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Relevance of Cheon Hyeoklims Art in the 21st Century:

On the Occasion of the 100th Anniversary of His Birth

Written by Kai Hong, Ph.D. [Copyright 2015 Kai Hong]

[1] Introductory Preamble

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of a great Korean artist, Cheon Hyeoklim. It would have been
nice to celebrate his 100th birth day with him still alive, energetic and painting. And think about it! He almost did it.
It would have taken only four or five more years for him to claim the world title of being an oldest active
Centenarian Painter. Be that as it may, Cheon died at the tender young age of 96, just short of 100, and this year we
are commemorating his life and his art at a specially organized exhibition at Ie-Young Contemporary Art Museum
which has the largest collection of Cheon Hyeoklims art works of wide-ranging varieties, not confined to his
paintings but other objet dart of his creation such as painted sculpture pieces, pottery and ceramic pieces. Let us
remember that he painted with tireless efforts and unquenchable passion until he stopped breathing just 4 years
short of his 100th birth day.

Actually, already 3 decades earlier to be precise, its almost exactly 28 years ago in November 1987 I had
written on Cheon Hyeoklims works of Painting on the occasion of his first major exhibition at the then Korean
National Exhibition Hall (then under the auspices of the Development Center for Korean Art and Culture) in
Dongsung-dong district of the City of Seoul. That exhibition was actually curated and organized by Gallery Saemtuh.
After so many years, I had a chance to read over what I had written 30 years ago as a young Professor of the
Philosophies of Art and Language based mainly in North-American and Europe rather than as a Korea-based art
critic. And, I must confess, I did not dislike what I read over again, feeling that nothing I had then written has
become outdated in subsequent 30 years in any sense of this word. I could just as well ask the organizers of this
Centennial Celebratory exhibition organized by and at Ieyoung Museum to reprint with a new addition.
Furthermore, what I had written 30 years ago already contained the gist of what Ieyoung Museum Curator, Kim
Yeon-jin has written on Park Saengkwang in a 2004 Catalog when she wrote:

Whether Park was conscious of this kind of psychic shift of image registration is not issue here. What
matters is Parks picture plane is not a surface representing a visual experience nature but a worldplace
maneuveringly designed to describe the essence of Korean culture encompassing from shamanism and
Buddhism to traditional architectures and objects.(p.86~87)

On the other hand, I had this today in writing about Cheon Hyeoklim in 1987:

Chun divides his picture plane by a grid that resembles the book-shelf design in the Minhwa picture in illus. 1.
The only difference is that in Chuns case, it is flat picture plane that is divided by colored flat bands with no
volume whatsoever. In other words, in Chuns painting in Plate #105, a flat surface is divide3d into smaller
flat planes. If there were solid objects like tea cups neatly arranged on the shelve spaces in Minhywa, it is flat
images that are filling the smaller flat picture planes in Chuns Painting. Why not indeed? If you can place
solid objects on the shelves in your cupboard, why cant you place your dreams, ideas, and even fond images
on minds shelves? Indeed, is wrong to consider our mind as a kind of cupboard? What is cupboard anyways?
It is where you place things that you own, with memories attached. What is mind? And what is the
unconscious of a man? What a fantastic idea, indeed, to want to paint a still-life of ideas and images!
(p.133~134, Chun Hyuck-Lim, Text by Kai Hong, Yemunsha, Seoul, 1987)

What I had written as above in 1987 can be said to have been captured in his much later Paintings such as the one
he did in 2006.

When one compares the above two quoted statements, Kim Yeon-jin, in retrospect, could have just as well
referred to Kai Hongs 1987 writing on Cheon Hyeok-Lim rather than or at least alongside of Leo
Steinbergs Other Criteria. (Well, it is just a thought!) Be that as it may, it is serendipitous that, in
subsequent years after the 1987 Exhibition in which it is said that Chun Hyuk-Lim was able to sell his first Painting
at a decent price as a 73-year-old late bloomer, he became a greatly successful Painter in all of Korea, his works
having been grabbed by a large number of Korean collectors. What is more serendipitous is that a great patron of
Art in Korea, Kim Ie-whan saw with his brilliant intuition that there was something vitally important in spiritual
terms as well in art-cultural terms that seem underlie at the deepest level and most essential core both the Painters
namely, Cheon Hyeok-Lim and Park Saengkwang and became the single most important collector of both Artists.
His collection of both Cheon and Park is so large, large enough in any event, to build what is one of the finest private
museum of art in all of Asia, just to house the paintings by these two Korean Painters. What Mr. Kim Ie-Young and
his wife, his partner in the collection and establishment of this singular museum, intuited to be the spiritual core of
Korean Art-Cultural heritage were exemplified in Parks and Chuns Paintings in their own disparate ways but also
in their commonality as well. I was already articulating how Chun was doing it by considering the picture plane of
his canvas as the shelves on which to place his (and Korean) cultural-spiritual images in 1987, while Kim Yeon-jin
has, in 2004, given similar interpretation of Park Saeng-kwangs picture plane. If our interpretation of Chun and
Parks picture planes are correct, then Ie-Young Museum is destined to become the reference point for the
renaissance of Ancient Korean Art and Spirit rather than other contemporary Korean art museums for whom
contemporary means what are practiced in the International Centers of Art usually in hegemonic centers of the
Occidental World such as New York, London and Paris.

