Aggregation 05-AU033, 2005. Mixed media and Korean mulberry paper, 5 x 3 x 2.5 meters. Courtesy Kim Foster Gallery, NY.

The Alien Sculpture of Kwang-Young Chun

Historically the mulberry plant has played an essential role in Korean life and culture. Throughout the Jeossun Dynasty (1392–1910) and during the years of the Occupation, mulberry was used to make paper pulp that would eventually be transformed into a strong, translucent paper, suitable for printing, wrapping, or both. It had a variety of uses. Koreans who grew up in the 1950s may recall the numerous roles that mulberry played in domestic life. Lacking modern refrigeration, most families would wrap edibles, such as smoked fish, fermented soybeans, eggs, dried roots, and mushrooms in mulberry paper where they would stay fresh for days. The paper, which prevented moisture and dampness from spoiling the food, would be hung in the rafters away from insects. It was also used to cover stainless steel utensils and other objects. Some families covered their walls, doors, and even their floors with mulberry paper as insulation. It cost very little and had unlimited applications for household living. Kwang-Young Chun fondly recalls his frequent visits to a traditional Korean hospital, operated by a family relative, where medicinal herbs wrapped in mulberry paper hung in tight clusters from the ceiling. The sight of these sacks—their visual and spatial density and the mixing of aromas from the various herbs—left a strong impression on Chun, like being in the forest. Another important use for mulberry paper was in the printing of books, journals, newspapers, and stationary, not to mention its frequent domestic use in writing shopping lists, “friendship” notes, and, on occasion, love letters. According to art critic Kwang-Su Oh, Chinese and Japanese purveyors sought Korean paper culture; in both countries, it was assigned a high value.

In recent decades, Korea’s paper culture has all but vanished. The minds of Korean adolescents and emerging adults, like their American and European counterparts, are now awash in electronic media. Few members of the younger generation know or remember anything about the historical relevance of the mulberry in everyday life. The culture of paper—to which the mulberry tree was inextricably bound—has largely vanished due to less expensive methods of production, more cost-effective printing, and recent advances in telecommunications technology. This has led to a rapid decrease in demand. Whatever demand is left is inevitably resolved through synthetic production. One has to search carefully to find paper made from real mulberry trees.