The Art and Time of Land Arts 강원환경설치미술초대작가전
Place (In mind)
Not long ago I was invited to again participate in the annual exhibition in Gangwon province at Baek-Rak Temple. Exhibitions at Buddhist temples in South Korea are now part of recurring cycles. A growing number over the past decade have begun flourishing as outreach connections to communities and regions. As we can see many recent changes through the past few years associated with such projects, we might begin to ask ourselves, which way will they embark for future exhibitions? Will they develop as fields for critical and creative discourse or simply as pop-culture events? I have deliberated with these words from the distinct advantage here of having been both artist participant and active observer in this past years exhibition at Gangwon Environmental Exhibition at Baek-Kak temple. From this I have formulated some memorable (at least for me) and critical observations for future reference.
The Gangwon Environmental Installation Invitation Artists Exhibition/ 강원환경설치미술초대작가전, has taken place annually in and around Hongchoen since 2007. The year it officially expanded to include the region outside of Baek-Rak temple itself, including areas around Hongcheon city. In essence the notion of environment, and to be integral within it, took root literally. Prior to 2007, smaller exhibitions were held inside of Baek-Rak temple, limited to a gallery arrangement and the entanglements of interior presentations and buddhist doctrines.
In retrospect, the expansion in 2007 to include the greater rural context as place for critical interpretation and response marked a turning point in the exhibitions evolving agenda. The most recent exhibition was different yet again, perhaps as it was opened to a few select artists representing a broader spectrum in Germany, Italy, Japan, USA and of course South Korea. In total there were 37 participants. The international inclusion was opportunity to glean outside perspectives and trajectories which, have imparted ideas for future exhibitions.
Baek-Rak Temple is located about 10 km northeast of Hongcheon-city, in the rural mountainous region of the Ju-eum Chi-ri river valley. The temples geographical location between two-lane country road, river and steep mountainous terrain has hemmed it in physically, with limited space for any sort of architectural expansion. However, its modest size has promoted energies elsewhere such as the annual late summer exhibition and the well tended and cultivated landscape which, bear evidence of the active landscape care. The landscape around and within Baek-Rak has become place of evolving outdoor exhibition space. With previous years environmental works still on display, adding perhaps to future questions regarding ongoing preservation of past works or a mandated temporariness. Plans are taking shape to reorganize outdoor public spaces, parking and working production areas on the temple grounds, in anticipation of larger exhibitions to come.
Yet, the fundamental definition of what land art becomes in South Korea, remains open to interpretation and perhaps elusive as we now see in the range of work produced at Baek-Rak temple. This in itself is not so much at issue, but rather central in critical debate in the exhibitions future, with a growing collection of preserved works. Some of which having become woven into the landscape in fixture alongside the unrealized installations yet to come.
Bonggi Park, untitled, 2013
Thinking is Time (Thinking in Time)
For artists at the Gangwon Exhibition, the exercise of selecting site for individual works was one of expedient response, with analysis and synthesis in a matter of first impression moments. Quickly, choices were made regarding where to spend six days working in place. There were negotiations made and ties to suit personal agendas. The landscape bears memories of past experiences for each artist and from this, sites (and projected visions) took root.
As we consider what it means to work against time- in allotments we have, and what we face in the unpredictable effects of weather, interaction and use; we are pressed to think in and of time. Our initial plans and expectational goals can be altered and adapted as necessary. In working and making (productive craft) there is gestational potential in this; we construct and we think. In the process of doing, our planned assaults, as well as intuitive acts become catalysts that extend beyond initial intentions. The very reality of time becomes implicit in understanding the effects of time itself.
Participating artist of note Jan Kochermann’s work reflects experiential interpretations. Urban situations based upon places he has experienced and with these, the associated “facts” inherent within those, often times- urban conditions; tunnels, bridges, and as his latest monograph explores the notion of ‘shafts.’ These observations supersede “concepts”
in his creative approach and architecturally constructed figures. His installation works bring us close to perilous edges and points of contentious contemplation- and in part we are prompted to consider, do we freeze, move forward or return from points of origin?
Koechermann’s installation at Gangwon, titled ‘Nowhere City Gangwon,’ settles on urban interpretations cast against the cultivated gardens of Baek-Rak temple. Koechermann explores domestic high-rise housing constructed as cardboard paper models. Social apartment blocks of eastern european origin (coincidentally similar to apartments in South Korea) placed within cultivated gardens of a temple greenhouse in an odd proportional accuracy. Weaving and wading through the greenhouse, the experience becomes journey like, as if gliding through a forest, as one moves towards the levitating apartment forms.
