A Travel Into Waterdrops
Kim Boggi (art in culture The Publisher & Editor)
On the occasion of Tschang-Yeul Kim’s upcoming solo exhibition of recent works, I visited his studio in Pyeongchang-dong. The octogenarian painter seemed to be in startling health. Standing before his works, I felt replete with inexplicable energy.
Gazing at each piece of his recent works including the masterpiece series now entering its opus one thousand, I vaguely tried to locate some new change in the aged artist’s creations, some traces of change within the continuance.
Tschang-Yeul Kim presented his first waterdrop painting in 1973. And for about forty years since, the series has undergone steady stylization. The most distinct change, above all, took place in the surface material on which the waterdrops linger.
Namely, the backdrop has evolved in line with changing times. Beginning with the linen canvas, Kim adopted a variety of materials including newspaper, sand, and wood panels. From his series in the 1990s onwards, the painter has frequently opted for canvases imprinted with the Chinese letters. The changing backdrop renders amazing versatility to the waterdrops; some exhibit graceful resplendency perched as a proud, single drop; some are hanging there in a cluttered group like a family; some seem to have just burst open; some others yet seem caught frozen as they are streaking down. In all of those waterdops is captured a moment that is about to vanish; the shaky border between presence and absence, substance and void; the high-strung tension.
Finally, I spotted a new development in Kim’s recent works; he splattered paint on the Chinese letters-engraved canvas, a type of drip-painting, like traces of waterdrops that have just burst open. The paint is overlapped and tangled up with one another, and some of it has slightly seeped through the canvas as in a seonyeom (a technique where paint blots and spreads) painting, I would say. Such presentation combined with the Chinese letters reminds of the surface of a gravestone. Vestiges of time, like a stretch of moss spread across a long-weathered gravestone, are propping up the crystalline droplets of water.
Wondrous warmth flows through those vestiges of time. Lately, Tschang-Yeul Kim’s paintings show increasing use of gentle, brown tint.
A delicate assimilation between the waterdrops and the backdrop; a reconciliation without clashes; a harmony between the whole and the parts….
My attention, naturally, goes to the waterdrops. The unchanging part in Kim’s works is the waterdrops. He has been painting the waterdrops with such persistency.
“The waterdrops have a lot of meanings, don’t they?” I muttered much to myself, to which the painter uttered back, “I confer the waterdrops different meanings every time.” And that was the sole dialogue I had with the painter concerning his works during my visit that day.
Kim simply listened to me talk without offering comments. Is the meaning of his waterdrops changing yet again? What is their meaning today, at this juncture of time?
Ever since Kim’s waterdrop series began to appeal to the world beyond the domestic circle of audience in Korea, critics have come up with countless “waterdrop theories.” Waterdrops have been critiqued in light of various contrasting themes such as composition / abstraction, presentation / concept, East / West. For all intents and purposes, Kim’s works are such that allow for numerous sets of interpretation, be that in light of imitation, expressionist, or formalist theories. (This abundant possibility for interpretation is no doubt what makes Kim’s art so unique and fascinating.)
Nevertheless, the prevalent basis for the critique on Kim’s works has been in the West modernist perceptionism or formalism, which, perhaps, was inevitable for the globalization or westernization of not only Tschang-Yeul Kim alone but Korean art in general.
Therefore, as the art critic Jin-Sang Yoo aptly summarized, Kim’s waterdrops may be interpreted as (1) a boundary between object and concept; (2) a ground for establishing a symbolic order or arrangement between the whole and the parts; (3) an annotation on the reinterpretation and elevation, from the vantage point of Eastern aesthetics, of the unfinished work of Western representational art.
When it comes to critiquing Kim’s art and deciphering the meaning of his waterdrops, I am a person who is more inclined to situational interpretation, which considers the artist’s overall life experiences, rather than to formal interpretation.
That is to say, I would define the meaning of the waterdrops in the context of the 20th century Korea where artists lived in fetters; would shed light upon where those waterdrops come from and what kind of relationship they bear to the common mentality of the Korean people (or mankind).
