Grains of wisdom

by Rob Gilhooly

From a distance, Kim Chang Young’s “Sand Play” seems to defy the law of gravity.

Embedded into the tiled wall at the entrance of Ushigome-Kagurazaka Station is what at first glance appears to be a beach. The 10-meter-long, 2-meter-high work resembles a stretch of genuine sand, its smooth, damp surface scuffed and scratched here and there, perhaps by an idle passerby.

As you approach it, however, you think you have uncovered the trick. It’s an ultra-real painting, or maybe a photograph. But there’s still something urging you to touch the mounds of sand that have seemingly been swept up by human hands.

It’s then that you realize you have been tricked again: It is indeed a painting, but one in which real sand has been used — mixed with a synthetic bond. Those mounds and scratch marks you assumed to be the result of human meddling have been skillfully sculpted by the artist’s brush.

“Sand and illusion, this is the confused co-existence of substance and fiction and a symbol of the human form flirting with nature,” Kim said of his work.

Kim, who was born in South Korea but has spent the past two decades in Japan, has used sand as both the subject and medium of his works ever since starting out as an artist in his late teens.

It was around that time that he moved to a beachfront apartment in Pusan. From his room he could see the constantly changing sand, where human footprints seemed to the artist a weak and transient effort by man to impose upon nature, fated to be quickly washed away by those same natural elements.

“Man lives and dies, but the rain continues to fall and sand remains. Man can wipe his hands over the sand, but it is just a trick — it is the world of fiction.”

Kim admits to having been influenced by 1960s American Hyperrealism, which aimed to depict objects in the real world with microscopic precision. However, whereas American Hyperrealists focused on objects produced in industrialized urban settings, such as cars, Kim chose an object of nature, placing particular emphasis on the tactile aspects of that object.

“If I were a Hyperrealist I would reproduce the sand through the brush. But to do so would be to destroy the sand, to give the impression I am above it. No human is above nature. Western thinking somehow places man in the leading role and nature below. It may be an Asian, Buddhist way of thinking, but humans are nature’s stagehands, not its master.”

Regarding public art, Kim believes that any increase can only be advantageous — but cautions that quality should never be sacrificed.

“A certain level must be maintained, and to that end experts must select the work. If this is not the case there is a risk of ending up with a ‘cultural crash.’ Public art is extremely precious, very delicate, and needs a discerning hand.”