Ha Chong-Hyun

Material experimentation to redefine the function of painting.

Words by Subin Anderson

Photography by Jae Kim

As an artist who undeniably paved the way for Korean art to flourish, Ha Chong-Hyun consistently uses material experimentation and innovative processes to redefine the function of painting. He has played a vital part in connecting the avant-garde traditions between East and West. Ha is one of the leading members of Dansaekhwa, a movement that grew out of the turmoil after Korea’s independence from the Japanese (1945), and the end of the Korean War (1953). Dansaekhwa means ‘monochrome’ in Korean, however, it refers to a diverse set of artistic traditions that focus on process, tactility, and surface.

During this period of dramatic social change, Dansaekhwa artists were committed to redefining modern art and disregarded scholarly mainstream patterns. For Ha, this provided him with an opportunity to challenge his art practice, creating works that question spatiality and political culture. His choice of materials also reflected this time: in his paintings, Ha began experimenting with wire and burlap, a woven material used in deliveries of grains from the United States Army after the war. It was in this time when Ha intentionally isolated himself from Western influences as he was embarking on his style of Dansaekhwa, resulting in the ‘Conjunction’ series.

Decades later, Ha’s oeuvres are receiving the global attention they have always deserved. One of his revered works from the series, Conjunction 74-26 (1974), is presently on show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In his mid-80s, he still paints to this day, finding an approach through which possibility seems unlimited. We chat with Ha Chong-Hyun in his studio in Ilsan about his exploration of materiality and how the artists and their artworks act as a cultural bridge creating a culture for one’s country.

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Ha Chong-Hyun's studio in Ilsan.
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Subin Anderson: How did you begin your art practice? And over time, how has the meaning of art evolved for you?

Ha Chong-Hyun: There was no specific occasion, but I grew up hearing from my peers that I had a talent in handcrafting. I was also in an environment where most of my colleagues were good at drawings and art. So, it was a natural phenomenon for me to delve into this route, and this led me to major in art at Hongik University. During this time, there was no proper system given nor a clear sense of direction in the art scene. This allowed the creative industry to have endless growth and it provided me with an opportunity to venture in various ways. So, I kept on learning, not to satisfy myself, but to mitigate the lack of information about Korean art.

I have to say, it was a time of confusion, but at the same time, it was a period when history could be reorganized to set a clear vision for the future. Since nothing was defined about the Korean Art, it was, and still is, the responsibility of myself, my fellow Korean artists, authors, and scholars to recognize the need for establishing our aesthetics, culture, and theory.

Your work has gained worldwide reputation because of its holistic and meditative process, rather than focusing solely on rationality and logic.

I personally believe that my originality is expressed through my own unique way of working. My processes and the materials that I use do not belong to a certain artistic movement but relate to my own ways of finding new methods and techniques. Through this process, I feel deep gratification to myself.

In my works, you can see that as the objects are introduced into the three-dimensional work on a flat plane, the resemblance of the body and the action through the work is actively intervened. Every single one of these gestures are visually represented and revealed in each of the works.

“When I set a mind on trying something new, I don’t imagine the unknown process but rather to just start and experiment.” – Ha Chong-Hyun

Unlike the other Dansaekhwa works, you have a signature style, where you create your own canvas with a loose weave of coarse burlap and push the paint from the back to the front; a unique technique. Also, you painted the canvas with smoke and tried to see the paint out between several wooden boards. Through these processes you must have been inspired to learn about other elements that you haven’t even thought about.

When I set my mind on trying something new, I just start to experiment. This is similar to baking or pottery. The key is how to choose from what has already existed and to give myself absolute freedom of choice as well.

The story behind working with the loose weave of coarse burlap was that during that time in my past, this material was commonly found during the Korean War and it struck to me as an exciting new material to work with, as well as a representation of the situation of the times. The wire that was used in my early works can be seen as a similar context.

When I first tried the smoke method, the paint actually dropped and fell on my hands, burning them. All of this trial and error is just a part of the process and I feel the greatest excitement about my experimental attitude; it reflects greatly through my works.

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Ha's signature technique involves pushing oil paint through the back of the work, instead of brushing it onto the front, and embedding the surface with nontraditional materials.

Can you talk about your ‘Conjunction’ and ‘Post Conjunction’ series?

The works of the ‘Conjunction’ series are the decisive moments that allowed me to belong to the Dansaekhwa movement. All of my adventurous and experimental attitudes are inherited in this series, and it also reflects my motivation towards the new challenges ahead of me.

The ‘Post Conjunction’ series also stands in the context of an endless challenge and motivating attitudes that are reflected through my works. It can be seen as the result of the inspirations of my dreams.

 

It seems that the way of working and the meaning of the work have changed throughout your career. At this current phase of your artistry, are there any materials or stories that you would like to explore?

Change is difficult especially when it comes to artwork. It’s always a new adventure but I am constantly trying. If I achieve something from this exploration, then I will be in a new state, but if I fail, I will leave with unfinished work. So, I remind myself not to rush and enjoy the time making new works.

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“Everything that I have done so far throughout my entire life, would be absolutely nothing and empty without challenges and freedom of my own passion.”

It’s a unique experience when one encounters a work that immediately resembles and connects to a particular artist. Each glass holds an extensive (both personal and political) history and when the glass is put together, they create a present similar to the person you are right now.

I’m glad that the oversized, slightly baroque glass bead proudly bearing these scars is, along with the glass brick, perceived as my signature. An artist needs to be recognizable through the smallest detail of one of their works–it is perhaps called style. Unless it is just a singular gesture that gives us a little different place in the great history of art and the world.

 

What are your unrealized projects?

I would like to create an agora in the public space, like the place of speech among the Greeks, a small open-air arena where everyone could gather and speak before the city. I have already made a small agora of metal bricks covered like an igloo, shown at Petit Palais. It is like the model for this giant project that I would like to realize in a public space. The idea that protected speech can exist within a city seems important today. We live in a society where we are constantly monitored and recorded. I think that the only place of freedom that can still exist in the field of art and that a work of art itself can be a setting that protects the freedom of speech.

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