Korean Alphabet (Hangul) Art

Jinkyung Lee, Jeong Jae-wan, Kim Jong-won, Kim Jongku, and Lee Dong Kook

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The development of the Hangul alphabet is traditionally ascribed to Sejong, fourth king of the Yi (Joseon) dynasty. The system was made the official writing system for the Korean language in the mid-1440s by Sejong's decree. Before that period, the Koreans used Chinese writing characters. Hangul is the only invented alphabet in widescale use, but, as Korean artist Jewyo Rhii points out in her own interview in this issue, Hangul is unique to the Korean peninsula. It is thus to some extent a "closed language."

Hangul consists of twenty-four consonant and vowel letters. However, instead of being written sequentially like the letters of the Latin alphabet, Hangul letters are grouped into blocks, such as 한 (han, which means Korean) and each block transcribes a syllable. Each syllabic block consists of two to five letters, including at least one consonant and one vowel. These blocks are then arranged horizontally from left to right, as in the Western alphabet, although until recently they were written vertically from top to bottom, like Chinese or Japanese. Confucianism and other Chinese cultural influences kept Hangul out of use by scholars or upper-class Koreans until after 1945, when Japanese colonial rule in the region ended. During Japanese rule, from 1910 to 1945, the use of Hangul was suppressed altogether.

The following introduction to contemporary Hangul art is greatly indebted to the exhibition Korean Alphabet: The Art of Inspiration and Interaction held at the SeMA Nam Seoul in 2012. For this article, Asymptote has selected four of the seventeen artists and groups who participated in that exhibition. The text by Lee Dong Kook first appeared in the exhibition catalogue in a slightly different form. The presentation was made possible by the curator of the exhibition, Kim Hye Jin of the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA).

—Simon Morley 

1. Jinkyung Lee (b. 1967)

Nongga wollyeongga and Folk Song

The text used in my piece Nongga wollyeongga is a selection from the poem of the same title, Nongga wollyeongga, which is an example of a "Jangpyeon Gasa," a form of traditional Korean poetry. The poem Nongga wollyeongga was written by Jung Hak-Yoo during the reign of King Hunjong of the Joseon Dynasty. It is said that among all the Korean traditional songs about farming life, Jung Hak-Yoo's poem is the best and the longest; the poem is composed of 1,032 phrases. Due to the length of the original poem, only part of the winter story was selected for my piece. This part depicts the annual cyclical rituals of winter, from November to December of the lunar calendar, as well as other events, and the virtues of farming families. However, the fact that the poem wasn't written by the farmers themselves resulted in certain limitations, and thus the poem is too didactic.

Folk Song

In addition to Nongga wollyeongga, there are folk songs about labor or the recreational pursuits of that time. These are the songs of ordinary people.

Although we live in Korea, use Hangul, and eat kimchi with every meal, the culture of this land has gone through much modernization and Westernization. What exactly is this feeling of alienation? It is true that all cases of diversity and multi-layering, including those in our culture, must be respected. However, in the process of modernization and Saemaeul Movement (the new community movement), there are some things that we have forgotten and lost, or worse, that have already disappeared. We all believed that turning rural farmers into urban factory workers was a good idea, the road to modernization. I felt quite sad and sorry about that. Thus I came to look for those things that were disappearing, and one of those were our folk songs. I very much enjoyed listening to folk songs and, with help from the producer Choi Sang-il, I came to understand folk songs better. When I listen to them, I feel the beauty of the simple life.

Nongyo (Farming Song) was sung while fertilizing the fields with manure, and during the planting and threshing of rice. There were also songs for housework, such as Namul norae (On Gathering Wild Herbs), Memil norae (On Threshing Buckwheat), Shijibsali norae (On Life at One's Parents-in-law), Bangajjihneun norae (On Milling), Samsamneun norae (On Processing Flax), Jajangga (Lullaby), Dongyo (Children's Song). Unjae sori was usually sung in forest preserves by workers carrying big logs. The workers tapped their feet to the song's beat, to keep up the pace of their work. Songs like Jogijabi sori (On Catching Frogs), Myeolchijabi sori (On Catching Anchovies), Myeongtaejabi sori (On Catching Pollock), and other fishing and netting songs also helped workers keep time to the beat of a song.

