Looking at art from a local perspective

by Yoko Haruhara

Special To The Japan Times

In these recessionary times, any contribution to the arts is a cause for celebration. Such a state of affairs makes the opening of the Daegu Art Museum (DAM) in May 2011 in Daegu, South Korea, an especially joyous event.

The museum, sited on a hilltop overlooking the city on a spacious property, houses the most expansive spaces in South Korea for large-scale exhibitions. It was built to showcase the cutting-edge installations of world-class artists from Korea, Japan, and China, and its museum director, Kim Sunhee, sees a pivotal role for DAM in local cultural life, referring to the museum as “a vital institution bridging contemporary Korean culture and the world of Korean arts from the recent past, pre-modern and ancient times.”

DAM’s vast exhibition spaces leave quite an impression on the viewer. One of the exhibits currently on display is “Box Construction in Daegu,” a towering installation by the Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata. Making a powerful statement about the importance of everyday objects in this apple growing region, Kawamata uses countless wooden apple crates to create a cascade that runs from the roof the museum building onto the ground below. Visitors approaching the museum are sure to be struck by the raw beauty of the tumbling mass of crates, which form a stark contrast to the polished metallic exterior walls of the museum.

Once inside the main exhibition hall, the orchard theme continues. Hundreds of crates dangle from the ceiling, forming a forest of “apple trees” through which light shines in between the chinks and floods the space. It recalls sunshine pouring through a stand of trees thick with foliage. The faint scent of wood wafts through the hall.

One of the major challenges for Kawamata in creating this installation was to collect more than 9,000 old apple crates from around the region. A plea for help resulted in donations streaming in from farmhouses, fruit markets, warehouses and individual homes. The project truly became an experiment in community collaboration, providing an important link between crate “donors” and the installation, which was put together by Kawamata and a team of 20 volunteers comprised mainly of local university students. The crates were strung together with wire and the installation was assembled over a three-week period.

While ubiquitous cardboard boxes have replaced wooden crates in today’s grocery stores and markets, the installation evokes the deep-seated love that the people of Daegu still have for what has become an iconic item. Kawamata, who enjoys working with everyday, utilitarian objects, considers the crate’s iconic status as a symbol of the past.

Director Kim cites this exhibit as just one example of how the museum is fulfilling its mission to “stimulate a sense of cultural nostalgia among the citizens along with a newfound awareness of the link of our culture to the contemporary environment.”

Another highly memorable exhibit is “Poem, Tea Ceremony & Contemplation,” the work of Hoon Kwak, an artist born and raised in Daegu. The installation reflects Kwak’s fascination with the profundity of Buddhist spiritual thought and Eastern philosophy, and he uses local materials as an expression of these values. His juxtaposition of exhibits with imagery, tea bowls and contemplative space is designed to offer the viewer an entry point for both an artistic and a spiritual journey. The theme of contemplation is reiterated in his installations that provide a reminder of the roots of Korean culture, its history and values.

“Poem,” an homage to nostalgia, invites audience participation in an interpretation of space. It consists of walls of paper sheets glued together and suspended from the ceiling. Made of traditional Korean rice paper (hanji) the installation creates a “room” that, upon entering, gently undulates and sways in response to the movements of the visitor. The translucent paper sheets soften light from behind and establish an air of serenity, reminiscent of light behind the wooden latticework windows of traditional Korean houses. Kwak’s inspiration for the space are personal memories of his grandmother’s home, where he used to awaken to the sun softly filtering through the papered windows.

The Daegu Art Museum, as a showcase for both local and international art installations manages to accomplish a tremendous feat: highlighting the region’s unique culture and history, while introducing seminal works of art that imbue its spaces with humanism, historical meaning and a visual introduction to the imaginative realms of artists who embrace seemingly endless possibilities in their art installations.

What is left to the viewer is an opportunity to explore the spaces of the museum and discover an intimate relationship between art and culture.

The Daegu Art Museum is at 374 Samduk-dong, Suseong-gu, Daegu. For more information, visist www.daeguartmuseum.org/eng/main