Gateway; Tangible & Ethereal

By Rebecca Blakeston

Does Heaven exist? Few concepts are so universal yet so hard to grasp as that of the afterlife, of spending eternity in another realm. It is an idea that weaves itself through religions and cultures the world over and is interpreted in many ways. A gateway to an ever-paradise, a reward for a good life lived? Crossing over the threshold of the physical world via a good life lived; a pathway to Utopia. However, for something so ingrained in cultural perceptions, it is a concept that feels somewhat out of reach; even with vivid descriptions and imagery to accompany the idea of an afterlife, it doesn’t feel tangible. However, we can potentially rely on art to explore these hard-to-grasp feelings and the work of Yun Hyong-keun is a fascinating exploration of Earth meeting Heaven, crossing over from an earthly physical world to one of spiritual existence. Find out more here in Gateway; Tangible Ethereal.

Image on the left: Yun Hyong-keun, No Title, 1972, oil on cotton, 126 x 94.7 cm, © Yun Seong-ryeol. Courtesy of PKM Gallery.

If raised in a society consisting primarily of the Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, you may have an ingrained mental image of what Heaven supposedly looks like. As early as your school days, you become familiar with visions of ascending to be met with pearly gates; a physical entrance opened. This is an idea that may be comforting but also one that perhaps doesn’t fully resonate. It is a surreal concept after all to find ourselves confronted by a literal gateway to another realm.

But a field that has never strayed from confronting the concept of an afterlife is that of art. Over centuries, visual depictions of what Heaven may hold can be found in paintings from the Renaissance to the Romantics. And, though it may not be our first thought, in modern art too.

Due to his masterful use of colour, Yun Hyong-keun has been compared to the likes of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. His works, which span decades, use colour as a provocative, emotive tool. From around 1970 until his passing in 2007, Yun worked consistently with umber and blue. Umber, a representation of earth. Blue, a representation of sky.

I want to paint that something which is nothing, that will inspire me endlessly to go on.”

Yun Hyong-keun

Yun Hyong-keun, Umber-Blue, 1974, oil on cotton, 91.5 x 116.3 cm, © Yun Seong-ryeol. Courtesy of PKM Gallery.

Yun’s Korean heritage is vital to fully appreciating the roots of his work. It is the country in which he was born and would spend the majority of his life. Using techniques from traditional ink-wash painting, Yun created modern visuals. His paintings are also reflective of the Eastern cosmological perspective in which the triad of Heaven, Earth and People are the generative forces of the universe. This is reflected in the threefold compositions of many of his earlier works.

“The thesis of my painting is the gate of heaven and earth. Blue is the color of heaven, while umber is the color of the earth. Thus, I call them ‘heaven and earth,’ with the gate serving as the composition.”

Yun Hyong-keun

The recurring motif of the gate in Yun’s work is able to reflect the vast and seemingly endless space between the familiarity of Earth and whatever may lie above us in the sky. The gateway, not a metal crossing, but more a portal, prompts a desire to be transported; the work draws you in with its void-like mood and makes you wonder exactly where it’s taking you. It is both enticing and intimidating.

There are many interpretations of the afterlife. There are the Abrahamic faiths that prescribe to an idea of Heaven as a paradise, with variations according to each specific religion’s beliefs and teachings. A place of angels and saints; the holiest place in existence which presents Heaven as a real destination and final resting place for the soul.

In Buddhism, there is a complex system of different planes of existence in which one’s soul can manifest throughout cycles of reincarnation. The realm one’s soul appears in is dependent of the specifics of the good they have done and the restraint they have shown in their lifetime.

Similarly, in Hinduism, attaining Heaven is not the final pursuit but there is a belief in planes of existence above that of Earth. In differing traditions, there are different realms which reside above all others as a place for the most enlightened and liberated souls though this differs, like with Buddhism, to the concept of a singular final place of rest that exists in the Abrahamic religions.

These ideas are unique and complex in their differences but what perhaps unites them all is their esoteric nature. We can have these concepts explained to us and perhaps believe in them but they are still hard to truly feel close to or grasp fully. They are these far away, just out-of-reach ideas that we perhaps can’t wholly understand during our lifetimes at all. But one means through which we can bring ourselves closer to the hardest concepts to confront is art.

This concept, which is somewhat abstract, may feel out of reach physically and emotionally. But perhaps through art, it can become accessible spiritually. Art becomes a vessel for reaction and the prompting of introspection.

Yun Hyong-keun, Untitled ’93-23, 1993, oil on linen, 227.2 x 162.1 cm, © Yun Seong-ryeol. Courtesy of PKM Gallery.

Running from 10th June to 1st October 2023, the Hastings Contemporary will be host to the UK’s first ever public gallery exhibition of Yun Hyong-keun’s work. This will be an all new opportunity to experience the power of Yun’s work firsthand and see the paintings that have made him an icon of the Asian art world and one of the leading figures of Korean art.

To view these works in the environment of the Hastings Contemporary also feels particularly fitting. The gallery overlooks an expanse of sky and sea, a setting that is in harmony with Yun’s ultramarine and umber works and his inspiration of Earth and Heaven.

You can find out more about the exhibition and book tickets Here

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