The best term to describe Kim Ku-lim (b. 1936) is “avant-garde.” A true artistic explorer, Kim has presented an incredible array of experimental works of diverse genres and media. Ignoring trends and conventions, Kim has blazed his own path through the Korean art world, producing a singular body of work that uniquely represents the era of his life. He is particularly adept at using his works to evince the rigid standards of society in innovative ways. Rather than submitting to pre-determined judgments, he seeks to capture the hidden complexities of our lives that cannot be easily defined. Just as we cannot reduce our lives to a single story, his works comprise a mix of countless elements that resist definition, perpetually converging and colliding. In an age when it is easy to be swept away by external influences, Kim Ku-lim implores us to live each day anew by charting our own course, rather than chasing the echoes of others’ words.
After dropping out of art school after one year, Kim Ku-lim began frequenting secondhand bookstores, reading magazines like Time and Life and studying various books about Western cinema, fine art, music, and dance. In this way, Kim came to understand that artists outside Korea were not judged solely by their technical skills (i.e., the realism of their paintings), but more so on the strength and originality of their aesthetic views and philosophy. From that point on, Kim focused on constructing his own ideology by studying theories related to cinema, theater, dance, music, and Eastern philosophy, including Laozi and Zhuangzi.
If there is any one theme running through Kim’s oeuvre, it is the principle of yin and yang (which prominently serves as the title of one of his series). In fact, the artist once claimed that every conceivable doctrine is based on yin and yang, which is basically the concept of duality, wherein all things are relative.
“There is no thing that is not ‘that,’ and there is no thing that is not ‘this.’ If I try to look at a thing from someone else’s point of view, I do not see it; only by seeing it myself can I truly know it. Hence it is said, ‘That view comes from this, and this view is a consequence of that.’ Thus, by opposing one another, ‘that view’ and ‘this view’ actually give rise to one another; Hui Shi defined it as the ‘contradiction principle of that and this.’ Even so, for most people, there is affirmed life and affirmed death; a thing is now admissible, and now inadmissible. But two things in a contradictory relation are the very premise of one another’s existence. With life, there is death, and vice versa. Hence, a true sage must view things in the light of Heaven (i.e., from a universal perspective), without relying on a specific perspective.” - From Zhuangzi’s 『The Adjustment of Controversies』1)
This statement has great significance for Kim’s art, particularly for his interest in the contradictory yet connected concepts of “relation” and “integration.”2) “Relation” and “integration” cannot exist without one another, nor can they be realized if one is subjugated to the other. It is much easier to separately understand two independent things than it is to understand the relationship between two things. But we must try to understand such relationships, since none of us can live a completely solitary existence, like a stone in the road. Thus, we all strive to get along with others and align our thoughts towards coexistence, which inevitably results in complexity and clutter. It can be very challenging to remain steadfast and sever the branches of one’s relationship with other people, for human relations are also dictated by the “contradiction principle,” wherein opposing things give rise to one another’s existence.
Kim’s interest in the relations among media can be seen in 〈Yin and Yang 99-S 211〉 (1999), an installation consisting of a pile of newspapers that is connected to a computer motherboard and a clock via a long tube of accordion duct. While representing the global transition in technology and communication, the work also demonstrates the relative relationship among different media. Similarly, for 〈Landscape〉 (1987), Kim placed an actual tree branch against a backdrop painted with a landscape and an image of the same branch. By emphasizing the coetaneous existence of the branch and its representation, or the relation between newspapers and computer chips, Kim changes our perspective and forces us to consider the material aspects of objects, both natural and artificial, on multiple levels.
