Um Ki-Hong

In offering this commentary on Ham Sup's works, I want to present my thoughts in the form of a comprehensive study, rather than a conventional critique. Let me begin with my ideas on Ham Sup's aesthetic attitude, cultivated over the thirty years of his artistic career.

An Artist of Po-Wal

Modern art began in the 19th century with early Romanticism. As art from that time on came to determine its own rules, artists endowed with self-consciousness began measuring their own existence against the existence of the world, dreaming of absolute ideals such as Transcendence. While those Romantic dreams of transcendence still continue today, they are obliged to compete with the symbolic figures of popular culture, movie stars and celebrity athletes who can attract audiences of thousands, and who occupy our collective imagination.

The philosopher Kim Jin-Suk has written about something he believes could follow the development of the Internet and electronic media: the possibility that we might find, in this era of nomadicity, a new kind of rootedness. The rootedness of the past is a passive phenomenon, the direct antithesis of nomadicity. The new rootedness refers to a state whre motion is very slow, but still faster than usual. The transcendent nomadicity dreamt of during the old era of nomadicity reappears in the nomadicity of what he has termed po-wal—a play on the Korean word for transcendence, cho-wal, which literally means, ¡°leaping beyond.¡± By contrast, the ¡°po¡± of po-wal denotes ¡°crawling¡± as in ¡°crawling beyond.¡±

Crawling. For a long time, for a lifetime [...] crawling. Crawling with such effort, one realizes that a long period of time has passed [...] It seems as though one has stayed in one place, but then you realizes you are crossing some immemorial border [...] It seems that you won't make much more progress, forward or upward, but then time passes and you recognize its passing. Po-wal.

Even while adopting this provisional definition of po-wal, we need not hesitate to claim that Ham Sup is an artist who works in the spirit of po-wal. Just as Park Su-Geun, a mythic figure in Korean art, lived in the spirit of po-wal and crossed the ¡°immemorial border¡± with his art, Ham Sup's life and art have explored a similar realm.

He is diligent. It's true there is something unbecoming about an artist who works too hard, but Ham Sup is a hard-working artist. I've had several meetings with him, but he has never been late or shown any laziness at work. To put it more precisely, he is diligent, rather than tenacious. One is bound sometimes to fall into slump while working on a piece. There can be occasional departures from tasks that have grown too repetitive. This isn't the case with Ham Sup, however. He is in the studio by nine o'clock every morning, without exception, ready to resume his tedious, daily grappling-sessions with hanji. He is truly an artist full of tenacity.

As Walter Benjamin once pointed out, the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction has an aura that rises from extinction. Artists today either build and deploy grand meta-languages or make a big show of everyday gestures of transcendence. In this way, the artist is able to create a sense of mythology around himself, thereby surrounding himself with a sense of aura. The reality is that such an aura, rather than being existential, is an effect of spectacle. But this aura of spectacle, which benefits many artists today, is not inferior to the aura known to the past. With Ham Sup, however, one doesn't find any such kind of holy aura. That is because he is unfamiliar with transcendence. Long before Deleuze or Kim Jin-Suk began theorizing about po-wal, Ham Sup was probably dreaming about it. That is what makes his tenacity possible. If one studied Ham Sup's output throughout his brilliant career, one might conclude that he has already arrived at the state of po-wal. Even so, he is still unfamiliar with transcendence as a definitive condition. Without awareness, but with creaturely persistence, he resumes the process of crawling-beyond.

In transcendent art, we might conceive a vertical orientation between the peak and the ground—a kind of pyramid structure with the fixed point at the top, which is absolute. The structure provides rank and hierarchy, which can be beautiful. The legitimacy of that hierarchy is guaranteed by genius, artistry, or some grand discourse such as philosophy (. . .) However, po-wal should not be belittled. With transcendent art, inseparable from the idea of rank, there is only the peak, from where the slightest movement is sure to mean a precipitous fall to the bottom. For in this ¡°blind¡± art, instead of doubt-filled eyes bodies aflame with passion collide together and spread fragrance abroad. To put it another way, the path of contemporary art, which has favored performativity over intellect or theory, is in harmony with the concept of po-wal. Let us examine an excerpt from Deleuze's Nomadology:

Among all methods, you have one (or perhaps many). But it does not have pre-existence nor is it given to you pre-made. [...] It is waiting for you. It is a kind of training, an experiment of necessary evil. The moment you plan for the experiment, it is already made, but if you do not plan for it, it is not made. It is not certain. You could fail. Or it could be brutal. You could die. It is at once a craving and a disgust. It is not, in the end, a notion or a concept. It is, rather, a practice, a collection of practices. [...] It is a kind of limit. People ask: What is CsO? But people are already either crawling over the thing like a bug, or stumbling over it like a blind man, or running like a traveler on a desert, a nomad on a plain.