Be that as it may, commemorating his artistic achievement on the occasion of this 100th anniversary of his birth,
I wish to interject another historically important event worth remembering in order to highlight the importance
and relevance of Cheons achievement as a modern Painter. That historically important event occurred also about
one hundred years ago in 1912, which makes it exactly 103 years ago. It is then that a polemical manifesto was
published on the state of Art and the spiritual condition of mankind of that historically ominous time just before
the calamitous World War I broke out (in 1915). It was a thin volume composed of barely 50 pages written by a
Russian Painter who was then living and painting in Germany, titled Concerning the Spiritual in Art; the author
was of course none other than Wassily Kandinsky, known in Art History as the greatest theorist and one of the
earliest practitioner of Abstract Art. Why mention Kandinsky in conjunction with Cheon Hyeoklim? Well, yes, there
is a very good reason for remembering the publishing event of Kandinskys booklet of 1912 in commemorating
Cheons artistic achievement on the centennial celebration of his birth. It is for this reason:

If we agree with Kandinskys diagnosis of the then prevailing condition of Modern or Avant-garde Art as well as
his call for a Spiritual Art as an antidote to the state of nihilism pervasive in Western Art World, and if we think
that the same or similar mal-condition of modern art of which Kandinsky was then writing is still very much with
us today in the 21st Century, then it is the claim I wish to make and make case for that Cheon Hyeoklims artistic
outputs, especially his Painting, is the (correct) answer to the spiritual and art-creative issues of which Kandinsky
then raising. If so, then Cheon Hyeoklims (and I believe other Korean Artists such as Park Saengkwang and Gye Ziel
Hwas Shaman Paintings among others) will trail-blaze the Global Art-trend superceding what passes as advanced
arts in the International Centers of Global Art such as New York, London and Paris. Just in that sense, then, Cheon
Hyeoklims is neither the Art of the Past, good for remembering only, nor is he just a Provincial Korean Artist in
then barely developing 3rd World Country; on the contrary, his still lives on today as a reminder to how misguided
and bad the so-called global contemporary arts are and the body of his works exemplify the direction into which
Contemporary Global Arts should move, radically breaking away from what is only a mindless (or is brainless a
better ascription?) masturbation in the name of Post-modern or Neo-Avant-garde or whatever other infelicitous

[2] Mu-Spiritual in Art from Korea such as Cheon Hyeoklims meets the challenge posed by Kandinsky

What is mu-spirituality and why today in our age of IT and smart phones? Before answering the above
question and before defining that notion of mu-spirituality, let us remind ourselves that exactly a century
has passed since the appearance of the famously polemical book by Kandinky, Concerning the Spiritual in
Art in 1912 during the belle poque period of Europe while the storm for disaster to engulf entire Europe
was brewing in the form of the spiritual mood of European people expecting a great storm. Indeed, is it not
the case that the air is heavily saturated with watery particles creating a sort of brooding and expectant
moods of something brewing and just about to storm in before a hurricane, for instance? In such a spiritual,
intellectual and moral environment of the most invidious kind of passive nihilism infecting and
debilitating the entire Western World of the Occident, Kandinsky penned that famous 1912 text of his in in
profound despair.

The situation today, in the very beginning of the 21 st Century, the cultural and spiritual condition of
our age is no better than the one Kandinsky experienced then a Century earlier, if not worse by several
degrees, in fact. Kandinskys call for new art fell to deaf ears then; his call for spiritual rejuvenation for
people in general and his demands for new art of inner necessity and of spirituality failed to generate any
sort of historical momentum large enough to change the subsequent course of Modernist-cum-avant-garde
art-historical evolution of the West. It was partly because of his [Kandinskys] own failure to articulate
those spiritual needs in more persuasive languages and also because his own understanding of spirituality
as well as his version of spiritual art in the form of abstract art lacked sufficient cogency and clarity.

I believe that today it is time again to call for spiritual art to overcome the rampant materialism and
nihilism that are sweeping across the global landscape of the art world as the symptom of the civilization in
dire crisis. However, this time, we have a much better candidate of the spiritual in art than what
Kandinsky was capable of coming up with 100 some odd years ago. In my own considered opinion, it is
highly unlikely that any genuinely regenerative and healing kind of spirituality can emerge out of the
completely dried up spiritual resources of the Occidental World. Instead, it is a Korean version of the
Mu()-Spiritual in Art that meets the demands for Kandinskyte kind of Historical demands of our Age. In
what follows, I propose to articulate what is Korean version of Mu-Spirituality and what kind of Art
exemplifies Mu-Spirituality. Ill then move on to discuss what I perceive to be the pioneering modern Mu-
Spiritual Artists in the persons of Park Sangkwang, Cheon Hyeoklim and Gye Zyeolhua. In this paper,
however, Ill have time to discuss only Cheon Hyeoklim, postponing the introduction and discussion of the
other two for later occasion.

Although we began with Kandinskys call for the Spiritual in Art, in defining what is meant by the
word spiritual and especially spiritual in art, I propose that we look back at what Immanuel Kant had
said: Art is an expression of that very basic human aspiration towards a perfect community, and this
[aspiration] is the ground for the possibility of human spirituality. The first part of this sentence refers to
the fact that a human is a social being above all else. Man cannot exist alone, in complete isolation from
others, let alone living a human life. Living as a human is to live with and among other humans like him or
her. This is proven by the fact that all men and women are born with innate knowledge of universal
grammar, as famously and prominently stated as the very first principle of Chomskyte Cognitive Science of
Linguistics. And, furthermore, to speak or to engage in any kind of linguistic act cannot be a private affair
as has been logically demonstrated in the form of the impossibility of private language thesis put forward
by Ludwig Wittgenstein and has since become the first principle of any practicing Ordinary Language
Philosophy or Speech Act Theory. To do art is an Act of Art-ing and as such it is also a species of Social Act,
meaning that it must be done grammatically, according to some give set of rules of the Art-ing game just
as a Speech Act must be done following the rules of that particular language game. Art like language
satisfies a social need of a social being, which is specie-specific to being a human. But also notice that it is
not just any sort of (social) need for sociability with other humans; it is towards a perfect community. I
for one believe that it is a poor translation to use the word community; it should be, instead, perfect
communion. The social act of Art-ing presupposes at least one other human interlocutor for whose ears
or eyes this persons Art-ing Act is directed for the purpose not merely of exchanging useful information
at functional-operational level. Whereas most social exchanges are give-and-takes for goal-directed
purposes involving the notion of utilitarian interests; the Act of Art-ing, in its original pure form, has
nothing utilitarian in its inception. To create something beautiful as the result of ones Art-ing and to
appreciate it as such on the part of an audience, it is done out of complete disinterest on both parties.
After all, disinterestedness is the hall-mark of the aesthetic attitude. Insofar as it involves disinterested
aesthetic attitude, I prefer to read Kantian dictum above as towards perfect communion1(with one
another) rather than perfect community(of interested social beings in a social setting).

