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Suh explores essence of Korean culture through 'hanji'

2011/09/21 | 490 views |  | Permalink | Source

Small pieces of rolled and cut hanji, or traditional Korean mulberry paper, create the universe of artist Suh Jeong-min, 49.

But Suh doesn't just use any paper; he uses scrap hanji paper used for calligraphy.

Once rolled up, the paper is cut horizontally, vertically or diagonally to produce light and shade on canvas as the existing calligraphic letters form black lines on the surface.

"I make my artworks by compressing thrown-away paper, but they generate new energy through me", Suh said in an interview with The Korea Times at Jongienara Paper Art Museum in Seoul, Monday.

Suh majored in Western painting and worked with oils and watercolors for decades. "I felt limits in such Western methods. As an artist, I wanted to do original, unique works", he said. "I sought the line of Korea and went through experiments with lines drawn by 'meok', or Korean ink. One day, the growth ring-like lines of rolled paper struck me".

The artist said his works are the result of coincidence and inevitability. "Instead of drawing my own lines with meok, I find the lines from what others already wrote".

Suh's works are labor-intensive. First, he collects scrap hanji paper from several calligraphy studios and flattens and dries the paper. Then he rolls it, sometimes with colored paper, and then cuts or splits them. Then the slices or pieces of rolled paper are glued onto a canvas based on a rough sketch.

It takes about two to three months to complete a piece with some 5,000 to 10,000 small pieces of rolled paper.

"I have to roll and cut it several times to make a piece used for my work. I work more than 12 hours a day", Suh said. "The piles of rolled hanji are stacked in front of three sides of my studio. I'm thinking of moving to a larger workshop to accommodate them and create more voluminous works".

For him, working with the traditional Korean paper has a larger meaning. "Hanji is made from mulberry tree bark and I make a shape of a tree on canvas using waste paper. It implies a process of the circle of life".

His works are also related to Eastern philosophy such as Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. "The original texts on the paper are scriptures of Confucius and Buddha. However, they are rolled, cut and reconstructed through my interpretation", Suh said.

"Painting in oils can be amusing as the color and shape is immediately visible. However, my work takes much longer", he said. "Still, I think what I do is meaningful".

Suh's artistry of sweat and labor is gaining popularity overseas as well.

He first participated in the Istanbul Art Fair three years ago and every piece he took there sold.

"These are all handmade and it is difficult to find such manual artwork these days. I think that is the reason why my work is popular in Europe", he said. "They have an insight of discovering the creativity in my work".

Suh's works were exhibited in many countries including China, Venezuela and Pakistan and featured in art fairs in Turkey, Germany and Taiwan.

He participated in the Basel Art Fair in Switzerland in June and one of his works sold to Hauser and Wirth, one of the world's leading contemporary art galleries. "They said it was their second acquisition of a Korean artist's work".

Currently, an exhibition of Suh's works is on display at Jongienara Paper Art Museum in Jangchung-dong, Jung-gu, central Seoul. After the exhibition in Korea, he will visit Germany, Switzerland and Istanbul later this year to present the essence of Korean culture through hanji. More countries including Japan, Italy and France are being lined up for next year.

"I have to take my artwork seriously and intensely. That is why I always try new ways of cutting rolled paper or gluing them. It is happy to leave something beautiful in the world as an artist", Suh said.

By Kwon Mee-yoo

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