Minjung Kim pursues an art of astonishing restraint. Brushing thin layers of watercolor onto hanji, the traditional Korean paper made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree, she builds luminous, cloudlike mountains. She also tears thin strips of the material and burns the edges over a small flame, using thousands of those pieces to build intricate collages that seem to channel natural forces. The richly hued Street series suggests a blooming flower garden of incredible abundance, while her swirling Nautilus pieces recall the spirals of shells or whirlpools. Her work beguiles, as minute movements, sustained over long durations, yield outsized splendors.
Born in 1962 in the city of Gwangju, in the southwest.ern corner of South Korea, Kim grew up learning East Asian calligraphy and watercolor, then studied at Seoul’s storied Hongik University in the 1980s, and pursued further graduate education at Milan’s Brera Academy. She has been exhibiting internationally for three decades, while shrugging off affiliation with any movement or style. At its core, her art evinces an enduring commitment to the rich possibilities that her age-old tools present—and a rare ability to find thrilling new paths in areas that already looked well-explored.
Over the past five years, Kim has had more than a dozen solo exhibitions, at the Hill Art Foundation in New York, the Hermès Foundation in Singapore, the Langen Foundation in Neuss, Germany, and other museums and galleries. She has participated in group shows at the British Museum, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Gwacheon, South Korea, and in the 2018 edition of her home.town Gwangju Biennale. Today she lives and works in New York, Seoul, and Saint Paul de Vence in the south of France.
In September, I had the pleasure of meeting up with Kim over breakfast in the South Korean capital to discuss her sui generis practice, her remarkable life. The interview below has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Andres Russeth You started studying art when you were very young, taking classes in East Asian painting well before you attended college, and you often worked on paper that your father would bring home from a printing com.pany that he ran. How did you start in art so early in your life?
Minjung Kim When I was in kindergarten, there was a painting competition, and I got the top prize. So my mom said, “This girl has talent.” She told me when I was six years old, “You will be an artist.” But I think I could have succeeded if I ran a business. I would have loved that. I feel like I could do it. But I didn’t have a dream for myself because my mom said, “You will be a world-famous artist.”
AR: Your mother clearly had an eye for art. Was she involved in the arts?
MK: My mom was—before the Korean War, under Japanese colonial rule— the daughter of a very wealthy family, and my father was an intellectual from an old family. He was older. They both followed communism for different reasons and could have been killed because of that during the Korean War. When we were growing up, they had to go through a hard time because of politics under the regime of the dictator Mr. Park [President Park Chung-hee]. The funny thing is, they wanted us to grow up right-wing, because they had such a hard life.
AR: Museums and galleries were not present the way they are now in Korea, but did they take you to see art? How were you learning when you started?
MK: As you know, Western modern art came to Korea indirectly through Japan. Before the influence of Western art came to Korea, many artists went to Japan and Westerners were not able to come to Korea without going through Japan. The traditional Korean art was ink painting, including landscapes, literati paintings, and calligraphy. My home town, Gwangju, where I spent my youth, was a very old and traditional town with yangban [high ranking literati]. There were four big black-ink painters, including Heo Baekryeon. His first son was an old friend of my father. I started to learn calligraphy and watercolor around the age of nine or ten. My mother sent me to a kind of Zen master, a tea master, this lady. I went to her to learn calligraphy, and she was a Buddhist and a Confuscist—she talked to me about all these masters’ philosophies. So I grew up listening to my master.
AR: And then you moved to Seoul to attend Hongik University, which was an artistic hotbed in the early 1980s when you were there. As a young woman studying art, did you have a sense that you could make it as a professional artist?
MK: It seemed impossible. Many girls were in the art university. At the time, almost half and half, girls to boys. But at the time you went to university as a girl mainly to find a good husband, so a majority of girls came because their parents told them to go. The professors tended to work only with boys back then. Even if there was a talented woman with potential, no one would give them attention.
AR: After graduating and spending time in Korea, you made the decision to go to Europe—first to Germany, where you planned to live, and then to Italy, which proved to be pivotal. It captured your interest.
MK: You feel somehow they are welcoming you in Italy. But I had learned the German language in Korea to go to Germany, going to the Goethe Institute without telling anybody.
