Past gardens still sleeping in late winter’s grey curtain of cold and up the sidewalks speckled with looming statues, I found myself a little impatient on this Tuesday morning. Finding the museum had proven to be more difficult than I had expected, but after a half hour lost and wandering through neighboring complexes, I slowly paced toward Ansan’s Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art. Retired men and women jogged and walked on a nearby exercise trail circling a large receding pond across from the museum. Despite the grey morning air, I felt relieved and refreshed next to the pond.
The large, metallic building of the museum is striking; it feels professional and funky. I stuffed my bag into a 100 won locker and took only the bare essentials—a note pad and pen, and a bit of cash—inside. After flashing my foreigner ID card, I paid the discounted rate of 1,000 won.
Before going into an art exhibit, I always wipe away all the emotional residue of the day and open up to the space that I’m about to enter. It’s like washing your face and hands before entering a religious space.
Before going into an art exhibit, I always wipe away all the emotional residue of the day and open up to the space that I’m about to enter. It’s like washing your face and hands before entering a religious space. We travel to a museum, a Mecca of sorts, housing a collection of artifacts we’ve sought on our pilgrimage, whether for knowledge, for experience, or for enjoyment. We interact with and are influenced by the pieces that we visit. I let go and prepared myself to be lost in a world of modern Korean landscapes.
“Beyond Landscape Paintings” exceeded my expectations. I was enrapt during the entire show. It is a fairly normally sized show, taking up a handful of rooms on the second floor of the museum. The landscapes comfortably inhabited large walls. Each spans a different width, but many are large-scale and impressive, muting the viewer in their vastness. And what better for a landscape to do, but remind a human what place they inhabit in the grand scheme of things? Surely, a landscape is an adaptable artistic realm.
Some of the works portrayed modern landscapes as nature slowly encroached upon by humans and buildings and all of the trappings and frames of modern life. A few of the paintings included humans, often small and playing a role in the space of the canvas, whether stylistically participating as in Kim Beom’s flattened Korean cityscapes or parachuting through Park Byong-choon’s mountainscapes. Humans are highlighted in color as they venture through Park Young-gil’s monotonous calligraphic landscapes on sepia Chinese paper. The human’s place is the observer, not the subject.
The audience is devoured by the pieces that lack any human forms. Humanity is muted in the face of such sheer, natural beauty. Choi Kwang-ok’s Hong Do 1 and 2 are irresistible. Both employ a beautiful, haunting texture that depicts mountains extending into the foreground and recessing into the blank abyss of the canvas like islands both emerging and ebbing back into the mid-morning fog on an overcast day. Crisp, dramatic tones approach the viewer and pull them into the rock. Hong Do 2 has a striking spark of modernity in it. While the majority of the boulders depicted follow the visual recipe of Hong Do 1, one rock rebels. The lone figure appears unfinished. You can see the artist’s process, the skeletal structure of his work so masterfully exposed. A few light lines outline a rock that contradicts the depth of his landscape and simultaneously welcomes you into the artist’s mind, the artist’s eyes, and finally, the artist’s process.
There are playful, inventive pieces as well. One is constructed of plastic Lego-like blocks mounted on plywood, creating a pixelated scene. Another is made of thick sheets of steel polyenamel and creates an image resembling the dash of a mountain ridge floating in mid-air. A series of works by Yoo Seung-ho layer words and phrases to create landscapes and patterns.
Displaying such concrete themes and subjects like landscapes with such stylistic and abstracted grace was a pleasure to behold. The pieces begin with a space, with a form, and they allow you to jump from that platform, to launch into the possibility of existence just above the surface and yet below heavens, into an embodied transcendence; a transcendence that does not defy the living world or nature, but instead is expressed through it; a transcendence embodied in the surface of a mountain, in the shade of a rock, in the patterns of the sky. It is translated in strokes, lines, and symbols that urge the viewer to read between the lines, to push beyond the surface, and to consider his or her role in the landscape. We are freed in the space by wonder, overwhelmed by the simple yet poignant awe.
If you go: The subway ride to Ansan is a good hour and one can walk from the station, get a taxi, or ride the bus. It can be a bit confusing finding your way there so study the map provided on the website before you go. Happy art-venturing!