Erasing by drawing thousands of times

By Lee Woo-young
  • Published : Mar 18, 2015 - 18:52
  • Updated : Mar 18, 2015 - 18:52
At first, it doesn’t seem like art befitting the white cube gallery space. The pitch-black piece of paper looks as if someone burned it until it was about to turn to ashes.

Yet, the work, currently on exhibit at Arario Gallery, sums up the lifetime endeavor of first-generation Korean avant-garde artist Choi Byung-so. Based in Daegu, the birthplace of Korean avant-garde art, Choi has been drawing repetitive lines and circles on newspapers with ballpoint pens and pencils for more than 40 years. 

Untitled by Choi Byung-so. (Arario Gallery)

Ironically, the 72-year-old artist calls the process “erasing.”

“Erasing is to empty the mind and go back to the point where a trace of thought started,” Choi wrote in the artist’s note. “If I continue to erase what’s left on the newspaper and its back side, the surface and the background become blurred. It’s where life becomes death and death becomes part of life.”

In fact, the surface of his work is all torn and tattered due to what must have been hundreds and thousands of lines drawn on top of one another on a fragile piece of newspaper. Choi drew, or “erased,” on both sides of the newspaper until the paper lost its original form.

Since he erased the text from the newspaper, his work has been viewed as an act of resistance to propaganda. In the 1970s, when Korea was ruled by authoritarian leaders, media censorship was prevalent.

“It doesn’t have to do with the political circumstances,” said Choi at the opening of his exhibition on March 5 at Arario Gallery in Seoul.

The choice of the materials came out of nowhere, he said.

One day after the death of his grandmother, he listened to an audio book of Buddhist sacred texts, which his late grandmother used to play on a tape recorder.

“Without thinking, I just picked up a piece of newspaper and a ballpoint pen (and started drawing). That was 1975,” he said.

Newspapers and ballpoint pens were the cheapest materials he could find at that time, when people were far worse off than now. He always thought if he had to do art, he would do so with things that cost less than a pack of cigarettes.

“Finding the cheap materials was the biggest issue for me. From then on, I started to erase the daily newspaper with a Monami 153 ballpoint pen,” he explained.

The Monami pen is the first-generation auto ballpoint pen produced by local stationery company Monami. The numbers in its name come from its price of 15 won (1 cent) and the year 1963 when it was developed.

When his fellow artists led the avant-garde movement in Daegu with radical performances, Choi thought of discontinuing the newspaper series in the 1980s and tried to paint on canvas. But he soon returned to his newspaper and the Monami pen.

“I just put a piece of newspaper on a table and drew lines with the power of my ass ― sitting long enough to draw those lines. I don’t really think. It’s part of emptying my mind of any greed,” he said.

Long overshadowed by popular landscape or monochrome paintings by his compatriots, Choi’s newspaper art finally received unexpected attention at last year’s Hong Kong Art fair.

It was hailed as the “most sincere work of art” by a client from Frankel Foundation in the U.S., which bought his 7-meter work.

The exhibition runs through April 26 at the Arario Gallery in Seoul. For more information, (02) 541-5701.

By Lee Woo-young (wylee@heraldcorp.com)