In the ethereal realm where art intertwines with the human spirit, one name stands out like a beacon of boundless creativity—Park Seo Bo. A visionary artist and a master of his craft, Park Seo Bo has redefined the very essence of artistic expression, transcending the conventional boundaries of form and technique. His methodology, a symphony of strokes and textures, reflects a profound understanding of the elusive connection between art and the soul. We met Park at the GIZI Foundation to learn more about his methodology and the foundations of his art.
PLUS: You have always been drawn to a painting on a large canvas from your early career. I am curious to know why.
Park Seo Bo: Surely, when you are young and strong is the perfect time to create large-scale paintings! I knew, even back then, that with age, I’d lose the physical stamina to work on projects of such size.
P: During our initial conversation, you mentioned how Dansaekhwa translates to ‘monochromatic’ painting but holds more than that. Can you elaborate more on this?
PSB: Colour is not a central aspect of the concept of Dansaekhwa, and the word is not antonymous to polychromatic art. This art movement originated from a spiritual pursuit of unity with nature by emptying oneself. Artists who embraced this movement made minimal use of colors and applied them in indistinct and shadowy ways that rendered them nameless. The term ‘Dansaekhwa’ was coined by someone who merely observed the art’s visual aspects, which in my view, is a misnomer. Having said that, I think there are three distinct hallmarks of Dansaekhwa as it is now known. Firstly, the act is purposeless. Secondly, the act is repeated endlessly. In this respect, parallels may be drawn between the act of creating Dansaekhwa and the Buddhist monk’s continual chanting of ‘namuamitabul’ to the beat of a wooden gong in his quest to empty himself. Lastly, there is a spiritualization of materiality that occurs during the act. If the artist emptied himself but the work lacks spirituality, it is at best a superficial representation of Dansaekhwa, devoid of any authenticity.
P: The recent show at White Cube West Palm Beach was composed of acrylic (recent works) and pencil-based (works from the 70s) Ecriture. It allowed the viewers to experience your past and present and the progression of your oeuvres. Can you tell us about this?
PSB: Regrettably, I was unable to attend the show due to my current inability to endure long flights. As a young artist, I adhered to the belief that minimizing colors would bring forth the essence of the artwork, which is why I preferred achromatic tones.
P: You have expressed the notion of emptying oneself through repetition and your desire to leave remanence in your work. What is it about the ‘emptiness’ that is special to you?
PSB: I have always aspired to be a good artist and worked tirelessly to attain this goal. However, as my desires grew, so did my doubts about whether I was on the right path. In 1955, I sought guidance from Venerable Kim Il Yop at Sudeoksa Temple, asking him, “How can I become a good artist?” He replied, “First, you must practice the cultivation and emptying of oneself. If you are consistent in this pursuit, you will meet Buddha and succeed in becoming a good artist.” I concurred with his view that achieving my goal required emptying myself. However, this presented a new challenge of how the act of emptying myself could lead to the creation of art.
One day in 1967, I stumbled upon my younger son, then age three, as he tried to write in a notebook belonging to his older brother, who had just started school. He struggled to write neatly inside the squares that lined the page, but failing miserably, he began to scribble randomly instead. That was the moment of epiphany. Inspired by his act of resignation, I started penciling line after line endlessly. It was thus the world of Ecriture came into being.
I am, by nature, a man of great passion and drive. It is when I am immersed in the repetitive act of drawing lines that I am relieved of myself, and the medium on canvas reveals its materiality and comes to life. As I work, my passions, such as greed and agony, fade away. An empty mind and silence fill me in their stead. These are the moments I relish in life.
P: Do you have your own ways of emptying yourself outside of art-making?
PSB: In my showroom in Seoul, I have a statue of Buddha and a chair set before it. My mind finds peace whenever I sit there, just aimlessly gazing at the statue. I cherish such moments of tranquility.
P: There is a transition from utilizing pencil to acrylic in your works. Through this, the strokes have been more noticeable and linear.
PSB: As I mentioned earlier, I am unable to replicate the powerful and rhythmical lines that I used to draw in my youth. I can only do what my 92-year-old body allows me to do. Just as my breath has gotten shorter, so has the length of my strokes. And since strength has left my fingers, the lines are visibly thinner. If you look closely, they are probably not straight and may even quiver due to the tremor of my feeble hands. That said, my pencil strokes are more closely knit together, resulting in an enhanced sense of density.