Now, the 2nd half of the old Kant we mentioned abovesomething about the ground for the
possibility of human spirituality. What is then the meaning of human spirituality, anyways? In a way,
Kant had himself already explained it in his own words, when he said that art was an expression of
human aspiration towards a perfect community and its being the basis for human spirituality. In other
words, human spirituality is achieved when and if the human person found his or her own unique mode
of connectivity to the rest of the world, the totality2. When he wrote about perfect community, he didnt
just mean human community but the totality, meaning the universe or nature.

Here, I shall begin with an assertion and then come back later to explain. One of the key words to
understanding Cheons world of Art is the word, Mu(). Its English equivalent would be Shaman, but
it doesnt exactly capture all the complex layers of meaning which is present in the word, Mu().
Nevertheless, I propose to use the term, Shaman, as it now has the international currency. The painter,
himself, had no reservation in saying that Shamanic spiritual force() has been the very fountain of his
creative energies and source of inspiration as an Artist. Most cultural anthropologists of the World
today agree that Korean Shamanism not only goes back furthest back to the pre-historical ancient times
but also the spiritual forces of Shamanism lives and is a major influence in the spiritual life of any modern
Korean man or woman. It is so even in a man who might be a devout Christian church-goer. The same is
the case with a life-long Buddhist adherent. Cheon is not an exception and he readily admitted himself
that some sort of Shamanic spirit as a mood, as cultural ideas, or as a mode of interfacing with nature
must permeate his entire artistic-creative processes, while confessing that he hadnt given thoughts on
exactly how and where, because its so pervasive while influencing his spiritual as well as material daily
lives in the most unconscious way.

Nevertheless, I propose to use the term, Shaman, as it now has the international currency. The
painter, himself, has no reservation in saying that Shamanic spiritual force() has been the very
fountain of his own and also of all native Korean peoples creative energies and source of inspiration as
people and also as (Korean)Artists, if they deserve to be called Artists. I therefore propose to suggest a
new kind of a definition of Art: The very act of painting, in Mu-Painting, is nothing other than to do a
Shamanic Dance with her or his brushes on canvas, the dance in the very act of which the Mu-Artist is
mysteriously transformed into an altogether different mode of presence, transferred from her or his usual
reality onto a different realm of reality, her or his space-and-time differently configured all of a sudden.

Theres an East Asian concept denoted by the Chinese characters of hap-il which seems to be the most appropriate
translation of the English word of communion. It is all about the meeting of the minds at the level of spirit not out of material or
some other goal-directed functional needs. Insofar as humans aspire to such communing with someone, with God or with some
natural forces, in the sense of being in mutual attunement (bestimmng in German), is a human a spiritual being, who doesnt or
cannot live by bread alone.
This notion of totality can be found frequently in the writings of Georgi Lukacs and his students like Lucien Goldmann, sometimes
referred to as left Hegelian Marxists. See Lucien Goldmanns IMMANUEL KANT, for example.
In that realm of un-real reality, the Mu-spiritual Artist had left her or his usual self-hood, shedding her
or his usual ego as if it were just a piece of clothes one wears. In such a realm, the Mu-Artists dance,
which is her painting, is guided by a force, not of her or his own intentionality, but from a source outside
her or his usual conscious self, somewhere else, that is. What is that somewhere else? Well come back to
it in good time, as it is one of the key indices towards a proper understanding of Cheons and other Mu-
Artists Paintings.

