CHEONAN, South Chungcheong Province — The gritty music of Deulgukhwa, an iconic ‘80s Korean rock band, fills the air at Ci Kim’s fifth floor studio in Arario Gallery Cheonan on a recent Monday where I find the artist spraying water on a piece of old carpeting.
I am deeply apologetic for being very late for our interview — there was construction work on the highway on the way to Cheonan — but Kim beams a big smile. “You actually gave me time to finish what I thought I didn’t have time for,” he says, spraying water on a piece old carpeting grubby with old, dried up paint and footprints. He asks for a few more minutes so he can finish up and continues with his work as he explains the piece.
Looking at the carpeting in his studio, he thought it could be made into art. He allowed the carpet to gather paint and grime over a few years, had a large piece of it cut from the floor and is now treating it as a canvas.
Throwing powdered color pigments onto the canvas and spraying water on it, he explains how over a couple of days, the carpet will soak up the water and release the colors. “Aged art,” he says.
It is part of his continuing experiment with different materials, many of them used and discarded.
The recycling of materials, in fact, forms a prominent part of his works, such as old canvases that are ripped to reveal the innards, stacking of used cans of paint, stiff, old brushes, pails — detritus of artistic endeavor, if you will. Applying cement all over old mannequins from his department store, he has created a whimsical collection of “sculptures” that takes center place at his latest solo show.
The twinkle in his eyes as he speaks about his exhibition betrays the grown-up kid inside of him who just wants to have fun.
“CI KIM, Play the Fool,” the title of Ci Kim’s biennial exhibition running at Arario Gallery Cheonan until Oct.15, neatly sums up the pathos of the show.
Kim, who assumes the name Ci Kim as an artist, is also a self-made multimillionaire, Kim Chang-il, recognized as one of the top art collectors in the world, owner of galleries and museums, as well as a department store and multiplex cinema, among others.
Some may shake their heads at the seeming contradiction of being an artist and a successful businessman, but for Kim, all these endeavors merge with one another seamlessly into an organic whole.
“My inferiority complex is the driving force behind my artwork,” says Kim about his ability to hold regular exhibitions while running multiple businesses. He has been holding solo shows every two years since 2003. None of his own works go on sale.
“I don’t like meeting people and growing up I didn’t have friends, even through college. I thought I would be incapable of having a normal social life,” he says.
His breakthrough moment came during the mandatory military service. “I learned how to have fun by myself. I could ‘self-hypnotize’ myself into having fun,” he says.
After graduating college in 1978, he came down to Cheonan and started a business, running a small eatery at the bus terminal. Today, he owns the bus terminal.
The withdrawn boy developed a habit that serves him well in his business and art, as well. “I have a habit of thinking by myself. This is how I am able to buy artwork in 10 minutes,” he says. The solitude of Kim’s childhood and youth “trained” him to talk with “butterflies and trees,” he says. “In fact, the conversations of my childhood have turned, not into an illness, but into reality,” he says.
He is no dilettante, dabbling in art.
“Starting at 5:30 a.m., I spend about two hours sorting through the mail,” says Kim who is currently working on pieces using art catalogues that he receives from galleries and museums around the world. Afternoons are spent writing memos, but on some days, he spends the whole day painting, pouring all his energy into art.
While Kim appears to be having fun creating his work, it is not merely for fun that he creates.
“There is a goal to my artwork. It is not something I do merely to pass the time,” Kim insists. “I want for people to feel the thrill of hope and dream I felt looking at a rainbow at a museum,” he says.
Eye for art
Kim set upon the path as an art collector with the purchase of a traditional ink brush painting by Korean artist Namnong Heo Geon in 1978. Nearly 10 years later, his eyes were opened to the wider world when he traveled abroad and in 1998, he began collecting Young British Artists, including Damien Hirst, whose “Charity” sculpture stands in a sculpture park outside his department store
Kim made his mark in the world of art collecting when he was selected among the top 100 collectors by Monopol in 2004. Kim’s collection is highly regarded in the international art scene and has seen him listed among the 200 top collectors for nine consecutive years by the New York-based ARTnews magazine. Last year, he was selected as one of the top 100 collectors by the New York-based Artnet channel.
“I am second only to Saatchi in YBA,” says Kim with pride, referring to Charles Saatchi, co-founder of the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency and owner of the Saatchi Gallery who is known for his sponsorship of Young British Artists.
Kim spends about 5 billion won a year buying art for his collection. At the moment, his focus is on Asia, with Asian work accounting for 70 percent to 80 percent of his collection.
Kim intones that young artists should have dreams and do what they want to do. Exclusive contracts with artists allow them to do that, according to Kim whose galleries currently have exclusive relationships with 40 artists.
“Kang Hyung-koo is doing very well,” says Kim. The hyperrealism painter’s portrait of Van Gogh sold for about $400,000, according to Kim. For an artist, however, how his works are viewed 100 or 200 years later is more important, Kim adds.
Kim gets to know the artists personally, visiting them in their studios, before signing them on for a five-year contract. “It is not a marriage but living together,” Kim says.
An artist’s best works are done when he is young, Kim says, explaining that he focuses on an artist’s early works, likening himself to an early adaptor. “At issue is the originality of the artist,” he says.
Kim is aggressive about the future, a trait perhaps drawn from his business experience. On July 1, he is reopening Arario Gallery Shanghai at the West Bund Center, moving into a much larger space at a time when China’s art market is seen to be stagnant. Arario Gallery Shanghai first opened in 2014.
The opening exhibition, “Voice of Asia,” features some 60 pieces by 22 artists from six Asian countries, including Leslie de Chavez from the Philippines, Indonesian artist Eko Nugroho and Subodh Gupta from India.
When even established western galleries are still hesitant to open in Shanghai, biding their time in Hong Kong, Kim is making an even bigger commitment. It is a strategic move, according to Kim. Shanghai is not just about the Chinese market, but about the entire Asian market as well as the large international community there.
“We must look for the hottest artist,” says Kim. “It is very difficult to get Chinese artists unless you are operating in China,” Kim says, adding, “A gallery’s fate depends on its artists.”