I Want My Last Trip to the Moon
KANG Sojung, Angela Jeeyoung CHUN
I WANT MY LAST TRIP TO THE MOON is the first retrospective exhibition of Jung Kangja, who passed away in July 2017. This solo exhibition, which started its preparation a year before her death, is held at ARARIO GALLERY Cheonan and Seoul at the same time. By shedding light on Jung Kangja’s art world, spanning 50 years, we look back on a path of passion, and remorse pursued by a female artist who lived through a turbulent historical era in Korea.
Born in 1942, Jung graduated from Department of Western Painting, Hongik University. She emerged in Korean art scene through the Korean Young Artists Association Exhibition in 1967. In the 1960s and the 1970s, when the powerful military government and ideologies were in conflict, Jung tried to make voices in society through various formative experiments as a member of ‘New Exhibition Coterie’ and ‘The Fourth Group’. Introducing the real politics into the context of art by using an artist’s body and performance was a challenge to the traditional ideas and a resistance on the social system. However, in 1970, the government started to impose more severe sanctions against all activities and practices using bodily gestures. When her first solo exhibition, Exhibition of Incorporeality(non-body), was forcibly demolished by the authorities, she had to stop all artistic activities. Afterwards, Jung moved to Singapore with her family and spent time away from the Korean art scene for over 10 years. In spite of her aspiration to manifest the identity as an independent indivisual by placing a female body at the center of an artwork, she faced limitations in all facets of her career.
For the retrospective exhibition, ARARIO GALLERY gathered works highlighting Jung’s artistic career: large paintings, batik works, sculptures, and smaller works in Cheonan, and leading works representing different periods in Seoul. While exploring her artworks, viewers will feel the artist’s tenacity to maintain a boundless life as well as a lonesomeness as a woman and an artist. We hope that viewers can have an opportunity to see deeper into the meaning of life and art through this exhibition, one which summarizes the artist’s life.
From the Atelier to the Street
In the late 1960s, when the artist graduated from university and devoted herself to artistic activities, the situation in Korea was closely related to international society’s trends in context. The movement to bring about direct changes in the absurdity of international politics and social inequality expanded into a human rights movement, a feminist movement, and a student movement over the early and mid-1960s. In the meantime, Korean society, which had been through the May 16 military coup d’état, the hopeful spirit of Saemaul Undong (New Community Movement) and the military government’s suppressive atmosphere were overlapped. Young artists of those days had both optimistic expectation about economic development and political frustration at the same time came to the forefront and made statements about reality rather than pursuing artworks based on exploration of their inner sides.
“We were young, and believed that we could do anything for cultural justice” as the artist recalled about the New Exhibition Coterie and The Fourth Group, two art groups Jung belonged to in the 1960s, were the first collective initiatives to resist against the conservative older generation. Although these groups did not aim to overtly criticize society and politics, they were considered as one of the experimental avant-garde art groups wanted to form a different voice in Korea where art based on formalist modernism was dominant. Performances which Jung participated in such as a street parade on the opening day of the Korean Young Artists Association Exhibition, Murder at the Han Riverside (1968), and Funeral of the Established Art and Culture (1970) were all conducted on the streets. They infiltrated places for everyday life with art in order to refuse to comply with the traditional spaces for art. They also tried to challenge boundaries between life and art as well as the hierarchy of tradition and modernity.
Through the performances, similar to street demonstrations, young artists including Jung showed their intention to gain Korean art’s independent potential and identity. Such autonomous consciousness became a foundational virtue of Jung which can be witnessed in works emphasizing sexuality of the female body. Kiss Me (1967), first presented at the Korean Young Artists Association Exhibition, embodied female lips; STOP (1968), currently missing, embodied female buttocks; and A Woman’s Fountain (1970) embodied the female bosom. These works showed female nude or exaggerating parts of the female body at a period when even exposing them was a taboo. They played with conservative gender ideology that governed Korean society and the dynamics of gender politics. Through the ways she dealt with the female body, it is evident that Jung was aware of the implications and subjective identity the female body indicated, though she did not call herself a “feminist.”
