Kim Gil-hu: Existence and Nothingness
City: Beijing
Curator: Wu Hong
Duration: 2018-09-02 ~ 2018-10-08
Opening: September 2,2018,4 PM
Venue: Songzhuang Contemporary Art Archive
Address: Songzhuang Art District, Tongzhou District, Beijing
Participating Artist(s): Kim Gil-hu
Host(s): Songzhuang Contemporary Art Archive

Producer:Hu Jiebao

Exhibition Directors:Shen Zhenxia、Li Xiaoting、Xiao Feng、Ma Jian、Jiang Xin、Yang Qing、Liu Jimin

Designer:Hu Yuwei

Exhibition Support:Korean Cultural Center.China

Multiple Visions:The Self,the Other,and the World in the Work of South Korean Artist Kim Gil-hu

Wu Hong

“The principle of the one reality is that all are equal, with no differences between things; there is no second.”

-A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms (Foxue Dacidian)

“Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form; what is form is emptiness, what is emptiness is form. The same can be said of sensation, thought, formation, and consciousness.

–The Heart Sutra

“One reality,” or bhūtatathatā, is the essential truth of the myriad things in this world. “One reality without differentiation” means that all things in the world have always been equal and without differentiation.

“Without differentiation” means that there is no differentiation or the consideration of differences between things, such as distinguishing the self from someone else, right from wrong, love from hate, good from evil, or beauty from ugliness. Differentiation is the beginning of a false heart; a true heart sees everything as equal.

Form is material; it is all things in the universe. Emptiness often points to the interrelatedness of the existences of various forms. All things are born of principal and secondary causes; both exist in a certain cause and effect relationship and cannot exist independently. In Buddhist doctrine, the material is inseparable from its existential relationships; there is no form apart from emptiness and no emptiness apart from form.

All of this is an epistemological resource for understanding Kim Gil-hu’s work. To understand how a particular artist’s worldview and values formed, we need to examine and analyze the individual’s broader social and cultural background and spiritual growth.

As I have had more opportunities to meet and collaborate with South Korean artists, my understanding of post-war Korean art has deepened. South Korean artists born in the 1960s and early 1970s, who we could consider the same generation, may have something in common in the deeper structure of their spiritual character. I call them the “angry generation” of modern South Korea. I’m not sure if my South Korean artist colleagues would agree with this formulation, but the emergence of this generational spiritual quality is inextricably linked to a specific period in South Korea’s post-war history.

Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan took power through a military coup, and their military junta ruled South Korea for more than twenty years. In that period, the efficient concentration of power in authoritarian rule allowed the South Korean economy to industrialize, a phenomenon called the “Miracle on the Han River.” However, they ruled with an iron fist, controlling popular will and preserving their dictatorship through a network of informants. In the later Roh Tae-woo presidency, authoritarian rule loosened, but its governing principles were still essentially an extension of the military authoritarian tradition, particularly with regard to surging demand among the people for democratization. During this period, a generation of South Korean young people were going out into society and, compared to the compromise and submission of the previous generation, they more often used direct street politics to express their desire for democracy. In the 1980s and 1990s, with the popularization of television, images of confrontations between young South Korean students and military and police forces in the streets were broadcast to audiences around the world. In the post-modern theory of the “gaze,” this was the world’s first lingering look into modern Korean society. Spurred by the television broadcasts of those years, the young students who clashed violently with the military and police in the streets came to make up the “angry generation” that emerged with advancing democratization in modern South Korea.

The “angry generation” responded to a dark time in the modern history of South Korea. Today, many South Koreans may still feel conflicted when reflecting on this period in history. On the one hand, it was the effective and powerful methods of an authoritarian government that laid the foundation for the industrialization of modern South Korea, and with the organizational methods of an industrialized society, the desire for democracy emerged among the people (even if this was not what the autocrats intended). On the other hand, due to the autocratic obsession with political “cleanliness,” they repressed appeals for democracy and tried to control ideas among ordinary South Koreans. Even today, a love-hate relationship still plagues the government, large corporations, and large consortiums in the South Korean political ecology. This is an irreconcilable emotional hole in the hearts of South Korean people.

