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In the early 1970s you devoted, I understand, yourself chiefly to three-dimensional (installation) works. Since 1975, however, you have been fully occupied with ‘event.’ What made you take an interest in ‘event?’
In 1973 I participated in the Paris Biennale with my Corporal Term. It was first shown at The 10th Exhibition of Korean Artists Association in 1971. I was provided with a tree from the national park on the request of the biennale’s organizing committee to the then French government and so I was able to install my Corporal Term in The City of Paris Museum of Modern Arts. And it received favorable responses: a special interview about my work was broadcast on a national television network and at the same time my work was also featured in art magazines and newspapers. And I had already had partial exposure to the disciplines such as phenomenology and analytic language philosophy, and the thoughts of Laozi and Zhuangzi during my high school years. These contributed to my belief that the work was indeed a live ‘corporal term’ — in other words, a work that embodied a certain primal state of nature, and that was what helped me make up my mind to continue working on that sort of work. Meanwhile, during my one-month stay in Paris, I went hunting for a tree in the suburbs of Paris together with Kim Tschang-Yeul (b. 1929) (before I went to the organizing committee of the biennale), and as I was staying at the house of Han Mook (1914 – 2016) I visited the Alps and saw their advanced cultural artifacts, and what flashed through my mind then was that an artist’s body could be a powerful artistic medium. By the time I was returning to Korea I was firmly determined to do ‘performance art’ in which I would use my body as my artistic medium.
Your very first events were Indoor Measurement and Same Area at Baekrok Gallery on April 19, 1975. At that time you coined the term “Event·Presentation of the Body” to refer to them, and was there any specific reason for that?
The term ‘presentation of the body’ refers, as long as I am concerned, to the body present at the scene. That is, when a master summons a servant, the servant presents his or her body, saying “Yes, sir [madam]. I am here.” Accordingly, it means, here, the presentation of oneself at the scene. To elaborate it, an artist attempts a direct, artistic communication with the audience at the scene by presenting his or her own body as an artistic medium rather than an indirect showcasing of a certain structure created by himself or herself. Also in those days the word ‘happening’ was being used in Korea, but the word ‘event’ was not. I wanted to distinguish my work from the then happenings and at the same time to explore a new kind of performance work. That is why I combined the words, ‘event,’ and ‘presentation of the body.’
It seems that later on it developed into “Event-Logical,” and is there any reason that you added ‘logical’ to ‘event?’
There broke out the Korean War, the April 19 Revolution, and the May 16 coup, and afterwards there was a movement to modernize everything. Yet as for people’s mind there was a lack of awareness of what it meant to figure out things logically and to sense the necessity of mutual cooperation in doing things. One’s heart always came before his or her head. At the time every alley witnessed people fighting. It took only one’s three-second gaze at another’s eyes for a fight to occur. It was such a time when eyeing was enough a reason to provoke anger in one’s mind. Likewise, so were daily life, art, and everything else in those days. In my high school years I studied Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophical texts and read writings by Laozi and Zhuangzi. Furthermore, Confucianism, which had continued since the Joseon Dynasty, was woven into the very fabric of our everyday life. In consideration of these circumstances I thought what if I had employed ‘what is logical’ as my approach. But that does not mean that I am a devotee of logic. I was just thinking of logic as a prescription for the conditions we were in. As a matter of fact, ‘event’ and ‘logic’ are hardly compatible to each other. If an event happens logically, it is not an event at all. Likewise, when things are logical, there happens no event. Nevertheless, in the realm of art these two elements coexist. If art does not have some logic within it, communication is impossible. That is to say that the communication of emotions is all there to be. Nothing more than that. Wittgenstein sought to cure the philosophies of idealism and metaphysics with ‘logic.’ I was on his side.
As I understand, you went to Paichai Middle and High Schools, and you studied ‘logic’ in high school. I also heard that there were so many books in your house. What captivated your attention most in your high school years?
