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Writer Cho Won-Jae

A more in-depth and wide-ranging discussion about art

 

2021.06.07

 

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Under the motto “Art is a fun and easy toy for anyone to play with,” Cho Won-Jae wrote An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room 1 (Bacdoci Co., Ltd.) and the book became a bestseller shortly after publication in 2018 in the art category. Also, An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room 2 (Bacdoci Co., Ltd.) published in November last year, which talks about Korean art, also became a bestseller, making writer Cho an undoubted steady-seller writer of art. While art was thought to be reserved for the elegant and noble, he talks about artworks and the life and spirit of artists embedded in them through his unique, hilarious way of telling stories. Following is an interview with writer Cho Won-Jae, who has become a missionary of art as he fell in love with it. Let’s listen to his story of art, which starts simply but becomes increasingly captivating.

 

Please introduce yourself to our subscribers.

 

Hello, I’m Cho Won-Jae. I wrote the An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room series, and am currently running a podcast (online radio broadcast) with the same title.

 

Your fans call you “Minam.” Do you like that nickname?

 

Yes, when it was me that made that nickname, how can I not like it? (laughs) When I first began writing An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room in 2016, I chose my pen name to be “Minam”, which was an abbreviation of “a man in front of an art museum (translator’s opinion: in Korean, art museum is “misulgwan” and man is “namja”. The nickname “Minam” is a combination of “mi” and “nam” from each word).” Those that like listening to my podcast naturally call me “Minam” but my readers call me “Writer Cho Won-Jae.” I like both, by the way.

 

 

I want to write stories where I can deliver what I’ve learned through art to other people.

 

 

What motivated you to write books about art?

 

As I’ve fallen in love with artworks and enjoyed them, I realized that art has precious values that you cannot get from anything else. In the course of studying art and systematizing what I’ve learned, I got to build my own opinion towards art and wanted to share it with many others. So, I mulled over how to make more people access art more easily, and a sentence came up in my head - “an artwork is born inside the life of the artist.” Artists are human beings just like us. They have their life. Artists think and feel certain things as they live their life. And the physical representation of such ideas and feelings is the artwork. As we track how an artwork is born in their life, we will naturally have the chance to realize the nature and values of art. What’s more, in the course of following the traits of artists’ sincere life and philosophy, we can get inspiration for questions such as which life is sincere and which life pursues nature. This led to starting the podcast in 2016 – to deliver what I’ve realized to many others. And as I got connected to many people in the industry across the world, I could write An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room 1.

 

What is the author and artwork that you remember the most after visiting numerous art museums in Europe?

 

In my 20s, when I had many dreams, I went on a working holiday to Germany as I wanted to go to art museums across Europe. I can still vividly remember “Seated Man Nude” by Egon Schiele in Leopold Museum in Vienna, Austria. It looks like a thin man with red eyes sitting on a chair with his legs and arms cut, looking at a bug. You might be able to think of it as a self-portrait of the artist. But when you look at the work with your own eyes, it is not that fun nor beautiful that it won’t be able to be called beautiful from a normal person’s perspective.
I felt as if my body was paralyzed as I wandered around the art piece for more than two hours. It was the first feeling I had as I’ve been appreciating so many artworks. It gave me many thoughts and feelings. The first novel that came up to me was The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. It begins with the sentence, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect.” I thought that if the novel could be turned into a picture, it would be like “Seated Man Nude.” And I grew to think that the artwork is a resemblance of myself. I could figure out what personality I have, what situation I am put into, and what emotions I have through the picture. To put my feelings into words, it was like “being unable to do something.” It was as if the art piece was a representation of myself where no matter how much passion and enthusiasm I had in my 20s, I could not do anything in reality.

 

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The An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room series

 

Your An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room books have ranked no. 1 and 2 on the bestsellers list in the art category. How do you feel?

 

The An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room series is a written archive of my experiences and values toward art. It’s been four years since their publication in 2018. While many books rise and fall soon after they are published, my books have been steadily enjoyed by readers for four years. I am thankful to be able to present my sincerely-made works to the world and exchange minds with many readers through them. So, I guess I can describe my feelings in two words – “happy” and “thankful.” I think it gives me a strong feeling of responsibility that I should have straightforward ideas and behaviors and continue writing sincere sentences and stories.

 

For readers to enjoy An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room 2 to the fullest, what would you suggest?

 

Well, the best way would be to visit the museum. The concept of the An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room series is based on the narrative that began with the insight “artworks are born from the life of the artists.” Here, you may have a misunderstanding that you must learn about the artists’ life in order to appreciate an artwork. But what I’ve just told you is one of the ways to access and enjoy art more at ease. As it is important to meet the artworks in person, you should go to an art museum and look at the works yourself. It’s okay to either read the book after looking at the artwork or read it before you go to the museum. Yet, I hope you are fully indulged in appreciating the works when you go to the museum. I want you to focus on what the works are telling you and what emotions arise in your heart as you enjoy them.
I also recommend overseas publishers to come to Korea and look at the artworks as well. You will be able to enjoy exhibitions of Korean artists anytime you like at not only famous art museums like Whanki Museum, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Seoul Museum of Art, but also at art museums run by local governments. If my book can help you soft-land into the world of art as you meet and have conversations with artworks, I would be very happy and thankful as the writer.