Let us dwell a bit longer on this very interesting hypothesis of equating of the Act of her Painting
with a Shaman Dance in ink-brush on canvas, for in all Mu paintings such as in Chuns and others like
Park Saengkwangs and Gye Ziel Huas, can you sense a pattern of rhythmic dance-movements. Not only is
it the most prominent feature in their works, but it is also the most important determining factor of their
painterly-planar organization. Consider such work as Korean Sky 328 x 129, 1984, p.80 in 1987 Catalog),
The Nature of Korea Four Seasons , 363 x 146, Plate 1243 on p.127 of 1987 Catalog), Field
and Birds, , 130 x 97 cm, Plate 102, p. 97, the same catalog) or Korean Dance , 191 x 95.2 cm,
1984, Plate 94 on page 91 of the same catalog). Many different abstract images are to be found in all of
these paintings, not representational but yet not entirely illegible and some are clearly figurative, are in
Shamanic dance-movements, clearly not in a choreographed dance steps, yet not clashing into one
another, but each moving with spontaneity, with grace, in complete freedom, against the deep shade of
cobalt blue. Wheres the hint of the Shamanic in the painting? It is the thin strips of five-color white
fabric or linen ribbon-like bands of varying lengths and widths interpenetrating one another in natural
rhythm and harmony as when in slicing the wind in the air when a Shaman Dancer throws up or behind
the back of her shoulders, a hanging silk bands of different colors creating different configurations in the
air, constantly and ceaselessly trans-morphing into one another into different configurations as a whole
and so on. If this is not the dance of Shiva, linking and relinking in an ever new kind of interfacing with the
whole and other parts, in the mutual interpenetration of Chuns five colored ribbon-like banks all across
his huge canvases; what, then, is? Then, too, there seems to be a kind of pose-taking for a next pose,
whereby dances of, for and over the Indras Net are in a way a series of such sudden poses, one after
another, in slow, seemingly very slow motion. Therere many illegible images of variously different
shapes, which seem to be floating to the surface from an abysmal depth of the Cobalt Blue, as we can
detect from the vaguer and vaguer figures further away, fading from the surface, or is it fading into the
abysmal depth behind the surface? With the Blue, deep Cobalt Blue, the painter is indicating the universe
in a different mode of presence, present to the Shaman dancer whos in trance; the dancer in trance is
now a totally different, transformed being, different left her usual mode of mundane humanly presence
with the rest of the universe, having left the usual humanly comprehensible world in which Newtons and
Einsteins equations are operational. How do you re-present this extra-ordinary mode of the universes
presence to you, the Shaman, in which youre given accesses to all the other beings in that universe for
communion the Kantian perfect community or connectivity with the totality? She just might as well
color it blue, deep cobalt blue. Why not, indeed? For all she can indicate is its total otherness of
experience; unless you have yourself experienced it, theres no way of describing it, representing it, and
picturing it. (As Wittgenstein might have said, You havent got the word for it.) In that state of
presence to the rest of the universe in an altered state of Shamans consciousness, she enters into a totally
different mode of interacting with the rest of the universe, in freedom, in commensurability with even the
plants, birds, and other insects of nature. As vibrating free spirits, all beings are equal, communing on that
level of mutual vibratory dances, even the meagerest (I feel like using this expression than most meager
here) insects as mosquitoes or worms are on equal terms at that level, as they too are vibrating entities,
however minute they may be. A living energy to another living energy, Shaman communes and is
connected to the rest of the universe the Universe as a vibrating totality. This is an ecological
interpretation of Shamanic vocation, as one who is capable of leaving the usual human mode of
presence to the universe and entering into an ecologically attuned being to the ecologically
interpenetrated universe, all beings to all other beings. In other words, the colorful-World3 of the
dancing Shaman is nothing other than the world Chuang-tzu painted in his story of the Butterfly Dream
in which the dream dreamt by a Butterfly is on the par with the dream dreamt by a human being (Chuang-
tzu). In Chuang-tzus of which his Story of Butterfly Dream is meant to be an exemplification,
every being in the universe, sentient or not, is mutually interpenetrated with one another, being to being
in mutual vibratory chi-energy resonances (dances).

I suggest that we reject the Western-driven cultural-anthropologist interpretation of the

phenomenon of shamanism. It is peculiarly Western-European, or Judeo-Christian to posit different
ontological levels of the World: for Plato, it is the world of pure ideas and the shadow world of the
humans; for Christians, it is the world of the spirits and the world of the fleshly existence of the human
kinds. In another variation of the same theme of ontological differentiations on the part of the Westerners,
theres been this unspoken assumption by the cultural anthropologists that the natural world is largely
determinate and mechanical, and that that which is regarded as mysterious, powerful, and beyond human
ken must be of some other, non-physical realm above and beyond nature, supernatural. So, what is the
problem with the cultural anthropologists view of shamanism? It is that they overlook the ecological
dimension of the shamans craft, while writing at great length of the shamans rapport with
supernatural entities. Shaman is an intermediary between human and non-human world of the universe.
In Chuang-tzus terminology, a shaman is a person who is capable of living Je-Mul-Ron () at will.
(It is necessary to re-articulate Chuang-tzu and Lao-tzus texts in ecological terms.)

Surely, the primitive people, the indigenous people had no conception of such ontologically
delineated world view. The indigenous population translated those terms, Western Missionaries-as-
Anthropologists first brought to them into their own native idioms, when in fact such a direct translation
would be impossible, and the subsequent confusion about the meaning of and the true vocation of
indigenous Shamans. It is therefore the confusion between the Western notion of spirit, and the
mysterious presences to which tribal and indigenous cultures (including Korean) cultures pay so much
respect. The main part of the source of this confusion comes from the circumstances that many of the
earliest precursors to modern Cultural Anthropologists were Christian Missionaries all too ready to see
occult ghosts and immaterial phantoms where the native people were simply offering their respect to the
local winds. They are overlooking that the spirits of the native people are just those different modes of
intelligence or awareness that do not possess a human form. Ants, for example, seem to anticipate an
impending earthquake or volcanic eruption days ahead of time. Is this not the sign that ants too have a
mode of intelligence of their own kind? And, can we not say that Shamans are those people who are,
through their trained craft, capable of divining that alien mode of ants intelligence and thus can make use
of what he or she learned from that interaction for their fellow human beings as a healer or as a
soothsayer or as a prophet, the diviner of future signs? In such a conception of shamans special gift or
ability to commune with the non-human world, we have no need to posit the supernatural world in
opposition to the mundane human world of the concrete everyday living.

Theres a good reason why I have digressed to talk about the nature of shamans vocation and craft at
length. It is that my earlier suggestion to consider the Act of Painting AS shamanic dance with an ink-
brush on canvas points to the Aesthetics that rejects the traditional Western European Aesthetics of

