Sun K. Kwak ◦ Rolling Space ◦ 2015 ◦ digital print on poly vinyl chloride ◦ 213 x 626 cm ◦photo: gallery skape
Letters to artists_#1 Dear Sun
Jee Young Maeng
It’s been a while since the last time I saw you and your work. It took me a long time to decide to write to you. It feels like I have been on a journey to seek an answer that I have not been able to find.
Wasn’t it at Brooklyn Museum in 2009 when I went to see your work for the first time? I remember that I was quite amazed, not by the fact that you had transformed the entire space into an enormous drawing with black masking tape but rather by your movement, which was ingrained into my mind. You were finishing up with your drawing at the moment, and how could I not be impressed by the 280 hours you spent on it? I was curious to know the reason you stated the exact amount of time you had spent on this gigantic project. I thought it was not necessary for you to tell this to the viewers. As I stated earlier, I was more convinced by the movements your body created. I didn’t know what those movements were back then, and I must confess to you that I am still perplexed on that matter. A few years after that show, probably around 2010, an unforgettable moment was about to occur. My ambivalent mind grew even more. It began with a program called Work & Process at the Guggenheim Museum, and you were collaborating with the Cuban choreographer Judith Sánchez on a performance piece. It ran for only three days, and I remember you only invited a few people. I still think that it was a shame that more people did not see your performance that day. In the scene, which I will never forget, you wore all black, and you were poised as you walked slowly toward the stage, gently stretching black masking tape from below the stage and carrying it up onto the stage floor. The most striking aspect was the repeated sound of the tape unrolling, which was the only sound during your performance, as it matched your beautiful movement. It was strange, but for me, it was rather like music; it seemed to be tearing up the whole space, where the audience was quietly watching every movement; it was amplifying the movement itself. In your act of making a drawing by unrolling the tape and sticking it to the floor, you actually became one with the drawing. Then, when you were almost to the far end of the stage, a few dancers started to appear, mimicking your actions like an echo, and you disappeared from the stage. Honestly, I don’t remember what happened after that. The scene you created was so powerful that I only remember your part; it repeated in my mind over and over again after that.
Your minimal and repeated movements,
The drawing made of black masking tape that burst from your body,
And that sound, repeatedly unrolling the tape, so clearly standing out in the silent space
Perhaps it wasn’t just sound. Rather, it was music embracing you—simple and quiet, yet passionate. This touches on what you mentioned before, “I aim to designate the lines as an extension of myself.” My memory might be the moment when space, the lines and yourself overlapped as one.
When I look back, I have been trying to find words for what I felt about your work from the Guggenheim Museum. Maybe I was trying to answer the wrong question from the beginning. I decided to let it grow for a while. However, this didn’t mean that I gave up on finding out what it is. I somehow knew that it would turn up sooner or later.
After seeing the performance at the Guggenheim Museum, I was hoping that I would resolve all my curiosity if I spent time with you often and got to know you. Of course, it was not easy to grasp the depth of what you had gone through. I only had a glimpse of what lay beneath your drawings, where you had lived for countless hours. I talked to you about works from your New York studio and from Korea, and I started to notice that all these works, from simple drawings on paper to “Wire Drawing,” “Sculptural Drawing” with gaffer tape and largest scaled “Space Drawing” with masking tape, have accumulated every moment of your life like endless winding and binding tape. This was a sort of enlightenment for someone like me; since I had been deeply immersed in the art field for a long time, I was blinded by the simple desire to make art. You can create something for your own amusement, right? This is the core of art, which you can easily ignore or forget. I was grateful that your work awakened me the fact that a seemingly meaningless or naïve gesture could become something extraordinary. Your works lead somewhere unknown, which gives more strength. I guess I was drawn to the fact that your works encapsulate not only hopeful and positive aspects but also struggle, pain, frustration, and loneliness; you might have felt like an alien in the States.
