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STIRring Dreams: Chun Kwang Young's mulberry paper reliefs at Venice Biennale

Chun Kwang Young exhibits 'hanji'-based artworks in the Palazzo Contarini Polignac Venice Art Biennale 2022, which includes an outdoor pavilion designed by Stefano Boeri.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : May 07, 2022

La Biennale di Venezia 2022 is presenting a series of collateral events at the 59th edition of the international art exhibition, one of which is the work of Korean artist Chun Kwang Young. Chun's art is presented alongside the Hanji House, a site-specific, commissioned pavilion designed by Italian architect and urban planner Stefano Boeri. Hanji House is located at the Palazzo Contarini Polignac in Venice, visible from the Grand Canal. The exhibition, titled Chun Kwang Young: Times Reimagined, features 40 large scale installations, sculptures and mulberry-paper reliefs. The exhibition is curated by Yongwoo Lee, with Manuela Lucà-Dazio as curatorial advisor. We caught up with the artist to learn more about his practice, and the oeuvre presented at Hanji House.

View of Kwang's mulberry paper installations | Times Reimagined | Chun Kwang Young | Venice Art Biennale 2022 | STIRworld
View of Kwang's mulberry paper installations Image: Alice Clancy, Copyright CKY Studio

Chun studied fine art in Korea before moving to Philadelphia in the US to pursue a Master's degree in the same. As an immigrant in post-World War II America, his exposure to modern art culture was rapid and transformative. Pop art, Fluxus movement, conceptual art and minimalism surrounded him like a creative storm. Chun found himself immediately attracted to abstract expressionism. The artist enjoyed the aesthetic freedom provided by the movement. He was inspired by the lack of censorship it offered, in comparison to more traditional techniques. Although he was enamoured by the space held by abstract expressionism, his creative journey pushed him to investigate deeply, deconstruct and discover his own visual identity. This enquiry eventually led him on a journey exploring his own cultural heritage, a process which was aided by his return to Korea.

Hanji House designed by Stefano Boeri | Times Reimagined | Chun Kwang Young | Venice Art Biennale 2022 | STIRworld
Hanji House designed by Stefano Boeri Image: Alice Clancy, Copyright CKY Studio

Chun tells us about his early years saying, “Korea is a small country, but even in that small country, I was born in a small village in Hongcheon, Gangwon-do. I was a boy who dreamed of becoming a painter since elementary school in this small village in the countryside. When I was a child, the nature of Hongcheon was very beautiful, and this place was the place where my precious memories of painting began and a place of learning. In the absence of a professional art education system, my paintings always attracted the attention of school teachers, and their attention motivated me to draw more actively.”

As Chun grew older, his affinity for art became more apparent. He shares with us saying, “From middle school, I was able to study abroad alone in Seoul, and I could go into an art class in earnest and focus on my favourite drawing. And when I was in my third year of high school, I competed in the national competition with Yunhyeong Lee, who was an art class teacher at the time. My teacher’s painting was rejected, and my painting was selected as an opportunity to solidify my dream as an artist.” This led the artist on an unstoppable journey of artistic development.

Palazzo Contarini Polignac view for Chun Kwang Young: Times Reimagined | Times Reimagined | Chun Kwang Young | Venice Art Biennale 2022| STIRworld
Palazzo Contarini Polignac view for Chun Kwang Young: Times Reimagined Image: Alice Clancy, Copyright CKY Studio

Many years later, after returning to his motherland, Chun encountered Korean mulberry paper - what is known as ‘Hanji’ in the local language. Although the material played a recurring role in his childhood, it was only much into his adulthood that he was struck with a fascination for the medium. The artist discussed with us, “The environment I am used to is closely connected with Hanji (Korean mulberry paper). Even in the small room I used as a child, the ceiling was covered with Hanji, and the walls and floor were all covered with Hanji. It is correct to say that I lived surrounded by Hanji, but now that I think about it, it was very pleasant and very warm. There were dark spots on Hanji made of mulberry paper, and I used to fall asleep counting the patterns on the ceiling countless times. The strong memories of my childhood and boyhood are absolutely Hanji images that are building a protective barrier.”

