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Long viewed as an outsider, conceptual artist grabs global spotlight in his twilight years

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Sung Neung-kyung, an early champion of conceptual and performance art in Korea who pioneered the genre during the politically turbulent 1970s and 1980s / Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul and London
Sung Neung-kyung, an early champion of conceptual and performance art in Korea who pioneered the genre during the politically turbulent 1970s and 1980s / Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul and London

Sung Neung-kyung in limelight as 1970s Korean experimental art gains attention

By Park Han-sol

For most of his 55-year career, Sung Neung-kyung has been viewed as an outsider by the Korean art world.

The 79-year-old also call himself "a non-popular, non-profit artist" ― terms that are certainly not thrown around for the sake of modesty or humility.

As a creator who unyieldingly focused on the marginal genre of combining conceptual art and performance during the politically turbulent 1970s and 1980s, he was only invited to hold five solo exhibitions. And he didn't sell his first art piece until 2009.

That's why it feels all the more surreal to Sung as he prepares himself for not just one, but five new solo shows for this year alone ― including his first in New York.

He has also been named one of the early experimental trailblazers who will be highlighted at the upcoming group exhibition, "Only the Young: Experimental Art in South Korea, 1960s-1970s," as it tours the Guggenheim in New York in September and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles early next year.

What's more, blue-chip American gallery Lehmann Maupin recently announced that it will represent Sung and went on to showcase the conceptual artist's historical work at Art Basel Hong Kong.

"It's like watching a flower blossom from a withered tree," he said as he described the experience of being thrust into the international spotlight in his golden years.

"If I were to guess, this is the result of me being an artist who has persistently walked down the same path throughout his lifetime. But it could also be part of the global art world's desire to witness how conceptualism ― which originated in the West in the 1960s ― has been interpreted and practiced by Korean creatives since we have long been overshadowed by our Chinese or Japanese counterparts."

Sung's remark came last month in time for the opening of his sixth-ever solo show, "As If Nothing … The Artistic Meandering of Sung Neung Kyung," currently mounted at Baik Art in central Seoul.

Sung Neung-kyung's
Sung Neung-kyung's "Contraction and Expansion" (1976) / Courtesy of the artist, Baik Art

While the conceptual artist started his career in the late 1960s, he regards the year 1973 as the decisive turning point, shortly after his military discharge.

The Korean art scene in the 1970s saw a dynamic mix of emerging genres and movements. This included the rise of "dansaekhwa" (monochrome paintings) and "three-dimensional art," the latter of which often incorporated the likes of stones, glasses, steel plates and tree trunks to produce experimental sculptural installations.

Sung was approached by Lee Kun-yong, one of the country's early champions of experimental art, who asked him to join the avant-garde collective he had formed called Space and Time (ST). And he did.

In line with the dominant trend in the avant-garde scene at the time, he produced the three-dimensional artwork, "Circumstances," consisting of a stainless steel sheet and two white rocks, for the second ST group show in 1973.

However, as soon as his piece went on display, he wanted to sink through the floor with shame. "It was a complete failure that was just trying to imitate what was in fashion," he recalled. "With three-dimensional art, I felt like I couldn't ever produce something that was groundbreaking or original."

He had to go on a search to discover his own language. And he found the answer in conceptualism, which aimed to shed "materiality" in art.

"In fine arts, materiality is usually interconnected with how much the work is valued since it is the physical item that is being sold and purchased," Sung noted. "I wanted to eliminate such an aesthetic or material concern from my piece, and when I did that, all I was left with was art as an idea, a piece of information."

Installation view of Sung Neung-kyung's
Installation view of Sung Neung-kyung's "Venue 3" series (1980) at Baik Art in central Seoul / Courtesy of Baik Art
With this realization, he was now tasked with presenting his own answer to "what is then conceptual art and what can it do?" In 1974, he unveiled what turned out to be his magnum opus, "Newspapers: From June 1, 1974, On."

Every day for the duration of the weeklong group exhibition, he would pick up the newly delivered newspaper and cut out all blocks of printed text with a razor blade, leaving only the blank margins, images and advertisements. He would attach the tattered pages to a gallery wall, while dumping the cut-out portions of texts in acrylic boxes nearby.

