Untitled, 2009. Railroad ties, 15 pieces, 300 x 75 x 25 cm. each. View of installation at Leyoung Contemporary Art Museum, Korea. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Things in the Margins: A Conversation with Chung Hyun

Chung Hyun, a professor at Hongik University in Seoul, is known for his flat, anonymous, mostly wooden, and slightly larger-than-life figures arranged in long processions, indoors and out. His work, which plays with existential questions, conveys a personalized vision that partakes of Modernism and installation art while remaining figurative in nature. Chung has committed himself to an original exploration of people and society—even if his terms are poetic and non-specific rather than overtly political. As a result, his artistic insights and finished works stay close to the lyrical, though he expresses, somewhat darkly, the human condition: our alienation not only in regard to others but also in regard to ourselves. 

The Standing Man, 2016. Railroad ties, 48 pieces, 250-340 cm. high each. View of installation at Jardin du Palais Royal, Paris. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Jonathan Goodman: Could you talk about your early life? When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Chung Hyun:
I was born in Incheon, a port city near Seoul. I was the seventh of nine children. All of us were more or less engaged with the arts. One of my sisters majored in piano, and an older sister loved reading. A younger brother majored in law but wanted to become a novelist. I was greatly influenced by an older brother, who studied philosophy. He later became involved in democratic activism and was incarcerated twice. My siblings, though cultivated, were very different in character, preferences, and occupations. In retrospect, this experience of diversity may be reflected in my works.

I became interested in art when I was in middle school and entered an art club as an extracurricular activity. I discovered a different world; I was fascinated by painting and drawing, which I still love. Art not only opened new worlds for me, but it also gave flight to my imagination. Since there were so many talented students, I did not consider myself special; but I read Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull during my second year of high school and realized that the journey in art was similar. Jonathan Livingston Seagull never stopped trying to fly higher. That awakening still lingers in me. I received the grand prize in an art competition when I was in the third year of high school, which raised my confidence.

JG: You went to Hongik University as an undergraduate and graduate student, then to the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts de Paris. How did your education in Korea and France prepare you to be a sculptor? Did living in the West influence your thinking as an artist?
CH: When I was at Hongik, I joined a club where I was taught to perform traditional Korean mask dances. My colleagues were from various departments, including history, philosophy, literature, and anthropology. We met every evening for drinks and shared all kinds of ideas. I was so fascinated with the conversations that I became more excited about extracurricular activities than about classes. Our discussions stimulated my intellectual curiosity, and for the first time, I gave serious thought to my future goals. The free thinking encouraged in my study groups enabled me to take a positive step forward. I realized that art could be pure but also influenced by historical and social contexts.

I became curious about art in Europe, especially sculptural works dealing with the human figure. In France, the professors did not teach me about contemporary French art. They asked me to find myself and to explore my ideas about Korea. Their emphasis was always on my attitude as an artist and on the basics of poetic imagination and philosophical thinking. I visited many museums and galleries in Europe—those were some of the most pivotal days of my artistic and personal development.

Untitled (detail), 2018. Oriental ink tinted on wood, 230 x 1100 x 75 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artist

JG: Your sculptures reflect a figurative bent, but often there is abstraction in them; some of your works appear entirely abstract. What is the relationship between figuration and abstraction in your work?
CH: In Korea, I made figurative works based on social realism until I finished graduate school. In Europe, I overcame this naturalistic tendency, using an abstract and expressionist language filtered through inner need. Reviewing my works from those days chronologically, the transformation from figuration to abstraction becomes apparent. I realized that sculpture could change depending not only on material, but also on artistic language. As I allowed my chosen materials to speak on their own, I came closer to abstraction.

JG: Among your purely abstract works, the pieces composed of piled timber are particularly memorable. What are you trying to achieve with them?
CH: About a decade ago, the village where I had my studio for 10 years underwent massive reconstruction for the purposes of modernization and gentrification, and the residents were relocated elsewhere. Some of the houses were traditional tiled-roof structures (hanok), which were more than 100 years old. I witnessed the old village being destroyed, houses torn down, and columns broken. I found the roughly fractured wooden columns acutely painful and thought they reflected the ache of human existence. I made works out of that experience by collecting broken wood pieces from the sites. They were shown in a solo exhibition at the Kumho Museum of Art in Seoul in 2018. One consisted of a pile of broken columns, coated with ink, rising more than eight feet. Those piled pieces of wood were meant to build replacement housing for my neighbors, with whom I had shared common interests, laughter, and sorrows. 

The Standing Man, 2019. Railroad ties, 44 pieces, 250-340 cm. high each. View of installation at Seosomun Shrine History Museum, Seoul. Photo: Courtesy the artist

JG: You have a basic figure—two-dimensional and slightly larger than life—that you repeat with small variations in rows that feel like a procession, whose spacing and length are site-specific. They feel anonymous, maybe a bit desolate. What kind of message are you trying to convey?
Incheon, my hometown, is an industrial port city, where the American northward offensive against occupying North Korean troops took place in 1950. I went to elementary school near the railway, where I saw trains carrying American tanks and armored cars. As the trains rolled by, I felt the ground shaking. I still remember my surprise at seeing them for the first time. I wondered what they weighed since their loads made the ground sink. Just the appearance of weapons made me tremble.

After I returned from Paris, I happened to see railroad crossties that had been used to secure the wooden beams. Their surfaces were scarred from the speed and weight of heavy trains. I understood this to be a reflection of the aesthetics of endurance and perseverance. The ties contained the consequences of severe and long hardship, and sublime beauty—they were truly artworks in themselves. I wanted to speak about the human ordeal through them, but it took me 10 years.

