The Art and Time of Land Arts 강원환경설치미술초대작가전
Not long ago I was invited to participate in the annual exhibition in Gangwon province at Baek-Rak Temple. Exhibitions at Buddhist temples in South Korea are now part of recurring annual cycles. A growing number over the past decade have begun flourishing as outreach connections to local communities and regions beyond. As we witness many recent changes through the past few years associated with such projects, we might begin to ask, which way will future exhibitions emerge? Will they develop as fields for critical and creative discourse or simply as pop-culture events? I have deliberated from the distinct advantage of having been both artist and active observer in this past years exhibition at Gangwon Environmental Exhibition at Baek-Rak temple. From this I have formulated some 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 invited artists representing a broader spectrum from 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 valley, and steep mountainous terrain has hemmed it in physically, with limited space for architectural or landscaping expansions. However, its modest size has promoted energies elsewhere such as the annual late summer exhibition and the well cultivated landscape, bearing evidence of ongoing care throughout the year. The landscape around and within Baek-Rak has become place of evolving outdoor exhibition. With previous years environmental works still on display, adding perhaps to more questions regarding ongoing preservation of past works or a mandated temporality of new works. Plans are taking shape to reorganize outdoor public spaces, parking and working production areas on 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 landscape, fixtures alongside the unrealized installations yet to come.
Bonggi Park, untitled, 2013
Thinking is Time (Thinking in Time)
As we consider what it means to work against time- in the 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 expand 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, often 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 previous works suggest perilous edges and points of contentious contemplation; we are prompted to consider freezing in motionless contemplation, moving forward or even returning to 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 a curious 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 intensive 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 from observation, the end result was no less revealing.
Jan Koechermann, Nowhere City Gangwan, 2013
Form Versus Content (or Context?)
Recent works at the Gangwon Environmental Exhibition reveal a split identity as installations were envisioned in one of two ways. First, as integral-in-context, propositioned as spatial and inhabitable arrangements in direct response to the environment. These installations, positioned in-situ as connections, and in some instances materialized directly from site. They are require participatory engagement by viewers, establishing spatial boundaries both physical and implied, via surfaces of tactility.
The second type of installations endure as objects in the landscape. They are conceptual representations and decisively viewed at a distance, much like that of gallery spectacles. These works remain metaphorical concepts to be read and interpreted against the viewers experiences and perceptions. Formal agendas, as conceptual metaphors, struggle against the very ideological content which it seeks to promote. Are there limits to the continuation of such installation approaches at Bae-Rak temple, as the landscape fills with gallery objects?
The exhibition encourages material experimentation. Earth and ground provide materials for labor; casting, shaping, lifting in curiously unnatural ways. This reflects common knowledge (in some ways) and congruency with long standing traditions in building places of inhabitation with the most basic available materials. Earth/ soil is recognizable because of its physical character however, in large compacted quantities and structured arrangements, ‘earth’ assumes a transformational identity.
‘Earth_work’ was envisioned as connection to both past and present. Certainly, an understanding of building with natural materials was essential. The process of putting 'earth' together, as I would learn, was an experiment of discovery. I studied traditional construction methods in S. 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 spatial denomination.
Eric Reeder, Earth_Work, 2013
Locally harvested materials in traditional Korean building have encouraged spatial arrangements in response to the environment. In particular, the arrangements of outdoor space is highly important. Earthen walls of stone and mud have for centuries defined boundaries of engagement and navigable borders between inside and outside, as well as delineations between public and private space. The combinations of ‘native’ material from site, and dimensional analysis established organizational content 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, known as rammed earth construction, is common throughout the world. Slight variations in the way formwork is devised and the types and colors of soils that are deployed create slight degrees of variation. The resulting walls though are relatively similar irrespective of geographic location.
We tested the wooden casting forms with soils from around our studio at Konkuk University in Seoul and constructed a mock-up wall to determine the appropriate proportional balance 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 makes connection to landscape by proximity of functional objects. Clay pots and the preparation space around them establish a point of pause. The space overlooks a Japanese plumb orchard, with seasonal activity and appropriated space of repose. The composed rammed earth walls establish a place for open, interpretive use, yet specific in what it is as a material form.
Time is already bearing its natural course of decomposed change. Earth_work stands without the benefit of lateral support or proper foundation. Its alteration and ultimate future unfolds as seasons mark transitions, the earth itself shifts and settles and potential use 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 it's time in place remains elusively unpredictable.
Eric Reeder, Earth_Work, 2013
The Other Architects
I can claim title of Architect and so too were many of the participating artists, as ‘architects’ in their own constructive methods. Artists as ‘builders’ have a way with materials, as the combination of interpretative and enhanced 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. We allow environment to filter into view, through and around the crevices of what has been made and that which has been left incomplete.
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 outdoors or indoor spaces of transformed warehouses and galleries. Whats more, the cast materials assume familiar identities through textures and shapes. At times, his casts become representational of other elements or objects in recognizable architectural and historical orders of reference.
Kleine’s working process at Gangwon unfolded as theater 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; pouring liquid plaster in oddly shaped forms and then working 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 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