The whole act was a tacit yet striking commentary on the authoritarian government of Park Chung-hee as the artist crudely mimicked the process of state-led censorship of news media. According to Sung's own words, it was "a silent protest" against the country's political climate and the eroding freedom of expression.

His conceptual oeuvre soon came to be defined as the mix of ephemerals such as newspapers and photographs with genre-defying performance.

For his performances, he once again freed himself from material concerns as he used his own body and physical gestures as the central artistic tool.

"Self-exaggeration, excessive noise and disorder are often key elements of his performances," according to Lehmann Maupin.

He would recite the ancestral rite prayers written on the paper fan and burn it afterward; stretch out his limbs like a fatigued figure skater; strip off everything save for his underpants; do hula hooping while shooting ping-pong balls at the audience with a slingshot; cover his whole face with shaving cream; count money from his pocket ― all chaotically performed in different sequences each time.

By deliberately disrupting the white cube space of a gallery or a museum with everyday behaviors taken out of context, he questions ― and further dethrones ― the supposed symbols of power and authority in the art world.

Sung Neung-kyung's
Sung Neung-kyung's "Aluminum-Foil Man" (2001) / Courtesy of the artist, Baik Art

Sung carried on with his practice ― despite the criticism he received from a number of his fellow artists who viewed conceptual art to be "superficial," especially in comparison to dansaekhwa or three-dimensional art that takes its cue from the profound, centuries-old Asian and Buddhist philosophy.

His persistence even lasted throughout the 1980s when the Korean art scene was struck by the wind of change called Minjung Art, a socio-political movement that rose as a response to a series of pro-democracy protests against the military administration of Chun Doo-hwan.

"To those in the Minjung Art circle, my conceptual works lacked overt political statements or engagement that they espoused at the time," Sung said.

Once again, his oeuvre was relegated to the fringes, away from the mainstream.

It wasn't until the beginning of the 21st century that his works began to be slowly revisited in the art circle. This eventually led to his first-ever retrospective at the present-day Arko Art Center in 2001.

Sung Neung-kyung's
Sung Neung-kyung's "Drawings by Your Bottom" series (2020) / Courtesy of the artist, Baik Art

Twenty years later, Sung is still producing art that is just as rebellious and provocative in its own right.

On view at Baik Art is his latest series, "Drawings by Your Bottom," in which the artist takes photos of his urine-stained toilet paper every morning with his smartphone and adds flashy color filters. But when looking at the snapshots without this background information in mind, they are surprisingly reminiscent of infrared satellite map images of obscure islands.

And during the opening ceremony of the exhibition at the gallery last month, the 79-year-old, without fail, presented his signature performance. He started the routine by doing freehand exercises and eventually stripped off until he was left with just a shower cap, swimming trunks and a pair of goggles.

"My performance lacks substance!" he shouted. "Be gone, substance! Let only the surface remain!"

Sung Neung-kyung presents his signature performance at the opening ceremony of his sixth-ever solo exhibition,
Sung Neung-kyung presents his signature performance at the opening ceremony of his sixth-ever solo exhibition, "As If Nothing … The Artistic Meandering of Sung Neung Kyung," at Baik Art, Feb. 22. Courtesy of Baik Art

The bit ended with the artist removing the sheets of aluminum foil that were covering all of his art pieces with audience members.

These metallic sheets ― partially recalling his 2001 performance piece, "Aluminum-Foil Man," where he wrapped his body in shiny swaths of foil and performed absurd martial arts moves ― urge the audience to approach art more critically instead of blindly consuming what is shown before their eyes, according to Sung.

Although the sheets are no longer there, his message still resonates throughout the gallery.

"You know, playing on the fringes of the art world has actually been quite fun. I've been telling my fellow creatives that they don't always need to gravitate toward whatever lies at the center. Being on the periphery doesn't mean the end of the world."

"As If Nothing … The Artistic Meandering of Sung Neung Kyung" runs through April 30 at Baik Art.

Installation view of Sung Neung-kyung's
Installation view of Sung Neung-kyung's "Smoking" (1976) at Baik Art / Courtesy of Baik Art

Park Han-sol

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