Works on paper and paper art have often been neglected in the contemporary art world, being seen as somehow inferior to paintings.
But paper has played an important part in the art practices of many internationally recognized artists. The Korean artist, Ham Sup, 57, has devoted the past two decades to making works with traditional Korea mulberry paper that combine notions of tradition and contemporary ideas. Ham Sup spoke about his work recently with Asian Art News¡¯s Hong Kong contributing editor Hilary Binks.
Can you describe where you were born and brought up?
I was born in 1942 in Chuncheon, in the eastern part of Korea. We lived in a rural area famous for its outstanding natural beauty, with mountains, valleys, streams, and waterfalls.
Were you interested in art from an early age?
Not at all. In fact, as a child I never felt I had artistic talent. My paintings were never put on the wall at school. I remember in 6th grade, the teacher asked the whole class to draw a volleyball. Everyone tried to draw the perfect volleyball. I thought this was very boring, so I drew a flattened volleyball, and was scolded by the teacher.
Even at that age, you had an individual view of the world?
Actually, my ambition was to be marathon runner. But my parents did not consider sports a good profession. They were very unhappy with my dream. Then, in the second year of high school, my teacher encouraged me to become an artist. Under his guidance, I had a strict artistic training, completing at least one painting or drawing every day.
What medium were you working in at this stage?
I began with watercolor painting, in a realistic style. In 1996, I went to Hong-ik University in Seoul, to do a bachelor of Fine Arts degree. I mainly studied Western style oil painting, as well as other disciplines, such as life drawing.
During our studies, did any periods in western art, or any specific artists, influence you particularly?
In the first part of my studies, I was quite fascinated by the European Post-Impressionists. Later on, K became deeply involved with Art Informel, in particular the [work of] French artist Pierre Soulages(b.1919). The aim of the Art Informel artists was to abandon geometrical and figurative forms and to discover a new artistic language. I liked their emphasis on improvisation to invent shapes and artistic methods.
How was that relevant to your work at that time?
After the war in Korea in the 1950s, everything in the country had collapsed, it was all destroyed. I remember it was all black, all gray, in ruins. I tried to use this as a basis for my work, finding accidental beauty in it. I saw a strong parallel between this and European Art Informel, All my work is founded in my experience and my past.
When did you start using paper instead of oils as your chosen artistic medium?
I first started using paper in the 1970s. I has tried very hard to prove myself creative in oils, to be different from other artists, not only in Korea, but in the world.
However, I found that I had reached a limit, that whatever I tried, I would produce similar paintings to some other artist in some other part of the world. You cannot avoid this because we are all human beings. Even though we may have very different backgrounds, we eat, we sleep, we breathe, just the same. I never wanted to follow anyone, or be compared to another artist. I wanted to be very original. Korean mulberry paper was an obvious choice me because it was so closely connected whit Korean culture. The history of the paper dates back thousands of years.
What is special about Korean mulberry paper?
Fifty years age it was still used in daily life for doors, windows, and also everyday articles such as hats, umbrellas, shoes, dishes, all kinds of things. This kind of paper was very useful, sturdy and durable. As for artistic purposes, mulberry paper was used was used for calligraphy. However, it had not been used as an art form [medium]. So I am a pioneer of this kind of art. In the 1970s, my work centered on the idea of destruction and re-construction, which I could express by tearing the paper, soaking it, and applying it again. At first, I did not achieve the results I wanted, so I went back to oil painting for a number of years. Then, in the 1980s, I decided to commit myself fully to paper work. So I have been working in this medium for 20 years.
Do you always use one special kind of paper?
Yes, although U use paper of different thickness. It is made of the bark of the mulberry tree. It is hand-made, not by machine. In Koran, there are special studios making these papers, usually for artists. Mulberry trees are well suited to the Korean climate. After one year, the tree grows from one-and-a-half to two meters high with a diameter of two to three centimeters. In December, they cut the tress and then use the bark to make paper. The method used in Korea takes longer than in other countries which use this paper(China, Japan) but the result is a much more durable paper which can survive 1.000years.