The railroad ties taught me a lesson, namely, that even the smallest thing can be important. Things might look trivial, but by examining them more closely, you can find some value in them. When I use crossties in my work, I make and adjust the installation following the particular feeling of the site. I allow them to convey their narratives and create meaning in relation to site-specificity.

JG: Early in your career, in the 1990s, you were making very beautiful, abstract bronze heads. Were you working from models or from your imagination? How did the non-objective approach affect the construction and style of the heads?
CH: Those pieces came from my imagination, which is the reason for their high level of abstraction. When I first started working, I liked the naturalistic approach, but I abandoned it because the finished works looked as if they lacked psychological or narrative content. I later started abstracting by removing small details from heads, which helped me arrive at a non-objective language. I had freed myself from the object and gained strength to express the emotions inside me. I pursued immediacy in my expression by cutting clay with an ax and stressing the material with metal rods and long wooden blocks. During this time, I discovered the traces of my actions and emotions and found ways to communicate the depths of my artistic experience.

I wanted to approach a closer proximity to human desperation. I sought freshness in the trivial, vitality within the raw, unpredictable and unexpected moments, liberation from grief, and depth from repeated wandering. Perhaps my yearning comes from the moment long ago when I found a passion for the integrity of existence in Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Installation view with (left) Untitled, 2013, steel, 113 x 187 x 165 cm.; and (right) Untitled, 2013, steel, 120 x 170 x 158 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artist

JG: Your processions of figures can be read as expressing alienation, control, and even repression. Can they support a specific political reading, or do you stay away such meanings?
CH: I agree with the ideas of alienation and repression. The works are unquestionably inspired by the political and the social, but I wanted to go beyond specifics to reach the psychological essence and the transcendental. I search for and find abandoned and discarded materials in order to repurpose them and give them new life. If you examine the surfaces closely, you will find powerful poetic elements in the chipped stones, scarred furniture, and used railway ties.

My works are not the result of violent gestures. They aim to enhance inner peace and to help the viewer to observe them in contemplation. They do not make assertions; instead, they ask the viewer to reflect on large questions: Where are you from? Who are you? What are you after? What is life’s meaning?

JG: Some of your wooden sculptures are very gestural, indicative of standing figures. Others resemble natural forms, such as trees. Sometimes they look like both. How do you create a balance between natural forms and the figure?
CH: While I was working on extracting the essence from human figures, I had to move my studio to a village near a hill. I often took walks in the hillside forest and saw naturally fallen trees—more than I expected. I realized then that trees could live more fiercely than humans. After that, I began to make drawings and sculptures based on those weathered, fallen trees. I looked closely to find traces of existence—not realistic description—which led me to semi-abstraction.

Untitled, 2010. Steel, 960 x 45 x 45 cm. each. Photo: Courtesy the artist

JG: How do you approach your drawing practice? Do you draw quickly, or do you take your time? What is the relation of your drawing to your sculpture?
CH: I spend a lot of time thinking, and I wait until I reach a certain level of emotion while in front of the paper. When inner need is high enough, I begin to draw fast and instantaneously. In the moment, I do not try to draw or make something but to throw the emotions onto the paper. The emotions are not from my mind or heart but from my gut. This is like ridding my body of a feeling that I can no longer bear, or like cleansing memories and experiences after a long process of discovery. I think that élan vital or life force is captured and conveyed successfully onto the paper this way.

Some of my drawings then develop into sculptures depending on the materials I find. I use coal tar for drawings. Coal tar is the final residue from the process of extracting gasoline or diesel from crude oil, made by removing water and other elements. It is not often used in painting or drawing, but I adore it because it is often ignored by other artists.

JG: Do you see yourself as an international artist? How has the West influenced your outlook as a sculptor?
CH: I think the origin of my work is the land of Korea—my childhood, my experience of society during college, social rituals. In Paris, my teachers encouraged me to find myself and to think about Korea. They never forced me to learn about French art. After my first solo exhibition on returning to Korea, I heard that my works did not show the characteristics of French art, contrary to the common belief that students studying abroad bring along the colors and styles of the country in which they studied.

Since my teenage years, my impulse to make art has come from my inner self, which is why it goes beyond the issue of Korean-ness. Korean society was modernized long before I was born. It is almost unnecessary to find Western influences in my life and art. The dichotomy of East and West does not fit in my methods of creating art.

My sculptures speak to people—everyone. I see friendship in people who cherish philosophical questions originating in common human desires. Being human and being faithful to emotions and ideas, people share common ground that can be local or international.

Installation view with (left) Untitled, 2017, coal tar on paper, 650 x 150 cm.; and (right) Untitled, 2017, coal tar on paper, 650 x 150 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artist

JG: You teach in the graduate school of Hongik University, Korea’s prestigious art school. How do teaching and the academic life affect your work?
CH: I became a professor of Hongik University when I was 50 years old. When I was younger, I felt lost many times before I found confidence in my sculptures. So, I try to share this experience with my students and have meaningful discussions that allow them to find their own way. When they can find their inner potential with my help, it gives me great joy. To be honest, I also learn from conversations with my students. Their perspectives and thoughts are stimulating for me, so I guess we help each other.

JG: What do you want to do in sculpture in the next five years?
CH: As always, the future escapes me. I guess being at a loss is a new beginning. I will go step by step as usual. I will see things around me, things in the margins, things in dark corners, and things hidden from our view. I will re-examine them. Then, hopefully, I will discover certain qualities in them and bring them to my studio. One day they will reveal their essence and show their nature in my works.

Translated from Korean by Eunhee Yang, with assistance from Professor Thalia Vrachopoulos