2. Jeong Jae-wan (b. 1974)

Hunmin jeongeum Haeryebon

I've been collecting letters on the streets for thirteen years. I do most of this work by taking photographs. It started out as a hobby, but as the collection grew, I came to produce works using letters. For a while, I opted to re-combine the letters taken from the streets in various ways. During that period, these letters, which were made on "this land" using "our letters," naturally led me to Hangul. Hunmin jeongeum Haeryebon permitted me to confront the figure of Hangul at the time when it was first proclaimed the official language of Korea. The figurative perfection was outstanding, with vigorous straight lines, perfect circles, and an absence of superfluity. Naturally, I tried drawing letters myself, basing them on the early figures of Hangul. Working as a book designer, I was familiar with letters, and the shapes of early letters delighted me. In my works outside of design, letters do not function as repeatable signs. Instead, they are fingerprints and portraits that have the properties of singularity, originality, and uniqueness.

3. Kim Jong-won (b. 1964)

Script exists as another form of letter.

It is, so to speak, a script of letters as a translation or reinterpretation of poetry. The utmost beauty of a script lies in the place where it is ambiguous, instead of the place where the script may be understood as something substantial. Just as the ultimate taste lies in the place where what it is and how it tastes remain hidden.

The script is full of subtlety, providing a clear but vague sense of sound and meaning to the shape of the character.

The key to Hangul is in the arrangement of consonants and vowels. What's crucial is the alternation of sounds. The overlapping and dissolution of the initial consonant, vowel, and final consonant are found where truthfulness is sought.

The court-style writing of Hangul is a result of writing as recitation.

The symphony of lines-as-strokes is a script.

4. Kim Jongku (b. 1963)

Steel Powder Painting

The artist grinds steel rods for a long time.

These powders are scattered on the floor and are swept up and gathered, then they are sorted by separating the particles. Two mountains of steel powder are piled up: a mountain of black powder and another of yellowish dust.

Using a dustpan, the black mountain is split to form letters, and then the canvas is propped up vertically, and stains caused by gravity are left behind as the powder slides down the canvas, as if soaked in life's melancholy.

As the particles become oxidized, they turn red.


Language, Code, and the Future
By Lee Dong Kook

Hangul and Language

Hangul is a spoken language, a written language, a language of modeling (aesthetic language in the context of art), and an aural language (of phonograms); it is a word, a character, a drawing, and a sound. We Koreans used Chinese characters as our written language until the invention of Hangul in the fifteenth century. For the next 500 years, we mixed Chinese characters and Hangul. Now, we use Hangul exclusively.

Language makes humans distinct from other animals. Spoken language appeared 35,000 years ago when Cro-Magnons created the Altamira cave painting. Much later, it began to be written as pictorial symbols, like the Egyptian hieroglyphs of 5,000 years ago, or the oracle bone script of Yinxu, of 3,500 years ago. And still later, these languages were developed in written forms, such as Chinese characters, the Roman alphabet, and Hangul. Languages came to be stored and transferred in perpetuity—this is the history of information. Today, analogue—that which is "written" by pen and pencil, and is the medium for most of the history of information—has become a thing of the past, and digital text culture—that which is "typed"—has, over the last thirty years, moved to the forefront.

It is accurate to say that the information we speak involves the mouth, while the information we write involves the hand. As I have mentioned, from the moment humans began to speak, it took 30,000 years for us to begin to write. For 5,000 years, written language has existed in the forms with which we are familiar today.We have only been typing digitally for about thirty years. We invented symbols and characters in order to document and transmit information. Paradoxically, however, these tools created paradigms for human history and began to rule it. In a similar vein, although speaking, writing, and typing are all different actions, they all spring from one origin: self-awareness generated by the brain. In light of this fact, despite the difference of thousands of years, there is no difference between the works presented here and the petroglyphs that are found in Bangudae and Cheonjeon-ri (Ulsan, Korea). They are all expressions of the artists' self-awareness. In other words, all written languages are the result of the visualization of spoken languages—the epitome of self-awareness. Furthermore, in early written languages, when pictorial symbols are used, the shape of the language equates with the meaning of the language. But the language we use today is divorced from this interlocking relationship; text linked to verbal expression and images linked to certain shapes are distinguished from each other. Poems and novels primarily focus on the former, while calligraphy and typography primarily focus on the latter, i.e., on the aesthetics of language.

In his foreword to Hunminjeongeum, Jeong In-Ji wrote: "there must be letters for the sounds of the universe." Hangul is a verbal language, but it is also a language that embraces the sounds of the universe, and this makes it exceptional among all languages.

Decode and Code

In this context, these artists use Hangul as a source of "inspiration" and "interaction"; their work can be seen as it is, or it can be interpreted as an art of words, characters, and sounds. Hangul is most often encountered as a written language; however, the works presented here restore Hangul to a language of the spoken word and a language of sound. Sometimes the works also provide us with a hint of the aesthetics of the language by dismantling Hangul into aesthetic images, or by employing Hangul in content-based texts.

