Sung Hwan Kim

Temper Clay


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Not on display

Sung Hwan Kim 1975
Video, black and white and colour, and sound (stereo) and wood, carpet, paint, brass and stainless steel
Overall display dimensions variable
Purchased with funds provided by the Asia Acquisitions Committee 2013 with a partial gift of the Wilkinson Gallery, London, accessioned 2015


The installation Temper Clay, completed in 2012, consists of a twenty-three-minute video on a loop, largely shot in black and white, and various sculptural seating elements. The work was commissioned for and first shown in The Tanks: Art in Action series at Tate Modern, London in 2012. The video component is projected onto a wall or screen in a darkened room, with the sound played through specifically located speakers, positioned in relation to the sculptural elements. These elements are wooden painted objects, acting as stations and seating for the audience; they are described by the artist as a ‘corner plinth’, a ‘low wooden seat’, a seat ‘shaped like Will’s limbs’, a seat ‘with Mom’s blue’, a seat ‘with a ribbon of white under’ and a seat ‘of rising folding screen’. As an optional component there is a ‘silver wave of sound dampers for standing men’, which can be added to the installation. Kim frequently builds installation elements in this way in order to create a form of ‘bridging architecture’ between the fictional world of his films and the real-time experience of being in the gallery space. This combination of visual immersion and implied seating positions offers a collective viewing set-up that builds upon, and goes beyond, 1970s ideas of ‘expanded cinema’ and attempts to create complex bridges between the built environment of an installation space and the world depicted within the moving images. San Im has written of Kim’s installations that ‘his literary space and the physical space for the exhibition do not have clearly defined boundaries’ (Im 2003, p.54).

The video contains visual footage recorded in the artist’s native Korea. The connection of the different scenes is complex and somewhat elusive: the film opens with a close-up image of a woman’s hands, shot in black and white; the woman then holds her hands up against her eyes, looking up to the sky. The next shot shows the sky, darkened by a large cloud; the sun gradually appears from behind the cloud. Melancholic piano music, composed by musician dogr (David Michael DiGregorio), accompanies the opening shots and most of the following scenes. The main episode of the film focuses on a large apartment complex: the Hyundai Apartments in Apgujeong-dong, Seoul. The apartments are shown from the outside, shot with a tracking camera, moving slowly and smoothly on the streets around the buildings. Kim approaches the apartment narrative from the viewpoint of his seventeen-year-old nanny who came to work for his family in the early 1970s. With her voice electronically distorted and coming from off screen, she talks about her brief stay in the apartments. Historical facts about the Hyundai mansion buildings are then explained by a young male voice in a reporter-like style. The footage is interspersed with rather surreal and dream-like scenes, for example of a woodland with an old man chopping wood and making an axe, or people running through a forest, shot from a birds-eye perspective. These scenes were filmed in the countryside where Kim’s father built a house in the 1980s, planning to move there after his retirement. In another scene, a woman is wiping up spilt milk in a circular motion on a corridor floor. She then stops mopping and another pair of hands takes her place, as a succession of men walk barefoot down the corridor. Elsewhere, a young man, namely the artist himself, stands alone on the banks of a river, swinging a burning paint-pot around his head. The motif of fire is repeated in many scenes, for example when a paper mask is burned closely in front of a girl’s face.

The fire, the sound of pistol shots coming from off camera and the elusive connection of the surreal images convey to the work a somewhat threatening, dream-like atmosphere. Nevertheless, there is a sense of choreography and carefully planned structure running through the piece. The different scenes are accompanied by Korean as well as English texts, giving them a narrative element. Some texts are spoken, shouted or sung by voices from the off, others are presented through subtitles. Piano, synthesizer and choir music, as well as the sounds of rain, burning fire and pistol shots, convey a melancholic and sometimes dramatic atmosphere, further suggesting this narrative quality without explicitly telling a story from beginning to end.

The title Temper Clay, which is also used as the first and last two words of the video, references one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, King Lear written between 1603 and 1606. In Act I, scene 4, the aging king of Britain talks to the duke of Albany, elegising passionately and madly the betrayal that he has experienced. Kim ends the video with a quotation from this speech, presenting it in grey words on monochrome backgrounds in different colours. At the same time, the text is sung by men with high-pitched voices as a slow and dramatic elegy:

… Old fond eyes,
Beweep this cause again, I’ll pluck ye out
And cast you, with the waters that you loose,
To temper clay …

In Temper Clay Kim conflates King Lear, a tragedy about filial piety and love on the one side and obdurate selfishness and betrayal on the other, with autobiographical content and surreal film scenes, often showing repetitive motions, such as wiping, climbing up a stairway, running or swinging. The installation can be viewed as a dream-like yet personal story, alluding to Kim’s family story as well as Korean history of the 1960s and 1970s. In doing so, it touches on the complex relationships between individuals and society as well as between parents and children. At the same time, from a formal point of view, Temper Clay is built upon a pattern of different structures, grounded in their layers, repetitions and relations. In a video interview with Tate in 2012, Kim described the work as poetic and musical: ‘Temper Clay is a poem. There are a lot of structures that I was thinking about. This space is created by loaded gestures, loaded images. So it’s musical, basically.’ (Quoted in Tate video, The Tanks: Sung Hwan Kim, accessed 30 April 2013.)

Temper Clay exemplifies Kim’s distinctive form of mythical story-telling by interweaving video, music, narration and the surrounding space of the gallery situation, which deliberately includes – and to some extent stages – the role of the viewers through the seating structures. Inspired by artists, such as Joan Jonas (born 1936), who was his tutor at the Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten in the Netherlands, as well as writers and also filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Kim merges social encounters, images, sculptures and music, fusing inspiration from the different cultural and geographical contexts of his various homes in Seoul, Amsterdam or New York.

Further reading
San Im, ‘Metaphor on the Width between Meanings: Sung Hwan Kim’s A-DA-DADA’, Space, Oct p. 37, 2003, pp.54–5.
Tate, The Tanks: Sung Hwan Kim,, accessed 30 April 2013.
Acatia Finbow, ‘Sung Hwan Kim, Dog Video 2006, From The Commanding Height… 2007, Washing Brain and Corn 2010, Temper Clay 2012,’ Performance At Tate: Into the Space of Art, Tate Research Publication 2016,, accessed 5 November 2018.

Lena Fritsch
April 2013, updated November 2018

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