The optimism of Korean narratives

By | April 29, 2016

Watch out – stories are coming to life! Bustling with respectful enthusiasm of traditional Korean folklore, Sujin Nam’s exhibition at Brisbane Modern Art Gallery filled the walls with dragons, phoenixes, farmers, bathing women, birds, and mountains. An entire village community comes to life at the different stages of one man’s life journey. If you are lucky enough to have some help from beautiful Korean ladies eager to convey the traditional stories to a westerner, you might be able to get through some of the detail of this work. Otherwise you can spend weeks or months exploring these painting should you acquire one for your living room or your office.

Sujin Nam’s work combines elaborate narratives with no-need-for-words symbolism. The result is poetry. Among the good wishes and the balance of life, there is a touch of humour in her work. You will find paired animals symbolising unity and marriage, snowy white moon paired with a blood-red sun, and depictions of the philosophy of a man’s circle of life. But you will also see lower class women with exposed bosoms being spied on by naughty monks, young adventurers exchanging flirtations, and lively interactions filled with the humanity of everyday life. Humour is placed next to the ancient traditions, resulting in work rich in both context and artistry.

It’s difficult to create a complete sense of a different culture, especially in a gallery that is designed as a malleable space to adjust quickly and take on new personalities without losing its own recognizable identity. However, the ambiance created by the traditional gowns of the artist and her students combined with an invasion of Brisbane’s Korean population did create a cultural shift loaded with the excitement of new possibilities.

As I walk from one image to the next it occurs to me that each one of them is full of unbridled optimism. The elaborate narrative of each painting is loaded with the symbols of eternity, union, loyalty, luck, and fertility. The birds and animals are always depicted in pairs: two ducks floating side by side, two birds turned towards each other on the tree, two fish mirroring each other. Often serving as wedding gifts to the new husband and wife, they are meant to send the couple off to a happy, blessed union, lasting many happy years. The painstaking detail in each painting speaks volumes of the slow and persistent effort put into each work. Is this the hard-working trait of Asian artists, or simply the influence of their culture on its visual representation? Either way, its optimism is contagious. In a world where the morning news can make you cry, it is an uplifting experience. It made me wonder if the artist herself shares the positivity encoded into her paintings.

The authentic touch to this exhibition is thought through down to the framing and the backing used in Sujin Nam’s work. The vibrant colours look even richer when framed in dark wood on silk backings. If you look closer at the edges of the works, you’ll be delighted by the meticulous layering of materials, as if protecting the images as a piece of precious family history. If I had to describe this exhibition in one word, it would be detail.

Brisbane Modern Art Gallery, you’ve done it again! This exhibition is cosy, unpretentious, and yet enriching, stimulating and culturally ample.

For purchasing inquiries contact Brisbane Modern Art Gallery.

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