As posited by Zhuangzi, “this” gives rise to “that,” which gives rise to “this,” etc. Thus, any contemplation of the relation between things inevitably leads to the realization of their integration. Yet anyone who tries to insist on the unity of all things slips into self-righteousness, and the assertion disintegrates. Only by listening to the opinions of others and thinking together can we reinforce the faith in integration, which opens up new paths. This approach is epitomized by “The Fourth Group,” the cultural collective of people from various fields that Kim founded and led as president. Upholding the Taoist theory of “wuwei” (無爲, meaning “inaction” or “not doing”) and rejecting the separation of mind and material, The Fourth Group sought instead to integrate political, economic, social, and cultural elements in the artistic realm.3)
Explaining why he established the group, Kim said, “Soon after starting AG (Avant-garde Group), we felt that we should publish a magazine to document our activities, so we recruited three critics. Then I started creating electronic art, but I kept running into technical problems that I couldn’t solve by myself, so I hired a technician. After things like this kept popping up, I eventually realized that contemporary art requires collaborators from many different fields. So I founded The Fourth Group.” Kim recruited people from cinema, theater, music, dance, engineering, politics, religion, and many other fields to communicate and work together under the banner of The Fourth Group, which held its inaugural ceremony on June 20, 1970. Speaking about the group in a 2000 interview, Kim said, “I believed back then—and still believe now—that art should be integrated into every aspect of society.”4)
But in the 1970s, it was very difficult for Koreans to speak out or assert themselves. Unlike today’s society, which strives to embrace diversity and listen to different voices, the dominant social values of the 1970s were uniformity and hierarchy. At that time, individuality was viewed as counterproductive to the common goals of national institutions and the nation itself. The government could not afford to encourage divergent ideas or the expression of individual thoughts and personalities. With its emphasis on collaboration and discussion, as well as its membership of people from various walks of life, The Fourth Group was immediately pegged as a danger. As such, after only a few performances, the group was forced to disband due to government pressure.5) Yet even in its brief existence, The Fourth Group generated a number of fascinating stories and innovative works, thereby revealing the possibilities for artistic practices that differed from the norm.
Through his multimedia installations, stage works, land art, and performance art, Kim has constantly pushed the boundaries of art beyond the limits of the canvas, gallery, or museum. In particular, many of his stage works and exhibitions represent his attempt to enact gesamtkunstwerk (“total art”). In 1988, for example, he produced stage art for his performance 〈Exorcism 8〉 at Hoam Art Hall, and in 2013, he used the music of John Cage in his performance 〈Untitled〉 (2013) at the Seoul Museum of Art.6)
Rather than immersing or isolating himself in a single genre or media, Kim has dedicated himself to creating works that encompass every field not only of art, but also of life. He has continually used his art to embody diversity and totality, moving beyond the supposed conflict between artificial extremities.
Two themes that have continually emerged in Kim’s works are “phenomena” and “traces.” Indeed, two of his early major works are entitled 〈From Phenomenon to Traces〉 (1969 and 1970), and his 2000 exhibition was called 《Existence and Traces》. As demonstrated by his famous land art and experimental performances, Kim particularly excels at producing works that are not fixed, but rather unfold in the given moment and situation. In such works, he often shows a certain outcome to the viewers, coaxing them to envision the procedure that led to the outcome.
To create 〈From Phenomenon to Traces〉 (1969), for example, Kim wrapped blocks of ice with a special type of paper, and then allowed the ice to slowly melt away. Through this process, the paper kept the three-dimensional form of the ice block, but became translucent. The displayed work consisted solely of the empty, stiffened blocks of paper (i.e., the traces), leaving the audience to imagine how they were formed (i.e., the phenomenon). In his notes for this work, Kim wrote, “The paper shows us the original shape and size of the ice, or its trace. Thus, presence is relative to absence…materiality and immateriality, phenomenon and disappearance. Such traces are the providence of our universe, and indeed of our lives.”7) In the same note, he added, “Like all things, a person is born but dies, according to the eternal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. But this wheel of life does not go back to the original state, but rather initiates a new state. This is the truth, the absolute principle underlying the universe.”8) These ideas can also be applied to Kim’s works outside the museum, such as his performances and land art. Instead of dissecting the flow of time into a dichotomy (i.e., cause and effect), he reminds us that the traces of a phenomenon are themselves another phenomenon that differs entirely from the original phenomenon. As such, he seems to present fragments of our lives, suggesting that we emerge from each unpredictable encounter and spontaneous event as a new being. Each of us accumulates layer after layer of phenomena becoming traces, thus carving our own path through existence.
Kim’s second work entitled 〈From Phenomenon to Traces〉 (1970) is renowned as the first piece of land art in Korea’s history. On April 11, 1970, Kim conducted a performance in which he set fire to a triangular area of grass on the banks of the Han River, near Salgoji Bridge. The final result of the work was a burnt triangle in the grass, which gradually disappeared as new grass began to grow. Hence, the work manifested the concept that Kim described in his notes, wherein the trace of a phenomenon becomes a new existence. In 2016, this work was recreated at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Gwacheon.
