Park Young Wook, Humanities Korea Research Professor, Yonsei University
One of the defining characteristics of Baroque music is the basso continuo. In rock music, the basso continuo -- as represented by the bass guitar -- does not reveal its distinctive tones, drowned out as they are by drums and electric guitars. However, it does serve to add a sense of tension to the piece as a whole. Without that ever-present basso continuo, like the sound of a beating heart, the tension present in Baroque music would never have come to be. Though the basso continuo is nearly imperceptible, the beat of Baroque music owes itself to that sound. This is similar to the style of Tenebrism in Baroque painting. This style is characterized by a powerful contrast between light and dark on the canvas, as seen in the works of Caravaggio. By themselves, the dark backgrounds in Baroque painting may be meaningless to us, not representing any obvious object of perception, but they constitute an unconscious foundation that generates a dramatic sense of tension in the canvas as a whole. In other words, minute elements that are not directly perceived by the consciousness function to create a feeling of artistic tension.
The work of Kim Byoung-ho represents a process of creating a fantasy out of these minute perceptions. Kim gathers very tiny elements, imperceptible to the eye like viruses, and groups them together to create highly sophisticated forms. At first glance, the resulting shapes resemble the kind of ordinary objects and structures that we encounter on a daily basis. But Kim's works possess a tension within them that cannot be found in ordinary objects or simple structures. Like the sound of the basso continuo, microscopic viruses are endlessly bursting forth. Expressed in visual terms, they are like tiny bits of pollen flying through the air. It is for this reason that Kim's works are not simply objects, but fantasies. If they were simply objects, not only would there be no tension present, but no fantasy would take shape either. Fantasy must by necessity carry with it a relationship of tension with reality or the object.
What kind of tension is present in Kim's work? It is manifested in manifold ways, including tension between the stable and polished image and the environment external to the work; tension between the objective and the subjective; tension between the artificial and the artistic; and tension between the "product" and the "ready-made." In terms of their external aspects, Kim's works not only are highly sophisticated but also exhibit an artistically flawless level of polished beauty. However, artistic perfection is not at all what the artist is after. Rather, there emerges a paradox in which a piece seems less like a work of art and more like a product the greater its level of perfection, and instead of trying to avoid it, Kim is attempting to show that very paradox.
Upon closer examination, the paradox is also one involving the artificial and the artistic. Kim's pieces are extremely artificial. To make one of them, the artist not only sketches the general shape of the work but also generates a plan so that it can be produced accurately. His methods are similar to the design process that leads to sketches and planning. In essence, Kim's pieces are like machines made up of very minute parts. In order to create one of these machines, he not only manufactures each part to precise specifications according to his plan, but he then assembles them into a whole. Naturally, the result is an exceedingly artificial product rather than a natural object. But Kim is merely producing the artificial, and excluding the artistic.
Exclusion of the artistic is also connected with exclusion of the subjective and arbitrary. When "producing" one of his works of art, Kim adamantly refuses to admit any subjective elements. This refusal can be witnessed in the two aspects of form and physical properties. In terms of form, he cracks down on any excessively subjective or superfluous elaboration. For example, in "Horizontal Intervention," the oblique lines create a geometric symmetry. The purpose of this symmetry and simplicity is to prevent the emergence of arbitrary, that is to say subjective, elements. If arbitrary elements are added to the form, the result will appear to be a subjective work, bearing the intentions of the artist, rather than a complete product; it will end up "artistic" rather than "artificial." In that sense, Kim's works could be viewed as carrying on the mantle of minimalism. However, because they are "products," they cannot be seen as a continuation of minimalist sculpture.
In addition, the exclusion of subjective elements is seen in a faithfulness to the physical properties of the materials used. This recalls the "faktura" of the Russian constructivists, who viewed steel, then a new architectural material, as suitable for geometric and scientific images, in contrast with the marble that had previously been used. The properties of steel as an architectural material were not suited to the splendid embellishments of aristocratic and extravagant tastes, and the new sculptures and architectural works that stayed true to these physical properties were seen as highly scientific and representative of the progressive world view. Kim Byoung-ho's works also adhere to the practices of faktura, in that they remain faithful to physical properties. Even when using a diverse range of materials such as stainless steel and brass, he attempts to stay as true as possible to the properties of that material rather than transforming them to suit his artistic intentions.
The results of this process and its faithfulness to the objective can be summarized in the word "product"; both the use of a process similar to design and the utter exclusion of any subjective elements can be viewed as characteristics of a product. Another paradox, however, is that in spite of these similarities, Kim's works are most definitely not industrial products. This can be witnessed in the fact that their meaning as "products" does not merely express a relationship of tension with the work of art. Rather, the significance of his works in the context of art history emerges from the subtle tension they betray with the "ready-made." Kim's works may appear ready made, but they are not. As the words indicate, a "ready-made" work is one that has been prefabricated. But Kim's works are "products" rendered according to a carefully planned design. If ready-made works have been used in art in order to break down the boundary between art and the everyday, Kim's efforts at creating "products" is an effort to reestablish the tension between art and the everyday that was broken down by the ready-made.
This tension hints at a certain social dimension that goes beyond simple artistic concerns. Through his "products," the artist is pursuing a rigor that is not visible to the naked eye. He creates highly polished structures by making products reminiscent of intricate machinery, but he shows that such polished works can only be born out of a stable system of micro-level parts. If we liken society to an artificial object, a product, then it is formed by the norms and systems of micro-level elements invisible to the eye. A product is a systematic work created from standardized criteria or interfaces. Such a system cannot come into being without the involvement of the micro-level. The work of Kim Byoung-ho is the creation of a fantasy that seeks to form the system of a society as interface from a micro-level of virus-like elements.