Jangseung

2015-02-11 : 09:23
Lee Ga-rak, a “jangseung,” or Korean traditional totem pole sculptor, demonstrates the process of making a sculpture along with diverse wooden guardians at his workshop in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province.
/ Korea Times photos by Choi Won-suk


Sculptor keeps traditional Korean woodworking alive


By Chung Ah-young

CHUNCHEON, Gangwon Province — Korea’s modern residential environment, epitomized by rows of apartments that look like concrete egg cartons, leaves little, if any, room for “jangseung” or the playful, wooden guardians that used to be installed at the entrance of every village.

Lee Ga-rak, whose real first name is Bum-hyung, has seen these traditional wooden sculptures destroyed in recent times in the name of modernization and urbanization.

“I saw jangseung pulled down at a village entrance to make way for a road in a rural area in 1984 in a TV news report. It was a kind of shock to see the removal of traditional folk heritage in the name of modernization,” Lee said in an interview with The Korea Times.

 

Jangseung, which dates back to the Three Kingdoms (1st century B.C.-A.D. 7th century), served as tutelary deities for villagers, who prayed for protection from evil spirits and disease. Usually standing at the entrance to villages and temples or by a village wall, their functions varied, from signposts to shamanistic representations, according to region.

The sculptures often stand as a pair — one male and one female. The male sculpture is inscribed with “Cheonhadaejanggun” or “Great General of All under Heaven,” and the female one is inscribed with “Jihayeojanggun” or “Great General of the Underworld.”

But in the 1970s to 80’s, when the nation was rapidly industrializing, such totem poles became a thing of the past and were only associated with shamanistic rituals, despite being the essence of Korean folk culture.


Lee even saw his wooden sculptures, which he made together with his students, taken down overnight by some residents in his village.

“Jangseung is very underappreciated by many Koreans. I should get rid of such a low perception of our folk culture,” he said.

He first encountered jangseung in eighth grade when a black-and-white photo of a wooden sculpture that was made in 1918 immediately caught his eye.

“The ugly face with enlarged, swollen eyes, a bulbous nose and buck teeth just captured my heart,” he said.


 

He began carving jangseung in 1979, but no one taught him how to be a master artisan. So, in 1984, he began furthering his skills by collecting historical resources related to the wooden statues.

“First, I tried to create jangseung based on the traditional wooden statues depicted in historical records. Later, I began developing my own styles, which consider modern tastes,” he said.

In 1997, Lee brought his jangseung to Insa-dong in Seoul, home to traditional craft shops and cultural experiences.

“I wanted to promote Korean folk culture to more people but few people paid attention to my work. I was really disappointed,” he said.

In 2001, Lee became the only state-designated master artisan named as Korea Traditional Skills Transmitter by the Ministry of Labor and the Human Resources Development Service of Korea for the traditional wooden sculptures. His workshop is in Chuncheon, a lake city northeast of Seoul.

 

Promoting craft overseas 

Lee’s passion for jangseung, however, was recognized by foreigners who visited Insa-dong that year, which encouraged him to promote Korean folk culture overseas. Among those foreigners was French painter Alain Bonnefoit.

With only 37,000 won in his pocket and carrying six pieces of luggage containing 650 kilograms of jangseung, he left for Paris to hold an exhibition at the Korea Culture Center there.

“Despite financial difficulties, I thought I had to let the world know about jangseung. When I arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I burst into tears, wondering why I was doing what I was about to do,” he said.

 

The exhibition, however, turned out better than he expected, selling out his art works and postcards with jangseung images.

“Although I slept on the streets with gypsies for several days, I was really happy because my artwork was highly appreciated,” he said.

After the successful exhibition in Paris, he held exhibitions in Belgium, Italy and Germany. He has also donated his artwork to European cities — four to Dijon, six to Valence and four to Orleans in France; four to Florence; and two to Luxembourg.
 

