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‘I obey time’: The artist who spent three decades on a single painting


Oscar Holland, CNN

It was the late 1980s when South Korean artist Myonghi Kang began work on her painting “Le temps des camélias” (“The Time of Camellias”). Living in Paris’ 19th arrondissement at the time, she would periodically revisit the then-vertical canvas to add strokes of color or floral forms.

“I would go back to the painting with all these questions in my mind, and memories from traveling,” she recalled, via a translator, in a phone interview.

But the painting never felt finished. Kang eventually abandoned her creation, and it was not until she took it to South Korea’s Jeju Island in 2007 that she felt inspired to revisit the artwork — and to switch its orientation to that of a conventional horizontal landscape.

“It was only when I brought the painting to Jeju in springtime that I had the courage, after 10 years, to work on it again,” she said. “I had a lot of camellias in my studio, and so I started bringing in all the elements that I saw around me.”

It would be another decade before the ethereal painting, now on display at Hong Kong’s Villepin gallery, was complete. As such, the work depicts not only the vibrant flowers alluded to in its title, but the passing of time itself.

“I cannot really explain,” Kang said. “I just felt this painting had to be made like that. I trusted the moment — to know the right moment for me to paint the different parts until I was finished.”

“I would not dare say that I paint time — that would be very arrogant — but time is in what I paint,” she later added. “I let myself be the hands of time. I obey time, but do not try to manipulate it.”

This impulsive approach is typical of Kang, whose quietly radiant art reveals her complex relationship with nature. Now in her mid-70s, she can spend years on a single piece, her often-gentle brushstrokes belying a process she described as “very, very intense.”

“I just look at paintings and feel they are not finished. And it can even be hard to sleep,” she explained. “They are always moving and progressing, and sometimes I never get the feeling they are done. Sometimes, I wish I could have a drink and forget about it, but it’s not possible. I always need to try to solve the little things I see every day in front of me.”

Quite suddenly, however, the compulsion to sign — and thus finish — a painting will strike her “like a lightning bolt,” she said.

“It’s not something that I plan or know rationally. It’s spontaneous.”

‘Nature is everything’

While Kang’s absorbing paintings appear abstract at first, they are often grounded in the world around her. But though her creations resemble landscapes, they never depict a single specific scene, rather an amalgamation of sights, memories and sensations.

“Every moment, from when I wake up to the time I start working, is part of the painting,” said Kang, who is also known for writing poetry. “And memories — maybe from 10 years before — of looking at camellias, for example, will also be integrated.

“There is not one figurative way of expressing what I paint. It’s the accumulation of observing — trying to capture the sky, for example — and really capture the ‘whole,’ rather than a specific camellia or a certain rock.”

Set across three floors in Hong Kong, Kang’s latest show brings together works from the past decade, including the aforementioned “Le temps des camélias.” Spending time with the canvases helps bring the artist’s hazy subject matter — whether orange blossom, the house of a neighboring optician or clouds swirling in pale blue skies — into sharper focus.

The gallerist behind the show, Arthur de Villepin, believes the work’s beauty is found in the small “details” observed in its company.

“You see the different layers, and you see that, sometimes, the brushstrokes will be vivid and quite quick and represent a certain part of her personality,” he said over the phone from the south of France. “Or sometimes the colors will be very bright. Then at other moments the colors fade away, and that capacity to put different lives at different moments … that’s what I found amazing.”

Complete with natural sounds playing from hidden speakers, the exhibition serves to transport visitors away from the busy surrounds of downtown Hong Kong to the bucolic Jeju Island, where Kang — who lives and works between South Korea and France — still paints.

“In our minds, nature is grass and trees and flowers,” Kang said, when asked about her relationship with her surroundings. “But nature is everything. Nature is people, it’s a city, it’s history … Nature is a bridge to allow dialogue between all things.”

Myonghi Kang” is on at Villepin, Hong Kong, until Oct. 24, 2021.

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