Old Books, New Stories
The texture of paper, William Kentridge, Chun Kwang Young and an old Venetian palazzo
One of the many things I enjoy about the artist William Kentridge is his re-purposing of old books into new artworks. He’s not interested in the subject matter or content of those old books but rather the quality of the paper. The older it is the better, he says, because it catches the charcoal he uses to draw his images in a particular way.
I talked in my Wednesday post this week about the ‘palpable’ feeling of uncertainty that you get from looking at Kentridge’s short animated films. His process of drawing in charcoal, and then smudging it out, then redrawing, creates a visual effect that contributes to the way in which we interpret the artwork. The materials he uses, the type of paper and the charcoal, also contribute to that visual effect and to the way we respond to his work. Here’s Kentridge talking about the books he selects and the importance of paper texture:
Kentridge’s repurposing of old books has similarities with the work of the Korean artist Chun Kwang Young, whose art I had the pleasure of seeing in Venice at the Biennale a couple of weeks ago.
Chun uses traditional Korean hand-made hanji paper produced from the inner bark of mulberry trees in his work. This paper has a life span of over 1,300 years. He finds this paper in old books, which he says “hold our ancestors’ souls and stories”. Carefully removing the pages, Chun uses them to wrap up triangular-shaped tiny packages tied with string.
He then attaches them to a canvas to create a sort of 3-dimensional abstract ‘painting’. Often the little parcels spill off the wall and on to the floor to create sculptural installations. They are very intimate and emotional, somehow connecting the viewer and maker.
Chun’s art is infused with Korean culture and history, and the memory of his childhood. His uncle ran a traditional medicine shop and when he prescribed remedies for his customers Chun’s uncle would wrap them into little parcels with hanji paper and string. Here’s Chun talking about it:
Like Kentridge’s work, Chun’s art almost invites you to touch it. When we entered the door of the old Venetian palazzo where Chun’s work was being exhibited I was surprised to be warned not to touch the art. That’s an unspoken rule of galleries, surely? You don’t need to tell me that. But as I walked round I had to hold myself back from picking up one of those little packages off the floor. I desperately wanted to feel it in my hands. It was so close, but just out of reach. And that’s sort of how I feel when I look at Kentridge’s work too, even his films. It’s so tangible and yet you can’t touch it, and it sort of draws you in to a bodily experience with it. I love art that does that.
I’ve been meaning to reply to this! It reminded me of the sunflower seeds at the tate https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/unilever-series/unilever-series-ai-weiwei-sunflower-seeds
I managed to see this when it first opened over a decade ago - and the artist wanted people to interact with the small pieces but it was prevented on the grounds of H&S!
I saw quite a few people picking up the pieces - despite the clear signs saying not to! There’s a bit of history on that in the Tate blurb.
Isn’t it interesting that some art is produced to be touched and interacted with, and others are not to be touched? I like watching my own child in museums, he always gravitates to interesting tactile pieces - and I’m constantly whispering ‘don’t touch!’
I also love Chun Kwang YOungs work in Venice - and thanks for introducing me to Kentridge!