Artworks of the villagers 

The modest Lee says making jangseung requires no special skill. “In the past, all the villagers were artists. Jangseung sculptors were not professionals at all. Their expression of art is beyond our imagination. Their aesthetic portrayals of the sculptures are something to be appreciated in modern times,” he said.

Lee said jangseung making is the core of Korean folk culture. Common villagers with no sculpture knowledge or artistic training marvelously carved jangseung for the village’s prosperity.

Among others, he pointed out that the jangseung making played a pivotal role in uniting villagers. In ancient times, villagers held a jangseung festival on the first full moon of the Lunar New Year. For the festival, villagers cut down trees and carved the wood into jangseung, which they then installed at the entrance of the village.

“The process of making jangseung engages villagers wishing for disease protection and a good harvest. It was all for the public good. This value can hardly be found in modern times,” he said.

Lee said jangseung should have three major features — bulging, dish-size eyes; a big potato-like nose; and a wide mouth, smiling ear to ear.

“Jangseung boldly eliminates arms and legs and sometimes ears. These irregular patterns and exaggerated facial expressions along with the subtle symbolism are the essence of jangseung’s beauty,” he said.

“Jangseung look ugly but at the same time funny. They reflect Korean faces. Their shapes and roles differ from region to region,” he said.

Jangseung are usually made from pine or chestnut trees. In the southern regions, such as the Jeolla and Gyeongsang provinces and Jeju Island, they are made of stone, such as “dolharubang” on Jeju.

 

Developing his own style 

Lee makes good use of the tree’s natural grain and shape. He turns the gnarl of the trunk into a comical mouth, the warped bark into a humorous gesture and the branch stub into a nose.

“My jangseung are very simple. I can express humor and fear on jangseung in a simple way,” he said.

Arranged on one side of his workshop are many kinds of chisels, axes, sickles, wood hammers and drills, all of which were made by Lee himself.

“If I don’t know how to handle my tools, I cannot make the masterpieces. So, I learned to make my own tools. These tools will grow old with me,” he said.

His apprentice, 39-year-old Kim Hyo-young, has been learning jangseung sculpting from him for the last five years.

“Today, young people don’t want to learn these crafts. But my apprentice is patient, passionate and deft. I am really thankful for him,” he said.

Lee currently creates jangseung necklaces, ballpoint pens and cell phone pendants to make the craft more popular.


Who is Lee Ga-rak?


Born in 1956 in Hapcheon, South Gyeongsang Province, Lee first encountered jangseung in eighth grade when a black-and-white photo of a wooden sculpture that was made in 1918 immediately caught his eye.

Lee began carving jangseung in 1979 and collecting historical resources related to the wooden statues in 1984. He moved to Chuncheon in 1989 to obtain more wood in the mountainous areas.

In 2001, Lee became the only state-designated master artisan named as Korea Traditional Skills Transmitter by the Ministry of Labor and the Human Resources Development Service of Korea for jangseung. His workshop and the Jangseung Culture Center are in Chuncheon, a lake city northeast of Seoul.

He has exhibited his work in some 24 countries, including France, Italy, Belgium and Germany.
 

What is jangseung?


Jangseung are wooden sculptures which served as deities for villagers, who prayed for protection from evil spirits and disease.

Jangseung usually stand at the entrance of villages and temples or by village walls and have functions that vary, from signposts or mileposts to spiritual totems according to region. Usually, the sculptures stand as a pair of one male and one female. The male sculpture is inscribed with “Cheonhadaejanggun” or “Great General of All under Heaven, and the female one is inscribed with “Jihayeojanggun” or “Great General of the Underworld.”

Jangseung making is the core of Korean folk culture because in ancient times, jangseung were made by common villagers, not artisans. Common villagers with no sculpture knowledge or artistic training carved jangseung for their village’s prosperity and stability.

Villagers held a jangseung festival on the first full moon of the Lunar New Year to pay respect to jangseung, the guardians of the village. For the festival, villagers cut down trees and carved the wood into jangseung, which they then installed at the entrance of the village.