The total number of my father’s books amounted to about 10,000. Many of them were humanities-related including literature, religion, and philosophy. In fact, my mother was not happy with them. For my father was a poor minister, but had so many books. As my family’s house was filled with books, it was natural for me to read them. At the time unlike other schools, Paichai High School offered a logic course as part of its curriculum. My tenth-grade logic teacher, who had studied philosophy in Germany, gave us short lectures on modern philosophy. Probably, most of the students in the class were not happy about that, but I was quite serious about them. I was often searching through the books in my father’s library to find some that were related to them. The books I read at the time were of existentialism, phenomenology, and analytic language philosophy. Not only that, when a linguistic symposium was held at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, I even attended it in my father’s clothes, cutting school.
Was there any philosopher who particularly interested you in those days?
First of all, I was fascinated by Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological reflections. An idea should be overcome so as to be real. According to Merleau-Ponty, the body is what orients us in a world, that which I still stand by. Next, there is Wittgenstein. In his early essay, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, every basic proposition is numbered and its comments are also hierarchically numbered: ‘The world is all that is the case,’ ‘The world is totality of facts, not of things,’ and so on. In fact, a whole day is not enough to speculate upon just a single page of this book. The final proposition reads: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ What that one cannot speak of is what cannot be formed into a logical sentence. It is to say not to speak of it at all. I became aware of his thoughts in my logic class and was greatly shocked by them. It is them that ignited my interest in logic to the extent to which I wanted to go to the linguistic symposium. I learned that language could be an object of study and played an important role in human activities including cultural ones.
You began to obtain philosophical knowledge in high school. And when you were a member of “ST Group,” you studied about contemporary art. What were your main concerns then?
In the 1960s it was not easy to get information about contemporary art in Korea. So I read Japanese art magazines such as Bijutsu Techo and Geijutsu Shincho. Some of the previous generation of artists could read Japanese and thus understood the articles, but our generation of artists did not know Japanese well and so just understood them visually. At the time the lack of information was really serious. After my graduation in August, 1967, I opened a private institute near Ewha Womans University. It was quite spacious and thus I could use it as a base for a group called “Artnews” where art-related information could be exchanged. And it is “Space and Time Art Academy (ST Group)” into which it developed. The important contemporary art-related texts were translated and discussed. They were translated by those who were well-versed in each language. Among the texts and works we studied were included Lee Ufan’s “An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Encounter,” Joseph Kosuth’s “Art after Philosophy,” writings by Harold Rosenberg, and Hans Haacke’s works. Printers were expensive then, so we copied the texts using mimeograph machines. It was through the open seminars we held based on those texts that we informed those in need about the then avant-garde artistic practices.
It seems that all of those were fed into “Event-Logical.” Your ‘Body Drawing’ series shown in this exhibition was first introduced at The 5th ST Exhibition in 1976. It was titled Presentation of the Body at the time and later on also The Method of Drawing. What made you embark on ‘Body Drawing?’
I began to apply my 1975 idea about “Event-Logical” to the question of ‘to draw.’ To draw means, in general, to formulate an illusion as if the object is in the picture plane, to express what we humans imagine, or to give vent to our inner emotions. In other words, it is to express something so as to enable a third party to see it. But for me, to draw meant to represent more fundamental meanings of ‘to draw’ at the present scene. As phenomenologists or Wittgenstein argue, to represent is not to represent one’s feelings or emotions but to represent one’s thoughts in accordance with a certain inevitable logic. I am 170cm tall. A panel whose height is the same as my height is placed in front of me, and I pass my hand over the top of the panel to reach its other side on which I draw lines. It is to make some kind of marks. Yet when I do so, I do not do so consciously. Importance is placed to the very phenomenon that is revealed as my body touches it. Then, the part on which lines are drawn is cut, and this enables my hand to reach a lower part of the panel as much as it was cut. Again, I draw lines and cut the part with those lines. The more this process is repeated the less restrained my hand’s access to the pictorial surface becomes. It is in these repeated steps that a drawing becomes present. Usually, a painter paints something on the two-dimensional surface that he or she is facing. In my case I place the panel in front of my body and draw lines as far as my body allows without being able to see the pictorial surface. So it is not that I draw something on the two-dimensional surface while seeing it with my eyes, as my conscious instructs me. Rather, it is to represent the process through which my body perceives the two-dimensional surface, via the lines drawn by the movements of my arm.
