PAJU, South Korea — I recently traveled to Seoul to work on two exhibitions, as well as meet with artists, curators, poets, publishers, and translators. One of the artists I wanted to meet was Ha Chong-Hyun, a central figure in South Korea’s Tansaekhwa (monochromatic painting) movement. Ha was born in Sancheong, South Korea, in 1935, when the entire peninsula was under Japanese occupation. Like others born in the 1930s, he lived through Korea’s struggle for independence, World War II, the division of Korea along the 38th parallel into two separate and ideologically irreconcilable countries, the Korean War, and a series of repressive regimes, including President Park Chung-hee’s declaration of martial law in 1972. It is within these brutal circumstances that the Tansaekhwa artists made their first breakthroughs.
The Minimalists, who were centered in New York, asserted that art and life were separate. The Tansaekhwa artists felt differently because peace and free expression were possibilities that they had never experienced in their country. In contrast to Minimalism, which rejected Abstract Expressionism’s subjectivity in favor of making art about art and the pursuit of the pure object, in 1974 Ha Chong-Hyun began a series titled Conjunctions, which consisted of “painting with filth,” (from “Neutralized Materialism,” Space, 1980). This included using staples and barbed wire in his work from the ’70s, which I had only seen in reproductions. Like others in the United States and Europe, the works I was familiar with from Conjunctions were done after the 1970s. In their materiality and emphasis on paint’s visceral presence, these paintings bear a superficial resemblance to the works of Robert Ryman.
In Conjunctions, Ha presses and pushes pigment through the rough weave of hemp cloth. Because the back of the paintings, on which the artist uses various invented instruments to apply dense, mud-like pigment, are not seen, something always remains hidden from us. This is another way that Ha diverges from Minimalism’s ethos. He recognizes that no matter how much we claim to reveal, something will still remain hidden. In recent years, he’s also applied fire to the obverse side before pushing thick white paint through the rough weave.
In many of these works, he composed a rectangle of paint within the hemp’s rectangle, leaving part of its rough brown surface bare. Looking closely at the surface, particularly at the unpainted hemp around the paint’s edges, traces of ash are evident. Meanwhile, the rectangle of paint is a carpet of charcoal gray flecked with beads of white paint. Over this, Ha has used an instrument of his own devising to apply vertical swaths of blue paint.
Does anyone finally emerge from their past, even as we bring traces of its devastation with us? Or is destruction inevitably part of all change? While these questions have validity, I think they are too reductive and literal. The fact that Ha’s work successfully resists literalist readings piqued my curiosity.
Ha lives and works in Paju, which is just south of Panmunjeom on the 38th parallel. The city of Kaesong in North Korea is visible from Mount Dora, in northern Paju. His studio complex is located in a small, old industrial park on the edge of the city, with mountains looming in the distance. It seemed as if he was the area’s only inhabitant. After looking at his recent paintings, we went to another building, where his earlier works were on display. I learned that Ha was in the process of creating a museum for his art. After tea we drove over to see the building, which needed to be renovated, that would house his donation.
“Work 72-5 (A+B)” (1972, recreated 2010) is a tall painting made of two abutting panels, the left panel white and the right one black. I kept looking, curious about what was dispersed evenly across the two surfaces. It looked like small dried flowers with roots, but I knew it was something else. I stood up and walked over to it, getting closer and closer. I stopped moving when I realized that I was looking at hundreds and hundreds of pieces of barbed wire, which had been unwrapped from the cable, carefully flattened out, and nailed to the painting’s surface. The metal flowers also resembled running stick figures.
I turned to Ha and said, “barb wire.” He nodded and, as I was walking back to the table where we had been sitting and drinking tea, he said: “they are all people.” The connection of dried flowers, barb wire with neutralized points, and Ha’s declaration that we see the linear elements as “people” divided into two distinct groups memorializes the many people who died in modern Korea’s violent history. Although months have passed since I first saw “Work 72-5 (A+B),” I am still haunted by it.