It is actually 5-color colorful rather than just colorful world. In traditional Korean Shamanic terminology, theres concept called
oh-bang-saek which can be rendered in literal translation as 5-directional colors. Hence, the 5-colored cloth-ribons of various width
and length with which the Shaman dances of the kind which the Indian Shiva Dances are close cousins in such a way that the ribbons
fly hither and thither in accessing, connecting and interfacing with the rest of the Indras Net or Web which is in fact the whole of the
Transcendence4. If our re-definition of the phenomenon of shamanism in ecological terms is correct, then
a the Act of Painting as I suggested to define in terms of Shaman Dance signals an Aesthetics of
Immanence. Immanence is to emanate, or to arise out of its natural source. Aesthetics of Immanence
comes very close to what Lao-tzu said in his Tao-Te-Ching, in 2nd Chapter in which he said basically what
is natural in saying that what is not natural and artificial () is abhorrent (), detestable.
[ ] This is an entirely different conception of beauty from the traditional
Western conception in which the ideal form of beauty resides in the other world of pure forms of Platos
kind. That ideal of beauty cannot be realized in this world of humans everyday living and they strive
mightily through millennia to transcend this world, the only world they have and say, If not in this
world, then in the next world of our next life after death. All this artificial ranking in their scheme of
things in Aesthetics and Fine Arts: the first rank is always given to pure art in which transcendental
aesthetics is pursued and then the applied arts as second class citizens. This class distinction among the
different arts, learned from the West, was taken to their heart by the Korean, Japanese or Chinese
modernizers of modernization through Westernization. In some such ways, the countries at the periphery
of the World System have always imbibed the ready-made conceptual categories and cultural formulae
from the hegemonic centers of the West in the past five hundred years, at least since Columbus infamous
discovery of the New World. In having divorced itself from the living world in their pursuit of
transcendence in their Art-ing (Act of doing Art), they have also divorced their activity from the wider
ecological context of nature and the universe. In so doing, they have actually mistakenly deprived their art
of spirituality, in an irony of ironies. How so? As we have already indicated, human spirituality resides not
in their striving towards the transcending of this world, this particular ecological make-up as nature, as
the Westerners are prone to; instead, it resides in human striving towards the connectivity to the
universe as whole, including the non-human part of it, --in other words, to live Je-Mul-Ron() la

When Western Missionaries and Cultural Anthropologists were prone to see occult ghosts and
immaterial phantoms when the native shamans were making offerings for the spirits, I suggested that
the local shamans were in fact paying respect to the local winds, broadly referring to all the forces of
nature as such. In nearly all of his more abstract compositions, the basic compositional elements are
actually long thin ribbon-like bands of irregular shapes. Theyre, however, linked together by a thin chain
of shamans (Korean Mudangs) long, lean silk scarfs or ribbons with which the Mudang cuts the wind in
the air and enters the other world of a different ontological order and different mode of presence to the
non-human world of ecological web of nature. In other words, wind is basically circulation through the
Universe, it is a current, a river in the sky, if you will. The Mudang throws up or behind her shoulders the
long thin strips of silk fabric, as if a boy throws up his kite with a long cord into the sky for it to get on the
back of the wind current; it is the Mudangs gesture to get into a different mode of presence in the
Universe, in which she or he leaves behind the mundane world and enter into a rhythmic and vibratory
communion with non-human beings, sentient or insentient. In other words, that thin long strips of silken
cloth ribons with which the Shaman dancer cuts the wind is her interface device to get into the same
wave length in order to hitch a ride on the wind current of connectivity to the invisible world in a totally
different mode of mutual presencing. (Here, Im again making a new verb out of the noun presence.)
When the Mudang is on the back of the wind current on his or her way to that world of different mode of
presence, she or he is doing it as a spirit, as a vibrating energy bundle. In some such ways, the Mudang
gains connectivity with the Universe, becoming one, in the sense of entering into a vibratory consonance
with the rest of the universe. It is for that reason that I propose to define Art-ing as a Mudang Dance with

It is indeed the gist of argument by Francois Jullien that the traditional Chinese had no need for the idea of Aesthetics in their
conception of Art or Art-ing. I refer to his writings such as In Praise of Blandness or Nude: Chinese Art and Western Aesthetics, both
are from Zone Books of MIT Press.
brush on canvas. It is an original conception, never before mentioned in all different traditions of
academic scholarship, whether in the Orient or in the Occident

[3] Need for a New Discursive Framework of Mu-Spiritual Art of Cheon Hyeoklim et al from Korea

Whether it is by a domestic or foreign critic, there seems to be some formulae and variations on the
similar themes, --namely, how the spiritual and cultural contents can be traced back to the artists native
traditional roots and how well he learned and applied the formal language of modernist, minimal and post-
minimal [sic, post-modern] painting in the way he creates a series of masterful art works, so perfectly
straddling the two different cultures of the East Asian [Korean] and the Western [North American] art
milieus I claim that the single most important aspect of his artistic achievement has not been noticed and
recognized for what it is in writing in these terms. Who said Ideology is dead? Ideologies are merely
disguised. Is Art-writing ideology-free? Then, why is it that when it has been persuasively demonstrated
that the notion of minimalism is really a misnomer and that it should be called literal art instead. [For
example, in Michael Frieds Art and Its Objecthood paper, taking theoretical cues from Stanley Cavell,
surely one of the most profound thinkers on Modern Art, Modern Aesthetics and Modern Literature,
recognized as such by his peers in academic Philosophy world-wide.] Yet, people in the Western World,
notably in New York and London, who make career of art-writing about contemporary art, insist on using
the term, minimalism. Might it not have something to do with a disguised ideology, call it a certain art-
ideology if you will, in operational mode at the level of the collective-unconscious for most of these people
in the so-called art world? While this is clearly not the place to make a case for a plausible (and persuasive)
argument; yet, Ill have to make a few large claims about the state of affairs in contemporary globalized art
world just so that I can make a case for an altogether different frame of discursive writing, only within
which there can be a fuller appreciation of the singular historical importance of such works as Cheon
HyeokLims and of several others still to be presented to the rest of the world. [I, by the way, I dont
number among them some already very-well-recognized Korean artists in the Western Art Worlds and up-
held highly by the International Biennale Crowds (the influenza zone to paraphrase Nietzsche in his
petulant mood, thinking dark thoughts about the destiny of Western civilization)] Im actually proposing a
new historiographical approach to understanding and writing about the recent history of Modern/Avant-
garde and Contemporary Western Art in somewhat following way, by asking a question that has been un-
thought. Might it not have something to do with a powerful ideological thinking, came to be known as Neo-
Conservatism of all different stripes, whose real name is Anglo-American Free-Market Capitalism, also
known as Greed Capitalism. Let me explain:

The great Swiss-German Art Historian, Heinrich Woelflin had this perceptive thing to say, with great
historical perspicacity: Even if there existed only one Rembrandt, a decisive readjustment of the eyes has
taken place (in the 17th Century). He was referring to the profound shift, which was nothing less than
revolutionary, of the World View: that shift showed up in the arts as the advent of an entirely new style of
painting he termed painterly, abandoning and superseding the linearly style of painting which preceded
it. It was no merely stylistic changes in the way the artists painted, but was a sign of a radical
transformation in the way people looked at the world. Indeed, it was in the same 17th century that Rene
Descartes gave the first articulation of the anthropocentric world view in which human rationality was
elevated to the final arbiter of what there is in the world and how they are to be known and controlled.
Soon afterwards, Issac Newton of Trinity College, Cambridge came up with a detailed picture of the
workings of the cosmos in mathematical terms of the dynamic laws of cosmos. The first modern scientific
paradigm was born, ushering in a totally new historical era of techno-industrial development, enabling
men to willfully transform nature solely for his purpose and to his design.

Only one Rembrandt would have been a sign enough that a new age had made its appearance and
no going back. I, for one, feel convinced that some such similar signs are afoot, in Seoul, Korea of all places,
for a radical and major shift, a profoundly fundamental Re-Configuration of Modern Civilization as we
know it today, ushering in a new world view and new spirit to our age. Surely, therere a lot of different
signs for such a historical shift of major proportion, but some of the clearest indications of such a shift can
be observed happening right now, right here and now in Seoul, Korea, rather than somewhere else. If my
own intuition is correct, then I have already recognized half a dozen Korean contemporary artists whose
works of painting and sculpture are going to be the trail-blazers, even though some of them are still to be
discovered; Cheon Hyeoklim, Park Saengkwang and Gye Ziel-Hwa are definitely among them. I believe, it is
these artists and not the better known Korean Artists (lately made fashionable in the name of dansaekhua,
a misnomer in fact and conceptually vacuous), who heralds a profound transformation in Global World
System and its Civilization as we know it today, as harbingers of New Art Trend. None of them have become
international stars, acclaimed and lauded by the International Biennale crowds and the art-journalists from
the Western Centers of the International Art World. (But, then, how could they, at the traditional
International Art Centers, recognize an entirely different revolutionary new art trend? After all, any
genuinely new trend would have to destroy the very structural configuration of the existing international
art world at all those levels of market, institutional and discursive practices not just painterly style, but
even the very notion of art works, exhibition space and other such fundamental issues. No? These artists
are nothing like Nam Jun Pike or Lee U-Whan or their look-alikes, whom the Western Hegemonic Centers
of Global Art lauds. Patience, Please!. I promise I shall come to this point soon enough in the confines of this

The Spirit of our Age demands different kinds of Art than the ones which dominate the so-called
international art scenes in such international (hegemonic) centers as Paris, New York, Berlin and London.
Because, no matter however (seemingly) eloquent discursive packages (of sophistry, in fact) their products
are presented, what passes by a variety of different names like modern, avant-garde, post-modern, media
art or what have you, today are nothing other than nihilistic posturing. This unviable condition of Western
Art is captured with utter perspicacity in just one sentence by Stanley Cavell: What characterizes the
situation in (Western) modern art today is the pervasive possibility of fraudulence. [Notice that what
happens in the international art world, so-called, is just the mirror-reflection of what happens in the world
of international high finance in which they package financial products couched in erudite mathematical
equations and high-flown scientific terms to transform junk bonds and hedge funds into powerful
financial game-playing. Their intellectually fraudulence was partially unveiled in the notorious 2008 New
York Wall Street Collapse. Oh, yeah, the entire collapse was avoided by a massive Federal Government
Intervention, postponing eventual fate temporarily.] If Cavell is pessimistic about the fate of Western Art,
which the rest of the world have come to embrace, not aware that its [the Western Arts] is not viable, in
fact; another great Western Philosopher, Martin Heidegger saw in art a potential for saving Western
Civilization from the quagmire of incurable nihilism. But, surely, he didnt mean by art the same kind of
art that Cavell refers to and what one is likely to encounter in her or his visit to fashionable international
art biennale venues or self-proclaimed pantheon of high art in such nosed-up cities like Paris, New York,
Berlin and London. Heideggers suggestion deserves our serious attention, for it is he, more than anyone
else, who had his fingers on the very central and fundamental foundational issues of the Modern
Civilization founded upon a particular conception of technology. In that pervasive Western understanding
of technology, nihilism is a predictable, inevitable outcome at the end of its development. So, what kind of
art would play the role of an antidote to the technological toxin which penetrated nearly all aspects of
human endeavors in their interfaces with nature itself and with themselves and other thingly and non-
thingly beings?