If we substitute what Deleuze calls ¡°it¡± with ¡°art,¡± it becomes clear why, during the current era of the Internet and nomadicity, there might be a demand for the sort of performativity that can be offered by the artist of po-wal. An artist of po-wal doesn't abide by widely accepted concepts of art, or operate within a safe territory of conventions only to reaffirm their boundaries. Like a maggot or an insect, he creeps ahead, with his belly close to the earth, a body without organs, creeping ahead at gruelingly slow speeds.

The object of the po-wal aesthetic is not merely to praise the tenacity of hard-working artists. It is intended to help us overcome, as a culture, the limitations and influences set by the hegemonic ocularcentricism of the West, and from the will and wisdom of ourselves open up new ways of seeing. If an artist finds a brick rolling around on the ground, he must recognize its worth, and pursue the possibility of building a wall around himself against everything else, so that, with obstinacy and courage, he can separate himself from truths that seem universal, and alone challenge and devote himself to tackling the impossible. It demands a superhuman will power. While Ham Sup is much older than Lee Sun, he pays little attention to the memoir he's been keeping over the years. Most of his mental and creative energy is spent on his work, grabbing hold of a stack of hanji, immersed in thought about the future he'll bring forth with it.

Art with reasons

At a glance, from a Western point-of-view, Ham Sup's works bear a strong stylistic resemblance with abstract expressionism. Though his automatic technique can produce a stripped-down look reminiscent of Joan Miro's Surrealism, his roots lie closer to principles of Formalism, which developed prior to Abstract Expressionism. When Ham Sup first began his career as an artist, his aesthetic sensibility was already informed by Formalism. Accordingly, we should investigate his work with that in mind.

Looking at the physical quality of Ham Sup's works, one sees that their underlying principles are close to those of Formalism. In an effort to provide support for a new kind of Formalism, art critic and philosopher Clive Bell stated in his Aesthetic Hypothesis that the usage of pure lines and pigments in a ¡°peculiar way¡± would enable genuine aesthetic feeling, helping to form organic wholes, with shapes or objects he called Significant Forms. Hence, the work of Ham Sup has a closer relationship with Platonic, metaphysical Forms, or aesthetic universals, rather than just sensible shapes.

This formalist school of thought, which begins with Bell's assumptions, were also inherited by the practitioners of Modernism in the 1950's. The renowned art critic Clement Greenberg stated in his Modernist Painting that through the method of ¡°immanent critique¡± one could investigate a painting directly as a thing without substance. They perceive the medium itself to be the essence of a picture, but of course by medium they are not so much indicating the material used, but rather the ¡°text within¡± conceealed by the visible illusionism, the pure picture itself. In the end, the medium itself was brought to the fore. What was not essential was excluded; what was thought to be essential was to be opened up . . . .

Late modernism's great Frank Stella said, regarding such works, ¡°What you see is what you see.¡± However, if we remove Modernism's idealistic and purist sense of Formalism from these paintings, then pure painting-itself, or what we might ironically call a kind of ¡°text-within¡± disappears, leaving behind we might call ¡°text-without¡±—an art work's materiality—which remains like an empty husk. (This was known as Minimalism in the 1960's.) In the end, we reached a limit to what the canvas and pigments could reveal truthfully about human life. From this recognition, artists moved forward to experiment with new kinds of media, thereby discovering the molding possibilities of paper.

During the 1970's, after Minimalism and Conceptual Art had already entered the vocabulary of criticism, some American artists who were endowed with a subtle, spiritual sensibility rediscovered the value of paper made out of natural fiber. The 20th century was reaching a cultural saturation-point. The common view was to see paper as a simple material, merely a way of communicating ideas or images by the use of its surface. But then artists began to see in the often neglected medium of paper both a humanistic and a naturalistic quality.

However, their methodology of paper molding had strong roots in pop, conceptual, minimalist art, as well as post-painterly color field abstraction. From the point of view that the sensual faculties were sent reeling, their aesthetic agenda seemed less concerned with opening up and making innovative usage of paper's unique qualities as a medium; rather, its goal appeared to be furthering and improving existing ideas and methods in American contemporary art.

Around the same time, Korean artists began to take a greater interest in paper molding As a result, a kind of movement formed, comprising artists who worked with hanji (a general term for Korean paper), many of whom remain active today. A common quality in all their works is summed up succinctly by Suh Sung-Rhog; he explains well how the works of the Korean artists working with paper are distinct from their American counterparts.