Many of Kim’s works function by highlighting the role of time in linking phenomenon and trace. After all, only time has the wondrous property of changing absence into presence, presence into absence, new into old, or old into new. For his work 〈Shovel〉 (1973), Kim said that he bought a new shovel, but then wore it out until it became a piece of junk. Praising this unique quality in Kim’s work, the Japanese critic Minemura Toshiaki wrote, “His works provide invaluable views about the multi-layered nature of time, an issue that has been forgotten in Japanese art.”9) In 『Postproduction』, Nicolas Bourriaud argued that conferring a new idea onto an object is an act of production, and that creation is simply the placement or insertion of objects within a new scenario.10) By inserting phenomena from the past into the present condition of an object, Kim imbues the objects with an unfamiliar quality and temporality, ultimately creating a new trace that had never existed.
This creative process also carries over into Kim’s print works. Notably, Kim was a pioneer of various print techniques in Korea, introducing etching and drypoint, and even opening the nation’s first art printing workshop.11) Although Kim’s 〈Duster〉 (1974) and 〈Still Life B〉 (1981) were exhibited at the Tokyo International Print Biennale and Seoul International Print Biennale (respectively), they diverge from conventional print works. According to Kim, he was considering how to break through the ambiguity about what constitutes a “print work” when he came up with the idea of doing a silkscreen printing on a tablecloth. As such, he simultaneously discovered a new way to elevate a mass-produced household item into an artwork. In his attempt to establish a new theory on prints, he experimented with various effects, printing images that resembled faded dyes, a stain left by a cup, and the accumulation of sweat on a seat cushion. With such works, he once again used the outcome of a phenomenon to shift our gaze to the relationship between process and result, the nature of time, and the cycle of phenomena and traces as a fundamental principle of life.
All of these themes—relativity, time, phenomena, and traces—begin from Kim’s overall awareness of reality, and particularly his desire to capture the ever-changing reality of daily life. In 〈The Meaning of 1/24 Second〉 (1969), a short film that he produced, designed, edited, and directed, Kim juxtaposes quick cuts of seemingly unrelated images: the railings of an overpass, tall buildings, a man taking a shower, crowds of people on the street. Although the film emphasizes movement, as many of the people in the film seem to be walking or working, there is often no discernible link between the various images. A yawning man provides a brief intermission between shots of movement, while other scenes are interrupted or connected without any apparent motivation or meaning. At the time, the work was interpreted as a depiction of a contemporary society marked by diverse changes and major incidents, but in fact, no single incident has the capacity to change every individual.12) By experimentally mixing aimless movements and isolated events, Kim evoked the ennui of city life, stimulating viewers to generate new emotions from the familiar ephemera of their lives.
Kim has also shown a deep fascination with the ongoing evolution of technology. Since presenting his first example of electronic art in 1969, he has maintained a strong interest in technological developments. In 2015, for example, he incorporated GPS technology into 〈Yin and Yang-Tomb〉 (2015), which consisted of a tomb containing a body and many navigation devices. Today, almost everyone uses navigation devices to help find the fastest and most convenient transportation routes. But the more we rely upon computers to guide us, the less we use our own minds to find our way. The image of a tomb reminds us that, by submitting to the order of our mechanical devices, we are slowly surrendering our ability to collect and organize information, as well as our capacity for independent thought.
Another issue that Kim has dealt with is plastic surgery. As the artist recalled, he first became interested in this issue around 2001, when he began noticing how many plastic surgery clinics were lining the streets of Gangnam. He then realized that some Korean women were beginning to resemble mannequins; although the individual parts of their faces may have been beautiful, they became somewhat monstrous when viewed as a whole. In 〈Yin and Yang 4-S 365〉 (2004), a woman is lying seductively on her stomach, but her face is covered by a sort of collage, highlighted by an enlarged eye and lips. The eye, lips, and her face are all pointing in different directions, so that they are well integrated yet distinct from one another. By emphasizing this imbalance and discordance, Kim implies that people who choose to undergo plastic surgery are erasing their uniqueness and identity. Beyond their facial features, they lose the individuality of their minds when they decide to live according to artificial standards that have been imposed by society. Through such works, Kim exposes the hidden realities that we mindlessly accept in the course of our daily lives, castigating the society that he has been rebelling against for his entire career.
