democratic Avant-Garde: Art and Revolutionary Subjectivity in South Korea.
This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.