The Korea Society | May 5 – June 19, 2015
Choong Sup Lim is a mature Korean artist who has spent many years working in New York City, where he has lived since 1973. Lim has a studio in Tribeca, where he puts together his quietly original sculptures and makes paintings that acknowledge Western abstraction, even as he places an emphasis on traditional Asian imagery and painting techniques. His recent exhibition at the Korea Society made clear that the best artists in contemporary Korean circles should be brought into New York’s art world conversation, primarily because they propose a dialogue with Western cultural processes. Rampant internationalism has lately proven it difficult to determine just how “Korean” art from Korea actually is; there is some interest in the West in Asian pop art, as well as the social descriptions found in Mainland Chinese painting. But for someone like Lim, who has found a way of keeping classical Korean mind and aesthetic intelligence alive, the gap between his work and its visible recognition in New York is sad to note—in large part because his is such a sophisticated blend of cultures.
Luna, And Her Thousand Reflections (2015), according to Lim, is based on a Confucian debate in the Chosun Dynasty. In the 16th century, the scholar Ki Dae Seung argued that the reflection of the moon upon the water is not a moon, while philosopher Yi Hwang wrote that, “the reflection of the moon upon the water is a moon, though the moon in the sky is also a moon.” Lim has taken Yi Hwang’s position, recognizing that the latter was aware of issues of phenomenology evident in contemporary art despite his having lived many, many generations before us.
Luna, as a result, is more than simply a piece. It is actually an installation—a kind of altar to the moon and its glory. In the back of the small space at the Korea Society where it was installed, we see a vertical pedestal, with what looks like a cross in the middle of a series of shelves leading upward. On the right, next to this configuration, are yarns whose manufacture dates back a thousand years, to the Chosun dynasty. Before the pedestal is a pentagonal floor piece illuminated by a blue video projection of the moon, while trailing off toward the front of the space are four groups of wooden strips, adding to the general feeling of sanctuary evoked by the work’s sacred environs. Lim writes that the moon that previously shone on the 1000-year-old cotton thread, an artifact taken from the Chosun Dynasty, in his installation is a moon; and that, similarly, the video of a moon, also used in the installation, is a moon as well. The notion that appearance, even if surmised from what might best be described as a mirage, is as important to visual reality as reality itself, is a highly modern perception, regardless of the fact that Lim’s use of the idea dates back some five hundred years.
The title of Lim’s overall exhibition was Void—“void” being a deeply Buddhist concept and term that emphasizes emptiness above all else. In a number of ways, however, this is also a uniquely Korean work, informed by Western installation art history of the last thirty years. The folk elements, along with the decidedly spiritual bent of the environment, are made more intense by the combination of abstract components, in addition to video. Clearly, Lim wants to contemporize a powerful philosophical anecdote from centuries ago; he does so here with genuine acuity, giving a visual image to a decidedly intellectual debate.
Much like his installations, Lim’s paintings are profoundly mysterious endeavors, incorporating in a real sense the void at the center of both creativity and Buddhist thought. In Between (2014-15), the viewer sees what is more or less a blank canvas, with the exception of four encaustic excrescences on the lower left of the composition. Like much Asian philosophy, the painting offers us almost less than nothing as a clue to its meaning. One is thus reminded of the Zen gardens of Japan, where no matter where a person is sitting, one of the rocks in the site cannot be seen. The notion that we are all in a state of finite perception, of “indefinition” or “being between,” seems particularly apt in a time when ideas, cultures, geographies, and epochs are cheerfully swapped for the sake of an aesthetic that eschews a single definition in favor of diverse eclecticism. It is for this reason that it is time for Lim and other strong Korean artists of his generation to make their way into the contemporary art debate in New York and other Western centers of culture.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.