The Journey of Time

August 2, 2018
Samyong Hwang's 'Pebbles'

When James Abbott McNeill Whistler defended himself in court by saying that a dashed-off oil sketch represented the knowledge he had “gained in the work of a lifetime” he gave every lazy artist an excuse to feel important, and unwittingly established battle lines between art and craft. Nowadays it’s broadly accepted that one may create an entire painting with a single flick of the brush. It’s obviously a hit-or-miss affair, with Zen masterpieces being thin on the ground, but if quality may be questionable there’s no denying that it is still called ‘art’.

No such freedom is available to the potter, the weaver, the maker of jewellery or furniture. Clay has to be moulded and fired, wood has to be worked. A table can’t be produced with one swipe of the hammer. To transform raw materials into things of intricate beauty can be the most painstaking of occupations.

Neither would it make much sense for a craftsman or craftswoman to boast that a lifetime’s experience should be credited to every object. That goes without saying. Inspiration may come from within, but essential skills and techniques need to be learned. It can take many years to master these skills. Some would argue it’s an education that never ends.

Craftsmanship requires patience and few exhibitions have made that point more effectively than The Journey of Time at the Korean Cultural Centre Australia. It’s almost painful to imagine the hours, days, weeks and months that have gone into the creation of the works in this show, which features 86 pieces by 23 artists – several of them honoured with that quaint Korean title, “Intangible Cultural Asset”.

If you know anything at all about the Koreans, you know they are a stubborn, determined people who have overcome immense historical hardships. In this exhibition those qualities are harnessed in the creation of objects of such detail and perfection it’s hardly conceivable.

Brooches by Bogki Min

At the opening, one of the artists, Bogki Min, a maker of exquisite small metal brooches, said that the essence of Korean craft was “recovery from pain”. This is sound psychology because for those suffering from trauma, there is a comfort in small repetitive tasks. The shell-shocked soldiers of World War I were put to work weaving baskets or working with clay. Jeffrey Smart often claimed that painting blades of grass was a cure for anxiety.

There is obviously something in the Korean psyche that is deeply amenable to the ‘craft’ cure. It’s also present in the relentless perfectionism of Japanese craft, but with a much greater emphasis on beauty.

The distinguishing feature of the Korean work is its relative plainness. In the catalogue, curator Kisang Gio, is dismissive of those artists who concentrate on “impressing the viewers with aesthetically striking appearances.” For Gio what’s most important is that a work should demonstrate the “self-discipline of the creator.” This is bound up with a particular relationship with nature and natural materials.

Ceramics by Inwha Lee

At its most extreme we find an artist such as Minsoo Kim putting plant fibres through a laborious set of procedures in order to produce a set of pale, fragile-looking fabrics. Then there’s Yoonkwan Kim, who wants his furniture to retain the naturalness of wood. He has created a bench that is nothing more than a solid rectangular block. The skill lies in the fastidious preparation and finish. For Joonsook Yun the silhouette of a single bamboo frond against a white surface has entailed many hours of embroidery.

Embroidery by Joonsook Yun

The paradox is repeated constantly: to attain plainness and simplicity the artist has worked for a very long time. Even when non-natural materials are used, the work ethic remains intact. Yoojung Kim makes delicate white sculptural objects from nylon cable-ties. Ilhoon Roh makes objects from black carbon fibre coated in lacquer.

Ilhoon’s Roh’s carbon fibre art

Repetition is a keynote of so much of this work. Kyunghee Han’s vessels are made from thin strands of hand-rolled paper. Sejin Bae’s vases are constructed from hundreds, if not thousands, of identical, numbered clay blocks. Inwha Lee’s white porcelain is so thinly worked it looks as if it could be blown away by a sudden breeze.

Vase by Sejin Bae

The most flamboyant works in the show are those that employ the traditonal technique of creating dazzling surfaces from ultra-thin strips of mother-of-pearl. Samyong Hwang has extended the process over three large smooth objects that he calls Pebbles, although they could more accurately be described as “boulders”.

Hwang’s mother-of-pearl works pay homage to craft traditions that are swiftly disappearing, and his respect for the past seems to be shared by all the artists in this display. Some explore old forms with new materials, others such Gyusang Yun, an Intangible Cultural Asset who makes paper umbrellas, are proud custodians of a craft that has been superceded by mechanisation and mass production.

By persevering with a practice that everyone else has abandoned, Yun has found that his umbrellas are not seen as functional devices to keep off the sun and rain but expensive objets d’art for museums and affluent collectors.

Umbrellas by Gyusang Yun

Few craftsmen and women in the west attain such eminence that they can spend huge amounts of time to create a small but perfect body of work, and still manage to pay the bills. We live our lives in such a hurry, immersed in our virtual worlds, that it seems surreal to think of anyone spending months working every day on a single object.

These artists own their time in a way that most of us could never emulate. Their extreme, repetitive work and the reserves of concentration required, denote a particular kind of temperment, a special outlook on life. It’s as much a spiritual vocation as form of manual labour. Such work requires the ability, as the curator describes it, to “empty oneself out” – to lose one’s sense of self in the all-encompassing immensity of the task.

Western theologians call it “kenosis” – an emptying of one’s own will to make way for the holy spirit. It’s a remarkable thing that this process can lead, not simply to a monkish ideal of inner peace, but to the slow, painstaking creation of a of a timelessly beautiful object.

The Journey of Time
Korean Cultural Centre Australia, until 26 July – 14 September, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 4 August, 2018