If I understand you right, the conditions in which the body is are quite critical here, aren’t they?
In some cases, I force restrictions upon the movement of my body. In The Method of Drawing 76-4, for example, I splint my arm as if wearing a cast. The arm moves in various ways as it can bend inwards and be twisted to some extent, and I splint that body part. It can move as much as the restriction allows. The restriction is gradually loosened, and the more the restriction is loosened, the more my arm is allowed to move. And in the end the restriction is removed all together. The very output of this process is The Method of Drawing 76-4. At the time everything was collectivized in a single direction, was systemized, and was restricted. In those days even how to draw was to be educated. Drawing lines under the restraint of a splint may not be much, of course. But what I intended to achieve in part was to open a new horizon where the act of drawing lines itself could be paradoxically and emphatically proved via the restricted act of drawing through which the standardization and homogenization of society is overcome and further its significance is extended. Eating Biscuit, which I carried out prior to The Method of Drawing 76-4, is of similar context. By performing particular actions using my body under certain restrictions placed on the everyday ‘act of eating,’ I was ironically able to represent the very act much more realistically.
It is my understanding that Snail’s Gallop is, too, an event making use of bodily conditions.
Yes, it surely is. In 1979 I inched across the floor on the soles of my feet while I drew constant lines from side to side. The simultaneous happening of drawing lines with my hand and erasing them with my soles gave rise to a slow formation of a lifeline. The generation of the lifeline was not by my intention. Instead, it was by certain inevitable and necessary actions. In fact, it is, too, a presentation of the body. As my body parts, that is, my soles, touch the (two-dimensional) floor and thereby erase parts of the lines drawn by my hand, the line as the ecological trace of the movements of my soles become present, together with the strips consisting of the parts of the hand-drawn lines that are not erased, and what govern this is a certain ‘logic of inevitability.’
What was it that motivated you to do Snail’s Gallop?
I was at the house of Sung Neung-Kyung. I was flipping through the pages of a magazine. I forgot the name of the magazine, but I remember that it was an Australian nature magazine. There was a picture of a desert, and what captivated my eyes was a trail made by a spider. At the instant sight of it, I hit upon an idea, which led me to a continuous, painful inquiry into it for a long while.
It was within an inch of being ‘Spider’s Gallop,’ right?
A spider is faster than a snail. Also, no desert can be found in my surroundings. Drawing is supposed to be done on a two-dimensional surface. And heavy steps over it are to leave just separate footprints behind. My ‘snail’s gallop’ leaves the simultaneous traces of my hand’s repetitive drawing of lines, of my act of drawing in the same directions, and of my erasing of them. To realize this idea of the simultaneous vestiges, I move forward on my soles, and this gave me an idea of a snail. A snail’s move leaves a trail, and because of its mucus, the trail sparkles like a gem in sunlight. And my moving while drawing lines results after all in my erasing of my drawing. They contradict each other. Of course, partial erasing does not fail the act of drawing. It took me a while to realize that so many strata of thoughts were contained in my Snail’s Gallop.
You presented over forty performances in the mid and late 1970s. The number is much greater than those of other artists’ of the time. This makes you the most leading performance artist in terms of both quality and quantity. What is that have made you continue doing events?
The body is the most important and essential artistic medium. That the body of an artist in particular is indeed capable of being the most effective and direct medium. That is my unyielding belief and intuition. (Translated by Jawoon Kim)
This interview from the exhibition catalogue of Lee Kun-Yong : Event-Logical at Gallery Hyundai.