The Korea Herald


Lim Ok-sang turns soil into art

By Park Yuna

Published : Oct. 23, 2022 - 18:22

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"Here, the Rising Land" by Lim Ok-sang at the MMCA (courtesy of the artist and the MMCA)

When entering a basement exhibition hall of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, a city dweller may first recognize the unfamiliar earthy scent that prevails in the exhibition hall before being mesmerized by the massive presence of a 12-meter-tall monumental piece which is made of actual soil from the paddies.

Lim Ok-sang – known for being part of the Minjung artist group formed in the late 1970s against the military regime to support democracy -- has unveiled new works from the last few years exploring soil as a medium at the state-run museum.

The artist’s retrospective “Lim Ok-sang: Here, the Rising Land” is reminiscent of his 1995 exhibition titled “Rising Land” held at Gana Art Gallery in Seoul, where he showed soil-inspired works. That was when the artist started to use soil in his artworks in earnest. Later in the 2010s, his soil-based artworks expanded to include “soil landscapes,” paintings with processed soil and a mixture of oil and ink.

“We must experience the soil. We must feel and learn about its miracles and vitality,” the artist once said in his book “Viewing Ok-sang: Artist Lim Ok-sang special” published in Korean in 2017.

The 12-square-meter soil installation at the MMCA is comprised of 36 soil panels from the Jangdan Plain in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, a restricted village of Tongilchon -- the Village of Unification in English -- facing North Korea. He gathered soil from the paddies there with natural elements that are neither refined nor processed.

The soil installation “Here, the Rising Land” is also the title of the exhibition. The land cultivated by farmers can be likened to the result of ordinary people’s "blood, sweat and tears." The exhibition can be seen as an homage to ordinary people.

"The Sound of the Dirt" by Lim Ok-sang at the MMCA (courtesy of the artist and the MMCA)

The exhibition features 40 artworks and 130 archived works by the artist. In addition to “Here, the Rising Land,” he unveiled two other masterpieces he completed this year – “The Sound of Dirt” and “Black Puddle.” The soil-surfaced installation “The Sound of Dirt” embodies the head of the Earth goddess Gaia resting on her side.

One can go inside the installation “The Sound of Dirt,” where viewers can experience the breathing of Gaia, mother of the Earth, in a dark and cavernous interior. Her breathing is not necessarily peaceful, sometimes going wild as if sounding a warning for climate change or signaling a public uprising.

The retrospective includes Lim’s early works such as “Face-Morning” created in 1995 with acrylic on paper and clay before the artist started to use real soil. The retrospective is his demonstration of how he has ceaselessly explored and expanded an artistic world of his own for decades.

"Sungkyunkwan Myeongnyundang Drawing a Ginkgo Tree" by Lim Ok-sang at the MMCA (courtesy of the artist and the MMCA)

The last section shows Lim’s paintings created when the artist was involved in Minjung art in the 1980s and started to explore soil landscapes in the last few years since 2010. “Sungkyunkwan Myeongnyungdang Drawing a Ginkgo Tree” is the highlight of the section, a painting of an old yellow ginkgo tree with a seemingly strong tree trunk expressed with soil and black ink.

Born in 1950 in Buyeo, South Chungcheong Province, Lim received a bachelor’s degree in sculpture and a master’s degree in painting from Seoul National University. He also studied at the Ecole d’Art d’Angouleme in France. Since the 1990s, he has been invited to present his work at numerous international art events, including a 1995 Venice Biennale special exhibition.

The exhibition runs through March 12, 2023.