However, while going through the Yushin regime, art that can be seen as criticism toward the society was disregarded by the public and art audiences. This was especially true with Korea’s experimental art, including Jung’s, and was labeled as “forbidden avant-garde,” and has been simply approached as an immature art movement until recently. Jung’s contribution and influence were often reduced as one of a few female artists who participated in such experimental art. Furthermore, despite her life-long artistic activities, her works were simply remembered as negative and vulgar activities in the 1960s. Many male artists in those days stopped their activities due to the government’s surveillance, but continued their career such as in event performances. Yet, Jung took a distinctly different path from them.
From Representation to Abstraction
At this exhibition, we will shed light on Jung’s artistic achievements by presenting various pieces of her paintings which have not been fairly recognized because of prejudices imposed on her to date. After Exhibition of Incorporeality (non-body) in 1970, she stopped artistic activities for over 10 years, but her socially critical mind and self-determining spirit were continued to experiments in the paintings in which she was devoted to after her return to Korea in 1981. In particular, her tireless spirit is found in the paintings by expressing her oppressed desire and reality in symbolic, abstract ways, using her other self (icon), hanbok skirts, and semicircles. She wanted to liberate herself as she said, “imaginations that I stretch in my own way in an unlimited, free space that is bound to nothing.”
Although she tried diverse artistic styles from the 1980s to the time right before her death, there were consistent motifs that appeared in her paintings, such as Janus and a woman wearing a laurel wreath as her other self. Regarding these symbols, she explained they are the “icons that expressed uncontrollable, ceaseless desire for change.” In her works, we can discover her other self, one that is immersed in loneliness, and one that that is shyly hiding somewhere, or that is enjoying a leisurely siesta while floating in a forest. The images represent the soliltude the artist in front of the canvas and the sweet rest she dreams of on a busy day. With symbolic signs Jung developed through her abstraction, the artist liberates her ego that could not be exerted in everyday life.
Later, she captured exotic landscapes in remote areas while she traveled to eight countries in Latin America, eight countries in Africa, six countries in Southwest Asia, and six countries in the South Pacific from 1987 to 1991. After her trip and returned to Korea, she started to take interest on Korean traditional images like hanbok from the late 1990s. The hanbok skirt was something that came into her mind when she thought of her mother, she said. It was a symbol that shows a natural life of a woman who became a mother and is getting older, like her own mother. The hanbok skirt, which had been tied around a woman’s bosom for centuries, flies in the sky with the strings undone, a mountainous pile of them creating a great monument in Jung’s works. As Jung said while reflecting on women’s lives through hanbok skirts, “Hanbok is a flag of Korean women who have been suppressed and infringed upon by male chauvinism for thousands of years. It implies flying towards freedom, away from the deep sorrow of Korean women who have silently endured all the suppression, discrimination, and unfair treatment. The string that ties the skirt flies and strings cut off from the skirts float as birds and clouds. In my works, Korean women’s lives and deep sorrow are often represented as they are.”
What became a catalyst for her to develop her interest in what was representational into abstract images was a circular form. She wanted to find the artistic method which is not limited to certain media or themes. She tried to overcome the existing dichotomous order such as traditional artistic media and performance, male and female, suppression and liberation, and tradition and modernity. The answer she discovered was in “circle,” that is enlarged to make dynamic movements or is divided into smaller pieces to compose conceptual imagery. Pieces of circles rhythmically filling the canvas represent the artist who was deeply impressed with the Big Bang theory (which describes how the universe slowly expanded from tiny atoms). Jung’s formative experiment signifies a process of her artistic impulse expanding from the artist herself to human beings, and further to the universe.
The exhibition title I WANT MY LAST TRIP TO THE MOON derived from the title of a work she painted in 2015. At that time, she was suddenly diagnosed with a last-stage stomach cancer and struggling against it. She reflected on life and death as she endured physical pain and battled the disease in order to stand in front of the canvas. This epitomizes Jung’s autonomous and self-determined attitude as an artist who had continued making efforts to realize creative aspirations instead of staying content with what she had. This retrospective exhibition, where Jung’s artworks capturing her surging artistic spirit are gathered, will testify to the times of her life and speculate about what makes people transcend joy, anger, sorrow, pleasure, and, ultimately, their bodies.