I dare to suggest that it is by going all the way back to the spiritual sources of our very humanity. By
asking what is specie-specific to being a human, being in the universe amongst other existing things as in
the Indras Net or Web. Man as a spiritual being cannot but have the innate, or hardwired, spiritual needs
or spiritual aspiration, especially the one towards a perfect community (in the words of Immanuel Kant)
or totality (which can be the universe, nature or the world). And, what is a community? Wherever or
whenever therere more than two, theres is already a community (of two). Art, or the impulse to Art, is an
expression of that very basic human spiritual need, as weve already mentioned. But that need for art as a
spiritual need is not a monopoly of the so-called Artists with Capital Lettering A. It [that very basic spiritual
need for Art] is innately given, hardwired, to every human person when he or she is born. It is in much the
same way that the knowledge of Universal Grammar is innate, as Noam Chomsky famously theorized and
revolutionized only the field of Linguistics but the entirety of Cognitive Science, referred to as MITs
Philosophical Cognitivism in the literatures of Philosophy of Mind, Cognitive Psychology, Psycolinguistics,
Brain Sciences and Artificial Intelligence, all of which were germinated during the mid-1950s in what is
called the wind of Cognitive Revolution blown from Charles River (the location of MIT) in Cambridge,
Massachusetts. Im suggesting that Art-ing is a latent propensity in all human beings. In Western version of
Modernization, in the process of realizing their vision of modernity through industrialization under
Capitalist world system, they have actively suppressed the universal human instincts for Art, making Art a
kind of Profession in which only Artists with the Capital Letter A were recognized and acknowledge as
such. How do we rediscover and give it [the propensity for Art as an expression of human spiritual
aspiration and need? Possibly, just possibly, by look back towards Ancient East Asian Art of just the
following sorts (which are exactly what, I am claiming, these Mu-spiritual Arts such as Cheon, Park, Gye
Zeil-Hwa and others are doing, oblivious to all the noises from the International Art Biennale Crowds and
Western Avant-garde Sets).

The decisive difference between Western and Northeast Asian Cultures turns out to be this: mind and
body cannot be thought of separately from one another, whereas they are or can be two different things in
Western way of thinking. It is for this reason that in traditional Korea, for instance, spiritual training is
actually nothing other than the training of the body. Actually, it is misleading to use this word body
without further differentiation in ancient Korea, as there are two words for the concept of Western body.
There are two different words of Mohm() and Mohmtungyi() where the former refers to a
functioning system whereas the latter refers to the material aspect of the body the collection of the
machine parts that make up the body. It is for this very reason that Oriental Martial Arts like Taekwondo is
not just bodily exercises but they are at the same time the spiritual exercises of the mind. It is called
Suhaeng() culture in which mind and body are never separated and are cultivated as the identical
thing. For this reason, East Asian ancient canonical texts like Confucian Analytic is not just philosophical
text in the sense of Platos Republic or Aristoteles Metaphysics; in fact, Confucian books are merely guide
books for Suhaeng (the simultaneous exercise of the body and the mind as one). Arting (doing Art) in that
culture of suhaeng() is a species of a spiritual exercise involving body and mind together in order to
discover ones true self, which had been suppressed in favor of the externally imposed self-identity just so
that the true potentialities latent therein could be germinated and flowered into full bloom of just that kind
that was meant to be for him or her. Artist is a seeker, going through spiritual training called suhaeng
using his or her body, primarily, in some repetitive rhythmic ways just as one breathes during meditation

Anyone going Artists way, insofar as it is in the ancient Korean way of Gyeon-seong(), has to
begin with the question of Who am I, the true I ()? However, if the very word of human nature
implies its universality applicable to any and everything that is human, then ancient Korean conception of
Art as a way of Suhaeng (daily regiments of exercises involving the body and the mind) on the way of
Gyeon-seong (self-discovery or ones latent potentialities) is something that is species-specific to being a
human, regardless of ones racial, cultural and skin-color differences. It is just that that notion of Art has
been forgotten or suppressed in the West as well as in contemporary Asian societies. Only if we can
remember and recover the innate human propensity (which is in fact nothing other than the very basic
human aspiration) towards a communion with nature (or God, or the universe), then well then be able to
realize that arting (the Act of doing Art) is an expression of that fundamental human aspiration and
propensity with which we are born hardwired, as it were. That, according to Kant in his last philosophical
writings (other than the more famous and well-known Critiques period writing of his peak years), is the
ground for the possibility of human spirituality5. Insofar as one entertains just such an aspiration, he or she
is an artist, at least with a small letter a, if not an Art with a capital letter A. Even when he or she has not
produced what can be referred to as a work of art as a result of his or her Arting, insofar as one has been
able to let go of his or her externally given frame of perception (of seeing, knowing and such other
cognitive stuffs) and encounter something unexpected, something un-perceivable from within the received
frame of references, and he or she is surprised and awed by this encounter, however insignificant it may
be, this person is compelled to call attention any other fellow human being who might happen to be
around in the sense of saying do you see what I see or can you appreciate this that Ive just chanced

Immanuel Kant, in Introduction Chapter in his book INTRODUCTION TO LOGIC as well as a very good exegeses of Kantian thinking
at this state of his life just before his death in Lucien Goldmanns Zurich Universitat Doctoral Dissertation, IMMANUEL KANT. It is a left-
humanist Marxists version of later period Kant in contradistinction to the usual Kantian orthodox philosophical oeuvre of the three
Critiques period.
upon and is wonderful, and when some sort sharing of the sense of wonder of the moment has occurred,
then I say art has transpired. There has been some kind of transfiguration, a spiritual awakening of a kind,
however flimsy and ephemeral. These are moments of epiphany of a sort, however small and insignificant
its eventual outcome might turn out to be6. ;

Unfortunately, such innate instincts for art present as latent potentiality in all human beings is being
actively and in the most insidious ways suppressed by the upholders of the present global world system of
the Capitalist order. At the expense of the artistic needs of the ordinary people who too have artistic
aspirations to satisfy, the powers-that-be in the present Global World-System are busy turning out
ideological discourses to market only a few chosen (by them) Artists as the Stars, thus packaged their
products sell at inflated prices, just as they manipulate stock prices at Wall Street. In this system, only the
top 1% get all the glory, money and power; the rest 99% are given throw-away fast foods and fast fashion
in a grand (and hypocritical) act of mollification of the mass. What are called Contemporary Art in the
global art world today is mired in the quagmire of Nihilism with no end in sight, playing endless end-game,
as it were. Yet, the powers-that-be from the hegemonic centers of the global art world package and
publicize that Art as the most advanced art of the day for no other reason than that they are practiced at
the international centers of art and culture such as New York, London and Paris.