In 〈Yin and Yang 15-S45〉 (2015), Kim illuminated the tragic plight of Syrian refugees, depicting them as modern-day slaves. The collection of skeletons in a boat is not a dramatization, but the harsh reality for those who set out to sea in search of a new life. Unprotected by their government and society, they must risk their lives to relocate, embarking on a journey fraught with mental and physical peril.
In his book 『Philosophy of the Deconstruction Era』, Kim Sanghwan (professor of philosophy at Seoul National University) wrote, “Enlightenment is nothing but liberating yourself from those who would cast judgment by proxy. The German word for ‘prejudice’ is ‘vorurteil,’ which means ‘judgment’ (‘urteil’) from something (or someone) that is higher or comes before (‘vor’). The will for truth is equated with movement to distance yourself from others, or the determination for solitude. Hence, enlightenment begins from moving to separate yourself from others.”13) By this definition, Kim Ku-lim has established himself as a truth-seeker, living his life according to his own values, rather than others’ judgments. Significantly, he chose the path of art, which allowed him to develop and pursue his own expression without following others. By using his artworks to seek his own enlightenment, he simultaneously (and solitarily) confronts the nature of art. In the moment, it is so easy to follow the crowd, but this only makes it harder to stand on our own in the long run. No matter how many billions of people populate the world, each of us must live his or her own life. Against great odds, Kim Ku-lim has persistently lived his own life and expressed his own ideas. This is why his works carry such a powerful resonance with the rest of us, and this is why he is such a shining exemplar of the avant-garde.
1 Zhuangzi, 『Lectures』, trans. Shin Yeongbok (Paju: Dolbegae, 2004): pp. 321-322.
2 Shin, Ibid., p. 321.
3 Jang Yunhwan, “Korean Avant-garde Art,” Sindonga (January 1975); requoted in Kim Migyeong, “The Fourth Group,” Art History Forum 11, (December 2000): p. 259.
4 Kim Migyeong, “Interview with Artist” in 『Kim Ku-lim, Existence and Traces (Seoul: Arts Council Korea, 2000), p. 77.
5 Kim Ku-lim said, “Because of The Fourth Group, I was arrested and taken to the police station, where they questioned me about the meaning of the group’s name, the reason why we used a white flag as our symbol, and the source of our funding.” Kim Migyeong, Ibid., p. 77.
6 Kim Ku-lim said, “This work was originally planned to be staged with 100 dancers at Seoul Cultural Arts Center in 1970, but it fell through. It was finally realized in 2013 at the Seoul Museum of Art.” Kim Ku-lim, 『Kim Ku-lim: You Don’t Know Me Well』 (Seoul: Seoul Museum of Art, 2013), p. 59.
7 Kim Ku-lim, 『KIM KU-LIM』 (Seoul: aMart Publications Inc., 2015), p. 49.
8 Kim Ku-lim, Ibid., p. 49.
9 Kim Ku-lim, Ibid., p. 72.
10 Nicolas Bourriaud, 『Postproduction』, trans. Jeong Yeonsim and Son Bugyeong (Seoul: Graphite on Pink, 2016), pp. 34-35.
11 Son Gyeongyeo and Bak Wonu, “Despite Suffering Hunger and Poverty, I Wanted to Make Great Art!”: Kim Ku-lim’s Permanent Homecoming from the US, and Scheduled Retrospective in September,” Misulsegye (2000): p. 158.
12 “Shocking Trends in Seoul: Korean Art Group of ‘Happenings’ Making a Movie with Nude Scenes,” Weekly Kyunghyang (May 4, 1969), p. 12: requoted in Shin Jeonghun, “Seoul 1969 Summer: The Meaning of 1/24 Second and the Urban Imagination of Kim Ku-lim” in 『Kim Ku-lim: You Don’t Know Me Well』 (Seoul: Seoul Museum of Art, 2013), p. 119.
13 Kim Sanghwan, 『Philosophy of the Deconstruction Era』 (Seoul: Moonji Publishing Co., 2005), p. 380.