Late Korean realist sculptor's works reframed through photographic exhibition - Korea Times
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Late Korean realist sculptor's works reframed through photographic exhibition

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Installation view of the exhibition, 'Images of Eternity: Kwon Jin Kyu x Mok Jungwook,' held at PKM Gallery in central Seoul / Courtesy of PKM Gallery
Installation view of the exhibition, 'Images of Eternity: Kwon Jin Kyu x Mok Jungwook,' held at PKM Gallery in central Seoul / Courtesy of PKM Gallery

Kwon Jin-kyu's sculptures seen through eyes of fashion photographer

By Park Han-sol

Kwon Jin-kyu, a pioneer of modern sculpture in Korea / Courtesy of Kwon Jin Kyu Commemoration Foundation and Lee Jung-hoon
Kwon Jin-kyu, a pioneer of modern sculpture in Korea / Courtesy of Kwon Jin Kyu Commemoration Foundation and Lee Jung-hoon
Along his path of artistic exploration towards reaching the zenith of sculptural elegance, modern sculptor Kwon Jin-kyu (1922-1973) had a close but tumultuous relationship with Korea's neighboring country, Japan ― one that was at times oppressive and at others inspirational.

Born during the 1910-45 Japanese colonial era in the now-North Korean city of Hamheung, Kwon was a child who was fascinated by the materiality of dirt and clay. At the age of 20, he became one of several million laborers drafted to Japan to work in steel factories. Fortunately he managed to escape and returned to his home country more than a year later.

But after Korea's liberation, he went back to Japan to study sculpture at the Musashino Art University, Tokyo, under the renowned artist, Takashi Shimizu.

Upon his return to Korea in 1959, what put his sculptural works on the map was his decision to diverge from the latest western abstract techniques he learned as a student and to focus on creating realistic, figurative forms of self-portraits, as well as portrayals of animals and humans modeled after his acquaintances. The artist's goal to visualize the most primitive, yet purest notion of the spiritual beauty of "Korean realism" led to his exploration of different materials, like terracotta and lacquer.

One aspect of Kwon's life that is seared into collective memory is none other than his death, when he took his own life at the age of 51 in his studio ― the same day he had attended an exhibition at Korea University, where three of his own pieces were on display.

Although the exact reason behind his suicide remains undisclosed, some speculate that he suffered from internal torment for being unable to achieve the level of perfection he long yearned for or possibly his unrequited love for one of his pupils.

While a number of retrospectives have taken place both in Korea and Japan following the pioneering sculptor's death, including at PKM Gallery in Jongno District in 2017, the gallery has chosen to take a different format this time by revisiting Kwon's sculptures from the eyes of the leading 41-year-old fashion photographer, Mok Jung-wook.

"In commemoration of the centennial of the sculptor's birth next year, the gallery organized this exhibit to ensure Kwon's art world not be limited to the fixed modern frameworks of understanding, and instead be reinterpreted through the contemporary lens of the current generation," said the gallery's president, Park Kyung-mee, two days before the opening of the "Images of Eternity: Kwon Jin Jyu x Mok Jungwook" exhibition.

"Photography is a medium that is more familiar to the audience in everyday life ― more so than paintings or sculptures. And through this artistic means that encourages present-day viewers to communicate with Kwon's pieces, we hope to broaden the interpretative horizon of his oeuvre."

Mok Jung-wook's 'Study of 'Self-Portrait' fig no. 131' (2021), left, and 'Study of 'Christ on Cross' fig no. 48' (2021) / Courtesy of the artist, Kwon Jin Kyu Commemoration Foundation and PKM Gallery
Mok Jung-wook's 'Study of 'Self-Portrait' fig no. 131' (2021), left, and 'Study of 'Christ on Cross' fig no. 48' (2021) / Courtesy of the artist, Kwon Jin Kyu Commemoration Foundation and PKM Gallery

Under this goal, the exhibition, co-organized by the Kwon Jin Kyu Commemoration Foundation, only presents a selection of eight sculptures that demonstrate the essence of Kwon's artistic practice: six self-portraits and religious statues of the Buddha and Jesus Christ on an invisible cross in his longing for spiritual transcendence.

What fills the rest of the gallery space is a series of Mok's photos, capturing the spirit exuded from these sculptures. In fact, the works of the two artists are displayed in a way that gives them comparable presence and importance, with neither the original sculpture nor the photography overshadowing one another.

Fashion photographer Mok Jung-wook / Courtesy of the artist
Fashion photographer Mok Jung-wook / Courtesy of the artist
During the press conference, Mok recalled his first intense encounter with Kwon's terracotta self-portrait bust.

"When I looked at his piece, it felt like I couldn't escape his piercing gaze. That night, my whole body ached; it was the first time I experienced anything like this. I think it was my bodily response not to succumb to the powerful energy produced by the sculpture."

To Mok, photography ― whether in the field of fashion or fine arts ― is all about capturing the essence of energy, or the life force of "qi," released from the bodies of both the subjects and the photographer.

"But while fashion photography is more of an instant form, usually fixed in the destined cycles of seasonal trends and styles, my encounter with Kwon's sculptures made me think about how these images will be remembered decades, even centuries, later," he said.

"I hope my images can convey the vitality witnessed from his real-life busts to viewers, allowing them to come closer to appreciate and bask in this energy."

The exhibition, "Images of Eternity: Kwon Jin Jyu x Mok Jungwook," runs through Dec. 28 at PKM Gallery.


박한솔 hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr


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