Most of all, Hangul is a written language that corresponds to the spoken word. The characters (the alphabet) are a combination of the content and the shape. The characters of we use daily are mostly seen as information carried by texts, as well as this information's subsequent images. Because of this, some argue that characters are subordinate to the verbal word. In today's information-oriented society, "being fast" is crucial, and in such an environment, characters have been reduced to being merely a means of conveying information. Nevertheless, when viewed as an art, the characters are different; they have their own purpose, and their content is equal to their shape. Across all literary genres, calligraphy, as practiced in those regions of East Asia that use the Chinese character, might be the best example of an art expressing the intrinsic visual nature of the character.

Jeong, Jae-wan notices numerous "straight lines," "circles," and "dots" on the street, and has recognized them as the only and original shapes of Hangul; these shapes are reborn in his work The portrait of letters – ㄱ, ㄴ, ㅅ, ㅁ, ㅇ, (kiyok, niun, siot, mium, iung, dot). Kim Jong-won, meanwhile, focuses on how to transform Hangul's literary personality into visual images, aesthetically. Kim derives the symbolic factors from the characters that appear in the poems of YI Sang— 紙碑 (Paper Memorial Stone) and 한글以後 (What is it after Hangul?)—by deconstructing and re constructing the characters, as opposed to using a traditional pen. Through this process, he attempts to maximize the sanctity of those characters and their poetic images. On the other hand, Jin Kyung Lee re-interprets the written language, paying attention to the reading of poetry and proverbs. Lee keeps intoning "Indulge in life! Be yourself! Live as you dream! Go for it!" As Wittgenstein says, "The limits of my language are the limits of my world," or, as the old Korean saying goes, "Be careful what you (verbally) wish for." These artists clearly show that languages are the expression of self-awareness.

Hangul also spreads into the field of painting. Although it is not as vivid and graceful as sumukwha (a traditional Asian black-and-white painting that uses India ink), it is also not completely isolated from sumukwha. And, unlike Western paintings, it does not reproduce an object either. Kim Jongku, for instance, uses iron filings instead of ink. Ink represents the spirit (in the traditional community of scholars), while iron filings represent the physical substance. For Kim, however, the iron filings are a spiritual substance that replaces ink. As if mocking the ink that decays, and the decadence of modern society, Kim's series of "iron filing landscapes" re-interprets the traditional scholar's paintings—paintings that contain poetry, calligraphy, and drawing all together—in a more robust way

The History of the Chinese Character and the Future of Hangul

While calligraphy has made a transition away from the format of traditional paintings (which contain both drawing and calligraphy) toward a more acceptably modern artistic genre, it has nevertheless been unable to become a fully-fledged art form for nearly 100 years. Typography rooted in Western alphabet design was also estranged from both calligraphy and art, since it was regarded as practical rather than artistic. As calligraphy took on more idiosyncratic characteristics in the regions that share Chinese characters, it drifted further away from our daily lives. However, our literate life has changed dramatically in the shift from analogue to digital. The era of Koreans writing Chinese characters with a pen has passed, and we are now living in the era of typed Hangul. Characters, together with images, are transmitted everywhere at all times. However, these digital characters are disposable and consumed without limits, and so are no longer spiritual or sacred; digital characters are devoid of handwriting's individual self-awareness, personal taste, and even smell. The whole paradigm—not only of the characters used in Chinese and Hangul, but also of the entire eco-system of characters that embraces writing tools such as paper, pens, and ink, as well as typing systems—has shifted completely. This phenomenon suggests that, unlike in the past, calligraphy cannot be the dominant genre in the field of character-writing art any more.

Since Hangul's creation in 1443 and its proclaimation in 1446 (making it the official written language of the Joseon dynasty), it has never been so dominant as it is now. This dominance is a result of Koreans' blind emotional insistence on "only Hangul." However, the truth is that Hangul co-existed alongside Chinese characters for nearly 500 years. The "only Hangul" notion has arisen in the past fifty years. In today's Hangul-oriented culture, it seems there is no place for the Chinese characters that are intimately tied to the historical foundations of Hangul. The problem is that while Hangul-oriented culture gets stronger, our territories gets smaller in terms of characters, history, and thinking. The idea of establishing an "East Asian Community" at the center of current regional issues will probably not develop further unless we recognize that this community originates in areas which share Chinese characters. How can we harmonize Hangul with Chinese characters and other literate cultures in order to make Hangul a healthy and noble language? Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Hangul lost its way in the midst of digital competition, and has forgotten its very essence. It is ironic that the analogue calligraphy of the past—also written by hand—is the light that will guide Hangul toward its future.

translated from the Korean by Lee Sangyeon and Choe Jeong-Hoon