Korean Artists Mu-Spirituality who refuses to go along with the global art trends being constantly
reproduced as an art-world-version of fast fashion. Instead, they decided to look back upon their ancient
ancestral roots in order dig deep into their traditional spiritual and artistic creative resources to see if they
could not come up with an Art differently conceived and practiced from what they do at those cultural-
power centers of the global art world (and market). They found just such spiritual resources from within
their ancestral Korean spiritual tradition for their journey into their own artistic potentialities latent inside
them, in their soul, as it were.

Every anything that exists in the Universe has its own raison-detre for existence; it is to germinate its
seed into fully blooming flowers. That is the very burning passion for existence, for living; Art is an
expression of this very existential passion. For this reason, from within Ancient Korean spiritual tradition
of Seon-ga Suhaeng (), Arting Acts are nothing other than a specie of a kind of Ghi-Energy
Exercises( Ghi-Suhaeng). Although it appears to be bodily exercises involving breathing, not
unlike some Indian Yoga exercises to a non-initiate, it is nevertheless a training exercises of the Mind
(Maeum). While we understand our body in terms of its anatomical parts and their functioning and its
over-all architectonic structure, we have the tendency to think of Mind as one thing. In traditional East
Asian thinking, Mind too has a structure and different organizational parts to it. If it is our mind that
control our bodily movements as in our intending to walk out of this room on our two legs, for an example,
then the Mind must have some kind of power with which to exercise that control of our body parts to work
in coordination. That source of Power with which Mind controls body parts is, according to Ancient East
Asian Medicine Book, an organ of the Mind called Ghi(pronounced as Qi in Mandarin Chinese).
Likewise, in these three Korean Painters works, what are evident is the traces of their Ghi-exercises
involving their entire body, even their Paint brushes having become integral parts of their body in their
Ghi-energy spiritual exercises and that exercise is their Arting or Art-Acts. Cheons and other Mu-spiritual
artists are Arting in the sense of recognizing or realizing of their true Maum i.e., the Seong ( the very

On the notion of the wide sense of art, I refer to Kai Hong article that appeared in Korean Aesthetics, Autumn Volume, 1978 as
wells as Kai Hongs articles, Noticing and Metaphoring, Wide Sense of Art: Towards a New Philosophy of Art, Art, Life and All
That . , , 5 , 1978, ., ,
: , pp.54~65.
existential seed)the burning passion for their very existence and life. Otherwise, their life would not
have been fully bloomed into that flower meant to be. Material survival is not equal to Life itself, the gift of
life, the (sacred) phenomenon of life.

In conclusion, whereas much of global contemporary arts today are mere symptomatic reflection of the
malaise of Modern (Western) Civilization in its deathbed, with nothing to offer in terms of resuscitation (of
the patient on deathbed), the kind of mu-spiritual arts of which Cheon, Park and Gye Ziel-hwas are
exemplary will awaken and regenerate the forgotten and suppressed humanity fundamental need for
spiritual well-being, whose aspect of human nature had been actively suppressed in favor of material-
aspect of human nature only. In fact, Mu-spiritual Art is just another side of the same coin as what I called
Daam-Art ()namely, the Art that realizes the Spirit of Daam .

I found a remarkable passage from a legendary Korean text, Dongeuibogam, of traditional medicinal
practices together with its philosophical-scientific premises in somewhat like the following paraphrase. (I
provide here both original Koran text together with an English translation.)

() .
. .
. , (
, ).8

Concentration requires the maintenance of the clarity of the mind. Drop all external goals and desires.
When the mind is silenced, all the noises of thoughts and emotions settled-down into calmness; then, its
necessary, according to Dongeuibogam neither to go out to know the movements of the world nor to
look out of the window to understand the heavens way or the do()of the sky. Then, and only then,
the centeredness of existence can be had. Exercises of Understanding ( , the ways) with the whole
body while the mind is clear in a state of damdamham ( , or equivalently calmness), that is
whats called Kungfu ()or Suhaeng().

Notice that one is able to understand the Doh (or equivalently Tao or Way) of the Heaven
when the mind is silenced by dropping all the mundane issues of ones everyday emotional life
and of the mind. In other words, mind is calmed in the state of dam-dam-ham (which is
achieved precisely when all the emotional issue of life has been dropped or suspended, if only
momentarily or temporarily). We call the state of dam-dam-ham as simply daam state of mind.
To get into the spirit of daam is to have silenced ones mind and then, only then, can one be
inspired to dance like a Shaman, with absolute freedom, with spontaneity. Meditation and frantic
dancing up and down in Mu-Shaman dances seem to be two opposites, the former being that of
silence while the latter seemingly noisy. But, that is only the appearance. The Shaman Dances of
which the native American circle dances are also one example, gets one into the state of trance,
oblivious to the usual everyday frames of reference, entering into a totally another, different
ontological level of consciousness, being connected to the the ghi-energy vibration of the entire
universe, as it were. Whether its Daam-hwa or Mu-hwa, theres a hope in Korean Painting to
reawaken the deadened senses of the humanity who have degenerated into mere consumption
machines(consuming not just junk foods but also junk information and junk well-being
spiritualities, junk bonds and fake/fast fashion brands in all things whether in the arts, consumer

Kai Hong 2013 Singapore ICA Catalog Essay

This quotation is from Koh Misook, Mohm gua Inmunhak ( ), 2004, Seoul, Korea, pp.135~136.
electronics, education, selecting colleges or what have you). Korean Mu-spiritual Artists could in
good time help reawaken the consumption-addicted modern men and women from their stupor
and nihilism of materialism and help them recover their real humanity. Long live, Korean Mu