What process is used?
In commercial paper production they use chemicals, which is much cheaper and faster, but the content is more than 75%acid. The paper I use is hand-made in a very traditional way using burnt straw ashes and starch from grass roots. It contains less than 35% acid, so it can be preserved much longer. It¡¯s all natural, my paper does not even have straight edges. When I get it, it looks more like silk-shiny, very fine, but very strong. Before my last gallery opening in Seoul, I made a drum out of mulberry paper to show how sturdy the material is, and we had a drum performance. It created a sensation. People could identify with this medium because it is part of our culture.
What is the reaction to this medium abroad?
In the USA, at Art Miami99 and 2000, at the 1998 San Francisco International Art Exposition, and in Europe, at Art Cologne 1998 and in the Netherlands, people were so fascinated because it is a new medium. Normally, people think that works on paper are in some way inferior. I want to prove that this material is just as strong as oil or acrylic on canvas. In fact, people welcome a new medium in contemporary art. It is refreshing, new
Is it important to you to use a traditional medium in the modern age? Are you conscious of carrying on a tradition? Of course, tradition is important, because I am always proud to be a Koran. I want to keep the tradition going, especially as the artworks can last for centuries. Bet more important now is that everything is globalized, modernized. You cannot stand still in the past, you have to combine the traditional with the contemporary. This contemporary art has its roots in a number of different areas. For example, Korea has a tradition of paper artifacts, such as boxes decorated with paper. Also, there was the influence of Korean ¡°min-hwa¡± or folk art.
Are these important influences on your work?
Both are factors. Like the Koran paper craftsmen, l don¡¯t use a brush to draw on the paper. I tear the paper, cut the paper, even grind the paper to make more narrow strips to apply. Other important influences are Buddhism and Shamanism, which are very deeply rooted in Korean culture. My work Daydream 9916 was inspired by Shamanism. Even today in some villages in Korea, the people erect two statues at the entrance to the village, one female and one male, to ward off evil. In this work, the rectangular forms suggest two statues. The bright squares of red, blue, yellow, black, and purple on the right suggest the clothes that people put on them.
What are your main sources of inspiration?
Korean culture and my experience as a Korean, Sometimes I use reminiscences about my childhood, as in Daydream 98112. Apart from the one figurative element of a Korean chessboard, this is a mainly abstract work which conveys a happy mood of freedom and innocence. Another source of inspiration is traditional festivals and folk dances. In daydream 2005, I was thinking of olden-day scholar-bureaucrats sitting having a magnificent feast, while women entertained them with folk dances. Often I look back 200 years to the old school, training scholars for the government.
Does that explain the significant part calligraphy part calligraphy plays in your work?
Perhaps. All the calligraphy is from old books. I only use two old books: Chook Ga(The Blessing)and Dong Mong Seon Seub, a children¡¯s schoolbook. Most of the calligraphy is Chinese, though some works feature both Chinese and modern Korean characters. Until 200 years ago we used Chinese script, then we developed the modern Korean script.
Which is more important to you, the meaning of the calligraphy or the form?
From is more important. At the same time, I would like to give pleasure to people who can read the script. The work is therefore not only beautiful, but has a good meaning, too. I want to evoke a mood of happiness.
The calligraphy extends on to the edges of the board and sometimes all over the back surface, too. Why?
I don¡¯t want an abrupt transition from the work to the wooden frame. I want the whole thing to be art, with a smooth transition from the main work to the backing. I have tried other methods, different colored paper or wood, but I feel this is the best match with the artwork.
What color pigments do you use?
Raw mulberry paper is light cream in color. I use both natural and synthetic to stain it. The pale pink color comes from a red flower, the various shades of brown and ochre are from plants and from plants and bark, a darker brown from acorns and tobacco leaves, a gray color is made by mixing vegetable starch with crushed clam shells. So all these natural elements – fruits, flowers, vegetables – are combined together. Only the very bright red, yellow, blue, and black are synthetic, they are cloth dyes.
How predictable is your technique?
