Nick Rogers: At what point does a book stop being a book and become an art object?
Sun Young Kang: I don’t think the boundary between the two is that clear or obvious. An Artist’s Book is often defined as ‘a book as art’ or ‘a book created by an artist’. In many cases, they are still books while being considered as art. Sometimes they are beyond our general idea of a book, but still called book art. Sometimes, they are defined as a sculpture even though they look just like a book. So many artists create artists’ books in so many different forms and structures and explore so many different concepts and ideas. I personally think what makes a (general) book and book art different is whether the book has an artistic purpose or not. Since artists have the freedom to create any form of art they desire to express their ideas, I don’t think we can divide whether it is an art or not by just looking at the structures or functions of the book. Also, we cannot always tell whether it is an art or a non-art-book by its creator. Some artists entitle themselves as book artists while a sculpture could happen to make their work in a book form without any intention to make book art. Also sometimes, a book artist writes and publishes a book but not as an art or a designer creates beautifully designed books but for other reasons. I think what makes a book an art object is the creator’s intention to make the book as art, whoever created the book in whatever form.
NK: What is the benefit of performing repetitive tasks?
SYK: Firstly, repetitive tasks allow me to enjoy the time of creating. I don’t know what my talent is, but I know that I have patience which I think is the power of waiting. I feel most comfortable when my working process is repetitive, so I often say that my working process is a kind of meditation for myself. I think repetitive tasks have been my practice since I started to be trained in Korean painting when I was 12 years old. To major in Korean painting in college, I had to be trained and practice for many years like everybody else used to do in Korea. Even though Korean Painting as one of the contemporary art genres could not be totally traditional anymore, there was still a certain level of requirements of traditional practice to compete with other applicants to enter the program. Until getting into school, I learned traditional calligraphy and ink drawing for many years. I was trying hard every day to mimic some masters’ brush strokes but later realized that what I learned from those years was not mastering certain skills, but was the time and efforts that I put in. One beautiful brush stroke can be done in a second but it requires years of practice of drawing same things over and over until you can understand how to comfortably handle the brush, ink and water on the delicate paper. It is very much about the process. So, as one who has been deeply influenced by Korean Painting, the process is as important as the finished pieces of my work.
Second, the repetitive process is my attempt to secularize the hard to grasp concept of coexistence of antithetical ideas and the inseparability of life and death. To approach this idea in visual art forms, I try to visualize the physical or metaphorical boundaries of antithetical ideas. As humans, perhaps the most pressing or dominant pair of antithetical ideas that we deal with are life and death. The time and space between them can be seen as all the piled up moments that are conceived only as either past or future. By performing all the repetitive and time consuming tasks such as cutting out every single paper, burning out texts, printing repetitively or casting many objects over and over, I can try to perpetuate the idea, every single moment as a timeless space in between presence and absence in my work, as well as providing a visual/ invisible concept of their interrelationship through the process.
NK: Are each of your works one of a kind or do you make multiple copies?
SYK: Most of my books except installations are all editioned in multiple copies. Most common edition size has been 10 and the largest was 400 copies depending on the printing methods or execution time. I really like the fact that a book can reach to wider audiences in many locations more easily than any other art forms because it can be produced as many copies as the artist intends. As an artist, I always seek a larger audience and I design each copy of my books to be handled by one person at a time. So to meet a larger audience, having multiple copies is very important. Also, making multiple copies allows the books to be more affordable to the collectors or buyers especially when the book is printed in very large editions. It gives people the opportunity to own the original artwork for a very reasonable price as well as for easier distribution to the artists.
Sometimes, I notice that people in different parts of the world are reading or seeing the same book at the same time. It is the best part of making multiple copies.
NK: What does a book cover represent in relation to its pages?
SYK: It depends on each book, but most of the cases, the covers are very simple and do not show very much except titles in my work. I kind of want to give a sense of secrecy or surprise with making the covers. Covers in my books are mostly part of the housing or containers for the context inside. Inside, there could be a paper object or images or texts of my personal narratives. No matter what kind of forms I create, my books are for providing a metaphorical space or sense of time. I will give you three examples of covers in my work below.
I often consider opening a book is opening a door to enter a new space. For example, I literally made the cover look like a door for Memories Unfolded. The front cover is a door to enter the metaphorical space where my own memories reside and where I would like to invite my audiences. So when the reader opens the book, they are opening the door and spreading out the folded pages which means unfolding memories. Then the pages with the door images are all closed up and create two conceptual spaces of life and death in front of the reader.
The covers of the Story of Thousands of Stars (Man-Byul) are part of the objects. This book consists of two volumes as one completed set. The covers have images of constellations in the night sky to give a sense of the story inside but also when the both covers are closed together, they become an object in a complete circular shape. Design of the covers of this book is representative of the idea of inseparability of antithetical ideas— meeting and farewell, happiness and sorrow and life and death.
* Prospectus of The Story of Thousands of Stars (Man-Byul): The name Man-Byul, meaning ‘thousands of stars’ in Korean, was created by combining the first and last syllables of Man-Nam (meeting) and Yee-Byul (farewell) respectively. Man-Byul is the story of our life, combining both the happiness and joy of ‘meeting’ with the inevitable sorrow of ‘farewell’….
In Between Presence and Absence has two covers. Each can open separately to left and to right side. They are containers for the objects inside but also function as pages. Each contains its own paper cut object and each of them represents “Presence” or “Absence”. The reader can open one cover at a time and can read texts on each side (“The presence only exists” on the left and “when the absence is recognized.” on the right) while she/he uncover the paper object inside. When both of the covers are opened the texts are complete and the reader can also see the two objects are together next to each other in the same space. The covers of this book were designed to visualize the subsistence or coexistence of two opposite ideas, Presence and Absence.