In 1999, Kim Gil-hu set fire to 16,000 works he had made. To use a common Chinese expression, this is someone “who has already died once.” Why did he need to treat his works in such an extreme way? World art history does not lack for artists who have undergone a self-transformation, changing their artistic languages and styles, but there is no need to bid goodbye to the past in such a violent way. What compelled Kim to use this “suicidal” career move to complete his transformation? I think that, as a part of South Korea’s “angry generation,” he had to bid goodbye to this black period in South Korean history and the immense emotional black hole inside himself; in order to do that, he had to use an extreme method.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, there were two forces guiding the South Korean art scene: one was official art that represented mainstream ideology and the other was Dansaekhwa (the monochrome painting movement), which had the tacit approval and support of the government. The official art model is easy to understand; there are many similar phenomena in today’s Chinese art scene. Dansaekhwa is rather more complicated. Today, works by key Dansaekhwa artists, when placed within the capital machine, are setting new auction records in the modern Korean art market. However, Dansaekhwa was a non-cooperation movement in the autocratic period, and even widely praised the spiritual value of silent protest. In essence, Dansaekhwa received the tacit approval and support of the autocratic government because it was “harmless” politically and superficially labeled “modernist.” At the same time, it could only have appeared as an underground art phenomenon; it was movement art in the democratic struggle for the “angry generation” artists.

In addition to some works in the mainstream artistic style, the majority of Kim Gil-hu’s work prior to 1999 was movement art that directly reflected the emotions of the South Korean people during this time. Why did he want to completely destroy even the movement art? From Kim’s perspective, these works were excessively simple and superficial in their artistic expression due to the needs of the democratic struggle. However, the more important issue is, in the words of Kim’s friend and artist Jeon Song-yeong: “In the process of fighting with demons, people often bring some of that demon nature into themselves.” This is the key. Kim’s first series of works made after his rebirth in 2000 cannot simply be seen as a transformation in artistic style; its goal and meaning lie in the fight with the massive psychological black hole inside him.

Black Tears was Kim Gil-hu’s first new series after 2000. Black is the key color of the series. In terms of painting style, he no longer relies solely on the treatment of concrete details, and he highlighted an overall emotional expressiveness and psychology, which also hints at the intensely anti-technological elements of his later work. The base material for most of the series is paper. Kim chose paper as a material because he believes that paper can be like a sea sponge at some times, and like steel at others. The paradox between the forgiving and resistant qualities of paper reflects the complex emotions and ideas that the artist wanted to express in this period.

In the beginning, the paper was repeatedly layered to create a heavy, obscure black. This black is endless, devoid of signs of life. This visual abyss can swallow everything, symbolizing the universal fear, fragility, loneliness, pain, and worry pent up inside ordinary people in a particular stage in South Korea’s history. Like the first part of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the low and solemn composition suggests humanity’s suffering, helplessness, and struggle. As the figures slowly emerge, the scene is bleak, and all vitality is nonexistent, as if it were a scene from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The works express the artist’s endless despair, grief, and deep pain. They seem to comprise a profound, endless prison, or reflect the terror and confusion before a storm starts, or depict a remote, quiet place without a hint of life. In these wastelands entirely without vitality, people are neither living nor dead, and are both living and dead. All that lies in their hearts are disillusionment and despair. After the low and solemn overture in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the percussion and wind instruments suddenly become more prominent, as if a crack has opened in the dark, remote skies and the sun can shine through. In Kim Gil-hu’s gloomy, desolate scenes, white that symbolizes hope and goodness appears in the figure’s eyes or in the mysterious sky. This white is a trace lurking below the surface that the artist reveals by tearing at the paper or striking the paper with hammer and chisel. This process seems like a battle, a fight between human goodness and dignity and human ugliness and ruthlessness. The target of this fight is not just tyranny and dictatorship or the fragility and weakness of human nature under tyranny and dictatorship; the target is also the giant psychological black hole that, in the prolonged fight against tyranny, is formed after human nature is homogenized by oppression and ugliness. This is a reflection on human suffering, but it is also a deeper reflection on human nature amidst this suffering.