The artists who fully grasp hanji's exquisite sensitivity can work within the material's physical constraints, quietly molding and painting without damaging its unique property. Hanji is intrinsically a perfect molding material . . . depending on the artist, it can be converted to a rubbing or a reproduction, and as an embossed carving and collage, it can be transformed into a variety of shapes. In emphasizing the material's intrinsic property, hanji pieces can resemble works of potent materiality or those employing a monochrome system.

From such statements, we can conclude without difficulty that just as modern artists recognized and objectified the medium-itself as painting's original property, hanji artists sought to objectify the material nature of hanji. Consequently, the chief interest of working with hanji became, despite the fact it was a unique medium and could undergo diverse modifications, to methodologically align and develop the operation in accordance with Western Modernism, more specifically, with Reductionist Art. However, even if paintings of Western Reductionist Modernism are similar to the works of hanji artists methodologically, it doesn't follow that the meaning of hanji art should also be similar. This is because there are intrinsic differences between the materials in question.

If we can compare the Western reductionist work of art to the sun¡¯s unchanging uniformity, then the work composed using hanji can be compared to the moon, distinguished by a harmonious cosmic integrity and conviviality. The moon is maternal and plentiful. As it changes daily, it dies but is revived daily. In that sense, it is one, but also exists as many. However, ultimately, it does not die. In fact, the moon, with its aura of nomadic identity, has strong similarities with working with hanji. The medium of hanji, taken by itself, gives off a strong sense of materiality. Of course, this commonly shared quality of the material, that is unique to hanji, can easily be see in Ham Sup's work. Even then, one can easily discern, simply from the overall look of his work, and the process from which the work is made, some quality unique to him as an hanji artist.

Again, let us examine this from an aesthetic point of view. As I mentioned earlier, even if his work deals with hanji, Ham Sup's beginnings in art was affected by Formalism. As a result, at a fundamental level, his art cannot help but be, in some sense, Western . . . . To him, more important than being an artist of hanji, he must be an artist who emphasizes the importance of a picture's foundation or material, and thoroughly puts his trust in its essence. Of course, the language of the foundation he is using does not conclusively point to any fixed idea. There is progress in science but in art there is only taste, no progress; an authentic modernist painter believes this. In this respect, he can be considered as one of the Modernist artists, despite the fact that he also belongs among the anti-modern hanji artists.

We might try to analyze his work process. Hanji, which is the medium which he uses to create, can be put roughly into three categories: dyed hanji, bark from hanji's original source, mulberry, and fabric woven out of mulberry paper. The process begins with a naturally dyed hanji. In the early stages of the process, layers of hanji are overlapped over a large piece of paper or conjoined forming grids similar to those seen in Mondrian¡¯s paintings. In the next stage, mulberry paper soaked in water is torn into little pieces and woven in, horizontally and vertically. To instill a fabric-like quality, the surface is rendered so that it feels at the same time like paper and a thick, blended weave. This way the support is completed.

So far the procedure is pre-determined. The point of departure comes when the paper grows thicker and the artist beats it with a club or a large brush to make the material adhere better. At this point, the process can be more spontaneous. The artist uses the mulberry bark's thick fiber or textiles made out of mulberry for a collage effect. Though a certain form or molding is intended, a large part of the process is much like the automatic method, as practiced by surrealists; in this way, the artist is able to commit gestural accidents or ¡°mishaps¡± that lie outside of the his intentional field. That these accidental occurrences on his canvas inevitably bring about a formless and confused state is an important phase of Ham Sup's process. . . .

The artist's memory, imagination, artistic desire, and his substances intersect in a disorderly fashion, and an atypical canvas is converted suddenly into an operational situation, as the canvas subverts itself. This kind of subversive process arises because hanji has a uniquely, intimate relationship with water. The moment hanji is submerged in water, its original form begins to melt and is transfigured into material, the intensity of which is nearly zero. The hanji (or mulberry fiber) soaked in water is identical to its anti-essence; the intensity might begin at zero, but once stuck to a support, the intensity slowly decreases, and when the moisture has dried up, what could not have been anticipated or planned for at the beginning of the process has been brought into actual form. This is, indeed, a ¡°spectacle of nothingness.¡±

A special quality in Ham Sup's paper art is (quite different from what happens when we sit in front of a canvas ready to draw) that no definite result can be predicted in advance. Moreover, Ham Sup's process does not rely on a method designed to bring us to any predictable outcome. The artist can only predict using his gut feeling, but the piece always becomes a thing that was not expected. . . . Therefore, the artist who had sovereignty over the canvas is overthrown, to make room for the principle of intuition and feeling. But in casting aside his sovereignty, the artist earns the ability to break through the integument, or the outer covering, that conceals the essence of objects. From here, matter is destabilized. That is because his artistic territory exists beyond the realm of what people are familiar with.

