Park Seo-Bo: Dansaekhwa is a “tool for moral training”

"Ecriture (描法) No. 000729”, 2000. Acrylic with Korean Hanji paper on canvas. 182 x 228 cm / 71 3/4 x 89 3/4 inches (Courtesy the artist and Galerie Perrotin)

“Ecriture (描法) No. 000729”, 2000. Acrylic with Korean Hanji paper on canvas. 182 x 228 cm / 71 3/4 x 89 3/4 inches
(Courtesy the artist and Galerie Perrotin)

BY DARRYL WEE | MAY 24, 2015

Park Seo-Bo: Dansaekhwa is a “tool for moral training”

NEW YORK — Opening at Galerie Perrotin on May 28 is “Ecriture,” a solo exhibition devoted to a leading artist of the Korean Dansaekhwa movement, Park Seo-Bo. This is Park’s second one-man presentation at the gallery, following his first solo show at Perrotin’s Paris gallery last December.

One of the founding members of Dansaekhwa, Park combines the spirit of Western abstraction with a traditional Korean approach to method and composition, demonstrating an uncommonly disciplined and almost ascetic rigor in making his works, which he compares to “ a Buddhist monk’s repetitive chanting of a Buddhist prayer while sounding a moktak (wooden percussion instrument).”

In contrast to the strong gestural and action-oriented quality of other postwar modernisms like Gutai in Japan or Art Informel in France, Dansaekhwa is notable for its extremely conscientious “emptying” of the canvas and finely wrought handmade quality that can only be achieved through a sustained, meditative concentration. Park generously shared some of his thoughts on the more philosophical bases of his work, and Dansaekhwa in general.

How did the work of the predecessors of Dansaekhwa, such as Kim Whanki during the 1960s, influence and pave the way for its development during the subsequent decade?

There was no exchange of influence with the predecessors. The development and growth of Dansaekhwa was contemporaneous, and a natural phenomenon. Dansaekhwa and the Western monochrome movement each formed its identity in the U.S., Korea, and even Japan, and then became grouped into one flow. Dansaekhwa did not develop based on the influence of a few people.

During an interview on the occasion of your last solo show at Galerie Perrotin in Paris in November 2014, you said: “I can’t accept being called a minimalist artist, because minimalism is the product of logic. It’s a conceptual approach. For us, it’s different. We have to empty ourselves.” Do you see this process of self-denial, or voiding the self, as something that is common to other postwar Asian art movements, such as Gutai or Mono-ha?

I don’t want to view it that way. Postwar art movements such as Japan’s Gutai and Mono-ha emerged as the outcome of a combination between Western methodology and the Japanese way of thinking. Dansaekhwa is different from the dichotomous Western division between subjectivity and objectivity in that its boundaries are obscure. Dansaekhwa does not embody the dichotomous concept of separating subjectivity from objectivity, and this is what creates a substantial difference from Japan’s postwar art movements.

The concept of being minimal or conceptual is a Western dichotomous approach and outcome. Dansaekhwa should be regarded as a spiritual journey. The process of making the work is a tool for moral training, and the work is a residue of that ordeal. “Monochrome” emerged as a concept that is the opposite of multiple colors. It is not adequate to refer to Dansaekhwa as monochrome. Dansaekhwa is about an action’s absence of purpose, an action’s repetitiveness, and the union between the spirit and the properties of that action. One draws and “sings” the colors of nature during this moral training.

In order to create many of the works in “Ecriture,” you rip each paper sheet manually to give “a natural aspect of fibers stretching,” rather than through mechanical means with a knife or scissors. What goes through your mind when you perform these repetitive tasks?

The repetitive process of soaking hanji in water, ripping it, and attaching it to a canvas is similar to a Buddhist monk’s repetitive chanting of a Buddhist prayer while sounding a moktak (wooden percussion instrument). In order to achieve a natural expression, I attempted to refrain from the use of mechanical tools as much as possible. How the hanji is ripped is not important — it is merely a tool used for moral training. However, this repetitive act and its outcome is more than just a simple residue. It can be regarded as the fruit of my spirit.

Just opened to coincide with this year’s Venice Biennale is an extensive Dansaekhwa exhibition at the Palazzo Contarini-Polignac curated by Yongwoo Lee, organized by the Boghossian Foundation together with Kukje Gallery and Tina Kim Gallery, which includes new site-specific work by Lee Ufan, as well as pieces by Chung Chang-Sup, Ha Chong-Hyun, and yourself. Do you find that the recent and ongoing reassessment of Dansaekhwa tends to focus more on its formal and conceptual aspects, rather than the political exigencies — and sense of a void in society — that first informed its development back in the 1970s?

My work is similar to a Buddhist monk’s chanting of a Buddhist prayer, which is repeated to reach a state of nirvana. The fundamental spirit of Dansaekhwa is an action’s absence of purpose, an action’s repetitiveness, and the union of action, property, and spirit.

While formal and conceptual aspects can be regarded as the outcome of the Western dichotomous way of thinking, Dansaekhwa is a means to empty out everything and to break away from what is conceptual, becoming irrelevant from political circumstances. After the Pop Art of the 1960s, there was a stronger demand for a direct confrontation with the plane (canvas), without the intervention of a medium, rather than filling up a canvas with images and concepts.

I was asked a similar question by the media at the Dansaekhwa exhibition in Venice. The question was, “Did Korea’s Dansaekhwa flow in an ascetic direction because of the political circumstances of the times?”

I answered that Dansaekhwa has no relation to political circumstances, and that it is rather the outcome of a tool used for moral training, which involves a process of emptying oneself by breaking away from one’s surroundings and all concepts. Since then, however, I have been continually asking myself if my answer is in fact true, and if there was no relevance at all. This sense of doubt continues to remain in my mind.

Park Seo-Bo’s “Ecriture” runs at Galerie Perrotin in New York from May 28 through July 3, 2015.

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