Artists are the leaders of the 21st Century.
Ik-Joong Kang is one of South Korea’s most renowned and celebrated multimedia artists. His works are poignant symbols of hope for reunification, particularly of North and South Korea.
This September at Robilant+Voena’s Dover Street Gallery Ik-Joong Kang shows the ‘The Moon Jar’ series in which he represents the iconic Korean porcelain-ware whose two ‘full moon’ shape hemispheres are connected by hand. At the same time, Ik-Joong Kang’s ‘Floating Dreams’ lantern is a major installation in the centre of the River Thames near the Millennium Bridge. He constructed the three-story-high cube from 500 children’s drawings and illuminated it from within to act as a memorial to the millions displaced and divided during the Korean War of 1950-53.
What is your aim?
I am a fine artist. I am not a political artist or an activist, because everything is connected. I see myself as a fisherman. My role as an artist is to throw the fishing net into the water. Scientists bring the fish to land, economists cut up the fish on the cutting board, and finally the politicians’ role is to distribute it to the people. Without the artist throwing the net we are not going to have fish on our dinner table.
You have lived in New York since 1984, in Chinatown since 1987. What brings you to London?
I believe our life is like riding a train, we get on and get off and we meet people and see things on the course of our journey. This journey connects us and lets us travel through past, present and future. I was born in Korea in 1960. For many years before I was on the train to New York. Now I am also on show in the British Museum and I have a feeling that my train is arriving in London, that London will be a very important platform in the journey of my train ride.
In the middle of the River Thames you have an installation of an illuminated cube made from many children’s drawings called ‘Floating Dreams’?
In London I wanted to show something about refugees. There are many people displaced in Korea and any project I work on has to be to do with things I know, things that are physically near me, things I am familiar with. Even my parents-in-law are from North Korea and often converse about their own town. ‘Floating Dreams’ is like a giant Rubik’s cube waiting to be solved.
Do you believe that the eyes of children help to see a reunified Korea?
Since 1998, for 18 years, I have been working collecting children’s drawings. I started the year after the Venice Biennale where my work represented my country, South Korea. I was thinking that someday whoever shows as an artist at the Korean pavilion will represent both countries, North and South. I thought maybe I can build a bridge between North and South Korea. The two countries are separated by the Imjin River, and I have been trying to make that bridge since then. Four years ago I built the 176 metre long ‘Bridge of Dreams’ in Suncheon, South Korea.
What about your London exhibition that just opened in the Robilant+Voena Gallery called ‘The Moon Jar’?
I started making and painting Moon Jars since 2004, because the Moon Jar is a sacred object to every Korean. A Moon Jar’s shape resembles a person who has immense spiritual aspirations, the inside however is hollow and humble. The components that make up a Moon Jar are much different from those of an ordinary jar in that the clay is an extra soft Korean “Baikto” white clay. It is so soft that the top and bottom must be shaped separately and attached afterwards.
What does a Moon Jar mean?
A Moon Jar, much like a train, connects and shapes us. It’s a living and breathing piece that travels through endless cycles. In the gallery I have 500 small Moon Jars with the sound of birds singing. When you sing together you are connected, and Moon Jars can also be a connection. The main meaning of Moon Jars is about connection.
Why don’t you live in Korea?
My father had a business, but he went bankrupt and I had to support my family so I went to New York to work to send money to my mother and also to study. In 1985, one year into my stay in New York, I thought, if I take trains and the bus while doing nothing that is very sad. At school I made small canvases to carry everywhere so I could draw and paint. I had no plan, I was just doing it as a record of my time in New York. In the first year I made 1000 paintings and when my roommate told his teacher about this the professor said let’s have a show at the college gallery.
Why did you stay in New York since you are a very Korean artist?
In Korea they understand me as an American artist. When I am in New York they call me a Korean artist. New York is not the USA, it is more like an island, with a more global vision than the vision of the USA. It is interesting to look anywhere from New York. I don’t belong anywhere. Maybe if there was an island between the USA and Korea that’s my home.
How do you feel about yourself, your country and America?
Imagination sends you everywhere without calculation. In Senegal they say “Let’s see you tomorrow – if God allows.” This is very clever and makes sense. I like to dust, because it’s a good way to meditate. Up and down, nearby the window. From the dust I see myself sitting, watching dust, and just go on. I like to understand my life watching from afar what I am doing. I want to see how it goes. Just like dust, up and down. I do not plan – things happen.
What do you want for your country?
It will get united. I know, because there is a strong urge from both countries. The wish is big, but the only thing is timing. It’s about waiting. When I cook rice I have to know how to wait until the rice gets well done. If I open the lid too fast I cannot serve it, it is not done. If I wait too long the rice gets burnt. Now the pressure between North and South has built to the point of explosion. We have to wait, until the pressure goes down.
What kind of a country is the South now?
The good thing is there is so much energy, especially young people. Everybody is so full of confidence, they walk like they own the street. But they are having a tough time, because this confidence drives them to make money and everything is aiming at fast, instant reward.
Is there is a fear of North Korea?
They are threatening so many times that people got immune and have no feeling, including myself. Which is really dangerous too!
Is there communication with North Korean people?
None at all. At government level you might get connections through China or the USA. The North and South are totally cut off. You cannot send a letter.
Are you exactly the same people in the North and in the South?
Exactly the same, with the same language and customs. It is just that the country got divided into two 66 years ago by the Soviet Union and the USA, from 1950-1953. The Soviets took North Korea, the USA took South Korea.
What is the role of Korea in the midst of Japan, China and the other Asian countries?
There is a Korean demilitarized zone, the DMZ, which is an empty hub and maintains balance. I don’t know which direction the empty hub is moving towards, backwards or forwards. We don’t have any leaders in Asia. Maybe over all the world too, there is nobody pointing in a positive direction.
What is your role as an artist?
My role as an artist is to help you read your map, because an artist gives you a position, a location. Symbols lead the people. The map points you to where you are and where you are heading. Art is the 21st Century’s new leader, not scientists and politicians, and not activists, because artists can give us the location where we are standing right now.
Because art is like a needle, pointing at one. It wakes one up, makes me alert to see my position. Philosophy is still, but art is a movement, more in action than philosophy.
What is the future role of Asia?
Asia will be very strong economically, it is a very important place, but we have to learn how to share with our neighbours. Without this attitude it’s worthless, useless, because sharing and connecting is the most important thing. The education system is very bad in Asia, children can do really well in maths at school and memorize lots of facts, but without this sharing spirit we are heading in the wrong direction. It can poison the entire world. Ordinary American people are more generous than people I know from Asia.
How do Asians regard Westerners?
With an inferior feeling and a superior feeling at the same time, and the same weight to each. We envy the physical appearance of westerners as more beautiful, but we use intuition far greater than Europeans so we Asians think our brain is heavier. We Asians care about overall meaning and we respect the person who has long term vision. When we play chess it’s with a different strategy, because when westerners play chess you try to win with every move.
What is the aim of Asia?
I ask myself this every day. If the only strong goal is to make a lot of money we will have a disaster. We have to get a different world, not only financially, and new goals of sharing must be set. Art can be part of this movement. Art can connect, heal and embrace us, and give us our location on the map.
London, September 6th, 2016
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Portrait of Ik-Joong Kang by Francisco Montiel
Roblant+Voena Gallery installation images by Mark Blower