A New Way of Viewing Jikji: ‘JIKJI, the Golden Seed’
From 1-8 September, the Cheongju Art Center and the Cheongju Early Printing Museum was packed with a crowd amounting to over 200,000 people. The reason for this was the JIKJI Korea Global Festival (hereafter, JIKJI Korea). By combining the Cheongju Jikji Festival, which over the years has been hosted by the city of Cheongju, with the UNESCO/Jikji Memory of the World Prize, JIKJI Korea was elevated to the level of an international event, which this year received national funding for the first time. Under the theme ‘JIKJI, Enlightening The World’, the festival features various events concurrently taking place, with the core content among these being the exhibition ‘JIKJI, the Golden Seed’ held at the Cheongju Art Center. How did this exhibition, which involved the participation of 35 teams of artists from 11 countries, cultivate a golden seed symbolizing infinite potential?
reported by Harry Jun│materials provided by JIKJI Korea
Jikji and JIKJI Korea
Baekunhwasang Chorok Buljo Jikji Simche Yojol (Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests’ Zen Teachings, and hereafter, Jikji) is the name of a Buddhist text published in 1377. Currently only the second volume is in existence and is kept at the National Library of France. Bringing together excerpts from the various teachings of Buddhist monks, necessary for the realisation of the key points of Buddhist virtue, Jikji brings into focus the meaning of good-natured living, or in other words, enlightenment regarding the mind of Buddha. Purchased in the late 19th century by Colin de Placy, the French minister to Korea, the book passed through several different hands before being donated to the National Library of France. After going unnoticed for many years, the book was once again made known to the world through the efforts of the late Dr. Park Byung-sun, who worked as a librarian. The importance of Jikji lies in the fact that it was published 78 years prior to the printing of Johannes Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible, the text that sparked the printing revolution. In other words, as the oldest metal printed book in existence, its historical value is immeasurable. In 2001 Jikji, along with the Gutenberg Bible, was admitted to the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme, and together with Hangeul is considered to be a demonstration of the excellence of Korean culture, representing Korea in the history of world civilizations. Importantly, the Heungdeok Temple site located in Cheongju was revealed as the place where Jikji was printed, September 4th – the date of Jikji’s UNESCO registration – was declared as ‘Jikji Day’. Afterwards the city of Cheongju, in collaboration with UNESCO, established the UNESCO/Jikji Memory of the World Prize, awarded to individuals and organisations which contribute greatly to the conservation and utilisation of recorded heritage, and has continued to strive for the use of Jikji as a regional cultural content by regularly hosting festivals related to Jikji. As an extension of this tradition, JIKJI Korea, created this year, is the product of the long-cherished ambitions of the city of Cheongju.
A New Way of Viewing Jikji
Utilising the entire building of the Cheongju Art Center, the thematic exhibition ‘JIKJI, the Golden Seed’ is composed of the subthemes ‘Behind Illumination’, ‘Eclipse’ and ‘Re-Illumination’, and contains a wide range of diverse artifacts and drawings, charts, art installations and media art arranged according the 7 themes. Held against the backdrop of a space unified under a red tone (unconventional, yet stable), the works of 35 teams of artists from 11 countries emanate a certain charm, eminently tangible in the space. Moreover, thanks to the visitor-friendly display, the exhibition lacks none of the aesthetic traits necessary for a good exhibition, allowing for a high level of focus. In her interview with SPACE magazine, the exhibition’s senior curator Stephanie Seungmin Kim revealed that ‘Going beyond the notion of black vs. white, one of the concepts that I tried to emphasise was the idea of the inverse. If you look at a seed, there’s more than just the seed leaf, there’s also the roots. I began to think that, like the roots forcing their way out of a hard shell, Jikji could be the roots of Gutenberg’s printing press. There are rumours that Korea’s metal printing technology crossed over into Europe. This exhibition takes an interest in that root’. Linking Jikji with the Gutenberg-centric thought of the West (for example, Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy), this exhibition – an attempt to ascribe independent significance to Jikji through storytelling – ‘contains the story regarding the sharing and spreading of knowledge which transforms today’s paradigm of mankind’. ‘Through this exhibition the audience interprets Jikji not as a simple metal printed book, but as a revolution’, expanding our ability to consider its ‘significant influence on the development of humanity’.
