English | Korean

A Way to Live in a Vacant Lot

Jo, Eunbi [Art Space Pool Chief Curator]

The ground under the feet is mushy. Buildings, trees, grass and people above it cannot maintain stability. This year, we have clearly observed the collapse of things we once believed to be constructed on firm foundations. And we realized that the solidarity of modern systems, including nations and society, is dissolving and transforming – in flux.

Witnessing the collapse and failure of the system that constantly produces ‘trash’ by reason of efficiency and rationality, artists, more than anyone else, sensitively read the symptoms and anxiety of a time and give them form. Artists today have a tendency to work under uncertainty, rather than working towards certainty. Particularly, forms of art such as installations, or community based art works that seek collaboration and solidarity, have diversified in contemporary art after the 90’s. Above all, what is prominent under these circumstances is that certain art forms, like installations or videos have received attention, in contrast to the relative decline of painting.

In the beginning of this essay, I am not trying to argue the death of an era of painting nor talk about the reason for its existence. However, it is necessary to start with a self-reflection on painting in the context of contemporary art, in order to critique An Gyungsu’s work. In other words, it is crucial to look at the inquiries and concerns coming in and out of the canvas by an artist who is aware of reality. What scenery can a painter imbue while corresponding to the changing of era, and go beyond the characteristic and the limitation of the medium of painting? In this essay, I would like to focus on the potentiality and vitality of the ‘vacant lot,’ and on the other hand, grasp the instability and the fluid symptom shown in contemporary art within the changing flow and aspects of An’s work. 

Like Resembling What Is Seen

For the past couple of years, An Gyungsu has painted a middle zone, between construction sites and the natural landscape. Regardless of the gradual change in his perspective over time, An shows consistent interest in this ‘landscape of a middle zone’ that is derived from the contrast between nature and its surrounding artificial scenery or ‘surplus sites’ that deviate from the process of production and distribution. 

In his solo show, in 2008, he exposed the vulgar taste of city dwellers in artificial objects of nature and in the crudeness of fake nature - through landscapes that depicted paradise, zoos, or fake waterfalls, in the front restaurants or fake caves, etc. Here, artificial forms are empty façades where people’s idealized desires are projected – they are exterior landscapes that imply the lack and excesses of today. Also, these city artifacts reveal a critical consciousness of the artist because they are regulated by social systems and create spatial order based on it.

In his solo show in 2012, An’s conscious approach and attitude on landscape slightly changed. Moving his sphere of activity to Itaewon, An started to focus on the landscape where diverse ethnicities and classes coexisted. It showed the artist’s instinctive curiosity towards ‘uncertain things,’ such as people on the boundaries of the system. These interests were expressed through grass on the ruins of the construction site, some areas of buildings, or vacant lots, etc. Rather than the ‘social landscape’ of his previous works, An concentrated on the banal scenery of ‘vacant lots,’ easily seen in our surroundings. An creates existential connections with useless peripheral things or the residue of vacant lots, which he thinks resembles himself. The self-awareness of the artist relates to his situation of being located between the genres of art, as an artist whose major was oriental painting. Also it reminds us of the surplus attributes of art - that it is often regarded as useless in our social reality.

The artist is attached to the landscape in the way that he regards it as an object of experience, instead of locating it as an object of contemplation. This perspective starts from his looking at the ‘landscape’ as itself, which is no longer just an object for development from the capitalistic point of view, the artist’s own projection that reflects the fear of being abandoned, or just a subject matter for art that reveals his criticality. Removing strict intentionality from the editing process, the artist discovers a new methodology of “drawing what he sees” from his bodily experience. Here, “seeing” is not only a passive act that merely engages visual perception, but also an active act to understand and possess the object. This methodology is related to An’s habit of enjoying walks in his everyday life. The artist, who mostly walks a fair distance, becomes a flaneur and discovers hidden landscapes from all corners of the alley. Then he establishes a close relationship to what he sees, which allows him to become faithful to what he draws. 

Instead of trying to strongly assert a certain message, An allows us contemplate our reality more realistically. This also means, when social issues and critical awareness become a question for himself, he flows this into his paintings. Therefore, these re-investigations of landscapes are not only a mere imitation of reality (landscape), but also an act of re-presentation, through An’s experiential exploration. The artist’s concerns are condensed in this flat and even painting. This reveals itself upon closer look.