Like this series, many of Kim’s works have names related to “the gaze.” In the post-modern philosophical context, “the gaze” refers to a way of looking that carries a mechanism of power, a web of desire, and an awareness of identity. The viewer is the subject that is looking, as well as the subject with the power and desire; the viewed is the object of this look, as well as the object in this power relationship. The acts of looking and being looked at constitute a subject and an object, the Self and the Other, but the interweaving of multiple visions makes it possible for the positions of the subject and object to shift. Thus, “the gaze” leads to the active process of looking, which produces complex and diverse social and political relationships. After experiencing bloody uprisings and resistance, after democracy became consensus among the South Korean public, and particularly after Kim Dae-jung’s government established democratic rights in law, simply criticizing dictatorship became like a political show, another form of movement art. In Kim Gil-hu’s work, there is a transformation in the subject and object of looking and contemplation, and the contemplation of humans and human nature become the deepest and most precious spiritual quality in his work. Kim Dae-jung, former South Korean president and Nobel Prize winner for his work advocating Korean reconciliation, once said that we should hate the crime, not the man.

Because of the deeply contemplative themes in Black Tears and his reflections on human suffering, Kim came to wonder why human nature permits this suffering, which allowed him to enter the creative state necessary for his second series: Secret Garden.

As Kim has said, after making Black Tears, people thought that he was a pessimist and a nihilist. Reflecting on this, he said, “After four years of deep pain, I made Black Tears. Then I looked back and asked, ‘When were my good times?’” In fact, even in the process of completing Black Tears, the themes that interested Kim suggested new possibilities. “Light shone in the darkness of my paintings. Perhaps sadness can be cured with even greater sadness. I know that even if they live in a highly developed and peaceful society, there are many people who are grieving.” The Chinese author Lu Xun once wrote that tragedy is showing the destruction of the valuable things in life to an audience. The goal of an artist expressing the tragedies of human life is not to encourage degradation and negativity; it is to force people to discover the value and beauty of the valuable things in life even as they deal with the immense psychological force of tragedy. Following this line of thinking, Kim realized that, in the later period of the Black Tears series, he had to re-emerge from this suffering and transcend the limitations of time and society. He had to focus on the larger themes in life. “In any case, when the sun sets behind the mountains, I will climb to the top of the mountain again, looking carefully for a rainbow.” This process is like waiting for hope in a hopeless place, as Samuel Beckett suggested in Waiting for Godot. Alternatively, Albert Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus” shows that within the universal predicaments of human reality, the existential value of man lies only in his constant search.

With the Secret Garden series, Kim Gil-hu moved past his deep reflections on the dark period in modern South Korean history and the resulting psychological black hole, and he shifted toward re-thinking contemporary South Korean society and the role of fate in life.