NK: Why is delicacy important to your artworks?
SYK: In a gallery or a space where my work is shown, it creates meditative atmosphere by offering the slowness to the people when they handle or look at my work. This slowness allows the audience to feel the sense of space and time that helps them to better understand my concept.
Having delicacy in my work is using the delicate quality of paper as its strength. More correctly, I am using the duality of paper in my work. Paper can be considered as a very delicate material yet it is a lot stronger than we can imagine. It can be torn easily but can last over thousands of years. Also paper is thin but has two opposite sides, which means that the very thin paper can create two conceptual (unlimited) spaces. This physical duality of paper fits perfectly into my concept: to visualize the invisibility, to perceive the idea that our world is composed with two antithetical ideas, the Presence and Absence, life and death. The delicacy of paper is also great to emphasize the light and shadow effect that is also a metaphor of inseparability of life and death in my work.
In installations the translucency of delicate paper can also function metaphorically to suggest one’s ability to glimpse what is on the other side, what is beyond presence.
NK: If we buried one of your pieces and in 5,000 years and someone dug it up, what would they think?
SYK: Like many other book artists and book conservators, I care about the archival quality of materials and methods that I choose to make my work and I do add colophon at the end my books or inside of the cases to give information about my working process or any story behind to the audiences who I cannot personally meet. I think using archival materials and recording things in the colophon are consideration for the future audiences. So this is a question that I occasionally have asked to myself.
Most of my books could be considered as sculptural pieces but each has its element of a book. If my work could survive those years, and they still know what a “book” is, they might think my piece as a unique or weird book. I think if they understand what a book is, then I believe they should understand what book art is.
A “book” has existed for so many centuries and this, one of the most amazing human inventions, would not disappear so easily, however, if there are no museums or libraries existing anymore and people somehow lost history in the very far future, I believe that a book is naturally a great form to communicate and interact with strangers even if they happen to lose the concept of a book. So whatever they would think the object is, they could be handling and interacting with it with the way how people handle books now.
NK: In a gallery setting with your book art, do people interact with the books themselves? Are they turning pages? How does this influence their experience?
SYK: One of the most important things that I consider when I come up with new structures is how to interact with the audiences. Most of my books are designed to be handled and read or felt slowly by one person at a time, so they mean more or can be better understood when they are handled by audiences rather than being on a pedestal. However, I cannot always control the gallery setting. Many of shows specialized for Book Arts allow the audiences to handle the books under their staff’s supervision. Sometimes depending on the fragility or price of the artworks or circumstances of the gallery space, there could be restrictions or exceptions.
Some of my books, especially those with texts and images require people to turn the pages and read the books to understand the concept just like a traditional way of reading a story book. Additionally, in some of my sculptural books I used the number 108 which is significant in Buddhism in the structures of the books. Conceptually, as readers turn the pages, they participate in that meditation, similar to the Buddhist practice of repeating vows 108 times and telling 108 beads.
For example, as the reader turns the pages of The Way to Be Empty, 1, they can witness the path of the piled desires or agonies (visualized as printed texts in my book) get smaller and smaller until finally the reader reaches the emptiness at the end of the path, the last page.
And The Way to Be Empty, 2 is a book composed of 108 small boxes housed in 5 larger boxes. Each small box with its burned cover is a page in this book. The burned-out figures on all 108 pages are renderings of the Chinese character Dao, which has various meanings, including “path” or “way”—each designed by a different stamp engraver or calligrapher. The incense was used to create emptiness (physical absence) on paper and each image of the characters creates the 108 different ways to be empty in this book. So the concept of this box shaped book is inviting readers to open the boxes. While the readers open the boxes they can explore 108 different ways of emptiness.
NK: How do you feel about Kindles?
SYK: I had been trained in traditional painting and love to use traditional materials. Now, I am an artist making books and inspired by the idea of a (traditional) book. In addition to that, I repair hundreds years old manuscripts every day in a conservation lab. I sound like someone who only cares or loves of old things. However, I do like technology itself. The only problem is how many times new technology and inventions harm human life or the environment. Anyway, what we believe to be old was once new. Old printing methods like wood block and movable metal type printing were amazing inventions that changed the whole world in every aspect. Also, I myself as an artist cannot avoid using technology. Computers have been involved in most of my work. In fact, all of my book art pieces are created with Photoshop, Illustrator, and In-Design at some point in the process of the production. Some of them, I really heavily used these computer programs.
I have no problem with people using Kindles. It is more practical and portable now and also could save space and paper. But a Kindle is not a book. It gives us the stories or information that is only part of a book. I think we need both of them now. We cannot refuse new things coming out but we do not have to get rid of old things. It is very easy to adopt new things but almost impossible to regain things once disappeared or lost.
NK: Do you have any shows coming up?
SYK: Right now, I am part of the exhibition/event: DIPLOMATIC ART 2015 with many other invited artists from the countries that have General and Honorary Consulates in Timisoara/Romania. I am showing one of my installation Filtered Memories. Also another paper installation To Find the One Way is being presented in the invited group exhibition; Unhinged: Book Art on the Cutting Edge at Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA until January 3 2016.
Three group shows are coming up early next year. I have been selected to be part of Paper Biennial Edition 2015 (Biennale Internationale des Arts des Fibres et du Papier) in France for their traveling exhibitions: “WATER – FIBRE – PAPER” – METAMORPHOSE. One of my artist’s books will be in the Museum of World religions in Taipei, Taiwan (January – March 2016) and in Villa Du Toit in Geneva, Switzerland (April – May 2016). And another exciting invitational show Reading with the Senses will be up in March 2016 at the College of Art and Design at Lesley University, Cambridge, MA.
Interview by Nick Rogers