Koechermann’s work, contemplated and determined over a weeks concentrated process intuitively discovers an appropriate site in working time. In works progression, we know that time can be consumed in deliberation, contemplation and variable choice. The outdoor environment itself becomes the place we are working against, as Koechermann unintentionally demonstrated. The distractions of a workshop; conversations, engagements, etcetera, and in all of this, the results become unexpectedly different. The process of making is removed from the specifics of site, as I witnessed in Jan’s work, and at a distance, we are perhaps freed from the entanglements of being too close. While Jan’s initial proposal in quantity and in sited position from his first ideas were quite different, I can say with conferred observation, the end result was no less revealing.
Jan Koechermann, Nowhere City Gangwan, 2013
Form Versus Content (or Context?)
This past years work at the Gangwon Environmental Exhibition revealed a split in identity as installations were envisioned in one of two ways. First, as integral-in-context, propositioned as spatial and inhabitable arrangements as a direct response to the environment. These works responded to landscape and social engagement in provocative ways and in some instances with materials extracted directly from site. They were site-specific in ways requiring participatory rendezvous by viewers, establishing spatial boundaries and surfaces of tactile encounter.
Other installations endured as placement objects in the landscape. They are conceptually representative and decisively for view at a distance, much like that of gallery spectacles. These works remain bound by metaphorical concepts, to be read and perhaps interpreted against the viewers experiences and perceptions. Formal agendas, as conceptual metaphors, have long struggled against the very ideological content it seeks to promote. Are there limits to the continuation in such installation approaches at Bae-Rak temple?
Importantly however, content, it appears, is ready to expand further as contextual and spatial experience at the Gangwon Exhibition. To the extent that the temple grounds continue to morph in support of spatial needs and exhibit directions; this too is providing a sounding board for artistic response. Adapting to these changes will require further considerations in spatial manipulation through material testing and critical dialogue in how one occupies place. A place that appears now fluid amongst inevitable evolutions to come.
The environmental exhibition has prompted opportunity for material experimentation. The matters of earth and ground providing materials for labor; casting, shaping, lifting in curiously unnatural ways. This reflects common knowledge (in some ways) and amongst long standing traditions in building places of inhabitation with the most basic of materials- that being soil. It becomes recognizable because of what it is physically however, in different compacted quantities and structured arrangements ‘earth’ takes on altered identities and endures relatively stable through long extensions in time.
In my own installation, I envisioned ‘Earth_work’ as connection to both my past and present. Certainly, an understanding of building with natural and sustainable materials was foundational- and the notions of working sustainable have long been a part of my architectural up-bringing. However, the act of putting it all together was something of educational discovery. I contemplated observations on traditional construction methods in Korea. In particular, the dimensional arrangements as determined by our bodies occupation in space. The lengthwise unit of 1.5 meters is a dimensional guide for spatial and structural organization- it has been implemented through centuries as a benchmark in spatial denomination.
Eric Reeder, Earth_Work, 2013
Basic, locally harvested materials in traditional construction have encouraged spatial arrangements in response to the environment. In particular, the arrangements of space out-of-doors is interesting to note. Earthen walls of stone and mud have for centuries in Korea defined boundaries of engagement and navigable borders between inside and outside, as well as public and private space. Hence, the combinations of ‘native’ material from site and dimensional analysis established summarily clear starting points for ‘Earth_work.’
At the onset, my assistants and I constructed wooden forms for containing and compacting ground soil. The forms were fabricated similar to those used for casting poured-in-place concrete, utilizing 3-layer ply wood boards and wood batten strips. The technique of compacting soil within wood forms is known as rammed earth construction and is common in method throughout the world, using only slight variations in the way formwork is devised and the types and colors of soils that are deployed. The resulting walls though are relatively similar irrespective of geographic location.
We tested the wooden casting forms with soils from around our working studio at Konkuk University and the College of Architecture in Seoul and constructed a mock-up wall to determine the appropriate and proportional balanced mixture for stabilizing the soil. This technique requires little in the way of technical knowhow or materials, outside of suitable, sandy soil and lime/ cement additives for strengthening and coloration as desired. Not all of which is necessarily required though for rammed earth construction. In optimal proportional combinations of soil, clay and particulate sand, structural integrity can be achieved. Evident to the extent that rammed earth walls can survive centuries if properly constructed with these basic materials.
