“Void in Korean Art”

Possessing a strong collection of classical Korean art as well as Korean and international contemporary art, it is not surprising that Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art should have attempted to unite the two sides of its activity in a single exhibition. “Void in Korean Art” was a show whose premises were questionable but whose juxtapositions of works from as early as the fourth century through the present were unexpectedly convincing in their suggestion that this fundamental concept has been operative in Korean art from ancient times through modernism to the present.

At the most basic level, “void” in painting refers to nothing other than “unpainted, empty space,” as the exhibition’s curator, Lee Joon, the deputy director of the Leeum, writes in the catalogue. But, of course, much more is implied—all the more so as, philosophically, Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism (all of which left their mark on Korean thought) each treat the notion in a different way. What strikes a foreigner’s eye in much of the art on view here is not only a recurrent willingness to give empty space an active role but, more specifically, the avoidance of any dramatic focal point in order to evoke a sense of wholeness beyond form. One finds this especially in ink paintings of the Joseon dynasty—the immensity conveyed by Jeong Seon in The Diamond Mountains Seen from Danbalryeong Pass, 1711, to cite just one outstanding example here.

But without a doubt this broad focus is most evident in ceramics, of which the renowned celadons may not even be the most august examples. The most fascinating objects here captivate through the interplay, and often the incongruity, between shape (the expression, rather than merely the container, of the empty space within) and the markings that “decorate” their surfaces (though decorate is hardly the word, since these marks do not so much add ornamentation as evoke a space that dissolves the solidity of the object’s surface in the same moment as it re-marks that surface). Consider, for example, a fifteenth-century Buncheong flask with its broad, almost negligent brushmarks; a fifteenth-century white porcelain jar, with its single painted gesture casually rolling down like a loose string; or the hypnotic stippling of a fifteenth-century Buncheong bottle with a stamped circle pattern, which is almost too perfectly juxtaposed with the canvas Heaven and Earth (24-XI-73#320), 1973, by the great modernist painter Kim Whanki, which likewise creates and dissolves form through a multitude of minute touches.

In fact, the exhibition is at its strongest in suggesting why abstract art has established such strong roots in Korea—apparent not only in the work of Whanki but also in that of successors such as Lee Ufan and Song Hyun-sook, among others. Western modernism must have appeared to them not as something alien but as a new way of looking at their own tradition. Likewise, Kim Sooja’s video A Laundry Woman—Yamuna River, India, 2000, showing the artist (seen from behind) as she faces the flowing water, may cite the lonely, heroic individualism of Caspar David Friedrich’s Rückenfiguren, but it also suggests the dissolution of self into the flow of things, just as the sage in Yun Du-seo’s early-eighteenth-century ink painting Viewing the Waterfall seems to be losing himself in contemplation.

To Korean viewers, all this talk of the void may seem obvious to the point of banality. “Just because I leave part of the work unpainted, it doesn’t mean it’s about the void,” complained one artist in the show when I mentioned it. Point taken. There was an element of reverse Orientalism in the curator’s overinsistence on the differences between Western and Asian traditions in art and thought. But differences there are, and contemporary Korean art would be more widely appreciated abroad if its local roots were better understood.

Barry Schwabsky