Inspiring Circumstances to Dance

Michael Stoeber

Translation: Gabriella Gabrielle

Debora Kim graduated with a degree in painting. Nevertheless, working with brush and paint, was, in the long run, not enough for her. She felt that painting—by definition, a push and pull of color on the surface of the canvas—was just too disembodied, in spite of the possible breadth of images. And space, which paintings can create through illusionistic perspective simulation, was not an option for her in this medium. In this regard, she entirely agrees with Clement Greenberg, the New York School theorist. For the sake of an “ethos of truthfulness,” he advised artists to stay on the surface and follow the two dimensions of the image carrier, with the enthusiastic advice, “Make it flat!” However, the realization of this recommendation consequently renders space in such paintings virtually non-existent. The artists of the Combine Paintings, such as Robert Rauschenberg, therefore, reincorporated it, quite concretely, by installing three-dimensional everyday objects into their paintings.

Debora Kim solves the problem differently. She customarily uses stereometric forms as image carriers, preferably cubic and rectangular solids, and wraps them with colored threads or yarn. These textile media, which she uses in place of paint, have, in themselves, a unique, unmistakable materiality, distinct from pigments. In their materiality, they, like the voluminous image carriers, pronounce the objectuality of Kim’s works. Even if they don’t stand or float freely in space, but hang flat against the wall, Kim’s wood or MDF image carriers are three-dimensional. Their depth is more potent, more impressive than that of traditional canvases. The artist emphasizes this character of her works, calling them all indiscriminately “bodies.”

With equal self-confidence and humility, Debora Kim names her exhibition in Braunschweig Here and Now. The title commemorates the famous Hic et Nunc of antiquity, and recalls Seneca’s philosophy, his Epistulae Morales, which focuses entirely on life in the “here and now,” and how to engage with it. With this motto, the artist emphasizes that her art is not about a mere L’Art pour l’Art—about timeless, universal forms, and a particular contemporary painterly rhetoric—but that it focuses on our everyday life. Achieving a sense of timeless universal forms is only possible if one concentrates primarily on the concrete, overt and undeniable; the geometrical figures in her art. They remind us of Plato’s Theory of Ideas, which included such stereometric bodies as pure concepts, which existed before any experience (that is, a priori) as eternal, imperishable, and unchangeable in his conceptual cosmos.

As such, geometric forms not only hold larger meaning throughout the history of philosophy, but also figure prominently as an expression of measure and number, symmetry, and proportion through the whole of art history. Perhaps the best example of this is the Vitruvian Man, whom Leonardo da Vinci inscribed within a circle and square. From antiquity, these forms traversed, and continued to hold a critical position throughout the Renaissance, Classicism, and finally Modernism. Here they dominated Suprematism, especially with Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square, and with the promise of happiness arising from the right angle, the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements. For Piet Mondrian, the vertical represented the human, the horizontal the world. Their fleeting final expression occurs in geometric figures as ideational art in the austere, purist, and reduced forms of American Minimal Art.

From Donald Judd, the eminent artist and perceptive theoretician of the Minimalist Movement, comes the canonical verdict: “It takes a kind of primal meter in art; otherwise, everything is just show and fuss.” In the quest for ultimate aesthetic forms and formulas in art, Minimal Art turned to geometry—in a strictly cognitive way. Debora Kim does that, too. Not only are her image carriers—cubic and rectangular solids—constructive, but her “painting” with yarn—horizontal and vertical shapes and stripes—is as well. However, she counteracts the Cartesian structures of Minimal Art with almost jarring, deliberate confusion. She challenges its exhaustive plan with happenstance, its calculus with the spontaneity of subjective placement.

This is already explicit in an essential work from the exhibition: her wall of black-and-white vertical adhesive strips of various formats, which seem to continue endlessly, like a monumental, electronically-readable barcode. Five of these strips combine to form a module, which the artist, in turn, varies. One thinks of the linguistic entanglements and displacements, typical of experimental texts, which, in their reversal, follow a recognizable recurring dispositive. However, there are no apparent signs of that here. If a literary reference is applicable, then it can be discovered more in the arbitrary puns of Dadaism. However, these are identifiable by their utter anarchic nature, so that this reference doesn’t fit here either. Deborah Kim’s interplay of purposed placement and pleasurable decomposition, her give-and-take of chaos and cosmos, embody both overwhelming beauty and the power of persuasion, and at the same time, impressively reflect human nature.

