Interview by Christina Massolino
Features image by Jonathan Kim
After studying engineering, completing two years of military service, and running a business in international trade and economics, Jonathan Kim moved from South Korea to Australia with his wife and awoke a once-dormant creative flair. Seeking something new that fulfilled his creative desire that had, until now, been denied by societal pressure, Jonathan began creating art. In 2018, he graduated from UniSA with a Bachelor of Contemporary Art with honours in art and design. Jonathan also spent time studying and practising art at the British School in Rome, Italy. Currently undertaking a residency at ACE Open, Jonathan’s works revolve largely around Post-Minimalism, and he excitingly blends his Western involvement of art and study with his South Korean cultural upbringing and experience.
Verse’s arts contributor, Christina Massolino, sat down with Jonathan to discuss his life experiences, minimalist theories and approach to art.
What have you noticed differentiates approaches to Western art and East Asian art, particularly in relation to ‘energy’, which you’ve associated with your work previously?
My background in art education is based on Western art. I first started studying art at the University of South Australia, so my aesthetic curiosity began with Western art history. Therefore, my current practice also started with an interest in minimalism. When my teacher Louise Haselton asked me what kind of art genre I liked in my first year of my undergraduates, I answered minimalism. After that, I made many different styles of artwork; however, I started to research minimalism again from the last semester before graduation. As a result, I presented an installation art using plaster blocks and mirrors at the graduation exhibition in 2018 (See: Mirror & Plaster #, 2017). However, I found the mirror was being interfered with by the exhibition environment, such as the audience, place, etc. And I also found that it was due to the physical properties of the mirror. The new question led to the research in my honours program, and my research topic naturally changed to the post-minimal art movement (See: Density, 2018). To be honest, I did not know anything about Lee Ufan and his art until then. However, I began to pay attention to the relationships between the elements that made up artwork and discovered Lee Ufan’s theory Encounter in the course of the study.
Lee Ufan, a Korean Post-Minimalist artist, is a large inspiration to you. Can you tell us more about that?
In Lee Ufan’s theory, the relationship between objects and mediums is more important than the physical structure of the work. In my research, the relation is called Gong-gan-seong (???, spatiality), and I think it is physical, not conceptual. So, my research argued Gong-gan-seong should be perceived by the body, not by the brain and adopted phenomenology as a methodology. However, I wondered if phenomenology could accurately reflect my artistic ideas when it is in the realm of epistemology in Western philosophy. Also, I feel that my concept is closer to structuralism. Therefore, I came to use the term energy, especially in the process of applying structuralism based on East Asian philosophy, such as Taoism(??), Yin-Yang(??) and Fengshui(??). Simply put, you can think of it as my own word, a comprehensive and broad representation of the physical relationship between two or more materials.
While studying in Italy, what was the artistic link in Post-Minimalist discourse that you connected to Lee Ufan?
Lee Ufan’s theory has indeed provided a rock-solid foundation for my current research. However, Lee Ufan’s discourse began in Korea and Japan in the 1970s and focused on nature and industrialisation, as well as the confrontation and compromise between Asian and European arts. Lee’s idea profoundly influenced Japanese sculptural movement Mono-ha and Korean painting concept Dansaekhwa. However, as I live in the 21st century, I thought my art has to embrace more social interest and responsibility. As a result, I have expanded my art practice by studying other post-minimalism other than Dansaekhwa and Mono-ha for the past two years.
Italian Arte Povera was one of the post-minimal movements that covered more comprehensive topics through a broader range of materials. So, I applied for the residency program at the British School at Rome, which is supported by the Helpmann Academy, and luckily, I got the opportunity. My practice during my three-month residency was an attempt to study and incorporate Arte Povera into my work. It was a crucial task in Rome to find the structures and materials applicable to my work every day. Also, it was a significant achievement to visit various cities in Italy and study the works of past Arte Povera artists and their influence on current Italian works. I believe residency in British School was an excellent opportunity to broaden my artistic practices. And I am grateful to Helpmann Academy for giving me that opportunity. The outcomes can be seen through works exhibited at June Mostra 2019 at British School at Rome, Spazi Aperti XVII Romanian Academy in Rome, Extra Virgin West Gallery Thebarton and Encounter Linden New Art (See: Encounter, 2020).
When I visited your studio, there was a work behind your desk that featured many hanging, alternating black and white fabric pieces which were tied up and weighted by rocks at the bottom. You asked me what I thought of it, without having explained the meaning of the work. You then told me some of the meanings and asked what I thought of it again. My perception had changed. What is it about the viewer’s process and the importance of their knowledge or a lack thereof that interests you?