As widely known, Tschang-Yeul Kim is of the generation in modern Korean history that had countless near-death encounters what with the liberation, left-right ideological clashes, separation, and the Korean War. In the midst of such turmoil, Kim plunged into the Art Informel movement in the 1960s and began to produce serious works. In his Informel pieces such as and , Kim presents, in a roundabout manner, through dark surfaces and rough matiere, the deep scars left by the war. In fact, not even very roundabout; upon closer observation you can recognize the vague, crushed human shapes and what seems like gunshot wounds on dead bodies.
Kim himself once admitted, “In my Informel works, I tried to depict, symbolically, human bodies that have been mangled by guns and ruthlessly trodden over by tanks.” In short, Kim’s works in that particular period were a solemn ritual for those souls that fell victim to the war.
In his series which was borne during his sojourn in the United States, we can see round shapes that look like eggs, spheres, or nuclei.
In the series of the 1970s, Kim’s so-called “hot abstraction” of Informel works further solidifies into geometric abstraction, and presents the image of something that leaks from a hole or a crack and is frozen solid. Then the leak evolves into a round lump.
In (1972) appears a vague crystalline shape that seems like a water drop and yet is still uncertain whether it is liquid or solid. And the following year, Kim finally gives birth to his magnum opus . This is the history of Tschang-Yeul Kim’s waterdrop series. Leading up to the birth of those glimmering waterdrops was a long, winding road unmistakably stained with the historic trauma that Kim (and the Koreans) had to experience.
Kim managed to step on the road to success with his waterdrop paintings. Kim got to where he is today as the Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma, did in his pursuit of enlightenment. Kim established a world of peace and placidity by dissolving all the hurtful and distressing trauma in his waterdrops, by sublimating resentment and fear into a great void.
Tschang-Yeul Kim’s waterdrops is the world of catharsis (purification) where the darkness of trauma is washed off and is led to a new source of light. Kim once said, “I paint waterdrops like the monks chant a mantra.” Many scholars link Kim’s art to Eastern philosophy such as Zen Buddhism or Taoism, and often call the painter “a seeker of truth.” To seize and put the fleeting waterdrops under eternity isn’t that the world of emptiness, the world of nothingness.
Let me pay some renewed attention to the word “waterdrop (moolbangwool).” The word is composed of two words: “water (mool)” and “drop (bangwool).” bangwool means “a small and round liquid lump.” And it can be further decomposed into “bang” and “wool.”
bang means “a room” and wool means “a fence” or “something that encloses the brim of an object that is empty inside and open above.”
Hence, a waterdrop (moolbangwool) means, in its literal sense, “a clear room (world) that is enclosed by water.” To expand upon it, a waterdrop may be interpreted as a “monad” which means an indivisible unit of substance that constitutes the universe. (Tschang-Yeul Kim’s waterdrops may be compared to the artist Whan-Ki Kim’s (pen-named Soohwa) dots in his pointillist paintings.)
Each waterdrop of Kim’s signifies a miniscule universe.
Take a long look into those drops that hold such multitudinous facets! Each waterdrop exudes benign warmth that evokes hazy memories from our past.
They transport us to the space of another time. From the small individual memories of untainted childhood to the vast, collective ones from our shared history as Koreans that is laden with tears of heenoaerak (joy, anger, sorrow, and pleasure)….the artist Tschang-Yeul Kim melts all those myriad monads of phenomena and events in his transparent waterdrops.
Now, I might want to confer another meaning on Kim’s waterdrops: a shaman ritual for purifying the souls of the dead and wishing them geuklakwangsang (a peaceful death and easy passage into paradise), or a baptism that absolves humanity of its sins.
In other words, Kim’s waterdrops can be interpreted as holy, purifying water. I look again at the clear waterdrops. They teem with the lights of life. Yes, the rays of light glisten like a piece of gem.