Ki Soo Kwon, one of the most successful contemporary pop artists in South Korea, is primarily known for his creation of Dongguri, a character that frequently appears in his work. Since his Dongguri is placed in and sold as a variety of different commodities from clothing to utensils, he is simply called “Dongguri artist” and tends to be classified as a commercial artist who appeals to popular taste (Metaphysical Art Gallery). However, this classification does not seem to adequately describe Kwon’s work which I find shows lots of the characteristics of pop arts that I have come to learn from the readings for this week. Instead, I would like to focus on Kwon’s unique utilization of historical artwork in his work which reminds me of the ‘pop artistic’ perspectives that I learned about from this week’s reading.
Kwon was originally trained as an Oriental Painter: he drew with Meok (Asian traditional black ink) and created half-painting, half-installation works for three to four years. However, Kwon felt frustrated by his own limits and wanted to go beyond the realms of Oriental painting. He felt limited in expressing the stories of today through the use of Meok and desired a breakthrough (Liz, 2010). He invented a unique character, Dongguri, (meaning “round shape” in Korean) and began to feature it in his every work which is heavily drawn from the Oriental painting tradition.
One of the most typical ways of Kwon to “reproduce” traditional oriental paintings is the use of a historical artwork or its theme or motif in his own work as the part or background. Below are two of his works that exemplify the best such direct use of historical art. The first one is his 2003 work “Plum blossoms around a cottage” (below) which directly adopts one of the 19th famous traditional paintings as the background. The second one is 2009 work “Listen without Prejudice” which is entirely modeled on a painting of one of the most famous 19th century Korean painter, Hong Do Kim. Although the use of the original material is not as direct as that shown in the former one, the main concept of the picture – a man on the horse listening to birdsong while passing under a tree– and the whole composition of all the figures are undeniably those of the famous Kim’s painting.
Plum blossoms around a cottage a 19th century painting
Listen without Prejudice a 19th century painting
However, in both of the pictures, what the audience came to focus on and also what Kwon is intended to emphasize are not the original famous paintings but Dongguri, which is featured as the main character in the pictures. According to Kwon, Dongguri’s bright and simple smile represents what people likes to achieve most but find most difficult to have in this harsh, complex modern society; his (or her) highly pattenized and simple shape symbolizes the mechanized and simplified aspects of modern society (Liz, 2010). In this sense, he (or she) can be seen as an emblem of the inner world of contemporary ordinary individuals (Liz, 2010). Then, the very absurd, strange combinations of Dongguri and the old paintings inserted in the two pictures can be seen as Kwon’s attempt to connect contemporary individuals to old traditions or history, or “the Real to the Historical” (Kramar, 1962). An important point here, is that Kwon’s emphasis on Dongguri implies that he is mostly concerned with how contemporary ordinary audience perceive and relate themselves to history with their own modern sensitivity and perspectives but not how the history or historical artifacts have been valued and appreciated in art history by authorities. Also, in lots of other Kwon’s works, Dogguri is described as playing or mediating in a bamboo forest or flowers, which was considered as recreation or enjoyment only appropriate for elite people or upper social classes in many old Asian societies, including those of China and Korea. By allowing Dongguri – who represents just ordinary us – to enjoy such an “elegant” leisure, Kwon seems to attempt to bridge our mundane life to high art which is considered to be sophisticated and thus not easily accessible. Indeed, such hybrid and interdisciplinary approach and perspective of Kwon shown in all his works can be seen as parallel to those of lots of well-known pop artists, particularly Rauschenberg who said that “painting relates to both art and life. I try to act in that gap between the two” (Brucker, 2013).
To see more of Kwon’s works:
Brucker, Julia. Robert Rauschenberg. The Arthistory.org. The Arthistory Foundation. <http://www.theartstory.org/artist-rauschenberg-robert.htm>
Liz. Kwon Ki Soo signals new wave of Korean pop art. Art&Design. Oct. 2010. <http://globalasianculture.com/2010/kwon-ki-soo-defines-new-wave-of-korean-pop-art/>
Kramar. Hilton et al. From Vangobot’s Masters’ Art Theory Archive. Vangobot. April, 1963.