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The Pioneer of Korean Avant-Grade Art

ARTIST INSIDE 2022 | Kim Kulim

The Pioneer of Korean Avant-Grade Art

In a full-page article this June, the New York Times called Kim “the Founding Father of Korean Multimedia.”
It shined a spotlight on Kim, whose object, installation, and performance works have helped shape the diversity of Korean contemporary art.
The Korean art world’s perception of the artist has been summarized in a one-line comment:
“Few artists have done as many strange things as Kim Kulim.”
In a Korean art world dominated by paintings, he is the artist who has done the most work outside of this medium.
Since the 1960s, Korean avant-garde art has come to be recognized abroad, and “strange” has come to mean unique and different.
We met Kim Kulim, the very center of the conversation, in his studio.

Your dedication during your illness is remarkable. What interests drive your work?

I don’t have an assistant because I can’t work if I have someone next to me. It’s hard to do it alone when you’re a terminal cancer patient. But I keep looking at the world, what kind of world I live in. I look at newspapers, magazines, everything. The world is the source of my work, so I get inspired by what’s going on.

Do you think your work has changed as the world has changed?

In the art world, I’ve been asked about what my identity is. But an artist’s work should change according to the world. Do you think people who watch black and white TV, people who watch color TV, and people who watch the world have the same perspective? Now, if you’re not watching TV, but watching everything on your cell phone, your work has to change. Art is life, and if you stay in the past, you’re an artist who falls into mannerisms.

Kim Kulim, 김구림, Yin and Yang 91-L, 13, 1991, Fishing pole, water bucket, and acrylic on canvas, 213 × 335 cm

So, you put everyday objects on the canvas, and then you also set it on fire.

The first piece I set on fire is in the collection of the Tate Modern in England, called “Death of the Sun 1” (1964), and it’s a representation of death that I saw. It was a time when violence was rampant. When I was in the army, I was beaten up too, and I was put in a military hospital, and there I saw people dying like that next to me. I was using a lot of black because it hurt so much. I even lit the canvas on fire. Tate Modern interpreted that work as an avant-garde piece with a performance element.

Kim Kulim, 김구림, Yin and Yang 90-L 35, 1990, Newspaper, magazine and tree trunk, 216 × 835 × 835 cm

That work led to Earth Art in 1970. You also set grass on fire.

That’s right. I drew a zigzag line on the bank of the Han River to create seven triangles and set them on fire one after the other. I left behind four charred triangles and three unburnt triangles. The difference in behavior became a phenomenon and the burnt grass would only leave a trace over time. That’s why the piece is called “From Phenomenon to Trace.” It’s all so connected, but until now, my work hasn’t been understood.

Kim Kulim, 김구림, The Meaning of 124 Second, 124초의 의미, 1969, 16mm film, Producted, directed, edited and designed by Kim Kulim, Tate modern collection

Now that you mention it, your work at Kiaf SEOUL is also a continuation of your work from the 1960s.

That’s right. I’m showing collage works with objects attached to paintings. When others were studying at university, I was working at a textile company, so in my 1960s work, I glued machine parts onto the canvas. It’s about bringing daily life according to the times. I’m a mediator, an intermediary between art and life. When they say I’ve done the weirdest things, that’s exactly right.

Interview by Heaseung Kang, published on Kiaf 2022 Catalogue