For the past ten days I’ve been in Korea – virtually that is. I was commissioned by Yatoo, a Korean ecological arts organisation, to write in English about their 7th Nature Art Biennale. The Biennale has brought artists from across the world to build ‘permanent’ sculpture and other pieces for Mt. Yeonmisan Nature Park just outside the city of Gongju, which is about 120km south of capital Seoul.
Yatoo has been highly influential in the ‘Nature Art’ movement – indeed coining this particular phrase themselves, and have been working for more than 30 years. Their genesis was, I think, very much an Asian response to the LandArt movement in the US of the 1970s. The term ‘Nature Art’ seems highly contestable, but should be understood not in a western context but very much within the context of the country and region where it was born. ‘Nature’. The religious and spiritual context of Asia is startlingly different from our own, and the separation of people from the land a much more recent phenomenon. We have been reminded in Korea this week that Korea is really only a generation away from an agrarian, peasant society, and thus look upon both and the natural world in an entirely different way from most Western countries.
To speak of ‘Nature Art’ in this context, therefore, implies much about a relationship to spirituality, a deep relationship with the natural world, and stands firmly in opposition to other forms of contemporary art. Our own complications and dissimulations through titles such as ‘eco-art’, environmental art, ecological art, and so on are dismissed by the apparent clarity of the simple ‘Nature Art’ coined by Yatoo and adopted elsewhere. ‘Nature’ in this context is not very clearly delineated from religion, spirituality, ritual, and various forms of science. ‘Landscape’ is a far fuzzier notion, rarely referred to, it seems.
But whatever the roots of Yatoo – which seem, looking through the documentary evidence, so have been highly experimental, performative, abstract, and without boundaries – it seems to have taken a clear course towards the establishment of a sculpture park within Mt. Yeonmisan Nature Park, bringing forth an ever-growing collection of artwork intended to be ‘permanent’ in the sense of lasting at least 10 years. This has resulted in a shift in all manner of things, particularly in materials. Work is now being made of steel, of manufactured wood, of fired and glazed clays. This seems a long way from Yatoo’s roots, which took ephemerality very seriously.
This change seems to have happened for one primary which will sound familiar to anyone in the art world – funding. The Biennale is funded – generously it would seem – by a mixture of local, regional and national government funding. This comes with the usual strong, in this case tied to tourism and the notion of ‘spectacle’. So there is a quandary here, or at least a conundrum. As the language and understanding of ecologies and ecological systems matures and develops, and as artists become increasingly skilled with these languages, the work chosen for the Biennale is being pushed in the opposite direction.
See what I’ve been writing at natureart2016.info