A Place for ‘Ambiguous Things’

These days, artists’ ‘migrations’ affect their ways of sustaining themselves and provide important physical conditions for their art. For this reason, some artists use material or tools that are easily transportable, while others actively incorporate their nomadic condition as the main context for their work. Owing to unstable conditions and situations in recent years, An Gyungsu has constantly moved and stayed in different locations. However, these changes of scenery in his surroundings have deeply influenced his practice.

In moving his studio to the countryside of Ilsan, Gyeonggi province, there was another change in the landscape that the artist viewed and walked in. Unlike the city’s vacant lots in his previous works, An observes ‘the periphery’, the middle zone between (metropolitan) city and the satellite cities, from outside of the city. There is also a difference from his perspective, which is to include a wide field of view in a frame, instead of depicting magnified parts of objects or landscapes. If he captured the border zone of anonymous vacant lots in his previous works, his new work shows someone’s habitat that emulates a sense of private space. The familiar suburban landscapes that do not gain much attention, such as the spaces that substitute for the role of houses like a vinyl greenhouse storage, warehouse, and container, look somehow unstable because they implicate the possibility of development, in spite of the trace of humans.

An Gyungsu grabs things that we forget as quickly as the pace of the developments that erase certain contexts. Then he elaborately depicts them in his paintings as if he is promising not to forget their traces. The painting that is made through the techniques of scattering or the accumulation of scratched materials, ironically show the very flat texture of the plane. He also expresses the incompleteness and fluidity of the ‘flat vacant lot’ through the drippings on the surface. The traces of dripped paint, scattering, scratches or the sense of foreign objects tactically separate the viewer from the paintings. In this case, the dripping on the surface that cannot easily be separated can be seen as a ‘parergon’, dividing the inside and outside of the picture. Derrida redefines the concept of Kant’s ‘parergon’, which means a subsidiary part of the work, as the element that allows the work to go beyond the contrast between the content and form, or the boundary between the inside and outside of the canvas. If we apply this interpretation in An’s painting, a ‘drip’ is the borderline of painting and non-painting, where the work is generated through disrupting all the binaries. In this in-between space, main elements of the work coexist with its foreign or subsidiary parts rather inducing the aesthetic substance of beauty. 

In his other recent piece, the artist makes the borderline image more concrete, then captures the very subtle moment into an image. Bright Night (2014) is a painting of an early evening landscape where darkness and brightness exist together. In this ‘in-between’ space, that is neither bright nor dark, the existence located in the border inevitably holds anxieties. But these anxieties are potentially mobile because they are constantly moving without pause. The other recent piece, which has the same title, shows both inside and outside of the landscape with a window in the middle.  The reflected surface of the window that transmits both street life and the fluorescent light indoors, is a border-line where inside and outside overlap. The landscape recalls ‘faint things’ that can exist both outside and inside. In order to possibly contemplate these indistinguishable things, An tries to visualize the in-distinguishability as an image. That is, to locate ‘vague things’ for him.

Distant Landscape

We encounter a hectic development process in our everyday lives. The precarious landscapes caught between these developments create a space that is emotionally unstable. They are “unfinished landscapes” that refuse to be landscapes. These ‘non-spaces’ of the middle zone only offer a physical space and a functional condition for dwelling. It is closer to a temporary residence than a fixed abode. As  ‘non-spaces,’ barren landscapes that deviate from development are, in other words, undigested remnants of capital and development’s desires.  Then, what does the artist attempt to do and actually see, and what does the audience learn through the existing “unfinished landscapes?”

 “Since pictures offer a proper point of view to the world, they are always connected to landscapes and interfere with each other (...) I always want my eyes to be looking at the world, to be constantly realistic, because artists must be capable of showing a certain attitude towards the world.”

- From the artist’s note

Moving beyond what narrative structure and pictorial expression can reveal, An Gyungsu explores the possibility of capturing certain ‘symptoms’ through his paintings, as he overcomes the inevitable physical restriction of painting. This means that regarding the problem of ‘seeing,’ the artist actively exposes his emotional changes that are generated when he encounters the world. The artist moves from gaps to borders, borders to vacant lots, “learning from landscapes.” He focuses on the potentials of the leftovers - the numerous vacant spaces of Korean society located between developments. The ‘fluid symptom’ retained in the objects, captured in his paintings is a metaphor for the conditions of our time and the blankness of Korean society.

The impossible spaces where development has ceased are retrievable because of their in-betweenness. The useless and pitiful features of things are the very reason of their potentiality. Walking straight into the landscape, the artist constantly makes brush strokes towards these possibilities. None of us in front of the drawing yet knows what we will encounter at the end of An’s journey.