Raw Power : On the sculpture of Kim, Chong Ho by Michael Anderson

It might be argued that metal is the key substance of modernity, the material that made possible the revolutionary transformation of agricultural societies into industrial powerhouses. The metal sculpture of Kin, Czong Ho certainly resonates with this sensibility. His work is a visceral response to contemporary life in Korea, a country that has undergone almost unimaginable upheaval and modernization in the last half – century. It alludes in its facture, both pliable and brittle, to the rapid political, economic, and social developments Koreans are all too familiar with Kim emphasizes the fragmentation, the dislocation that results when a society plunges into such a thorough makeover of both the physical landscape and the social fabric. However, his artwork also draws upon recent developments in Western art, particularly a focus on the integrity of the material, and an interest in commonplace objects as manifestations of human experience. Thus, while Kim’s sculpture finds its initial associations with local culture, it is at the same time universally accessible. Kim is an artist who expresses his fundamental concerns in both abstract and figurative sculpture, and manages to find a metaphorical resonance in each style of artmaking. While maintaining a fomal continuity in his sculpture, a distinct strain of satirical social commentary runs through his most recent figurative work.

Kim is widely acknowledged to be the first artist in Korea to incorporate found objects in his sculptures of the 1980s, using casting methods to transform broken vessels and discarded instruments into unified metal structures of steel, bronze, and aluminum. By composing his sculptures with scrap-metal fragments that are left over from either construction or demolition, Kim invokes pre-Information Age technologies from an era that saw the first skyscrapers, transcontinental highways, suspension bridges, and jet airplanes. The urban infrastructure we take for granted was created through vast alteration of the landscape and the communities within it. Kim’s sculptures seem like artifacts from this rough-hewn age before plastic took over as the material of choice. His work from the 1980s resembles sections of the girders used for building, pipes from irrigation networks, and sheets of metal that might have come from the hulls of ships.

By recycling these found objects, and placing the castoff in a position of prominence, Kim engages in a form of bittersweet remembrance for a time when Korea emerged on the world scene as a mighty industrial nation.The torqued, crumpled metal in these sculptures suggests the powerful forces that reshaped society in such a short period of time,and alludes to both the vitality and the alienation that such restructuring can produce. These sculptures externalize the skeletal core of society, the physical inner workings that are usually embedded in concrete, painted over, and forgotten, yet make city life possible. The viewer gets a sensation of two waves of energy emanating from Kim’s work, the first being the industrial, the second, creative.

Unlike the work of other artists who have used metal industrial by products, such as John Chamberlain or Cesar, Kim’s sculpture does not refer to specific objects, like the automobile or other consumer goods, but to the humble pathos of construction itself, to processes more than end products. It does not present an overt commentary on the effects of industrialization, capitalism, or consumerism, but rather is an evocation of raw power that underlies them. Kim’s use of metals allows their material essence to come through, giving the sculpture a deliberately “unfinished” appearance. This creates a sort of unforced “naturalness”, despite the fact that the metal is processed, manmade material. This impression is aided by kim’s method of composition, which relies on the improvisation and the accidental juxtaposition of the sculpture’s component parts. With this methodology the realism of the parts gives way to an abstract whole of convoluted structure, which appears to have risen from the inchoate realms of the subconscious. This of course is part and parcel of artistic production in general, where materials are freed from instrumentalism to be objects of contemplation in and of themselves.

Kim’s abstract sculptures from the 1980s play on the perceptual distinction between an outwardly solid mass and the folds and concavities within it. Approaching the sculptures, the viewer finds an initial impression of weightiness giving way to an almost delicate layering of the welded sheets of metal. His figurative sculpture from this period, on the other hand, typically shows flat, anonymous persons in silhouette, with very little modeling of features. The figures, even when grouped, evoke the isolated anomie of urban dwellers, the very people affected by the Kim’s obstract sculptures refer to. Whether seated back-to-back or, in one case, lying awkwardly on a flight of stairs, they are the quintessential dispossessed, alienated from a world that is in turn oblivious to their existence.

In the more-recent sculpture, Kim has taken up the theme of war and its effect on the psyche. These range from figurative works to symbolic compositions to complete abstract pieces that distill the carnage and destruction of battle, but are satirical takes as well, commenting on the breakdown of social order in libidinous excess thinly covered with moral justifications. As war is in effect the height of irrationality, the impulses that guide it must come from the subconscious, and Kim’s work takes an arch view of the basic, unprovoked violence hard-wired into humanity’s collective psyche. The subject of war remains, unfortunately, quite relevant today, and Kim has stated that his sculpture is meant to provide “the vicarious experience of war(both symbolic and real)through corporeality. “The steel sculpture “Fight”(1999)does just that with two figures interlocked in combat, and one off-balance, about to plunge to the ground. It has the energetic athleticism of ancient Greek statuary, yet its welded steel material has an air of modern brutality. Likewise “Warrior”(1999)seems ancient and totemic, a truncated from with a steel-plate torso that looks like a massive shield. It reminds us that the earliest use of metal was indeed to equip warriors with the means to kill. “Night”(1998)is composed of two helmets, painted”flesh” color, grouped side-by-side on a rectangle of steel like the tops of unearthed skulls. The helmets might be protective, but are no match for the inevitability of death, the eternal “night” that war brings about. Kim also sees these as sexual forms, the paired halmets as breasts or buttocks that reveal another side of war the carnality unleashed along with the carnage.

Its companion piece, “Dawn,”(1999)extends this theme with a metal form in the shape of a woman’s leg on an aluminum panel, capped with a clump of twisted metal that could represent a public hair-covered crotch. In the context of this series, this truncated form can be taken for the desperate wartime sexuality of the (typically)male combatants, who have reduced women to objects of primal desire, and men to targets of obliteration. It suggests the strange elation wartime participants often report as they find themselves in such extreme circumstances.

The less literal “Soldier 2″(1998)is a twisted mass of steel that juts up from its base in jagged disharmony. There are splotches of red paint that appear to ooze out from it, like an open wound. Similarly, “Crouch”(1998)is a bundle of sheer wreckage with painted sections that bespeaks a form pulverized and deformed by violence, balled up on the ground. Its deformations escape immediate apprehension, and in this sense epitomizes the illogical aftermath of war and the random destructiveness it brings about, Another wall piece, “Hand”(1999), is a tall rectangle of aluminum with a steel hand, arputated at the wrist, that appears bereft and useless, interrupting the flat aluminum plane with an eerie corporeality. The steel-and-aluminum “Woman”(1999)is also a study in pathos, a figure barely recognizable as human. Its clotted surface gives the impression of someone who is merely surviving, rather than living. As religion so often is a factor in war, providing its justification as well as opposition, it is appropriate that Kim has included in his series the sculpture “Jesus”(1999). However, Kim does not uphold this future as a timeless symbol that denotes a sacrifice of life for a higher cause, but rather as a pathetic remnant of once-cherished ideals. The upper half of the tall, rectangular pedestal that holds a bust of Jesus is painted in a reddish-brown, which Kim has likened to the dried bolld of a scab. Thus while the figure of Jusus is literally placed on a pedestal, his status is satirically downgraded, and the protency of this symbol is seen as desiccated and irrelevant, the sacrifice long forgotten. Kim strongly evokes the chaotic, subliminal urges unleashed in wartime with these recent sculptures.

Throughout Kim, Czong Ho’s body of work one theme persists. He makes explicit the internal turbulence, both physical and psychological, that is the price of modernity.


Micael Anderson is an artist, curator and writer whose articles have appeared in Art in America, Art Issues, Contemporanea, and other national and international publications.

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