As I have mentioned, beginning in the early 1960s, South Korea experienced the “political correctness” of economic development and rapid industrialization during the Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan periods, and this industrialization reached its peak while Roh Tae-woo was in power. In just thirty years, South Korea had transformed itself from a traditional agrarian society into a highly industrialized developed nation; this development took place with unusual speed. During the Park Chung-hee era, he proposed Saemaul Undong or the “New Village Movement” to solve a series of social issues that had arisen in the course of rapid industrialization, but for ordinary South Koreans, a nostalgia for a lost spiritual home had already spread. In The Future of Nostalgia, Harvard University professor Svetlana Boym writes, “Nostalgia… is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy.”[1] “At first glance, nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time—the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams.”[2] After he made Black Tears series, it is precisely this pervasive collective unconscious that focused Kim’s mind on a more essential level of human nature. The combination of external social factors and internal personal needs compelled him to return to a nostalgic motif, namely, the childhood experiences that so often serve as a spiritual home for people. Of course, this childhood experience has a basis in reality. Kim’s father was an entrepreneur who loved art and calligraphy, but more importantly, he dealt with his children in an open-minded and democratic way, something seldom seen in traditional Korean households. His mother was a traditional Korean woman who cared deeply for her children. His parents shared a love of gardening, and their house had a small garden filled with all kinds of plants. His parents’ hobby also influenced the young Kim, and as a child, he dreamed of being a gardener when he grew up. The first thing he would do every day after he got home from school was tend to the plants in the garden. Though Secret Garden has a foundation in reality, Kim Gil-hu has made it much more idealistic; it is a fond memory of a garden that never really existed or a cultural ideal and a spiritual source. In the works in this series, the artist is magically transformed into a neutral person that is neither male nor female, which could be seen as a symbol of a universal human nature. This spirit-like neutral person lives in a dreamy garden, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is a pure world without specific temporal or spatial references. The object that corresponds to the Self is a purified lily. When he was a child, lilies were Kim’s favorite plant in his parents’ garden. In English, the flower has a double meaning, but it often symbolizes the pure of heart. In a pure world before time started and all meaning unfolded, the Self and the lily gaze at one another, converse with one another, cozy up to one another, and have intercourse with one another. These images have transcended sexual love between men and women to achieve a spiritual fusion of meaning. In the Bible, the Garden of Eden symbolizes an existence before the production of meaning. It was a place without shame because the concept of shame had not yet arisen in humanity. In Buddhism, “a heart that does not differentiate” is a very important concept. It is not the failure to understand good and evil; it is the equal treatment of good and evil people. If you have a true heart, there is no difference. The idea that Kim wants to convey in this series is that, in a realm where there is no difference between the Self and the Other, the Other looks at the Self, and the Other and the Self fuse with one another, each causing the other to produce meaning. In the end, this transforms the Self into an observer of the gaze itself.

In the process of creating Secret Garden, Kim Gil-hu traces his childhood experiences. On the foundation of universal nostalgic emotions and through the symbolic expression of the relationship between man and object, we re-examine the significant connections between the Self and the Other. Through the dual vision of the Self and the Other, we come to consider the final meaning of life.

After this, Kim Gil-hu’s work entered a freer and broader realm.

In Kim’s intellectual logic, his later series Carving can be seen as an extension of the Secret Garden series. Through the works in Thinking Hands, Wise Man, and Hero series, he reconsiders the combinations of universal concepts such as the spiritual and the material, the momentary and the eternal, the lofty and the ordinary, thereby subverting human intellectual and spiritual history. As Nietzsche wrote, “And lately I heard him say this word: God is dead!”[3] Breaking with all fixed conceptual limitations, he re-evaluates everything so that everything can be re-named.

In recent years, Kim Gil-hu’s work has undergone another change. In one sense, his artworks are no longer pure black; there is a color symbolism within the black tone. Gold and silver are most common; like the brass and woodwind tones in a symphony, their emergence always announces hope and confidence. He has also shown a deep interest in line in his works over the last few years. He has said that he “uses oils to paint ink paintings” in this portion of his work. The motivation for this approach came from an interesting story. Kim Gil-hu met a Tibetan wise man in South Korea, and this wise man told him that a Tang-era artisan painter from Dunhuang was the previous incarnation of the late Ming and early Qing painter Bada Shanren. In his later incarnations, he appeared in South Korea as a person called Kim Gil-hu. This wise man told Kim that he was Kim Gil-hu. Therefore, he changed his name from Kim Dong-gi to Kim Gil-hu. For someone who became a devout Buddhist at age 14, this experience was a rebirth. He believed that he was that Tang-era artisan and used painting as a method in his spiritual practice. In his work, his study and understanding of line is the result of this spiritual cultivation. He has simplified his material life to its most primal state, even as he works intensely to focus his attention on understanding line in painting. In the end, he realized that line was the most direct way to express man’s essential state. In symbology, the meanings of primitive marks are set as symbols, finally creating a fixed linguistic expression, a process of encoding meaning. Today, within the highly formulaic technical system and linguistic logic of traditional ink painting, painters can only follow their forebearers’ fixed formulations, a trend that represents the decline in traditional ink painting. Kim’s confidence comes from his attempts to use the materials of oil painting to achieve a revolution in ink painting. Like the pre-destined relationship between the name “Kim Gil-hu” and that anonymous Tang-dynasty artisan, he believes that this is fate telling him that this is his duty. Kim’s working methods encode this fixed linguistic logic, separating signifier and signified. In this way, lines once again become markings through languages and symbols, thereby giving them new meaning and new freedom. In Kim’s recent works, we discover that line has an ambivalent connection to form, though line is also independent. Line embodies rhythm and meter, which is consistent with changes in the human heart rate, breathing, and emotions. With one stroke, Kim directly communicates his intentions, entirely without adornment. He then connects his painting to man’s most essential spiritual states and lived meanings.

