SEOUL – The multimedia artist Kim Kulim has ridden the wave of South Korea’s transformation from a country mired in a civil war 70 years ago to the economic and artistic powerhouse that it is today, emerging as a central figure – some would say the father – of its avant-garde movement in the 1960s and ’70s.
Now, at age 85, he is making his debut at TEFAF in Maastricht, the Netherlands, with three paintings from the last few years on display next week. He is one of seven artists to be represented at the fair by the sprawling Ghana Art gallery in Seoul.
On a breezy morning last month in his home and studio in the hills of Pyeongchang-dong, an affluent area of Seoul, Mr. Kim chatted about his life, surrounded by a lifetime of memorabilia including a film projector, cameras and reels from his 1969 movie “The Meaning of 1/24 Second,” a seminal work in the history of Korean experimental film. There were dusty books about art and history on shelves; paintbrushes, canvases and specks of paint on the studio floor; and a hodgepodge of old musical instruments hung on walls that he has collected and sometimes made into pieces of art.
Accompanied by his wife, Hwang Sunhee, 68, who is in the process of archiving his lifetime of work, Mr. Kim spoke about the urgency to continue as an artist despite – and also because of – recent health issues. Mr. Kim’s works also will be part of an exhibition next year (dates to be determined) at the Guggenheim in New York, “The Avant-Garde: Experimental Art in South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s,” in conjunction with the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Seoul. Although he is not traveling to Maastricht, Mr. Kim said he was determined to attend the Guggenheim show. He lived in New York in the 1980s.
His determination to produce new works – whether in sculpture, performance art or painting – has only been amplified by other recent issues, such as the coronavirus pandemic. The chance to introduce his art to new audiences is an honor at his age, he said.
“In the wake of this pandemic, I came to ask myself, ‘What can I do as a living creature on this earth?'” He said through a translator. “I want to showcase new works rather than old ones at Maastricht because I want to remain relevant and be introduced to new artists. We never know what is going to be ahead at any age. ”
Mr. Kim is considered by many to be South Korea’s first avant-garde artist. Along with Lee Seung-taek, 90, and Kwak Duck-jun, who was born in 1937, Mr. Kim ushered in a new vision of South Korean art born from the ashes of the Korean War. As the country spent more than three decades in back-to-back military dictatorships, these artists challenged the often-dire conditions of daily life, seemingly light-years away from the current consumer culture of K-pop and high fashion.
“Throughout my career, I’ve always touched on a lot of social issues,” he said. “When I first started as an artist, and even now, I have kept myself informed about current events all over the world.”
The pandemic has been one such event. War was another.
“The opposing elements of life are everywhere,” Mr. Kim said. “I want to depict desire in the age of chaos, and chaos comes from all the contradictions I’ve experienced throughout my life.”
His has been a life of contradictions, and of bearing witness to his country’s history. Mr. Kim was born in 1936 in a small town and grew up under Japanese occupation in the 1930s and ’40s. His father, a practitioner of Asian medicine, also managed a movie theater, and Mr. Kim recalled prominent actors of the time milling about the family home. He entered college in 1955 but dropped out after less than a year to study art on his own. He remembers learning about the contemporary art scene in America by looking at the Time and Life magazines that US soldiers had left behind after the war.
While doing his required military service in 1956, he was hospitalized for several months after a severe beating from a gang of other members of the military band who were, he said, jealous that he was favored by the bandleader for his exceptional playing of the French horn. The hospital conditions were brutal in the years after the war, he said, and in the slow process of regaining his strength he saw several men die from malnutrition or a lack of medicine.
But his early works depicting postwar South Korea and decades of military rule are far from the themes he has focused on during the past two years. The paintings at TEFAF in Maastricht formed part of his “Yin and Yang” solo show last year at Gana Art and are more indicative of his mood, and that of his country, in more recent times.
“These days because the country is richer and much better off, my works reflect that atmosphere,” Mr. Kim said. “I use bright colors and tones now, which is the exact opposite of the dark tones that my art and my country used to represent.”
That evolution from dark to colorful is no surprise to the artists and curators who have charted his career and the history of the avant-garde movement in South Korea.
“From the very start of his career, Mr. Kim went beyond the traditional medium of painting and sculpture, ”said Soojung Kang, a senior curator at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. “He gathered young artists in the field of theater, music and literature, and with them he questioned the status quo in our country.”
“As a trained sculptor, the canvas is new for Mr. Shim, but he still feels like he’s working on a sculpture, ”said Jung Lee, executive director of Gana Art. “He does a lot of layering in both sculpting and in painting.”
The ability to merge two styles is also evident in the works of Yeesookyung, Mr. Jung said. She is also a sculptor and painter with roots in performance art.
“At first I thought it was completely random that we chose these three artists for their debuts at TEFAF Maastricht,” Mr. Jung said. “But one common thread is that they started more in the performing arts and now they focus more on painting.”
With Mr. Kim’s work about to be introduced to his newest audience in Maastricht he still paints almost every day, inspiring others.
“Mr. Kim never gives up, and he always seeks to find something new, and this has always excited me, ”said Ms. Soojung, who will assist with the Guggenheim show but not with a solo exhibition of Mr. Kim’s work at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art next year.
“I sometimes feel like he is a young person because has this sense of always being willing to do new things,” she said. “He has always taken the path that has never been taken.”