“Art speaks and silence is a form of speech. In Ha Chong-Hyun’s art, which has been going on for half a century now, I see both word and silence with a strong kinetic energy”.
Kim Mi-Kyung on Ha Chong-Hyun
The increasing growth of interest in Korean culture in Italy and Europe is clearly reflected this spring at the 59th edition of the Venice Biennale, with a series of official collateral events featuring key figures in Korean contemporary art.
One leading example is the return of Ha Chong-Hyun to Venice with a major retrospective exhibition in the historic Palazzetto Tito (Istituzione Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa). Curated by Sunjung Kim and made possible thanks to the efforts of the Kukje Art and Culture Foundation and supported by the Korean Kukje Gallery and the New York-based Tina Kim Gallery, the exhibition presents a selection of over twenty works created over the last six decades, developing a comprehensive narrative of the artist’s materials, methodology and creative experimentation.
Occupying in the entire exhibition space of Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, the exhibition also includes pieces that are difficult to access in Korea – such as those dating of the Informal or Urban Art periods – offering the possibility of getting to know the artist both for being a pivotal figure in the Dansaekhwa movement and for other significant moments of his practice: a 360° immersion that allows us to understand his pioneering role in Korean contemporary art.
Ha Chong-Hyun was in fact a fundamental figure in the transformation of the Korean contemporary art scene in the 1960s and 1970s, not only for his artistic research and experimentation but also in relation to the historical moment of his formation, which coincided with the period of post-war reconstruction in Korea. On this matter, the curator of the exhibition said:
“Having lived through Korea’s turbulent modern history encompassing the Korean War and the division of the peninsula, post-war economic development policy and military rule, all during a period marked by Japanese occupation, liberation and the Cold War, Ha Chong-Hyun is living proof that art and society are inseparable.”
Ha is also one of the main exponents of an important Korean modernist movement, called Dansaekhwa, which took shape around the 1970s and adopted a minimalist and monochromatic orientation, working on the materiality of paintings through new experimentations, born out of the historical conditions of that time. In fact, in the post-war scene there were great limitations on the accessibility of painting materials, but as it often happens, when one has limitations, he or she explores the possibilities of overcoming those restrictions. This happens strongly in the experimentation that Ha Chong-Hyun adopts in working with the few materials available.
It is thus interesting to remark that at the heart of this movement was not only an intellectual reasoning about pictorial practice, but also a radical desire to depart from aesthetics and practices linked to the historical precedents of war, authoritarian rule and colonialism. Dansaekhwa thus embodies both a pictorial conception and a political stance, which can be seen in the choice of materials in which a critical element of the present fundamentally resides. After all, the history of art has always taught us how inseparable artistic creation is from the reality in which it operates, a canon that as Italians we know very well if we look at our 20th century production.
Following this pivotal idea that sees art and society as elements in a continuous relationship, Ha Chong-Hyun elaborates his artistic vocabulary precisely in relation to the contemporary social environment. Stylistically, he is interested in pushing painting beyond its limits, in a first phase burning the surface of the canvas with fire, combining a refined formality with a reflection on the dark spirit of the time still stained by the traumas of war and transported into artistic matter in his informal period.
His work then matures after 1969, when he begins to experiment with space, creating site-specific installations and three-dimensional works using non-traditional materials such as barbed wire, plaster, wood, newspapers and jute cloth used to transport food aid from the United States after the Korean War.
In the post-war period and in correlation with the emergence of urban development in Seoul, Ha begins to reflect on the importance of urban art, in which he transposed onto canvas the geometry and dynamism that was in evidence in the early 1970s. There are many parallels that we could make with our Italian futurism but also with the attitudes and ideas of Milanese spatialism. Further parallels can be found in those years with the birth of the AG (Avant Guard Association), of which the artist was one of the main members: with a magazine and the institution of the Seoul Biennale, the group reflected an experimental and “anti-artistic” (in the classical sense) sentiment that saw art as experience: the great experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s also found its place in Korea.
Finally, in 1974 Ha began his acclaimed Conjunction series, which marked the maturity of his artistic research, in which he employed the “bae-ap-bub”, an innovative method by which the artist pushes the oil paint from the back to the front by passing it through the texture of the raw canvas. This practice can be seen as a philosophy that combines the purity of the medium and the physicality of the artist – which are united in the act of painting.
Visiting Ha Chong-Hyun’s exhibition allows us not only to admire the work of one of the most celebrated contemporary Korean artists, but also to understand some of the historical and socio-cultural coordinates of a country with such a complex past through the sensitive and attentive gaze of one of the leading protagonists of the artistic scene of his time. As Jerry Saltz – a renowned art critic – often says, “Art is life and life is art”, art and life go hand in hand, they are inseparable, and the exhibition at Palazzetto Tito offers us a very interesting cross-section of this inescapable truth in its unique Korean declination.
The exhibition is open until 24 August 2022 at Palazzetto Tito-Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa.