Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Egg of Steel, Column of Concrete

A tangle of rusty rebar rescued from a scrap yard or demolition site, this giant egg graces a gallery entrance in Heyri, Korea. A new town devoted to arts of all types, Heyri is about 40 minutes outside of Seoul by car (providing traffic cooperates). Dotted with construction sites, it is a fairly recent development being built by a group of like-minded land owners devoted to artistic pursuits of all types. On my recent trip to Korea I had a chance to see it for myself.

During the car ride back to Seoul, my guides and I got into a lively discussion about Korean aesthetics and how they differ from Japanese. Both cultures extol the beauty of nature. But they manifest their appreciation differently. As it was eloquently explained to me, the Japanese are partial to art and architecture that is beautifully crafted and perfectly complete. Even in its incompleteness, if that makes any sense. Natural flaws and irregular forms are cherished but incorporated with a high degree of refinement, witness the beams in a minka farmhouse. These massive trunks retain the twisting form of the tree from whence they came, but their surface is stripped of bark and "encouraged" to develop a lovely patina.

By contrast, the Koreans have a penchant for the coarse, the unfinished and the imprecise. This seems to reflect a desire to show the human hand. Bumpy edges, rough wood and uneven paint are not the results of poor craftsmanship but welcome signs of humility. Initially this sensibility had no appeal to me. But the more I think about it and experience Korean aesthetics firsthand, the more I appreciate this point of view. There is something very free and liberating in not striving for perfection. Instead of exquisite materials and detailing, the strength of Korean artistry is embodied in bold forms and overall composition.

Both the egg above and the column below, illustrate this idea. Their surfaces are not smooth to the touch but they please the eye. From afar, both pieces have a strong presence. But on close inspection, the steel's mottled color reveals itself and the concrete's inconsistent grain comes into focus. There is something enticing about this change in perception. I also like the rendering of two iconographic objects in unexpected ways. The column's faceted surface resembles classical fluting but its flat planes are all board-formed. And the egg, the start of everything, gives new life to a throw-away material destined for the dump.

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