AR: Very studious!
MK: I was always working and studious. So I learned German. But when I was there in Germany for the first time, I did not feel like living there. Then I wanted to go where the Renaissance was born. I came back to Korea and started to learn a little bit of Italian. I went to the Italian embassy, and there was school information about the Brera Academy of Fine Art. I restarted everything and said, “I will go to this country.” I still remember telling my mother late one night when she was fishing. She told me, “You have been the most difficult girl to educate. Don’t come back without success in your hand." She was a strong mom.
AR: And you did eventually come back with success.
MK: I did. But what is success?
AR: When you made that move to Italy, you were still doing fairly traditional ink work, is that right?
MK: Oh, yes. When I went to the Brera Academy, my first-year teacher said, said, “Bring in what you are doing.” It was a very different way of learning from Korea. So I did a calligraphic abstract and he said, “Well, you are here, Minjung, in Italy. Why do you do this here?” But I didn’t understand. That was art for me. At the time, Vanessa Beecroft was at the school, and she became the biggest person from our academy. So everything was about photography and new media. I didn’t know anything about machines. I couldn’t participate. I was thinking: I came to this country and I can’t compete with them. I said, nevermind. What can I do? I will go with paper, as always.
I think paper is the most important invention of humans. Without that support, we can’t tell a story. It is the most important intellectual material
AR: When did the burning start in your work?
MK: It was around 1998 or 2000. Burning had already been done by other great artists. I was an ignorant girl and I did not study historical events in modern and contemporary art. When you are young, you're full of yourself, and you think you are the only one to do something. But I burned a line. I liked the brownish color, and then I started to work with so many different types of paper. Whether the line is darker or more brownish depends on the pulp and so many different aspects. I started to have fun with this. Hanji paper is also the most fragile material that you can use as an art material. For me, working with hanji paper is almost like dealing with transparency. I think that hanji is also the most indestructible thing the people have made. It is made by just natural pulp and human discipline. And I think paper is the most important invention of humans. Without that support, we can’t tell a story. It is the most important intellectual material.
AR: In some interviews, you have talked about how the knowledge of making that paper is a precarious art. The experts are dying. Where do you source it?
MK: I go to one shop in Insadong [a neighborhood in Seoul]. The owner was already there when I was a student. He’s still there. Then there are some papers that come from Cheongju, there are some that come from Wonju, and they’re completely different. But the big masters, they are over 80 years old, these men, and they are still making the paper. With over 40 years of paperwork, I know what I can do with each one. Some shopkeepers have died, but there are also some Chinese papers now. Any paper is good for something. The sad thing is everything is substituted by the digital world and our fingers get used to the slippery plastic surfaces.
AR: That variety in the paper you use is important for people to know.
MK: My favorite shopping is when I come to Seoul and I shop for paper. I buy almost 100 kilos of hanji paper for the year. I send it to New York and France, where I work.
AR: You have talked about how making your work has a calming effect on you, that it is meditative. Has it always been like that for you?
MK: Yes, because when I was young, I was an active and distracted child. My mom wanted to calm me down. Doing calligraphy, you have to sit down, so I was forced to calm down. My life has also had such drama. Three times I tried suicide in my life. When you feel dead inside, when the meditation and yoga don’t work anymore, you just want to kill yourself. When you come out of this epistemological crisis, you can survive, only you lose yourself. You don’t know who you are. Burning paper is the best. If you don't focus, it burns badly. Poof! Automatically, you go into a medita.tive circumstance. It’s not that I wanted that. Everybody has their own antidote.
…if you breathe in the wrong way, the candle will move immediately. It’s so honest. It shows the status of your anima.
AR: Can you share a bit more about how you burn?
MK: You take a small candle, like one used for warming food.
[Kim picked up a sheet of paper from the table and mimed how she glides it over the flame, singeing its edge before placing it on the table and snuffing the flame with her finger. The whole process is one fluid, seamless motion, repeated again and again.]
AR: It looks like it could be painful.
MK: It does not hurt. And I make it a bit thicker, using many layers of paper, so that it is easier to control how it burns.
AR: You have also discussed your burning in terms of breathing.