P: Since we are discussing about the strokes, I want to talk about your previous exhibition, ZIGZAG: Eriture 1983-1992 (Curated by Katharine Kostyál at White Cube Mason’s Yard, London), where you showed ‘zigzag’ paintings. Tell me more about this methodology, as it feels more rhythmic.
PSB: In 1983, I participated in The International Paper Conference hosted in Kyoto, Japan, alongside renowned artists like Shoichi Ida, Robert Rauschenberg, and David Hockney. During one of the sessions, I commented, “The Western paper is impervious to paint, causing the color to bounce off its surface. The Eastern paper, on the other hand, absorbs color and becomes one with it. Herein lies the difference between Western paper and hanji, the traditional Korean paper.” I also pointed out that when the artist unleashes his ideas onto paper, it serves as a base on which the images stand. But if this were all, is a sheet of paper any different from a canvas or a plank of wood? Since 1982, I have explored how I could use hanji to create something that showcased the materiality and existence of the paper itself. After countless trials and errors, I succeeded in using a pencil to make spontaneous incisions into traditional Korean paper still wet from soaking in water, which resulted in lasting tracks that revealed the paper’s materiality. Many have commented on the sense of dynamism created by the multi-directionality of the zigzag patterns. It was for me, personally, one of the most physically taxing projects in my oeuvre.
P: Congratulations on the recent announcement of your museum in Jeju! It’s expected to open next year (2024), and curious to know how the museum will hold not only your legacy but also Korean art, at large.
PSB: To be precise, it is not so much an art museum as it is an exhibition space. It will be built on the grounds of JW Marriott in the southern part of Jeju Island. Fernando Menis was hired as the chief architect, as per my request, and the GIZI Foundation participated in the design process. Fernando Menis did an excellent job. The hotel, GIZI Foundation and I have all come to highly value his passion and dedication.
The GIZI Foundation will curate the works to be displayed in the new space, and I trust them to put together a beautiful exhibition that showcases my art from the early days to my more recent works. They are also planning to organize shows featuring the works of myself and other contemporary artists in their collection. I am eagerly anticipating the completion of the Park Seo Bo Exhibition Space at JW Marriott Resort and Spa, situated on the beautiful Olle Trail No. 7. I am excited for the visitors to experience fine art in a compelling way through the curated contents that the Foundation is developing.
“Great art has the power to move and change people’s minds, and I hope that my works can bring comfort and healing to those who view them.” – Park Seo Bo
P: You also conduct a docent program at your studio, inviting the public and building stronger engagement with art. It seems like the idea of engagement has always been your foundation in your life.
PSB: Great art has the power to move and change people’s minds, and I hope that my works can bring comfort and healing to those who view them. While some people may appreciate the beauty of artworks immediately, others find abstract paintings difficult to grasp. That is why GIZI Foundation has launched docent-led tours, to help people gain more knowledge about art and to deepen their appreciation and enjoyment of it. I can see that the members of the Foundation find engaging with the public to be fun and rewarding. I feel the same way, which is why I have also started using Instagram to connect with a wider audience.
P: You have spent decades as an artist and experienced all the hardship and agony as Korea developed. During those moments, how did you push yourself and step out of your comfort zone?
PSB: I’ve lived through WWII and the Korean War, and there was a time when I had to confront hunger on a daily basis. Back then, such suffering was a shared experience and not unique to me. Yet, the established artist community remained complacent even as the times demanded change. I, on the other hand, could not simply paint female nudes or flower vases when the scars of war still remained fresh in my mind. Thus, I worked on the Protoplasm series to express the zeitgeist of the era. Many other experiments followed thereafter, not all of them satisfactory.
I often say, “If one fails to change, he will fall. But if he does change, he will fall just the same,” to sum up the inevitable predicament an artist will face as he strives to build and refine his art. I believe that as artists, we must endeavor to change. But it is also important to recognize that change must not be pursued so abruptly. One must work at length to arrive at this change; otherwise, a premature attempt may dismantle one’s life’s work up to that point. I began developing the Ecriture in the late 1960s, and it was only in the early 1970s that I first revealed the fruits of my endeavors. Significant evolutions of Ecriture also underwent extensive periods of preparation.
To say that one must change, but do so meaningfully, poses a difficult problem for the artist to come up with a solution that is at once straightforward and challenging to execute. It is like the two sides of a coin. Or, more precisely, the artist is tasked with something that is very much like keeping the coin spinning like a top without falling. Yes, the demands on the artist are onerous.
Portrait of Park Seo-Bo. Photo: Hangil Lee