Mystery of the Rocks
December 10-January 14, 2021
Josée Bienvenu Gallery
By TANA OSHIMA, December 2020
In 2017, Peter Kim traveled to Yucatán and discovered something terrible. That terrible thing accompanied him throughout the time he spent in Mexico, where he tried to express it over and over on the blank pages of a sketchbook. He had lost his art supplies the moment he arrived in Mérida, and all he had were a few pencils, some pens, and a sketchbook, which he bought at a neighborhood stationery store.
Peter Kim is an artist. Born in South Korea, he lives in New York. In some of my favorite works he draws with something that looks like ink freshly made out of soot. The backgrounds are almost always white, and the ink dances on that nothingness with trembling and skinny feet. There is, however, no fragility in the lines he draws, but rather the firmness of a root embedded in the earth.
I think it’s a characteristic of the good artist to know how to take advantage of limitations to develop new methods and practices. With his brand-new school supplies and an unknown language on the tip of his tongue, Kim walked the streets of Mérida and sketched in his notebook. One day, on the corner of a sunny street, in nothing more than a rectangle of adobe, he recognized the word “museum” and the word “Korea” painted in white on a red facade. Two young girls greeted him with enthusiasm and useful information. Kim did his best to understand. Apparently, if I remember his words correctly, he was the first Korean to visit the museum. On the facade, the white hand-painted letters read “Korean Immigration Memorial Museum.”
It was there, in the dim light of the adobe and the sudden warmth of feeling at home, that the artist discovered the terrible facts. He received them as one must feel when struck by lightning, with confusion, stupor and an instant sublimation, while the girls narrated the events in a relaxed pace. I imagine them as being friendly and dedicated, excited by the presence of the Korean artist as they guided him in his sad discovery.
In 1905, Kim learned, a ship arrived in Yucatán with 1,033 Koreans on board. Men, women and children, entire families came to work for a few years on Mexican plantations with the idea of returning to their country and rebuilding their lives with the money they made. But as soon as they got off the ship, the 1,033 Koreans were taken to different haciendas and forced to work on henequen plantations. They worked 17 hours a day, he learned, and were flogged if they showed any sign of fatigue. Many families were separated and were never reunited. What's worse, Kim told me, his voice cracking with emotion, most of them could never return to Korea. For one thing, their country was now occupied by Japan. The girls in the museum were descendants of those Koreans who on lonely nights intertwined their bodies with the equally subjugated Mayan people.
I met Peter Kim last year at the opening of his exhibition in Harlem, at Whitebox. One of the gallery's white walls was covered with the black-and-white drawings Kim made with the basic supplies he bought in Mérida. All of them showed human figures in tension, naked, incomplete, distorted by an indefinable pain, their twisting hands emerging from (almost tearing up) the center of the composition. Some of the figures appeared with their heads blurred or rather erased by a fine-point ballpoint pen, their bodies melting into a sea of black dots. There was rain in some scenes, water hitting hard against the human heads, scratching the white of the paper. Nearly all of the human figures were holding a basket, almost clinging to it; a container that, we intuited, was used to store the henequen collected with those large and torn hands. Poet Ann Carson said of Harold Pinter's characters that “they exist in a suspension of the human.” Here, the characters emerge from the inhuman with all possible humanity, with all the possibilities of the human.
There’s violence in these drawings. There’s tragedy. There’s a mass of fine lines condensed in the center of the paper, leaving space to imagine what the lines don’t tell, the invisible made visible through the “sensation” so dear to Cézanne—that which is not narration. There’s a terrible beauty, an irrepressible delicacy that springs from the artist's will to transform horror without taking the easy shortcut of sensationalism; a potential and latent horror that rests on the elegant violence of the line and its relationship with the forces that determine it, as French philosopher Gilles Deleuze might put it, and with the flat, white background, a space that far from appearing empty seems full of something, something that is yet to be imagined. Nothingness is not the opposite of being, but a place capable of containing any substance, Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida suggested. A container, after all.
But there is, above all, breath and life in these drawings.
On the wall there were also two abstract paintings made with henequen fiber. They were, like the figures, a privileged way to access a remote and painful experience. The rawness of the material, the smell of sweat and blood in the plantations reached us already domesticated by the artist's hands. In the center of the gallery stood a large basket he made, very similar to those in his drawings. According to Kim, these containers, these “vessels”, as he calls them, represent life. Vessel also means boat, or ship, and Kim plays with this polysemy, the ship as a container of life, the ship that left the Korean immigrants in Mérida and returned empty, hollow; the hollow container that the enslaved immigrants filled with henequen, the womb of the slaves that was filled with new lives.
Central Park is halfway between Kim’s studio and my apartment. Korean-American artist Theresa Hak-Kyung Cha also walked these streets until she died in 1982. She was only thirty-one years old. Cha and Kim are alike in one thing. They have the same way of pulling threads of beauty out of formless terror. In her experimental book "Dictée" (1982), Cha speaks, sings, stutters, remembers, forgets, fragments, breaks, destroys and reconstructs, through words, the memory of her parents and a Korea she no longer recognizes as hers. “Absence full. Absence glow. Bowls. Left as they are. Water in a glass (…). Radiant in its immobility of silence. The night re veils the day.”
As I write this, the trees have lost their leaves. The branches look naked. It won’t be long before winter comes, and it will be quite long before it leaves again. The dry branches twist against each other with contained energy, drawing figures of black thin lines against a whitish sky. Kim's drawings are exactly this; the temporary form that the impetus for life takes, the need to remain, the “negative hands” of Marguerite Duras. In a 1979 video showing the streets of Paris, the French writer reads, with sensual and resounding voice, her famous poem on what she called the “negative hands”, a form of prehistoric art: “The man, alone in the cave, looked into the noise within the noise of the sea the immensity of things / And he shouted / You who have a name, you who are endowed with an identity / I love you.” Peter Kim's drawings are just that, a cry for love toward humankind.
Peter Kim’s exhibion, “Mystery of the Rocks,” is currently showing at Josée Bienvenu Gallery in Chelsea, NYC. WM
Tana Oshima is a writer, a literary translator and a comics artist living in New York City.view all articles from this author