Dance of the Spirit: Chang Sang-Eui’s World of Artworks
Associate Professor, Tainan National University of the Arts
The image of “soul” often present in the world of Chang Sang-Eui’s works of art, I always think, emerges in a dynamic state full of vitality, striving to cross the boundaries of life and death. In 1940, following World War II, or five years before the Korean Peninsula was liberated, Chang was born in the North Korean city now known as Kaesong. Her artistic career has unfolded along with the historical division between North and South Korea. The historical background in which she grew up serves as a foundation and stimulus for her later artistic creation. As far as I know, her artistic life began right after she studied in university, and has lasted as long as sixty years now (2019). If taking a look back and reviewing the course of her almost lifelong career as an artist, we might say that the “axis of the soul,” which is akin to a psychic medium who connects the living and the dead, occupies a pivotal role in her artistic world. The message of the soul is what Chang tries to convey to the viewer through dance with the body as a medium in her artworks. At least from what I have observed in her works spanning nearly 40 years, she has sought to portray the breeze, mountains, sky and floating clouds, among others, as embodiments of the souls of the living and the dead. What’s more, with this method of artistic expression, Chang gives life to her creations by way of indirect, minor media.
In her artworks, natural phenomena such as the breeze, sky and floating clouds symbolize the image of the soul, and connote the transience of existence. The unprecedented, dynamic spiritual dance was thus created. By means of the spiritual dance that reappears in her works, the artist hopes to connect with the soul through her own body, and propose the possibility of a dialogue with the other world. All beings in the world are confronted with the eternal struggle between existence and transience. In other words, the female dancer in Chang’s paintings is the symbolic medium through which the artist converses with the other, and transcends the inner self.
Moreover, Chang’s works around the 1980s manifested her attempt to connect the worlds between the living and the dead with dance as the subject, complete with reference to traditional Korean dance positions, colors and prototypes. From Kaesong to Seoul, finished in 1989, is a work of art inspired by her own past interwoven with the epic narrative of Korean history. In the enormous scene, the dancer’s costume comes into sight, poignantly showcasing the agonies of parting between the living and the dead, and the nation splitting owing to the Korean War in the 1950s. Chang tried to surpass the anguish and reach sublimity through the dancer’s vibrant costumes in the scene. At this stage of her career, Chang had created some of her representative works, such as Soul (1989), that feature traditional Korean dance prototypes and colors, and echo the oneness of the body and soul in their original form through fluid lines.
Take the aforementioned piece, Soul, for example. Chang adopted an artistic approach distinctly different from those who paint on paper or silk – it was painted on cotton and other fabrics, rather than on paper. As is widely known, traditional Korean clothes are mostly made of cotton fabric, so are burial clothes for the deceased. Undoubtedly, Chang employed the approach and materials to imply the dead’s soul and the solemnity of it. We may well reckon that, at this stage of her creative life, she replaced the paper with the cotton fabric as an experimental method of artistic expression. We should not underestimate the fact that, however, by experimenting with brushwork on the cotton fabric, Chang also strived to test the limits of the physical fiber of the cotton with which the clothes are made, so as to attempt with variations of brushwork. As part of this experimental approach, Chang began creating with traditional Korean burial clothes in the 1980s to demonstrate a spiritual worldview, while meticulously representing the oneness of the body and soul through the costumes of traditional Korean female dancers.
Amidst the abstract movement of “art informel” and the trend towards modern art in Korea, Chang explored the course of physical change by adopting cotton fabric, linen cloth and other physical substances, as well as by experimenting with abstract “ink.” This can be seen in her work Soul (1989). That is to say, Chang dealt with objecthood directly by painting on a variety of substances (e.g., plants, cotton fabric and other fiber materials) instead of the conventional paper, which recalled the diplomatic slogan in Korea during the 1980s with its appeal to return to the tradition. In the later half of the 1990s, Chang created a series of artworks, entitled “Flower and Soul,” with the soul as a theme, hoping to rendering solace to the tens of thousands of people or soldiers who had sacrificed themselves in the Korean War. In this series, she described various battle scenes in ink and embellished them with flowers in full bloom, seemingly with a view to connecting with the other world. In a word, the ink in the “Flower and Soul” series serves as a starting point where the spiritual soul and vivacious rebirth converge.
The use of both ink and colorful ink in Chang’s works presents a kaleidoscopic duet, creating an ink world of her own. After graduation, she received the grand prize in an art contest exhibition with one of her artworks in 1963, which has since qualified her as a competent painter. Apart from making abstract ink paintings, she joined the Mukrimhoe and had been proactive to participate in a medley of events held by the painting group. As an artist who went beyond the tradition of Oriental-style paintings and embraced the semi-abstract and even the abstract, Chang began constantly probing into the subject of “Dance of the Spirit” at this stage of her career.
Chang began her “Dance of the Spirit” creations around 1971, which won her the best award in the second edition of the modern art competition held by the Korea Daily News. This was further testament to her artistic accomplishments and endeavors. From the late 1960s to 1970s, when modern Korean art was still in the fledgling stage, abstract paintings could be said to open up a wealth of new possibilities in artistic visions and paintings. Namely, her abstract paintings were known in the art circles for their gigantic influence and breakthroughs. Speaking of the modern art in Korea, we cannot refrain from referring to Kim Whanki, who had at that time fervently advocated the abstract paintings in the press, and even organized contest exhibitions to promote them, which also contributed to their flourishing. Chang’s works were well-received in the second edition of the contest exhibition.
In her artistic world, the abstraction has evolved from semi-abstraction into new abstraction with the interplay of ink and colorful ink. And “Dance of the Spirit” is one of the most representative themes of her art. This exhibition mainly features the latest works by Chang, who endeavors to reveal a bleak world at the beginning with the dancer’s lively dance and provide an in-depth view of the scene to the viewer through the duet of ink and colorful ink. The artwork, Axis of The Light (2019), offers a glimpse of how she delves into the roots of ink color as if to invoke the soul of freedom. Like an epitome of her creative soul, it allows us to peek into the vigor of her art so far and the new journey she is ready to embark on.
With an artistic career of 60 years, Chang has been displaying recurring spiritually rhythmic lines in her works throughout the decade, which symbolize her natural philosophy that advocates a return to the self. Her artworks, by way of such imagery as breeze, sky, rain and human figures, are intended to bring across the message to the viewer: They are the culmination of her creative spirituality as well as her artistic breakthroughs. “Dance of the Spirit” represents the soul of Chang as an artist, her philosophy of life and death, and her endeavor to pursue a brand new artistic path in her natural philosophy. Herein lies the meaning of “Dance of the Spirit.”
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日期：2023-03-04 ~ 2023-04-09｜台灣，台北市
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