 

How would you like your An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room to be introduced to overseas readers?

 

An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room 1 features Western artists that lived from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, which is right before modernism was born. Therefore, the first edition talks about the life and works of well-known foreign artists such as Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Marcel Duchamp. As it takes a different perspective from other existing books, for overseas readers, reading my book holds a significant meaning.
Meanwhile, An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room 2 features Korean artists. It talks about the stories of artists in the 20th century whose drawings were influenced by the Western artists discussed in An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room 1. However, they didn’t just imitate the trend and style of the imported Western art. They created a distinctive art world nowhere to be found in the world, exquisitely fusing Western art and the unique aesthetics and spirit of Korea. There would be no other book in the world, including Korea, that introduced Korea’s modern and contemporary artists through the same concept as me. Thus, I hope that overseas readers could have much interest in the works of Korean artists along with already famous overseas artists, and see what kind of artists there are in Korea, how they produced marvelous works, and how sincere their lives were. And I hope they can feel new senses that they’ve never experienced before. Yes, I hope An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room 2 could be widely enjoyed by readers across the world.
Also, my personal hope is for An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room series to be translated and published in France, which had been the main stage of artists introduced in An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room 1. As An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room 2 is about Korean artists in the 20th century who were influenced by artists that drew pictures in Paris in the 19th and 20th century, I hope readers in Paris, France, could read it as well.

 

 

I’m thankful that I can present my sincerely-made works to the world and
exchange thoughts with many readers through them.

 

 

Was there a standard when choosing artists for An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room 2: Korea?

 

The An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room series prioritizes popularity, in the sense that it should be able to appeal to the public. This is why I chose artists that represent Korea. Representative artists here mean those that have greatly influenced Korea’s art history by inspiring future artists with their creativity. Creativity is what only individuals express in their inner identity and characteristics. All the artists I’ve chosen for my book have such creativity. Hence, they take a great proportion in the flow of art history, greatly affecting contemporary and future artists. This has made them hugely popular among the public as well.

 

Who was the most impressive artist when you were writing the An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room series?

 

They were artists Lee Eung-No and Lee Woo-Hwan. The word “belief” can be used to explain the background of their works and their biggest difference. Artist Lee Eung-No is a man of a firm belief who was born in the early 20th century, learned Eastern art, and drew the Four Gracious Plants. When Western art came into Korea through the modernization period, many artists turned to make artworks that imitated and followed their style. However, artist Lee Eung-No had a conviction that he must “protect the beauty unique to Korea.” Hence, while accepting the basic format of Western painting, artist Lee Eung-No mulled over how to modernize Korean art. And at last, at the age of 60, he created “abstract letters (an art where letters are disjointed or transformed in an abstract style),” a formative art world exclusive to himself that blended the aesthetics of the East and the West. In other words, he brought in the other world’s art style based on his clear belief but reflected the calligraphy spirit of the Eastern world at the same time.
On the other hand, artist Lee Woo-Hwan says he “doesn’t want to have a belief.” He was born during the Japanese occupation of Korea when ruler-based imperialism dominated the country. After Korea was liberated, ideological conflicts between the left and the right aroused severe sociopolitical disputes. It was the time when people were hostile and exclusive toward those that had the opposite belief. In such a background, artist Lee Woo-Hwan became skeptical about the idea that “it is right to have certain beliefs.” This is why he says he does not want to have any belief at all.
The two artists’ different perspectives towards “belief” are clearly shown in their artworks. As artist Lee Eung-No creates works based on his firm belief, you can feel the clear boundary within his works and see how he reflected his belief and philosophy in them. Meanwhile, artist Lee Woo-Hwan’s artworks do not have a clear boundary and are open to the entire space, just like how water smoothly flows over a pebbled field, and the wind blows through a dense forest without any difficulty. As such, how the artist looks and represents their “belief” completely changes the nuance of their artworks. I’m sure that your reading experience would be richer if you take into consideration what I’ve mentioned when reading parts about the two artists in An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room.

 

What does “art” mean to you?

 

To me, art is infinite. I would like to say that it is a “friend that shows you the unknown world.” Just as Isaac Newton said, “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me,” I feel like the things I know and realize are only a tiny little part in the vast world of art as I enjoy them more. There are countless things in the world that I haven’t yet felt and realized with my brain, ego, and body. Also, I came to realize that artistic stimulus and intellectual stimulus do not have an end as I appreciate artworks.
The reason I am writing and speaking is to deliver what I’ve learned through art to others. And its beginning was the An Art Museum in the Corner of a Room series. As a fine artist makes fine works, I will continue to be a writer that deeply thinks about how to express things inside myself and describe them in letters.

 

 

 


Organized by Lee Ji-Hyeon

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