The forest in a shopping bag : Reclaiming Nature

KIM Kijoo  | Aesthetics·Art history, Ph.D. Philosophy
 
Take a look around you. Instantly, you will observe a population engrossed in the next item on the shopping list. There is no getting away from the fact that a large majority of us, particularly city-dwellers, simply feel the need to consume a gamut of the latest tempting and trendy commodities, on offer in the high street or online. Like it or not, we have been
westernized, and not only in terms of the way we spend our hard-earned cash; Confucianism and Buddhism are waning. The masses, instead, flock to any number of western-influenced Christian denominations in order to bring a moment’s respite from the capitalistic fervor, before the action kicks off again the following week. We have adopted a system, voluntarily or non-consciously, in which we have been persuaded that we can measure the value of everything, and everyone, in terms of wealth, money, and spending power.
Nature has been bitten badly in the proceedings, and not only in terms of environmental damage. As far as we are concerned, it has lost its charm and significance. Perhaps its lack of appeal is a result of being unobtainable: it cannot be readily acquired, paid off in installments. We prefer to undergo a little ‘retail therapy’ in order to boost our self-esteem, on the false pretext that other believers will judge us favorably- ‘Nice Lexus! You’re doing well, I see.’ It is a vicious circle where in our individualized values, pride and aspirations are sucked out of us, slowly but surely replaced by the ownership of, or desire for, objects which are supposed to represent us. These ‘dreams’ come from somewhere, probably someone else.
There are some individuals whose systems of values exist independently of money and wealth. MoKyoung Gu’s is one of these people. Her latest exhibition portrays our ‘holy’ modern-day consumerist quest. She has been inspired by her observations of hands-full shoppers coming out of department stores. She points out, “I always feel breathless watching events unfold. My vision blurs and my hearing deteriorates. At times like these, I wish I could grab an inhaler. However, I do have a remedy-I fill my own bags with scoopfuls of flora and vegetation until they are brimming; a token from the forest. Most of the time people don’t seem to notice.’
She also adds, ‘This place is where I’m supposed to live, where I came from.’ Croche once said, ‘Art is instinct, and an expression of that instinct.’ In the West, Italian culture is particularly instinctive, while China tops the Asian rankings.her’s painting comes from a similar kind of gut reaction. She is still a city-dweller, who is well aware of the temptations of shopping, like a loitering conniver in the corners of our consciousness. She has coined the phrase, ‘shop the forest’, and states, ‘I scoop up the forest, and drop it into my bag, without being seen by other people.’ Why forest? Who could have thought of putting forest in a shopping bag? her is a Korean artist who is intimately familiar with traditional landscape paintings. These works of art evoke a sense of wellbeing and relaxation, as well as an appreciation of nature. Her work incorporates this traditional form with ‘shopping’, to help express her belief that we all need more rest and relaxation. Mountains, Water and The Forest : Gogaeji from the Eastern Jin dynasty was a trendsetter who moved on from painting portraits of people, and instead turned to landscapes. This shift, in turn, progressed from depicting individual trees and stones, to portraying the ‘bigger picture’- mountainsides and complete bodies of water. In a small country like Korea, the word ‘landscape’ still reminds us of ‘stone’ or ‘forest’.
Across the West Sea, in China, large-scale, sweeping landscape painting reached its peak during the Song dynasty. Here, the norm was to produce more realistic landscapes. During the era of the Northern Song dynasty, and later as Confucianism scrabbled for a foothold, ‘Sentimentalist’ forms of landscape painting emerged, epitomized by the works of art created during the Won dynasty. At this point in time, landscape painting became much more evocative, while freeing itself of well-established art ‘theory’. By the time the Cheong dynasty reigned, the categorization of landscape painting became an almost impossible task since it incorporated so many subjects. It didn’t take long for this artistic progression to have an impact on Korean artists. A fine example is Kyeomje Jeong Seon’s ‘Keum Gang Mountain’, a masterpiece which was undoubtedly inspired by his Chinese peers. This provided the trigger for Jeong Seon, whose paintings became increasingly vibrant, even in his sixties. It is obvious to all who view his work that Keum Gang Mountain never ceased to amaze him.

Contemporary Landscape Painting in Korea : Landscape painting has lost its way in contemporary Korean painting. If anything, people see nature as an organic device which servesits sole purpose as a means of retaining health, rather than a place to be painted and admired. As Torre mentioned, ‘Art is to love nature. The reason art is deteriorating is because we are losing our love of nature”. Harris viewed the disappearance of portraits as a symptom of dwindling respect for humankind. Perhaps landscape painting will share the same fate. Gwak Hee, of the Northern Song dynasty, gave several reasons why appreciation of mountainsides and bodies of water reflect human virtue. He cites a craving to reside near, take pleasure in, and feel welcomed by such environments. Most people acknowledge this point, evident in the hoards that cram the mountains on weekends.
her’s ‘Forest’, or ‘Landscape-Shopping’, puts her own particular slant on the depiction of nature in painting, while capturing its vitality. She started out painting forests covered in recent snowfall. This was followed by, ‘Forest in the Shopping Bag’, after which she painted thick, dense forested landscapes. Most of her paintings include sparsely-populated white birches in a winter landscape. She tends to avoid depictions of the lushness of spring, hardly reminiscent of David Lean’s epic, ‘Doctor Zhivago’, in which white birch forests stood dreamily omnipresent in the Russian landscape.
The dotted birch trees in her painting ‘Forest’ appear rather fragile. They are meant to reflect our grim and lonely existence. However, those depicted in, ‘Landscape-Shopping’ represent a revival of strength, as we manage to breathe more easily.
Her works of art on display at the exhibition depict shopping bags which boast loud bursts of green, purple, and plum. These provide the perfect foil for the thin, white strips of paper that have been pasted on top, which tame the overall effect. In later paintings, long sticks of ink depicting the forest surround the bag: this represents a sense of her increasing confidence and calmness in the presence of nature. As such, contemporary culture, symbolized by the shopping bags, loses its power and influence over us, as the forest smothers and sprouts, expressing the artist’s liberation and recently-acquired control.
Black Ink on Jangji : The paintings at the exhibition were created using various materials such as Chinese black ink and acrylics. These were applied to ‘jangji’, a relatively thick type of paper, traditionally used on doors to block out the wind and sun. She also paints Chinese black ink on ‘seonji’ and ‘soonji’, other types of paper used in traditional painting. The difference between the three types is absorption: ‘jangji’ soaks up far less than the other types. This is a good material to help express how people struggle to penetrate the world, often failing or traipsing.
Herbert Read once raved about the brilliance of Chinese black ink, commenting on the possibility that the ink, itself, can express the artist’s intentions, as well as being a means of depicting objects. Artists and critics continue to discuss its potential in modern usage, as well debating the role traditional paper might play. The jury is still out, in terms of how
materials will be used in Korean art in the near future.