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Tradition and Modernity, Modernity with Tradition

△Chris Gerbing, Kunstkritik


Despite a globalized art market and even though artist biographies show characteristics of a modern nomadism, art from the Far East (seen with the eyes of a western spectator) inheres often an exotic charm. In this context, John Pijnappel speaks about a “cross-cultural biography” reflecting society imposed experiences.(1)


Even though Asian-born artists frequently attend art colleges in Europe or America and make natural use of modern, new materials for their own artistic expression, they are linked with the touch of the Far East.(2)


This is a result of their combination of historic subjects, myths and cultural idiosyncrasies with a globalized artistic language. It opens concurrently a new path into unfamiliar territory, like in the art works of Kim Hyun-Kyung.


On the other side, they approach different cultures by artistic means by combining Asiatic motifs and techniques with a globalized artistic language therefore reaching the big international art fairs.


Kim Hyun-Kyung borrows her subjects, motifs and painting style “Sagunja”, meaning the four plants chrysanthemum, bamboo, plum blossom, and orchid, linked traditionally with virtues.


They represent the four seasons, additionally, in Chinese culture bamboo, plum blossom and pine stand for the “Three friends of winter” and are thus revered for their perseverance under hard climate conditions. Even though the artist is Korean, it is not surprising that she refers to these subjects, as Asian culture is historically interdependent: Korea and China were linked closely until 19th century, yet nevertheless Korea was able to keep its cultural identity as bridgehead between China and Japan.


The symbolism of plants, especially of bamboo, is basis for the art works of Kim HyunKyung. But obviously she modernized it and took them as modern adaption of reflecting herself: Allegiance, integrity and sincerity are the main Confucian characteristics allocated symbolically with the bamboo plant(3) as its canes rise straight towards the sky.


The inherent linearity fascinated artists already in former times. Kim Hyun-Kyung paints her art works with Korean ink on often large-size paper where she contradicts the motifs’ upward striving with the landscape format.


She depicts the growth of mysterious bamboo woods with a mystic interplay of light and shadow, where the cane becomes part of a large coherent whole, merging and dissipating within.


This leads to crystalline structures where the bamboo frond can fluently blend with structures reminding of rain. The focus thus lies on the aspects of visualizing light refraction or develloping an effect of depth by using abstract drama of light.(4)


In this context, the art critic On Se-gwon states that Kim uses the “term ‘absolute emptiness’ as her creative conception undertaking the attempt of a reinterpretation.”(5)


This ‘absolute emptiness’ manifests itself especially in those art works where abstract and specific forms overlap, where the space between the bamboo canes and fronds become key visual element creating a pull effect triggering a meditative approach.


Laotse puts the main aspects of Taoism into the words of “aspiration of an absolutely empty condition”(6) enabling the viewer to dedicate himself to the art work in contemplation.


Laotse introduces as well an aesthetic level that is an important aspect for Chinese aesthetics in general and more particularly for Kim’s artistic creativity. Her interpretation of the motif, her contemplative approach (meditations give birth to sketches and drawings as basis for her large-scale art works) and her choice of materials reflect Far Eastern tradition. Therefore, modernity and tradition deduce together a new world.


The concept of open space and void contains a component pointing towards transcendental and immaterial reality comparable to Yves Klein’s exhibition “Le Vide” (1958 Iris Klert Gallery, Paris; 1961 Haus Lange, Krefeld). Klein then painted the gallery rooms bright white and confronted the viewer with the disintegration of the solid angles.(7)


By contrast, Kim transfers the special perception into the image-space of the painting bringing back the idea of the concept back onto the paper, giving him back space and form. The emptiness of the piece of paper in art works like “The Dream of Butterfly” (2010) (8) or „Memory – Wind” (2010) can be interpreted as projections of the viewer; the titles point his thoughts in a particular direction.


Thereby, the plum blossom dissolve into crystalline structures creating a transition towards the emptiness covering most parts of the left side of the pictorial space. Kim contrasts the lucid brightness with a curtain-like structure covering roughly a third of the right side of the landscape format aiming towards blurring boundaries between inside and outside. The drawing achieves an intricate delicacy equivalent to the crystal-like elements on the left side resembling Far Eastern tradition.


This is comparable to the red Zhuwen seal in “Memory–Wind” as Kim uses it in both drawings as calligraphic patch, in its traditional function as signature, and possibly as well as symbol for Yang. The latter derives again from Taoism and symbolizes the (white, bright) male principle.


Within the diptych (or pair) “Memory –Wind” the bamboo canes transform into a longitudinal hatching resembling curtain-like structures as well. They obscure the bamboo fronds in the back and transform a traditional material of nature into a seemingly modern structure.


Kim’s aspiration to merge tradition and modernity becomes even more pronounced in „Memory – Inclusion“, where the nearly square rhombus divides axissymetrically the almost square paper pronouncing the longitudinal axis. Thereby, it appears to be one of these ”Klecksographies“ called Rorschach test, that are used as psychodiagnostics to assess the whole personality of the test person.


Kim thus transforms the bamboo wood into a memory of its own, becoming an ephemeral moment of a natural motion in the wind that changes in the bright edges into nearly monochrome white area, slightly hatched and accentuated by bright tones of grey. Again, tradition and modernity merge into a completely independent interpretation of form, space and color containing only relicts of nature that ask for an associative and meditative altercation.


This aspect becomes even more pronounced in “Memory” (2007), where Kim divided the paper in nine rectangles. They slightly evoke associations of the color field paintings of Barnett Newman who painted nature and artificial elements harmonically next to each other comparable with light and dark, small and large color field.


“Memory” therefore can be interpreted as remembrance of old times, as the shadow of old traditions that start to lead their own life clad modernly, newly interpreted and designed in the art works of contemporary artists.


Jane Portal points out that the rich tradition of ink painting continued in post-war Korea. Following the oriental “Shumukhwa”-movement of the 1980’s contemporary artists start experiments with this traditional Korean technique knowing that they are deeply rooted in tradition despite a new artistic expression.(9)


While Shumukhwa wanted to re-establish national identity between the poles of a traditional way of painting and of one oriented on western streams, artists like Kim Hyun-Kyung can try something completely new on this basis.


They are able to combine technique, materials and subjects of Korean background

and tradition with autonomous, modern art works with a contemporary and thus actual message. That they brooch social aspects and issues like finding peaceful places to rest and contemplate seems to be obvious. Kim Hyun-Kyung is certainly not an individual case, as she works consequently at the interface between tradition and modernity.


As she involves Asian subjects within a contemporary context, her art works become fascinating objects of study – for both, viewers with a Far Eastern background as well as such belonging to Western culture.

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