This exhibition could be seen as the epitome of Kim Gil-hu’s artistic explorations since 2000. Whether these works are his perceptions of life or the expression of his artistic ideas and techniques, they are the inevitable result of his use of art as a form of spiritual cultivation and Zen meditation. More interestingly, in this exhibition, his paintings once again shift from the two-dimensional to the three-dimensional. This shift is an experiment with formal language, but it also reflects an engagement with materials and concepts. First, this combination of line and three-dimensional form is not some Cubist transformation; in order to further liberate the properties of line, he does not assume that one must arrive at three-dimensional form via two-dimensional form. In this way, he has essentially relaxed the structurally encoded assumptions between line and three-dimensional form, which returns line to the objectified state of a pure spirit. Second, the use of packing boxes as a material is a metaphor for a philosophical suggestion; the packing boxes are like the clothing on people’s bodies. They are the materialization of a concept, but when rendered in wood, they are empty objects. They symbolize the relationship between material and concept, signifier and signified, existence and nothingness, which simply constitutes a logical framework. Within this framework, Kim brings us back to his Secret Garden. The lines migrate along the surfaces and inside these boxes, like plants growing aimlessly. They are flowers and not flowers, people and not people, but they are akin to those apsaras floating in empty space in the Dunhuang grottoes. Here, Kim Gil-hu poses a simple question worthy of deep reflection: Can the existence of man be more meaningful than that of plants?

Kim Gil-hu has also painted two massive paintings for this exhibition, which are respectively comprised of the figures of father and daughter, mother and son. The father and mother figures are fused with the shapes of trees, serving as a metaphor for the relationship between humanity and nature. In “one reality without differentiation,” all are equal, without difference.

In this solo exhibition, Kim Gil-hu constructs a massive labyrinth of meaning, an allegory of the existential values of man, society, nature, and all things. It once again asks those eternal questions about the origins, meaning, and end of human life: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where do we want to go? At the same time, he also reveals the existential essence of the mutual references, mutual reliance, and mutual production of meaning that exists between man and society, man and nature, and man and all things.

In reflecting on a dark period in South Korean history and in his internal interrogations of the psychological black hole created inside the South Korean people during this dark period, Kim Gil-hu examined and referenced the “multiple visions” of the various relationships and issues between the Self, the Other, society, nature, and all things, creating a linguistic logic and model for his work. As a Chinese art theorist and researcher, I have further engaged with ways of looking at modern South Korean history and culture through this case study of Kim Gil-hu. In this process, because he has invested his emotions, he has become the target of this looking. This is a process of transformation, between seeing and being seen, subject and object. Here, I am looking at Kim’s “results,” which is also the lens through which he looks at me. The interweaving of multiple visions is the site of infinite meaning production and artistic charm.

August 10-18, 2018

Beijing and Dalian

(Wu Hong: Art critic, curator, editor-in-chief of, managing director of the Songzhuang Contemporary Art Archive, and a guest professor and graduate advisor at Jilin College of the Arts)


Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia, New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None. Translated by Thomas Wayne. New York: Algora Publishing, 2003.

[1] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), xiii.

[2] Boym, xv.

[3] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, trans. Thomas Wayne (New York: Algora Publishing, 2003), 67.


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[Editor] 张艳