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The Absolute Space of Emptiness – Where the Past and the Present Encounter in Bamboo Trees

△Kim Sang-cheol (Dongduk Women’s University)


The principle of ‘comparative virtue,’ is one of the basic aesthetic elements of the East Asian painting. It is a way of likening the distinct character of a natural object to a human virtue and then taking it as the subject of creation to demonstrate the relationship between the two by metaphor and symbolism. This method was generally used since ancient China, especially for paintings of the Four Gracious Plants (plum, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo) and the Three Friends of a Cold Winter (pine, bamboo and plum). The essence of the artistic experience in drawing the Four Gracious Plants is to express the painter’s virtues in images. In other words, it is a process of projecting one’s ideas and morals onto an object from the nature while also obtaining an aesthetic goal.


Kim Hyun Kyung employs ink as the material and bamboo as the subject in her works. The fact that she has chosen bamboo and the way they are painted may be read as a continuation of the East Asian tradition. However, her paintings do not merely conform to the conventions but breaks away from them to adapt to and to reflect the present in which the work is created and situated. Although it is evident that bamboo continues to hold its symbolism, it must be noted that it was not employed to represent what it did as one of the Four Gracious Plants.


As is well known, bamboo is a part of the tradition that was formed on the basis of the Confucian principles and therefore signified integrity, chastity and the uprightness of the literati class. However, Kim’s bamboos reflect her own thoughts that are distinct and diverse. Their meanings in the painting are undoubtedly related to bamboo’s traditional spirituality but it should not be confused with Confucian values.


Even without considering its position as a member of the Four Gracious Plants, bamboo possesses a form that is artistically attractive. The stem climbing straight towards the sky or group of trees lined up to form a forest reminiscent of a military parade of virile soldiers. As in the case of the wind in the pine woods, the wind in the bamboo woods also held a special position in the traditional culture as a refreshing auditory experience of the crisp leaves brushing against each other. Kim clearly expresses her ideas not only by the form of the bamboos but also by the minute movements of the wind, dew drops and mist. As the sight is transformed into sound and the physical into emotions, it may be appropriate to say that Kim’s works are not to be viewed but to be experienced.


The bamboos are in a state of absolute stillness. The ambience is evident in the immaculate form of the bamboos pointing upwards or in the paintings arranged with few leaves. The emptiness in them disarms the sense of reality in the viewer. The bamboos are depicted with ink which is a simple yet implicit material. They have long ago evaded their actual properties and operate as means of meditation and contemplation. The silence in the picture is brimming with acute tension.


The group of bamboos is not to be interpreted as itself but as an element of the space that was created for it. It is as pure and solemn as a passage to nirvana where one can walk through the bamboo woods to escape the complicities of the mundane world; it is a realm of purification, achieved by bringing together the time and the memories of life that was impregnated and ripened in each minds. This is why Kim’s bamboos are not to be read simply as continuations of the tradition of the Four Gracious Plants.


The simplicity of the works with few leaves is another way that Kim represents bamboos. Hanging in the air by the slender stem, they are as austere as a philosopher in meditation. Here, the bamboos are not mere depictions of reality but a tool that divides the picture plane and creates a taut atmosphere between the fine stem and the heavy leaves attached. What is expressed in the subtle movements as if in the face of a strong wind is not the physical existence of a tree but the musical harmony of melodies and rhythms that is produced. It works to bring vibration into the air and to gather it into an order organized to the extreme. At last, an absolute world of emptiness, free from the reality and filled only with ideas, is created.


Kim’s ink, the main material of every work, is quite distinct from that of the traditional arts. The centuries-old aesthetics of linear beauty have been replaced by artistically-handled large surfaces. Instead of the unpretentious beauty of a single stroke, she has focused on the exquisite effect of ink applied over ink. By accumulating several layers of ink on paper, a certain relationship of the two materials is formed owing to their inherent qualities. As the ink is water-soluble, it seeps and spreads on paper to evoke an encounter between intention and randomness. Through her works, Kim has embraced the traits of the materials and also of time, the language of nature. In short, she has brought together her artistic will, the characteristics of the traditional ink, and the effect of the material’s randomness to create a unique constructive world. This is an effort towards interpreting the ink as itself, as a material of artistic value, shedding away the traditional dogmatic concentration on its implicit spirituality.


As can be plainly observed, Kim’s works have its roots in the tradition of ink-and-wash paintings and the theme of the Four Gracious Plants. However, she has applied her objective interpretation to break free of the established rigid readings of her subject to create her own domain. The tradition must be altered accordingly, breathe in the new values of a new age, and so regain vitality.


From this point of view, Kim’s intentions to embrace modern ideas with a basis in the traditional art can be fully construed in a positive light. Assuming that the ‘comparative virtue’ is the artistic fundamental of the Four Gracious Plants, it can be understood in two different senses; that of expressing oneself through an object and that of interpreting an object through oneself. Kim’s way is closer to the former. If she can employ the latter method and successfully reinterpret the nature through her own eyes and thoughts to reveal its qualities, she will finally be able to set a direction by ascertaining her definite position in the tender cross between the past and the present.

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