My Experience as a Book Artist in South Korea
I’m proud to share I was one of the international participants for this year’s Jinju Traditional Crafts Biennale in Jinju City, South Korea (@jinjucraftsbiennale2021). It was held from the 11th to the 21st November. I participated with the five books from the Pillars Collection from 2019.
In addition, I was one of three international artist invited for one month in Jinju City to create two individual artworks and one in collaboration with a Korean master craftsman.
My project for the two individual artworks included experimenting with traditional handmade Hanji paper and silk fabric from the region as materials for bookbinding. The third project was a collaboration between me and a Korean master metalsmith, who made metal fittings for a leather bound, Hanji paper book. My wish was to gather as much knowledge as I can regarding their papers, fabrics, metal alloys and patinating mixtures.
From my end, I hoped to bring some insight into Western and in particular – Balkan bookbinding structures, styles and designs, as well as knowledge regarding fitting design and construction for books.
I arrived early October and I was immediately hit with the realization that due to the language, a large portion of what this land had to share was locked away from me. Nevertheless I was in good hands and even in the first week, I was able to visit some wonderful local craftsmen in their studios, experience the local food, visit the museums and heritage sites of the city I was staying in, meet with my international artist colleagues and experience rural life and architecture in Korean traditional villages.
This first week was more or less organizational and we were exploring the area around our accommodation, planning for the work ahead, while the studio spaces and materials for us were being prepared.
I had some trouble sleeping the first few days but did my best to stay awake during the day and try to sleep only at night. The whole trip from home from start to finish was about 32 hours in total.
I packed around 40 kilograms of baggage, most of which were tools but still, I couldn’t bring my whole workshop. That meant no big presses, no plough, no sewing frame and no other things I’m used to in my own workshop. I had to make a lot of compromises and go back a bit to the time when I used to make books without to much equipment so it was a refreshing challenge in that sense.
For all of the books I used solely hanji paper for the pages, as well as the decorative aspects. I wanted to use Korean traditional materials and transform them in a way that hasn’t been seen before, namely in a more European type of book structure. My two individual works were quite similar, they were the same format and volume but one was planned to be bound in decorated hanji paper, while the other in Korean traditional silk fabric. The two, in essence are millimeter bindings with a Korean twist.
I think I found the silk most challenging to work with and I’m ashamed to admit to have ruined two small pieces of this precious material. Nevertheless, it was my first time working with such things and I value the opportunity, I just wish I had more time to adequate experiment with everything I had been offered.
Work on the third, collaborative work was a lot more familiar than the other two. It was a bit thicker than them and had a bit more different dimensions. A big challenge was laying the leather on without my bonefolder, because my son hid it before I left and I couldn’t find it. I had to buy a plastic folder from a craft shop in Korea.
I didn’t know what conditions I’ll would have for gold tooling so I prepared loose leaf gold as well as transfer 23k gold leaf. I found it easier to make a simpler design, small tools and transfer gold. I also couldn’t bring my workshop stove, so I had to use a gas-lit stove from the Korean studio. These portable stoves were very common there and they used replaceable gas canisters.
At this point the other two books were finished and I was in the last steps of completing everything I had planned. The workshop I was in was designed to be a teaching space with three big workstations, each accommodating around 3 people per table. I had a whole table for myself but all of them were designed in such away, that the person working has to sit on the floor. At first, this was an exciting prospect but I soon found it very uncomfortable. I was offered a chair, which I started using at one point but the table was so low, that it was again the same level of discomfort but from a different perspective. In the end I had a lot of back pain from the long work days. Thankfully two weeks sleeping in my bed at home cured everything without any problems.
Master Taegyo @jjikji1965 , who was my partner was very curios about the processes involving leather, it wasn’t a very common material in that area. He was very interested in the tooling process and wanted to be there to see with his eyes how things work. He was always around working on the metal fittings that were later going to be assembled onto the book and we were taking measurements from time to time, to make sure everything will fit right.
The collaboration work has a book body entirely comprised of hanji paper with edges left rough. It’s bound in deep blue goatskin and tooled in blind and with 23k gold leaf.
The fittings done by Master Taegyo are hand cut and engraved from a thick nickel alloy that he usually uses for the furniture fittings. They are 8 corners in total on both covers and a single clasp on the fore edge. The metal elements are assembled to the book covers with nails made from the same alloy and riveted on the inner covers. The rivets are then hidden with layers of paper, the top one being decorative hanji.
We’re both really proud of this work. Even though we had very little time and made a lot of compromises, the work symbolizes many firsts, we believe there hasn’t been an instance of combining two traditions in such a way before, namely combining an European influence style of binding but the fittings being made in the form and style, typical usually for Korean furniture.
I really wish we had more time to prepare. We met only after I arrived in Korea and only then started to discuss how we’re going to work together, what to expect of each other and what each of us can offer in this limited time frame.
I would’ve done a more Byzantine influence style of binding and maybe throw a lot more artistry, not only in the decoration but structure as well. My original plan was the collaborative work to combine absolutely everything and include hanji and silk as decorative elements on the cover itself. Master Taegyo also would’ve made a lot more complex fittings with much more interesting mechanisms, as he is also proficient in making traditional Korean locks, which are an absolutely beautiful from of art and craft in themselves.
My wish in the end was that all the works, even though simple, would present themselves as a slightly new but at the same time respectful way of using local materials with a completely different traditional use. I’m eager to see if the Jinju city region will produce a new wave of Korean bookbinders that go a step further than tradition and make exciting new forms with old techniques and further evolving an otherwise magnificent and rich tradition.
Jinju Crafts Biennale 2021
The culmination of my stay in Korea was the Jinju Craft Biennale of 2021. It’s the event that housed my Pillars Collection from 2019, as well as the works that were made during my residency.
The exhibition included many foreign artists, some of which even came for the event itself. Most of the work was from renowned Korean artisans from the local areas and from the whole country as well. It included many beautiful objects from the areas of pottery, textile arts and crafts, lacquer ware, woodwork, especially cabinet making and other furniture, porcelain, sculpture from all kinds of materials, jewelry, inlay work and more.
I had the privilege of meeting most of the foreign artists as well, as the mayor of Jinju city and other officials. He was kind enough to invite us to lunch the day beforehand, so he can meet us properly.
The exhibition was huge, as it was split in many venues across the city. These mini-exhibits were highlighting a particular type of craft. For example, one building was focused on cabinet making, while another was on lacquer ware and pottery. It was a wonderful experience to see all these works. I was especially impressed with the pottery and textile work, as I only had the chance to read about them but not actually see examples so up close.
I’m proud to say I was the only bookbinder represented and I had fun answering questions about the work and what materials were used in the process. Most of the visitors found the event very exciting but unfortunately, I had to leave the next day. The exhibitions stayed open for the public until the end of November, so I hope a lot of people managed to visit and see everything.
This was the first edition of this event and hopefully it will become a flourishing tradition in the future. Wishing all the best to the organizers!