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Profound and True Obscurity: The Late Works of JUNG Kangja

PARK Hyesung (Curator, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea)

“Simply call me Jung Kangja”


We remember Jung Kangja (1942-2017) as a woman in a black and white photograph standing half-naked with a transparent balloon attached to her upper body. In May 1968, during the “Transparent Balloon and Nude” happening at C’est Si Bon Music Café, Myeongdong, she became known in society as a sensual ‘nude woman’ featured in the provocative magazine such as Sunday Seoul. However, contemporaries referred to her as a pioneering first-generation female artist and performance artist in Korea. In fact, a reevaluation of Jung’s work has recently emerged. As experimental art takes a role in the grand narrative following abstract and Minjung art, along with postmodernism, Jung’s once overshadowed presence began to gain recognition.[1] Recently, her name has resurfaced through Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea 1960s-1970s, an exhibition co-hosted by the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where her prominent, large and weird "Kiss Me" (1967) is presented. It is a truly remarkable and delightful development.


However, are we not summoning her just through a few black and white photographs, including "Transparent Balloon and Nude”, and her works recreated from the late 1960s? Jung halted her artistic activities after her first solo exhibition Incorporeality (Muche) at the National Public Information Office in 1970 was forcibly dismantled. After her marriage, she moved to Singapore in 1977, where she resided for years, leaving the Korean art scene. She returned to Korea in 1982 and continued working endlessly until her passing in 2017. Although she ceaselessly carried out her artistic activities, her later works are less known. To fully understand Jung’s oeuvre, we must delve into her post-experimental art period and her life, as she earnestly requested to be simply called ‘Jung Kangja’. To comply with her heartfelt request, we need to explore her works and life beyond experimental art. Even during her stay in Singapore after her return to Korea, she experimented with ‘batik’, a dyeing technique which she had learned, but her primary medium remained painting. While the medium shifted from avant-garde performance to painting, her artistic purpose and attitude of pursuing ‘freedom’ and ‘liberation’ remained unchanged.


"Art is not about reproducing what the eye sees. It should delve deep into the unseen mysteries of the inner abyss. Drawing a picture is nothing less than exploring life."


Jung’s paintings transcend the mere reproduction of reality. Critic Oh Gwangsoo described her as a "highly exceptional presence in Korean art that belongs to no specific lineage", an assessment based on characteristics of her work, often referred to as “fantasy and Surrealism” (Oh Gwangsoo). Others mention “fantasy and dreams, the world of reverie" (Kim Bokyoung), "primitivism and romanticism, reverie and fantasy" (Park Youngtaek). These features were already evident during her stay in Singapore and the early to mid-1980s upon her return to Korea.[2] However, they truly flourished after her world travels, which began with a trip to Central and South America in 1987. Despite the challenging circumstances of being a divorced mother responsible for her livelihood and two children, she traveled to more than 30 countries in Africa, Western Asia, and the South Pacific. For her, traveling served as an escape from “the demands of daily life, juggling the roles as a mother, a woman, and a human being, with numerous practical tasks to carry out”, "dividing time down to the minute." Travel became a sanctuary where she could break free from the routine of her daily life of running an art private institute, household duties and looking after children. Furthermore, it became the source of inspiration for her art, and a means to support her livelihood by writing travel articles for newspapers and selling her works.


The places Jung sought out were "untouched by the hand of civilization." In these "primitive" worlds, she encountered "awe-inspiring nature beyond human imagination" and "simple innocent indigenous people without greed." Jung was particularly captivated by shamanistic "primitive art," especially wooden sculptures, which embodied "humanity transcending the limitations of a specific era and life." The primal elements of nature and people combined with the use of simple forms, vibrant primary colors, juxtaposition of exotic imagery and a narrative blending reality and fantasy came alive in her works.


While Jung may not have consciously embraced ‘Surrealism’, her works evoke associations with it, a movement which emerged in Europe over a century ago. Surrealists, influenced by figures like André Breton (1896-1966), vehemently criticized the values upheld by Christianity, bourgeoisie, capitalism, and Eurocentrism for restricting human life, rendering it hypocritical and terrifying, thus proposed new alternatives. Unlike other modernist art movements that aimed to break with tradition and pursue ‘novelty’, Surrealist art did not reject but rather embraced various heterogeneous elements such as dreams, subconscious, play, multiculturalism, tradition, superstition, magic, and mythology that rational rationalism had denied. They longed for elements encompassing life and death, real and imaginary, past and future, communicable and incommunicable to be resolved into a kind of absolute reality, the ‘surreal’. For them, primitive art was not merely an object of formal interest but a poetic animating force that could make it surreal. Through primitive art, Jung also sought to approach what Breton called ‘the purely internal model’ in Surrealism and Painting (1928).