No Jikji Galaxy
However, a literal interpretation of Jikji as a catalyst of the information revolution or as a development in society is problematic. Gang Myeonggwan (professor, Pusan National University), the author of The History of Books and Knowledge in the Joseon Dynasty, said that the Joseon metal type, the world’s first such technology, was unable to change the course of history. Metal type was under the exclusive possession of the nation, which focused on producing booklets on Confucian virtue; in the case of Korea, the mass supply of books made possible by Gutenberg’s printing press and the resultant dissolution of monopoly over information was, from the beginning, impossible. As a result, while Gutenberg’s printing technology had an enormous impact on the Renaissance, religion, science, and the Industrial Revolution, Jikji was unable to influence the sharing or dissemination of knowledge, and by extension, intellectual democratization. However, this is not to negate the exhibition’s reason for existence – the idea of the inverse (or rather, an intriguing imagination) regarding Jikji – based on these historical facts. Rather, this just goes to say that the fact a balance conveying the realistic limits of Jikji could nowhere be found within the exhibition is regrettable. This is ultimately the result of an exhibition in which the facts behind Jikji are not presented to the visitor.
The Roster of Star Players
Other than the fact that it was JIKJI Korea’s first themed exhibition, this exhibition was for other reasons highly noteworthy. This is due to the work of two renowned designers – Ab Rogers, who was responsible for the interior design of the Tate Modern in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and Ron Arad, who is known as one of the top-three designers in the world. Ab Rogers directed the basic concept of the exhibition space’s design, while
Ron Arad took on the design of the ‘IKJI Pavilion. True to his nickname as ‘the magician of colour’ Ab Rogers’ design is simple, yet his use of intense colours stands out. The design of an exhibition space can make or break the exhibition. The floor and display stands all used a uniform red colour while the edges converged into the white, and the interior of the Cheongju Art Center, whose use as an exhibition space proved to be problematic, dominated by intense colours; these manoeuvres give the effect of concentrating one’s gaze on the exhibition works.
In the case of Ron Arad’s JIKJI Pavilion, when you consider the fact that his art furniture fetches a price of hundreds of thousands of dollars, the logistics required for the construction of such a grand pavilion for a relatively small design fee are of a commendable degree. However, ‘if this exhibition can be seen as a single book divided into several chapters, then the pavilion is like the cover which integrates the contents and shows them off’; reflecting on these words one cannot help but think that the pavilion should possess a more distinctive appearance than currently. The JIKJI Pavilion takes the shape of a colossal, over-turned Asian book. The large-scale installation measuring 12m in height with an area of 64m2 was designed based on the motif of a Hanok’s curves and the Chinese character for man (人, ren). As a result of choosing a module design, which could be dis-and-re-assembled, the elegance conveyed by the grand and smooth pages has been lost. Ochim ahnjeong beob – the unique, Korean style of binding in which five holes are punched on the right side of a book and bound with thread – was expressed with bright red paint; although this was said to have given the pavilion a unique character, rather than paying tribute to Jikji it represents the universality of traditional Korean books. It’s a shame that the uniqueness of a designer, who is a ‘great inventor whose work crosses boundaries between design, architecture and art without being too abstract, remaining definitive while not forging wit’, was not revealed by the design of the JIKJI Pavilion.
Necessary Ingredients for Growing a Golden Seed
If one were to properly cultivate the ‘Golden Seed’ known as Jikji, what would be most necessary? First, an obsession with its stance as the world’s oldest metal printed book must be discarded. As was witnessed in the Zeungdogaja forgery scandal last year, the titles ‘best’ and ‘first’ are always precarious. Also, any feelings of insignificance provoked by comparisons with Gutenberg’s printing press are unnecessary. This is because the heart of Jikji lies in its creativity and its unchanging status as a precious legacy of not just Korea, but all mankind. Mike Stubbs, the director of FACT – a collaborator of this exhibition – based in Liverpool, England, defined artists as ‘expert(s) in provoking new thinking about what is actually happening now’. If the ‘Golden Seed’ known as Jikji combines inherent creativity with the prophecy of artistic originality, and is transformed into an entity which possesses the ability to imagine the future and guide its direction, then the numerous possibilities that will spring forth afterwards is something to look forward to.
Brigitte Stepputtis & Phil Dobson, Gutenberg Galaxy, 2016
Notion Architecture, JIKJI–Space, 2016
Ryoichi Kurokawa, Unfold, 2016
Ron Arad, JIKJI Pavilion, 2016
The exhibition view of ‘JIKJI, the Golden Seed’ (concept design: Ab Rogers)
Jeon Byungsam, JIKJI Wall, 2016