A large scale work by Young, made of Hanji, on view | Times Reimagined | Chun Kwang Young | Venice Art Biennale 2022| STIRworld
A large scale work by Young, made of Hanji, on view Image: Alice Clancy, Copyright CKY Studio

‘Hanji’ is made using an ancient paper-making technique which uses the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree, a deciduous variety native to South East Asia. The tree has multiple uses, with edible fruit and leaves and wood which can be used for crafting furniture and utensils. The plant also has medicinal properties. The development of mulberry paper came after the development of paper in China. Two important historic Korean documents have been printed on Hanji. One of which is Mujujeonggwang Daedaranigyeong (Great Dharani Sutra of Immaculate and Pure Light, circa 704 AD), which is acknowledged as the first printed document in the world. The second is Daebanggwang Bulhwaeomgyeong, which was produced in 755 AD. (the 14th year of King Gyeongdeok), another valuable historical resource. ‘Hanji’ is a durable, soft-to-touch, flexible, permeable, and strong material with a rich socio-cultural heritage. The historical significance of the medium adds a political layer to Chun's work.

The artist has been working with themes of interconnectedness and the socio-ecological values of relationships for 30 years. His work, although abstract, embodies these ideas through form and medium. The contemporary artist says, “To me, the triangle pieces wrapped in mulberry paper are the basic units of information, the basic cells of life that only exist in art, as well as independently expressive social events or historical facts. By attaching these pieces one by one to a two-dimensional surface, I wanted to express how the basic units of information can create harmony and conflict with each other. This became an important milestone in my long artistic journey that desired to express the troubles of the modern man who is driven to a devastated life by materialism, endless competition, conflicts and destruction.” Chun's larger works are characterised by the use of small pieces of paper, which make larger-than-life pieces seem intricate and detailed while maintaining a sense of visual space and aesthetic harmony. His work with ‘Hanji’ is almost architectural, using colour and form to create a miniature world on his canvas, which almost makes you want to walk around on it - if only you could shrink yourself to about a centimetre tall.

02 min watch A video trailer of Young's showcase Times Reimagined | Times Reimagined | Chun Kwang Young | Venice Art Biennale 2022| STIRworld
A video trailer of Chun Kwang Young's showcase Times Reimagined Video: Chun Kwang Young

Chun tells us an anecdote, sharing how ‘Hanji’ supports his creative articulation. He shares, “I had a group exhibition with Nam June Paik in New York a long time ago. I asked him why he became a video artist and his answer was simple – ‘To me, video is not a machine, it is a brush.’ Nam June Paik’s video tower work uses 1003 tv sets to complete The More, The Better, a huge video tower installation with a diameter of 7.5m and a height of 18.5m. Just as Nam June Paik's tv set is just a brush for him, to me, a single piece of ‘Hanji’ triangular unit cannot be a technical obstacle to my creation of a huge sculpture, and it gives me the freedom to express mine to create my work.” Chun's practice is inspired by Paik, Pollock, Richter, Rothko, Beuys and others.

Chun's work has been showcased at the Brooklyn Museum (New York), Sundaram Tagore Gallery (Singapore), Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in the US and Moscow Museum of Modern Art in Russia.

Inside the Hanji House, a real-time interactive installation is being developed by media artist Calvin J Lee, who transformed triangular ‘Hanji’ packages created by artist Chun into virtual form. The Hanji House will be open to the public till November 27, 2022.

The 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, titled The Milk of Dreams is open to the public from April 23-November 27, 2022, at the Giardini and the Arsenale, Venice.

Click here to read more about STIRring Dreams, a series of articles by STIR that explore some of the best presentations at this year's edition of the art biennale.

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