Featured in
Issue 178

Questionnaire: Park Seo-Bo

Q. What should stay the same? A. I don’t understand the question.

BY Park Seo-Bo in Interviews , Questionnaires | 11 MAR 16

Korean Joseon Dynasty glazed white porcelain moon jar, c.1600-1800. Courtesy © The Trustees of the British Museum

What images keep you company in the space where you work?

I draw inspiration from anything that helps me empty my mind of desire and ego. In my studio, I lay my canvases on the floor and I stand on an elevated platform to work. The physical sensation is like standing in the middle of a seesaw, and my body loosely moves up and down. I treat moments like these as opportunites for emptying my mind of all ideas. Art is no longer an act of fulfillment, but an act of emptying. 

What was the first piece of art that really mattered to you?

When foreign art journals and magazines were imported to Korea for the first time in the late 1950s, I saw Jean Fautrier’s series ‘Otages’ (Hostages, 1942–45) in the Japanese magazine Bijutsu Techo. I still remember the shock I felt from seeing those works. The specific painting I recall was an image of a dying member of the French Resistance rendered in white paint and mashed and smeared with a knife. The French writer André Malraux once called Fautrier the greatest painter to embody his time. Fautrier also won the International Grand Prize at the 1960 Venice Biennale. I don’t know if I would still feel the same unadulterated shock seeing that work now but, 50 years ago, this painting reminded me of the grim experiences of  the Korean War. I still remember vividly how the weapons that were created to protect people were turned into tools of massacre. Reflecting on these experiences is how my series ‘Primordialis’ (1960–65) developed.

If you could live with only one piece of art, what would it be?

For me, it’s not about a singular artwork. My more recent colour paintings express the vital attributes that are important for art. Everything in our 21st-century lives changes at such a rapid pace, and the stress we all feel becomes embodied by the city itself. To counterbalance this, I think colour, which is organic, can be used as a tool for healing. Images dissolve; I believe in the power of colour itself. 

What is your favourite title of an artwork?

It’s not really a title, more of a name: the moon jar. These ceramic pieces are antiquities from the 17th and 18th centuries of the Joseon Dynasty, and fully embody the philosophical concept of emptiness. At the same time, the moon jars convey the importance of being self-contained and humble: qualities that offer people a sense of enlightenment. I own a contemporary moon jar by the Korean ceramicist Sang Ho-Shin.

What do you wish you knew?

My work continues to delve deeper into the subtle palette of Hanji paper. Because there isn’t much time left in my life, rather than change my practice, I want to broaden the scope of the colours I work with. To fully understand my vision, you would need to be aware of how my practice has developed – from my earliest ‘Ecriture’ works in pencil (Writing, 1973–ongoing) to my current pieces in colour. 

What should change?

Our minds need constantly to evolve and, if your mind changes, so does your work. If you do not change as an artist, you falter: you become an imitation of yourself. That said, the evolution should be gradual. This conundrum can be hard to understand, but change usually begins with a very small idea. I realized a long time ago that you don’t fail if you make continual, long-term efforts to change – this way, eventually, your practice synthesizes with the artwork. The artist Antoni Tàpies is a good example for this kind of incremental evolution. His work fundamentally did not change but, in a sense, it was consistently transforming.

What should stay the same?

I don’t understand the question. Time, and therefore my surroundings, are constantly changing. I am simply the remnants of my time, hence there is no purpose if there is no change.

What could you imagine doing if you didn’t do what you do?

I think I would have been a poet. But, thinking back to when I was growing up, realistically it would have been very difficult for me to have made a living as a poet. I had many poets and intellectuals around me at the time, and they were great influences on me.

What music are you listening to?

I’m not very interested in discerning, ‘high-quality’ music. I listen to mainstream music. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had enough time to be picky about what music I listen to. I once had a great musical experience, though: the rapper Gaeko, from the Korean group Dynamic Duo, featured my voice in his 2014 song ‘Shame’. I now have that as my mobile ringtone.

What are you reading?

I enjoy the writings of the philosophers Lao-Tzu and Chuang Tzu. One thing I tell everyone to do is to read widely and impartially. Afterwards, I try to forget all that I’ve read. Once you have absorbed knowledge, you can become trapped inside it, even drown in it. So, you have to be careful. At the same time, reading is what feeds me spiritually.

What do you like the look of?

I really enjoy watching movies, so I try to go to the cinema whenever I have a chance.

Park Seo-Bo is a Korean artist whose career spans more than 60 years. From 1962–94, he held a professorship at Seoul’s Hong-Ik University, during which time he was also Dean of the College of Fine Arts (1986–90). A leading proponent of the Dansaekhwa school of painting, developed in the 1970s in Seoul, his work has been included in a number of recent exhibitions: ‘Dansaekhwa’ at the Palazzo Contarini-Polignac, Venice, Italy, 2015, organized by Kukje Gallery; ‘Dansaekhwa and Minimalism’ at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, USA, earlier this year, and the survey show, ‘Dansaekhwa and Korean Abstraction’, at the Boghossian Foundation, Brussels, Belgium, which runs until 24 April. Following his 2014 solo exhibition at Galerie Perrotin in Paris, France, last year he had a solo exhibition at Galerie Perrotin, New York, USA. He recently had a solo show at White Cube, London, UK; his current solo exhibition at Galerie Perrotin, Hong Kong runs until 5 May.