In observing this play, this synergy of method and chance, referencing Pierre Carlet de Marivaux, one could instead speak of love and coincidence. This reciprocation reoccurs in Kim’s armada of thin, rectangular rods leaning against the wall, covered on all sides with colored squares that seem to be constructed of cubes. The colors—blue, red, yellow, green, and others—continually reoccur; however, they emerge and can be rediscovered in each work in a new way. This is not unlike Debora Kim’s imposing wall of 360 works, all in the format of 15 cm x 10.5 cm x 1.4 cm. The distribution of the colors does not only follow a changing dispositive with every object or “body,” but the number of colors also changes from image object to image object. The overall impression is of radiant sensuality. Constant fluctuation in the infinitely unchanging, giving pleasure. Variatio delectat: there’s nothing like change.

Following the movement of color from right to left in her installations—against the Western reading direction—it becomes apparent that Kim wants to share stories about what it means to be human; to tell us about ourselves, in each of her works. These color progressions mark a transition from darkness to brightness, Aspera ad Astra, as it were, from the dark into the light—into optimism. Or, when viewing her works in the retrograde direction (the Western reading direction), into dystopia. Even her two massive pillars, equally imposing works, both standing freely in the middle of the room, ranging from floor to ceiling, one displaying an arrangement of black and white, the other colored stripes, seem to repeat the same pattern, but upon closer inspection, vary subtly.

Four other steles differ not only in color, but also in the way Debora Kim has fastened the yarn that wraps around them. How Kim has attached the yarn ruptures the monochrome representation, and once again, makes light and dark, but also in the image ground and image figure, a protagonist and antagonist recognizable. The coexistence and opposition of the threads manifest not only similarity and contrast, but out of the incongruous structure of the works, also dialogue and tension. A slender rod is a one-of-a-kind. Floating in space as an audacious diagonal, it contradicts the orthogonal setting of the other exhibits. A chess-like installation of wonderfully delicate red and pink cubes creates an equally purist and marvelously fantastic urban landscape. The fact that Kim is, at heart, a profoundly traditional painter is reflected in the artist’s delicate watercolors, in which she brings her “bodies” back to the picture plane, calling them “compositions.”

The works of the artist, falling between painting and sculpture, her “specific objects,” to quote Donald Judd, always talk about being human. And they do this most excellently, when, in connection with them, we recall an ancient Renaissance dispute about which should prevail in painting: color or line, coloriti or disegno? The Venetians named colors after the painters Titian and Veronese who lived in their city. They chose coloriti. The Florentines, on the other hand, hosted artists who invented central perspective and constructed the magnificent dome of their cathedral. They voted for disegno, or line. Even then, this was more than just an academic argument. It was also about a particular perception of the world and reality. To look at the world in the dress of color is to see it through the prism of feeling. Emotionally! To perceive in terms of line means to grasp it more geometrically. Rationally!

Debora Kim’s art, on the other hand, does both. Her works are as rational and geometric as they are emotional and subjective. In that sense, they are equally brain and body. Measurement and number, coincidence and contingency enter into an irresistible symbiosis. They are, in one: levelheaded and will-o‘-the-wisp; orderly and fantastic; rule-conforming and anarchic. They are incredibly precise and wonderfully sensual in the same breath. From Karl Marx, the severe critic of social classes and the poetic dreamer of a better world than the one in which he lived, comes the brilliant recommendation: inspire circumstances; encourage relationships; activate existing conditions—even incite them, with their intrinsic melody—to dance. That’s precisely what Debora Kim does. She reminds us, in her works, of who and how we are—or, better—who we should be, in the hope that we thereby learn to dance. When we look at them in this way, the way they deserve to be seen, this chance is possible.

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