Earth_work installation makes connection to landscape by proximity of functional objects. Clay pots and the preparation space around them establish a point of pause. Whats more, the space overlooks a mesil (Japanese plumb) orchard, with seasonal implications for activity and further opportunity in making place for repose. The composed arrangement of rammed earth walls establish a place for open, interpretive use and yet, specific in what it is, as a material construct. Amorphous soil appears no longer its natural self, when compressed to rectilinear perfection and atypical crisp-edged forms, and in a sense, becomes a suspended object in time.
Time is already bearing, as it has begun to impose its natural courses of change. Earth_work stands without the benefit of additional lateral support or proper foundation. Its alteration and ultimate future now unfolds as the seasons mark transitions, the earth itself shifts and settles and potential function at the hands of visitors is realized. Green sprouts have emerged on the low walls as a reminder of soils incubational properties. Earth_work’s mark is heavy on the land and yet its time in place remains elusively unpredictable.
Eric Reeder, Earth_Work, 2013
The Other Architects
I can accurately claim title of Architect and interestingly enough, so too were many of the participating artists, as ‘architects’ in their own constructive manner. Artists as ‘builders’ have a way with materials. As the combination of interpretative and prudent exploration enhance creative vision seems to suggest. What is left consciously undone becomes equally important, and in a way, the critical and contemplative artist masters this skill en route to constructing something ‘complete’ while simultaneously leaving pieces undone. In effect, we are left to fill in the non-specific conditions with our minds eyes. We allow environment to filter into view, through and around the crevices of what has been made and that which has been left undone.
Gangwon artist Klaus Kleine comments in detailed description regarding his work in general, as an ongoing play on visual impressions; a method of optical trickery, and the ultimate desire to create “highbrow spaces with lowbrow materials”. Salvaging, repositioning and fastening in what’s possible for maximum effect, extracted from the least amount of stuff. By example, referring to his installation titled, Räume 1 – 6, this becomes resolutely clear.
Kleine is especially adept at casting and shaping poured materials: concrete, gypsum plaster in particular, as his specialty interest, having grown from extensive work with industry experts in concrete fabrications. Working with poured materials, he composes space defining “walkable rooms,” as he describes them, from cast surfaces, be they out-of-doors or indoor spaces of transformed warehouses or galleries. Whats more, the cast materials assume familiar identities through textures and shapes. At times, his casts become representational of other elements and objects in recognizable architectural and historical orders of reference.
Notably, Kleine’s work at Gangwon unfolded as a dance in slow contemplation. His gypsum cast fragmented forms titled, “Uncomposed Room” reflected a working process as he fashioned rudimentary formwork from unlikely materials in corrugated metals, plastic buckets, and plastic disposal bags. He poured liquid plaster in these oddly shaped, fitting forms and then worked them into desired geometries, sometimes going so far as to rhythmically roll wet casting mixtures until solidifying the plaster in position. Tempered deliberations between casting and drying time were meditative opportunities. For Kleine, this was about placing objects, as components into themselves, within the plum tree garden in which the work was sited. Emptiness, and the imperfections of a momentary landscape, become equally complicit partners in arrangements of familiar things. Uncomposed Room is a lesson in restraint; making and positioning sparsely suggestive in things at complimentary odds within nature.
Kleine goes further to suggest associations with places and times of the past. Interestingly though, and perhaps more important, are the delicate comparisons of natures creations and those Kleine claims as fragile and “susceptible to erosions,” fragments in his own work. Uncomposed Room is indicative of the dialectical discourse he evokes in standing to make implied, imperfect rooms, albeit within carefully conscious and deliberate limitations. Both as physical and material manifestations, the passing of his architectural icons are already a foregone and expected conclusion.
Klaus Kleine, Uncomposed Room, 2013
Looking Back; Projecting Ahead at Gangwon and Beyond
Upon closer inspection, in comparisons to land arts elsewhere, methodological formations are emerging. Distinctions can be made of individual contributions now at Gangwon and in 2013, as personal agendas evolve beyond metaphorical objects. Material interactions as conceived, extracted and then organized in place are such methods- and recognizable in what land art has become in world-wide recognition; envisioned as response within the in-situ of place.
In particular at Baek-Rak temple, what transpired were unexpected collaborations between participants. This appeared strangely unfamiliar amongst highly individual artists. To some degree this too had influential impacts on choices and sited locations with deferential outcomes as a result. In this perhaps a new identity of such creative productions may find altered course, as the grounds of the exhibition area at Baek-Rak continue to fill with past years’ works. The negotiations and collaborations transpire to become a significant factor in which to navigate individual perspectives and creative outcomes. That in itself appears challenging enough.
We might conclude from this the significance of discovering time in landscapes. How we cultivate and exploit its most salient qualities. Only then can we we begin to respond and create profoundly and in kind as artists, and as architects.