That’s why I was a bit torn when I first heard the title of your long-awaited solo exhibition, 125 Rolls of Winding, 48 Layers of Piling, 72 Yards of Looping, in Korea this fall. The title itself signifies the long journey of your works—the very process. It’s been almost 8 years since your work was shown here. When I was looking at the sculptures made with gaffer tape, 15 Rolls of Communication (2014), 43 Rolls of Winding (2014), Your Portrait (2013), and 41 Rolls of Winding (2008), I realized that the exterior shape was not that important anymore. The sculptures looked so vibrant and vivid, and I could almost hear sound coming from them. I don’t know why I kept replaying this particular moment with you. It was a normal sunny afternoon. We were supposed to meet at your studio. You were sitting in a chair, and the sun came from a big window behind you, and your wire sculpture hanging in front of the window cast a long shadow on the floor. You were scribbling, winding a tape or braiding a wire. You were so poised. You might already have sensed that in the new work, Handsaw Marks in 16 Beats (2015), sound, rhythm, and movement would meld together. Strangely enough, the surface of the work resembles the large tape drawings, as does the sound created by cutting the cross-section with a handsaw. By the way, I was so excited to see your drawings on paper. The drawings that you put together from different times, such as Times Composed V (2008), Times Composed VII (2008) and Times Composed VIII (2008) strongly indicate that these are the main body of your work, and I felt that your other works were branching out from there. Your routine was naturally reflected in your work, such as the sophisticated and delicate wire drawing Sewing Space (2013), which hung at your studio for a long time, or the drawing on paper Following Dots and Lines: Illusion (2011), which eventually led to large tape drawings in a space or on the façade of building. While those drawings had freedom like a light wind, your sculptures with gaffer tape seemed so tightly wound together that they almost looked stubborn and persistent, as if you were trying so hard to grasp the ephemerality that constantly passes you. I was sympathetic to and moved by those aspects of your work. How ironic that even though you camouflage yourself with various colors and vividness, you cannot hide from what is beneath you! Isn’t it amazing how artwork reveals the artists who make it? I think it is rather a relief that people can notice that, even though it only happens rarely.
Another significant aspect I noticed from seeing your exhibition was that your most popular works, the drawings with black masking tape, have double sides. Those works can be easily read, yet at the same time, they are impenetrable. They have a lightness and freedom like drawings on paper and persistence like your sculptures with gaffer tape. Thus, it seems that you are juggling between the two extremes. I thought I had seen and known all aspects of your work until I first saw your tape drawing pieces. You hadn’t shown all of yourself, so I was anxious to see what else you had not shown me. Perhaps you have been balancing from one work to another, and at some point in the near future, your work will turn out in a completely different way, as you’ve hinted to me with your new work, 60 lb of Dust, 2kg of Sand, 32g of Ash (2015), which is in the exhibition.
What I have said above might sound vague to you, but I have to say that this is probably due to what I have been reading lately. I was very influenced by the Korean poet Sungbok Lee; I have been reading his essay on poetry. He once said, “things that are ambiguous are most accurate because life is like that.” Most of all, I was encouraged to finally write to you when he said “when you feel like you don’t have the courage to write, that is the very moment to start writing” and “You have an obligation to write what you see, to hear and feel for the sake of myself and others, because I was there.” His words have given me many reasons to write about your works, both to you and to others. A lot of artists are challenged to create something that words can describe; a poem is a form that captures ideas that words won’t be able to capture, and so it inevitably fails over and over. I guess it is worthwhile going through that frustrating process. Often, those repeated failures can bring us back to the beginning—somewhere in between, where we can encounter something magical and extraordinary that then becomes meaningful. I hope that your work continues to wake and touch many people, as it did for me.
Jee Young Maeng
*This text was published in conjunction with the exhibition 125 Rolls of Winding, 48 Layers of Piling, 72 Yards of Looping at Gallery Skape in Seoul from October 9 to November 15, 2015.
*Jee Young Maeng is a curator and critic. She has been a curator at DOOSAN Gallery since 2009, and also constantly contributes her writings on arts. She has studied art and has worked in the field in the United States for more than a decade and returned to Korea in 2011. She studied fine arts and criticism from Sungkyunkwan University in Korea, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and School of Visual Arts in the United States. She is interested in finding ways to bring the public closer to art via writings and exhibitions so that individuals can live within their own art. Her book, Small Talk, Conversation in New York, was published in 2014.