Research Log | Twist and Turns in Gunsan

On 24 September 2011, after a two and half hour journey by railway, I arrived for the first time at Gunsan station. The city of Gunsan was quite unfamiliar to me, as no specific artistic research has been done concerning this area. I undertook this research trip not only to visit the studio of the artist Lee Kun-yong – who has lived and worked there for more than 30 years – but also to visit the exhibition ‘Gunsan Project: (In)visible Move and Human Agency.’ The exhibition, one of the first large art projects in the city of Gunsan, was held in conjunction with the Gunsan Art Residency, which was organised by Kim Hee-jin, the director of Art Space Pool. Through this exhibition, I was able to gain some insight into how the city of Gunsan is seen by artists from other regions.


Last year, I happened to attend the exhibition, ‘Korean Conceptual Art in the 1970s-80s’ at the Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art. This was one of the first exhibitions in Korea to present Korean art of the 1970s-80s. At the exhibition, I was also able to view some archive materials belonging to artists Lee Kun-yong and Sung Neung-kyung. The period from the late 1960s to 1970s, which was the beginning point of the artists’ active careers, was an important time, one that laid the foundation for Korean contemporary art. In those days, western avant-garde art was popular, while the 4.19 and 5.16 revolutions signified an era of crisis and rampant skepticism. Against this skepticism, Lee Kun-yong organised the small art group called the ST (Space + Time) group (1969~1980). ST group undertook vigorous intellectual investigations, including researching new trends and theories of western art and facilitating open discussions. The keywords of ST were ‘body’ and ‘space,’ which also became key concepts in Lee’s art. Not only due to his role as the leader of the group but also due to his interest in archiving materials, Lee archived a wide array of the ST group’s activities. I was fortunate enough to arrange a visit to his studio to see these materials.

Lee moved to Gunsan in 1978 when he became a professor at Gunsan University. His studio is located in a rural area. On the way to his studio, well-ripened rice plants sway in the wind. Inside, I could not help but think that well-ripened history was waiting to emerge. Various types of art materials were piled up in the studio. His clippings, however, were quite impressive. He meticulously documented all of his exhibitions and performances, and kept detailed minutes of the ST group activities. He also had hand-written books about western art theory for group members to study, and written correspondence with various group members. I felt that it was urgent to archive his materials, as they will be important documents in contemporary Korean art history. The materials looked as if they could be easily damaged because the studio’s conditions are not optimal. Lee and I had a casual conversation while I scrutinised his materials. At one point, we tried to open up a bottom drawer which had been locked for a long time. After half an hour of effort and the use of several tools, we were finally able to open the drawer. I found several envelopes containing newspaper clippings that were mostly written by him. He had contributed articles to local newspapers to encourage people to develop art infrastructure in Gunsan.

It was time to head to the opening of ‘Gunsan Project.’ Lee accompanied me to the exhibition. In fact, the director of the Gunsan art residency was one of his students. The Gunsan art residency project ‘Twist Turns Ups Downs: (In)visible Move and Human Agency’ is significant because it appears to be first thoroughly researched exhibition in the region, and it is educational in setting the stage for understating culture in the local area.

It might be helpful for me to explain a bit about the background of this region and the art infrastructure here. The area where the exhibition is looks old and humble. The smell of the ocean, shabby buildings, and deserted streets – these are my impressions of Gunsan. The region’s geological characteristics include coast and plain; it could be classified as a third world post-colonial city. Because Gunsan is an important place for the national military, business, agriculture, and fishing industries, it was subjected to both the colonial economy and the Korean postwar economic policy. In this framework, Gunsan represents a modern colonial trauma as this region was a source of supplies for imperialist businesses and was reliant on the imperial powers. Accusations of this survival ideology caused the city to be ignored in cultural studies examining the globalisation of Korea’s national identity in contrast to cities such as Gwangju, the symbol of democracy; the trade ports of Busan, Incheon, and Ansan; and so on. In this sense, it could be said that the city has been abandoned by the cultural sector.