Through such subversive methods, the forms woven in disorderly patterns have national, primitive, and naturalistic aspects that are brought to the fore. In the final step of the process, he endows the piece with the aforementioned grid-like quality. In other words, his grid is formed from a molding, as a kind of accent inside the canvas. The grid also functions as a contrivance designed to quietly diminish the naturalistic aspects of the piece. Grid is a disapproval of speech or transcription. Also, it is an emblem of Modernity in today's paintings. Especially in works that are brought to existence using spontaneous methods, it restores strength to the idea of naturalistic space, by transfiguring it into a culturally-inflected one. That is why Rosalind Krauss has argued that modern art's original disposition and symbol of oneness with the self are allegories made functional. However, according to Krauss, oneness and original disposition, as well as repetition and reproduction, are also simultaneously contained in the grid.

Just as the idea of grid so conceived reveals a two-sided nature, we might say that Ham Sup's works, rather than symbolizing rules that are ideologically absolute, instead reveal a worldview that seeks to unify binary oppositions, such as mind and matter, nature and art, reason and emotion, east and west, modern and pre-modern, essence and appearance, present and past, reappearance and expression, accident and necessity. This point-of-view stems from his attitude towards life that is informed by po-wal. Or, perhaps, a path of wisdom discovered by awaking from the fallacy of a single ideology. More than shallowness of knowledge, he stands for the depths of experience; more than truth of categorical reason, truths of some conceivable reason, which can be arrived at everyday, by anybody.

Expressionist Index – Two


Color theorists say coloration is divided into two categories: natural pigments and synthetic pigments. The colors we encounter daily on television are representative of the synthetic pigments. Synthetic pigments are made artificially, and designed to be sensational, stimulating and provocative.

In post-industrial society, the development of digital technology brought about a revolution of coloration even before a revolution of shapes and forms. Synthetic coloration could have hallucinatory effects. It could also be useful in creating images that encouraged excessive consumption. It is true that even before the industrial era, brilliant and splendid colors were already in use in advertising. But today, every corner of our living-space is besieged by synthetic pigments. In visual arts, even outside the realm of digital arts, the use of natural colors has been in radical decline since the emergence of pop art. If we call culture our evolution away from nature, then shouldn't Ham Sup's consummate attempt to return to nature from the saturating effects of culture rightfully be called a work of art?

Ham Sup's works only make use of natural pigments. They are not pigments that resemble nature; they are nature itself. In returning to nature in this way, his wish must be that we pay attention to his work.

Texture or Tactility

The texture of a painting, the work's ¡°sensible quality of the supporting surface,¡± is inherited from the art of Romanticism, a period that primarily celebrated genius and creativity. As modern art developed, however, a steadily increasing desire for opticality was expressed on the canvas, and people began paying greater attention to a painting's surface quality.

By 1960's, as staining and color-field painting became popular, texture disappeared entirely. But in late modern art, hapticality became just as significant as visibility, and texture and tactility once again became important features of painting. Benjamin noted that after Dadaism, the work of art went from being an object of quiet observation to becoming primarily a medium of shock. From that point on, rather than expecting a beautiful illusion from a work of art, the spectator began to expect some kind of shock or astonishment.

The work of Ham Sup without a doubt exhibits a dual-nature . . . . As an object observed, the surface of his works give off a vivid sense of texture, but there is also a sense of tactility, which emerges in the work's rough woven fibers, resembling dissected muscles that are battered and contorted.

In his recent work, one can see what Bataille called ¡°base materialism¡± and more recently Julia Kristeva has called ¡°abject art¡±. In this case, the sense of touch can seem decayed, but this can also be interpreted as a case of artistic transgression or a conscious violation of received ideas about painterly conduct. If a taboo is the result of man's escape from an animal state, the violation is a kind of eroticism, a disguised effort to return to the animal life.

One might wonder if the tactile aspects in Ham Sup's works function as a bridge from his Abstract Expressionist tendencies to an authentic Expressionism. However, prediction in art is also taboo. We might just say that today too he is engaging, as always, in po-wal.

by Um Ki-Hong (Professor of Art at Chongju University)

Translation: Jae Won Chung