"Dansaekhwa," an abstract movement in contemporary Korean art, is currently enjoying global fame and attention. Tributes to it are coming from all camps of the art world. It is a seminal development that an exhibition featuring seven artists, including Kim Whan-Ki, Kwon Young-Woo and Park Seo-bo, was organized as a collateral event of the 56th Venice Biennale this year.
Paintings of Dansaekhwa artists are now eagerly collected by museums and art foundations across the globe. Many cosmopolitan art lovers, who hardly knew anything about contemporary Korean art, are also admiring the aesthetic beauty. This global recognition naturally had a huge impact on the commercial value of art works, their prices increasing on average as much as 10 times in the last two years.
Dansaekhwa refers to abstract paintings executed in off-white, black, blue or earth-toned colors often with "hanji," traditional Korean paper. Artists accomplish this effect using diverse techniques, for example through methodical repetition of strokes, accumulation of layers, or pushing thick oil paint through from the back of the canvas. Embodying rigorous and traditional workmanship, this genre beautifully betrays each artist's personalized facture, eliciting an abundance of emotions.
Its popularity is a refreshing comeback of paintings in the contemporary art scene that has been dominated by installations and video arts. Compared to other genres, art lovers normally feel more intimate with paintings, of which they recently have been encountering less and less. Moreover, it has its own appeal to global art lovers because it embodies Asian-esque intricacies and a sense of austere tranquility that are not easy to find in most contemporary Western arts. The success can be understood as a welcome outlet of their longing for simple yet rich aesthetic experiences.
Strangely, the current vogue in interpreting the art has had a heavy sociopolitical weight. The current vogue departs from the artists' pure motivation in creating their works and also departs from those who love art for the creative feelings that art imparts into life. For example, Park Seo-Bo, a protagonist of the Dansaekhwa movement, had been heavily criticized by proponents of "Minjung Art" (literally meaning ‘people's art' in Korean, a type of social realism movement in Korea), for creating his abstraction as an "escape" from the authoritarian political reality in the 1970s and the 1980s.
In the Venice Biennale, the sociopolitical perspective made a U-turn: the works of Dansaekhwa artists were suddenly portrayed as an artistic form of political resistance during Korea's "darkest days." Lee Young-Woo, the curator of the Dansaekhwa exhibition in Venice, wrote in his curatorial essay, "The cultural suppression caused by military dictatorship...can be seen as a social, historical measurement…to understand the development process. Dansaekwha, including many other art tendencies, were ubiquitous, fragmented and oppositional political strategies, regardless of their sincerity and experimental contexts." Foreign curators also echoed this new sociopolitical interpretation. Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrathasserted in Frieze Magazine said, "By choosing to abandon figuration, Dansaekhwa artists made it more challenging for the Park Chung-hee regime to coerce their work into clearly discernible visuals of political propaganda."
For Dansaekhwa artists and art lovers, this kind of socio-politico-centric and contradictory interpretations of the same art is dismaying. In a series of personal interviews with the author, Park Seo-bo unambiguously said, "It had nothing to do with political resistance; it had no purpose" (Park Seo-bo: From Avant-Garde to Ecriture, 2013). For Park, it emerged in complete disconnection from any possible sociopolitical interpretation. The artist was simply struck with a pure desire to repeatedly draw rows of curvy lines on a wet coat of gesso. Another artist, Kwon Young-Woo's breakthrough evolved from an off-chance discovery of the sensorial quality ofhanji. It led him to create a sea of abstract patterns through tearing, ripping, or piercing hanji. The viewers are invited to abstract and find meaning in a deep intimacy formed through the artist's intensely repetitive and bodily engagement with the material.
It is a dangerous trend in the art world that critics always feel obliged to tightly connect artworks to the sociopolitical context and maintain a deterministic view to prioritize the sociopolitical reality over the formal and material content of the art, and the actual intention of artists. In this milieu, artists and galleries hardly resist this tyranny of critics, fear of angering them, and sometimes they aim to promote artworks by readily accepting the critics' hegemony, regardless of the full truth of the artworks.
It is definitely a new development worth celebrating that the global art world has finally acknowledged the authentic beauty and art-historical value. It would have been a lot better, however, if it were portrayed by putting them in the broader and consistent context of the global art world, without negating the pure desire of the artists' creativity.
Kate Lim is director of Art Platform Asia, an independent curator and art writer.