MK: Yes, because if you breathe in the wrong way, the candle will move immediately. It’s so honest. It shows the status of your anima. You can see the result of the burn. If you think too much, your breath is funny, and the candle moves. You can see how collaborative you are with the fire. You take the oxygen in and throw away the CO2. So you have to be in complete harmony, making one line.
AR: What are you thinking about as you work?
MK: My thoughts are gone. Immediately gone. When you do burning, you are completely gone in space and time. You understand how time is long. Everybody says that time is so short, but when you are burning, you realize that you can even control the time.
AR: When you are working in the studio, burning small paper pieces, do you have a sense of where the small strips will end up in a work or what kind of work they will create?
MK: When I burn, I don't think about anything. You don’t have a clear idea about what to do, but I am very Korean: I know that one day I will do work, so I make material. So, even though I have no idea about what to do, when I have no inspiration, then I burn.
AR: Then you work.
MK: Yes, I work. Then I keep so many burnt things— everywhere, burnt things—then the moment I think of something to do, I look around and I do it. I never plan it. What is planning? Also, I don’t want to throw away anything.
AR: You have been very active over the last few years, doing many shows while also working on a number of series. Do you work on all of those at the same time, and how did you develop your working style?
MK: Yes. I’ll tell you what happened. The best time for working was in the 1990s, when no one was giving me attention. I did some shows in a few galleries, like Patrick Cramer in Geneva, Leslie Sacks in Los Angeles, and Cafiso in Milan, and then I met an Italian husband, who of course was very jealous. He did not want me to go out. But I made a deal with him. He said, “Do what makes you happy.” I said, “I am going to be an artist, and you have to give me my free time during the day. I want nine to six as my own time for me. All the rest is for you.” Thank God for this because I have so much purpose in myself—I read, I play piano, take cooking lessons. I didn't know what was happening outside, and I was not interested. Not knowing this was helpful. So I kept going to work—going to the studio every day without much contact with the art world.
AR: That is an important discipline to have, not being distracted.
MK: Yes. Also I'm not good with computers. I cannot even attach my paintings to an email. Impossible. So for 15 years of work, nobody wanted to come by, except, from time to time, Milanese people when I was living there, but then what happened? Thanks to the great artists involved in it, Dansaekhwa went boom! And people were curious if there were any women. I was not in the Dansaekhwa group. They were my seniors, and some were my professors at Hongik University.
AR: Ah! I was going to ask if you were OK with being framed as part of that movement, whose founders of course were men, and who were active well before you started making art.
MK: I do not care at all about that. I cannot know where I belong. Some people say I am a diaspora artist. Some people want to say I am a Dansaekhwa artist. I don't care much. Art historians will decide. How can I know? I just work. I was never in a group. Sadly, I have not had much interaction with other artists. Whatever you call me, tell me. Most recently, Bartomeu Marí was telling me, “You are a performance artist.” I asked why. He said, “What you are doing is completely performance.” Ah, OK. That’s fine.
AR: The works from the Mountain series have their roots in an attempt to capture the sound of water. Can you share more about how the series came about?
MK: Mountains are something I will do until I die. I remembered the great Korean master I mentioned earlier— Heo Baekryeon. He was living in the countryside, 90 years old. He said, “Can I paint the sounds of the flow of the water?” And he was not able to do it. I wanted to do that. I went to the south of Italy, the Amalfi Coast, and stayed in a place right above the water. I listened to the sounds of water crashing against the cliff. Of course, if Heo Baekryeon could not paint it, I could not, but I tried. As the water was coming, I started to think visually about the tides. The first one that came in, I painted it with very diluted water, blue. With each tide, the color became darker and darker. I was painting the sounds of the tide. And then I was thinking about the primeval state of the world, before the Big Bang, when there was no division. Even before yin and yang, there was one thing, and suddenly my tide became a mountain. I really felt I had achieved something by chance. I said, “Minjung, this is a mountain.”
AR: I can’t wait to see these new works. Before we close, what else do you want people to know about the art that you make, or what do you think people sometimes misunderstand about it?
MK: Some people, when they are coming to meet me after seeing my work, they think they are going to see a monk. This they should forget. I am the most mad person! That’s why I do this work.