After 20 years, I can predict the color effects one hundred percent. I know when the work dries how color will be. When the paper is soaked, the colors are much deeper, stronger, and they fade on drying. However, the finished texture of the work is more difficult to predict.
There is such a strong natural element, are you inspired by nature?
Yes. I was raised in this beautiful rural area. I had a carefree, happy childhood amidst nature, a wonderful time.
What is the process, the technique of creating your work? How long does it take?
That depends on the work, and the size. Usually I start on a series of works all together. But if I concentrate on just one painting, it takes maybe three weeks to complete, often longer. Each work is created by building up layers of paper, which are soaked before application. These could be strips, or pieces of paper, flat or twisted, each piece soaked and dyed individually. After all the layers of paper and glue have been built up and dried, I throw the final strips of black or bright colors at the painting to create a vibrancy, so the work is not static. Even without brushstrokes, I can still achieve a very strong effect, using different depths and thickness of paper.
What tools do you use?
My hands are the most important. Then I may stamp the work, or scratch it, either with my hands or a plastic brush. Finally, I may use a roller to flatten the surface. What looks like brushstrokes of black Chinese ink is often black strips of paper.
Do you consider your work to be totally abstract?
I am not conscious of creating an abstract or a figurative work. The audience may distinguish some figurative elements, but in the main I think it is abstract. At university, I learned figure drawing as part of the curriculum, but since then I have always worked in an abstract style. For example, daydream 96419 was inspired by a night lit by the full moon in my home province. In Korean, we believe that the full moon blesses the people. For me, the whitish shape at the top right evokes the full moon radiating light, while the rectangular form just left of center suggests a very old tree. But each viewer may have his own interpretation.
Your work could be compared to that of the Spanish artist, Antonio Tapies, in its rich texture achieved by the building up of layers and also its earthy tones.
These days I am working more freely than before, without reference to any schools of art elsewhere in the world, or any artists. I am concentrating on developing my own style. The main thing is that I start with mulberry paper, then I destroy it in a way, before creating something new out of this destruction. It is reborn in an artwork.
Sometimes your work has a weathered look, as if it has survived the ravages of time. If there a time element involved? I agree that in some cases there is a feeling of antiquity. But the meaning, the images of the work, is very contemporary. Some of my work is lighter, and does not have same fresco look.
How important is paper work now in the contemporary are world of the 21st century?
Now there are more and more people in Korea working in paper, but in other part of the world it is still quite unknown. I feel I am a pioneer artist to use a new medium. I feel it is on just same level as oil acrylic painting. Other artists in Korea use paper but the style and method, themes and concepts are totally different.
You are represented by Galerie Bhak in Seoul. Art other galleries shoving paper art?
Yes, in a wide variety of styles. I want to encourage Korean artists to use this medium. Actually, I am the president of the association of Korean Mulberry Paper Artists. I want to show my work widely overseas, to show people that modern art need not be restricted to oils and acrylic. Mulberry paper is just as strong a medium, just as expressive.
The series of works on show in Hong Kong is entitled Daydream. What is the significance of this title?
I don¡¯t know where I come from, I don¡¯t know where I am going. I don¡¯t know what will happen tomorrow. Everything is a dream. My paintings are all part of that dream, which is my life.
Are Your works nostalgic?
Many of them are. But it is a very personal nostalgia. That is why my view is different from other artists.
What is your main artistic aim?
To find happiness. Even though I work from morning till night, I never get bored or tired or lonely, the time goes so fast, because I am so happy to express myself. And I want to communicate that happiness to the audience. If I am away, after two days I feel the urge to return to my studio.
Your works have a meditative, peaceful quality. Are you a Buddhist?
Yes. I studied at the Hong-Ik University for my BRA, but then for my Master¡¯s degree I went the Dong-kuk University, also in Seoul, to study Buddhist art. I felt I had mastered all the other basic courses, but I wanted to pursue a more spiritual path, to get more energy, not only knowledge of techniques. So yes, works do hove a meditative spirit, very calm.
–extracted from [Asian Ar News] May/June2000-