In Conversation with Elliat Albrecht
Kim Yong-Ik is the understated rebel of the Korean art world. Over his 40-year career as an artist, writer, and curator, Kim has resisted categorical affiliation with dominant art movements in Korea, from the monochromatic and minimalist paintings associated with Dansaekhwa, to the sociopolitically concerned Minjung or 'people's art' in the 1980s. Declining an offer to align with the latter group in 1985, Kim committed himself to challenging the principles of modernism and the avantgarde by embracing an 'anti-art' aesthetic and concealing his political gestures in subtlety.
Born in 1947 in Seoul, he conceived the formative 'Plane Object' series (1974–1981) while still an undergraduate at Hongik University, where he graduated with a BFA and MFA in painting in 1980. The series comprises wrinkled, washy, and airbrushed unstretched canvases, hung directly on the wall and lightly painted to give the illusion of depth and folds. These illusory works quickly attracted attention in the mainstream art world; but Kim, uncomfortable with the trappings that came along with recognition, stopped working on the project in 1981. By the early 1990s, he had begun painting polka dots—repeated and perfectly aligned in columns and rows—on mostly plain backgrounds. In defiance of precision, Kim deliberately blemished the canvases by smearing them with dirt, vegetable juices, and other substances, even circling and annotating the imperfections with pencil to draw the viewer's attention to the 'mistakes'. This intentional ruination has been a consistent theme throughout his practice; Kim is none too precious about his work. He is known for intentionally contaminating or soiling his canvases and sometimes leaving them outside to amass mould, all to the ends of what he calls 'eco-anarchism', or the embracing of decay and cheap materials to minimise waste.
Over the years, Kim often addressed, repeated, and modified his own earlier projects, asserting that art history has reached a point in which nothing new can be produced. In such a state, he says, artists are mere editors of theirs and others' work. On multiple occasions, Kim has left his works enclosed in their packaging with only their labels left to indicate their titles, materials, and dimensions. The first example of this was in 1981 when the artist was invited to participate in the 1st Young Artists Exhibition held at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul; whereby Kim left his works enclosed in opposition towards the increasingly repressive military dictatorship in South Korea at the time. This act is closely linked to his entombing of old works in more recent years, in which the artist encloses earlier works in 'coffins' and re-exhibits them.
*Portrait Courtesy Kukje Gallery. Photo: Keith Park.