Art TEDx

6 excerpts from Korean novelist Young-ha Kim

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Young-ha-Kim-booksYoung-ha Kim has a simple message for us all: get out there and create some art. Are you getting tense, just from the suggestion?

Young-ha Kim: Be an artist, right now! Young-ha Kim: Be an artist, right now!

In today’s talk, given at TEDxSeoul and TED’s first ever in Korean, Kim says, “You think, ‘I’m too busy. I don’t have time for art.’ There are hundreds of reasons why we can’t be artists right now. Don’t they just pop into your head? … Perhaps you think art is for the gifted or for the professional trained. Or perhaps you think you’ve strayed too far from art.”

When we were kids, says Kim, we were constantly creating art — drawing on the wall, making up dances, singing nonsense lyrics, putting on plays for our family, making up stories, building sandcastles. But as we get older, this impulse dulls. Not only because we hear judgment from others, but because we start taking formal lessons and it becomes less about having fun and more about doing something well.

“Art is about going a little nuts … Kids do art for fun. It’s playing,” he says. “If you continue to act like an artist as you get older, you’ll increasingly feel pressure. People will question your actions.”

So what happens? According to Kim, we suppress our artistic spirit. We learn to be critics, rather than taking the risk of making. Kim calls us “dictators with a remote control,“ yelling at the people on reality-TV dance and singing competitions for a flat note.

To hear more about this tragedy — and what we can do to overcome it — watch this hilarious talk. An especially amazing image in it: Kim writing fast and furious, so that the artistic devil cannot catch him and fill his head with doubts.

Young-ha Kim is one of the most popular writers of his generation in Korea. The author of five novels, four short story collections and numerous essays, Kim’s work mixes high and low genres and focuses on the meaning of Korean identity in increasingly globalized world.

How popular is Kim in Korea? Not only has he won many a literary award, but two of his books have been turned into feature films with a third on the way. In fact, at the Jeonju International Film Festival taking place in spring 2013, there will be an entire program of short films based on Young-ha Kim’s short stories. Fans have even created “Kim Young-ha Bingo,” where you read 50 pages of any of his works and mark off the themes he touches on in those pages — from art references to paranoia.

Here, some excerpts from Kim’s works, to get you better acquainted with this writer. Even though he is more interested in making sure you start typing than read what he’s created.

From his debut book, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself

I’m looking at Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 oil painting, “The Death of Marat,” printed in an art book. The Jacobin revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat lies murdered in his bath. His head is wrapped in a towel, like a turban, and his hand, draped alongside the tub, holds a pen. Marat has expired — bloodied — nestled between the colors of white and green. The work exudes calm and quiet. You can almost hear a requiem. The fatal knife lies abandoned at the bottom of the canvas.

I’ve already tried to make a copy of this painting several times. The most difficult part is Marat’s expression; he always comes out looking too sedate. In David’s Marat, you can see neither the dejection nor the relief of the man who has escaped life’s suffering. His Marat is peaceful but pained, filled with hatred but also with understanding. Through a dead man’s expression David manages to realize all of our conflicting innermost emotions. Read more »

Marilyn Monroe and Lady Gaga’s Korea (excerpted from Words without Borders)

Marilyn Monroe came to South Korea in February of 1954. While honeymooning in Tokyo with Joe DiMaggio, she had boarded a military plane and was en route to Seoul even before the marriage was fully consummated. At the airport, she was swarmed by hundreds of GIs who had been awaiting her arrival. When she came down the gangway, Monroe was dressed in a flight suit. Reporters noted that “half of the buttons on the top were undone, offering tantalizing glimpses of her chest, which got the troops even more riled up.” According to Korean news reports from the time, the GIs were disappointed to see her immediately board a helicopter bound for the frontlines and asked her when she would return, to which she “turned on the charm like a mother comforting a child” and replied, “I’ll be right back.”

By February of 1954, the Korean War, which had lasted for three years, had already been brought to an end under the pretext of a ceasefire, but tens of thousands of American soldiers were still stationed in South Korea. Monroe gave dozens of performances, visited wounded soldiers in field hospitals, and posed on top of tanks. In archival photos, the soldiers’ excitement as they greet her is palpable. In colorless, dirt-covered barracks, Monroe alone stands out in color, as if someone had come along later and Photoshopped her into the pictures. Before thousands of soldiers seated on a low hill devoid of even a single tree, she spreads her arms wide and sings in time with a piano. The images look like they could have come from a 1960s rock festival. Read the rest of the essay »

From his latest book, Black Flower

With his head thrust into the swamp filled with swaying weeds, many things swarmed before Ijeong’s eyes. All were pieces of the scenery of Jemulpo that he thought he had long ago forgotten. Nothing had disappeared: the flute-playing eunuch, the fugitive priest, the spirit-possessed shaman with the turned-in teeth, the girl who smelled of roe deer blood, the poor members of the royal family, the starving discharged soldiers, even the revolutionary’s barber — they all waited for Ijeong with smiling faces in front of the Japanese-style building on the hill in Jemulpo.

How could all of these things be so vivid with closed eyes? Ijeong was mystified. He opened his eyes and everything disappeared. A booted foot pushed on the nape of his neck, shoving his head deep into the bottom of the swamp. Foul water and plankton rushed into his lungs. Read more »

Ice Cream (excerpted from the Asia Literary Review)

“Can you smell the petrol?” Mina asked him. Eugene tilted his end.

“I’m not sure, but something’s off.”

“C’mon, we’ve been eating these bars for ages.”

“This one doesn’t taste right. I’m telling you, it stinks of petrol.” She was already washing her mouth out. Eugene put the remainder of the ice-cream bar in his mouth. “Are you nuts?!” she cried. He ignored her, swirling it around with his tongue, trying to detect the smell. He then spat out the mouthful.

“You’re right. It does smell like petrol.”

It all began when the International Monetary Fund seized control of South Korea like an occupying army. The football team were hopeless, the economy desperate and the entire nation felt as if it were on its last legs. Read the rest of the story »

The Man Who Sold His Shadow (excerpted from Words without Borders)

Here’s a question we all ask ourselves at least once when we’re young: Where does that starlight come from? It’s been there before I was born, and before my grandmother, and her grandmother were born. So just how far is that star from Earth? The curiosity of children is insatiable. They’ll grab a flashlight and aim it at the stars and think, “This light will get there someday, won’t it? When I’m dead, and my grandchildren are gone, and their grandchildren as well.” Whimsical thoughts, of course. Not a chance that light so faint will still be sparkling thousands of light-years from now. That’s our universe: a place where light much stronger than this vanishes without a trace.

And another childish question: Does a bird in mid-flight have a shadow? How can such a small, light thing be burdened by something as clumsy as a shadow? But birds certainly do have a shadow. Sometimes, just sometimes, when I watch a flock fly by I have a feeling that something dark and black is flitting past. It’s subtle enough that you’ll miss it if you’re not fully concentrating on it. When the moon covers the sun, we have a solar eclipse. What do you call it when birds do that? Read the rest of the story »

Honor Killing (a story on a napkin in Esquire)

She was twenty-one, with fair, beautiful skin. Even when bare, her face glowed, always radiant and dewy. This was precisely why the dermatologist’s office hired her as the receptionist. Her job was simple. All she had to do was write down the patients’ names, tell them in a friendly voice, “please take a seat until we call your name,” find their charts, and hand them over to the nurses. Her glowing, translucent skin created high expectations, encouraging the patients to pour their trust in the office, which bustled with a sudden increase in patients. Read the second paragraph of this very short story »