As I said before, in my art practice, it is essential to provide the audience with an experience of Gong-gan-seong. As a Canadian media scholar McLuhan claims, I regard that giving people diverse media experiences is the social responsibility of an artist trained in dealing with media and space. However, pre-experience or stereotype about the material or structure of artwork become an obstacle to the perception of intact spatiality. Also, it is hard to make a preconceived idea come to realise and erase it. Therefore, I have mainly applied objects close to raw materials and abstract structures to my work (See: Hatched, 2019).
On the other hand, I happened to experience that when I presented works using traditional Korean materials and structures, audiences based on Western culture approached very objectively. I realised that their perception of my work changes after they know its cultural background. So, I am interested in telling how prejudice affects art appreciation through a reverse process that adds a preconceived idea to objective perception. That is why my work borrowed traditional Korean colour theory Obangsaek (???, Five Colours, Five Direction) and black and white symbolising Yin Yang (See: The Inbetween, 2019).
A lot of your works involve natural materials, like rocks and wood. Why do you use these and what is their significance?
There is indeed a lot of natural materials involved in my work. However, rather than applying them for particular purposes, they are the most accessible material in Australia. For example, when I worked in Rome last year, I made many of small sculptures, and I used more industrial materials, such as broken marble, pot, brick, tin or H beam, for my practice. It is also the result of my work process for this phenomenon. At the beginning of my work, I go around the studio to investigate the optimal structure and collect materials. The range of travel gradually extends from the surrounding city to the countryside. In this process, I inevitably involve the materials that I encounter more often on those travels, and here in Adelaide, they are stones, timber and iron fittings. So the elements that make up my work reflect the place I work.
Meanwhile, the stone used in recent work has a slightly different meaning in that it intentionally applied Korean elements. Stone was very familiar and useful in my childhood in Korea. Girls used five small stones to play Gongginori(????), while boys chose flat stones for playing Biseokchigi(????). My house was decorated with stones because one of my father’s hobbies was collecting smooth and beautiful stones. And my mother used stones to store fermented food. In addition, stone installation, both religious or general, were easily seen in Korea in the past. Stone was a common, useful and meaningful material even in the unprocessed state in Korea, and for that reason, it is applied to my work as an element of Korea (See: Density, 2019).
There are a lot of things that we often encounter in our daily lives, but we do not particularly recognise their existence. I think that is because we are used to accepting what is made and presented. My work is intervening in the position or state of the things that exist but is ignored or distorted in order to get people to recognise them. And I believe that Gong-gan-seong is the source that makes people aware of it, and I think it is affecting people’s bodies as energy. I think that understanding the nature of things is the first step in understanding the world in which we live. And I hope that my practice could give clues for the discourse such as equality, peace, and the environment (See: The Cultural Distance, 2020).
Even though in the eyes of everyone around you, you are an artist, you mentioned to me you still doubt it’s truth. Why is that?
I was born in the late 70s in the outskirts of Suwon city in Korea, and my parents used to do small business. In my childhood, there were no theatres in my town, let alone art galleries. In the 1980s, Korea’s industrialisation progressed very quickly, and the things that I had to do were preordained. I first entered university in Korea to become an engineer but later graduated from a university in China in international trade and economics. As a result, I became a businessman. Ever since I came to Australia in 2008, I always thought about business opportunities, and most recently in 2014, I majored in international business in TAFE SA. As you may have already noticed, I have never learned art professionally since I was young, and I have never thought I could be an artist. Of course, I used to write poems when I was young. I was very excited to be able to talk about myself and the world in a short, concentrated language, but I did not believe I could be a poet.
There was a miraculous change in my life. In 2016, I entered the University of South Australia in Visual Art. At that time, I thought that photography would be my specialisation. However, I got better refutations in sculpture, painting, and drawing classes, and I majored in sculpture during my undergraduates. It was such a dramatic reversal in my life. Although I have participated in three residential programs and have many exhibitions since graduation, I still ask myself, ‘Am I really an artist?’ or ‘Am I really doing art?’. However, it is not that bad because it makes me constantly ask myself what art is. I am so happy to be an artist and hope that this motivation will be maintained in the future.
What advice do you have for other emerging artists?
In the past, doing art was a virtue of scholars in East Asia. They believed that their paintings, fonts, and their gardens reflected their spirit and character. I firmly believe that artwork should be the result of artists’ own Self-finding and Self- introspection’. If you are an emerging artist, you should continuously ask yourself what you are doing, what it is for and why. Also, if you have to do something for it and it is the right thing to do, do not hesitate because you are an artist.
This piece was originally published in Edition 36 of Verse. View it in its original PDF form via ISSUU.