"Hanbok is the flag of our women who have been oppressed and violated for thousands of years under the dominance of male chauvinism, which flies freely towards freedom. Despite facing oppression and discrimination, women have silently endured and persevered. Their resentment, tied in the strings of their skirts, take flight and transform into birds and clouds, drifting freely across the sky.”


Another source of inspiration that contributed to Surrealism was women. Male Surrealists often viewed women as muses with instinctual and creative potential for love, and celebrated women as ‘muses’ shown in various erotic forms such as androgynes, femme-enfants, and femmes fatales. Unlike male Surrealists who sought to reach the world of Surrealism through the bodies of other women, female Surrealists abandoned the approach and preferred to express their own bodies and realities on their canvases. Artists like Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), Remedios Varo (1908-1963), Leonor Fini (1907-1996), Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012), and Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) explored their own identities and differences by self-portraits. Jung, since her time in Singapore also left behind numerous self-portraits where reality and fantasy coexist. In the copper-toned skin and distinctive features of indigenous women she painted during her travels, we can discover the image of Jung who lived passionately throughout her life.


Jung traveled the world but eventually turned her attention to Korean traditions such as mandala, taenghwa (Buddhist paintings), dancheong (traditional Korean decorative coloring), shamanism, and folk art. This shift seems to have been driven by a discovery of poetic rejuvenation within tradition rather than originating from nationalism. In particular, she focused on ‘hanbok’ (traditional Korean clothing) as a central theme in her art. Since the late 1990s, her works feature elegant lines and vibrant colors of hanbok skirts, sometimes transforming into giant monuments, deep valleys, or soaring birds. From the early stages of Jung’s work hanbok symbolizes not only the freedom and liberation of women but also carries the voice of criticism against patriarchy. From the mid-2000s, her works feature dynamic forms created by the combination of semi-circles, formed by "circles, the smallest units of the universe with artificial straight lines” in “infinite spaces unbound by anything”. This reflects the world of "profound and true obscurity” emphasized in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism in 1929, where they refused to be confined by specific forms, techniques, or conventional notions of time and space. In the exhibition It Has Always Been The Beginning at Arario Gallery, held in November 2023, it is fascinating to see Jung's artistic evolution since the mid-1990s, her ‘late style’ which presents a unique world of art that involves completing one form, breaking it, and creating a new form.


[1] Kim Mikyung, "Female Artists and Society," Journal of History of Modern Art 12 (2000); Oh Jinkyung, "The Body Politics of Korean Feminist Art," Art History Forum (2005); Cho Soojin, "The Full Story of the <Fourth Group> Incident: The Challenge and Frustration of 'Korean' Happenings," Korean Bulletin of Art History 40 (2013); Jeong Yeonsim, "Performance and the Bodies of Artists in 1960s-1970s Korea," The Journal of Art Theory & Practice 22 (2016); Cho Soojin, "Korean Female Performance Artists: Jung Kangja’s ‘Dangerous Body’," 'Culture Science' 90 (2017).

[2] The episode from JUNG Kangja's college days, where she turned to drinking to cope with the agony of creation and experienced a brief moment of surreal encounter the following day, is intriguing and seems to resonate with her later surrealist paintings. She described it as follows: "I don't know how much time had passed. My consciousness was in disarray when strange shapes started appearing before my eyes. Our classroom was in the midst of a still life drawing period, and while the other classes had objects like fish, apples, and flowers to draw, our abstract art class had a collection of true junk art objects - a small skull, an old clock, a bent kettle, and so on. What was strange was that these objects weren't neatly arranged on my blank canvas as I had set them up, but they were scattered haphazardly or double-focused. I was taken aback and opened my eyes wide. However, that mysterious image was no longer visible." (‘Efforts Made During College Years Influence One’s Entire Life’, from The World Looks Beautiful When One Has Become Crazy About One’s Work, Paju Hyungsang Publisher, 1998, p.57)

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