First opening in 2010, the Gunsan Art Residency utilises buildings formerly belonging to fishery cooperatives. Contrary to other residency programmes that operate by constructing a building and inviting artists to reside there, this programme has an operational difference because it is a project initiative based on a foothold. In other words, the programme is conducted by setting up a foothold studio, choosing an agenda every year, and then inviting a curator and artists, who conduct research and field studies for 5 to 8 months and then present their results in the form of artworks. The programme takes into consideration Gunsan’s history of transferable business, given the port for importing and exporting resources, and as an inn for merchants. There is an abundance of unused surplus hardware that was created, and then discarded, in the course of modernisation. This year, Shin Suk-ho, the director of the Gunsan Art Residency, invited Kim Hee-jin to organise and direct the 2011 project. Kim stated the aim of the Gunsan project as follows: ‘First, we intended to focus on an art culture project that can present aesthetic values for the entire region, rather than a city discourse project solely aiming to study the city. Second, instead of a pragmatic city-beautification or public participation project, we present the exhibition as a way to establish an educational stage for comprehending the local art culture. Third, we drew the subject of the city of Gunsan into an open discussion that may be shared between regions or beyond regions on a global scale. Lastly, we paid attention to movement and human factors as latent elements that can open the individuality of the region from various angles.’

The theme of 2011 project is ‘Twist Turns Ups Downs: (In)visible Move and Human Agency.’ This exhibition is a showcase that has been in development since March 2011. For a period of eight months, twelve teams of individuals and the curator researched tangible and intangible human factors, including people’s lifestyles, narration, sentiments, values, and relationships. The invited artists conducted several discussions and workshops, which allowed them to communicate with local residents. (There is a series of photos on the website On the opening day of the exhibition, many local residents attended, including some elderly people who enjoyed red bean rice cakes and rice drinks, which are traditionally prepared for special occasions. In a city that often has a tedious feel, this exhibition means a lot to the residents, and it seems like a festival that welcomes them and gives them the chance to gather and share a meal together. My overall impression of the project is that is has successfully facilitated the exchange of greetings between artists and the city of Gunsan.

The artists sincerely researched the city and created delightful artworks. Each group or individual artist was given a separate exhibition space, providing viewers with time and mental space in which to view the works. One project that left a strong impression in my mind long after viewing it was Kyunghohoe’s (a three artist group: Kim Kyung-ho, Kim Sang-don, and Nam Sang-soo)’ The Windows and Dreams: Jin Bong-suk Solo Show Project. The project depicted an unrealistic reality through subversive fantasies. The group members were introduced to an old painter living in Gunsan when they started to research the project. They decided to hold his solo show as a project, and focused on his series of works, The Windows of Greece, which depicts the frames of windows and painted landscapes with fantastic colors. From this starting point, they created video, installation, and photographs. The older artist had painted portraits of U.S. army soldiers for a long time. After the army left, there was nothing to do, so he moved to Greece to study painting professionally. He made money selling artworks, but the loneliness he experienced as a foreigner was always with him. He returned home after more than thirty years in Greece. However, his situation in Gunsan was no better than that in Greece – he was a stranger there as well. Kim Kyung-ho tracked Jin’s 30 years of wandering life on film. Kim Sang-don set up a bizarre situation where a mirror reflects images back to viewers who are trying to see outside a window. Lastly, in Nam Sang-soo’s Adaptation time - The Pigeons, he shot pigeons sitting on the translucent window while lying in bed. Through the footsteps and shadows of the pigeons that dominate the frame, the work reflects on Nam’s lonely life in Greece.  Finally, I came upon a series of exotic and folksy paintings—Jin Bong-suk’s The Windows of Greece. Kyunghohoe presented a fictional narrative where Jin used fantasy as a method of facing a nightmarish reality.

The artist duo mixrice showed ‘how to roam’ through their work, 遁甲術: The occult of art transforming oneself. In a room facing the ocean, there were white rocks on pedestals and hanging photographs depicting white rocks suspended in air. While intently examining the sculptures, a slight smile grew at the corners of my mouth. The rocks were no more than masses of polystyrene. Having found these white masses in a heap of industrial waste floating around the coast, mixrice mended them and then played with them by making them roll and wander around the city, photographing them as UFOs, and even casting them into the ocean. Their subversive imagination gave me a new understanding of the adversarial relationship between indigenous and alien, lethargic and vigorous, and floating and roaming.

There were many other interesting works in the exhibition. Above all, however, the essays each artist wrote about their projects expressed deep and meaningful thoughts regarding the city of Gunsan and its relationship to their projects during the eight-month duration of the residency.

Although I spent only one day at the Gunsan Art Residency, various programmes complementing the exhibition, such as artist talks, lectures, plays, and single channel video screenings gave me the chance to appreciate the fascinating project. I hope that this project can play a meaningful role in revitalising the culture and space of Gunsan, and impart a sense of direction to the future there.



Sunghee LEE

Thu, 1 Dec 2011

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