A Literary Work

Hyun-a Oh, ‘Happiness’, Calligraphy, Ink on Korean paper, 2018
Hyun-a Oh, ‘Happiness’, Calligraphy, Ink on Korean paper, 2018

Since I read Les Miserables, a novel written by a French writer, Victor Hugo, I have dreamed of becoming a novelist for a long time. The book that I read was edited for elementary school kids like myself, but it was impressive enough because I started realizing that I would have to live a harsh life, competing with lots of siblings to survive in a big family. It’s ridiculous, but I felt a tremendous empathy with the main character of the novel, Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who lived a life of extreme ups and downs. I ended up becoming an artist using brilliant colors unlike my tendency to be attracted to sad music and stories like ‘Les Miserables’, but I’ve always wanted to be a novelist who writes sad stories, which makes the readers purify their emotions and feel a glow of pleasure in the end. I believe that I will be a novelist someday. Certainly, writing something and having a dream of becoming a novelist make me reflect on myself.

I’ve realized that writing literature and making calligraphic works are not very different from one another since I met Hyun-a Oh, a calligrapher, which seems to be an old-fashioned profession. She ties her hair back, sits upright in meditation, and completes one stroke at a time patiently. In her own way, she wants to keep the tradition of Korean calligraphy, especially, “Gungseo,” a form of Korean calligraphy that was used by court ladies in the royal palace of Joseon Dynasty. She compares her attitude to that of the craftsmen who make the lacquerware inlaid with mother-of-pearl, passing down their traditional way of making it in a cottage industry. Regardless of the trend, in which various modern forms of Korean letters have been made and used for interior decoration of the house, she keeps the traditional, graceful form of Gungseo while the content is about her own story. She explains that there are a lot of literary works written in the form of Gungseo by court ladies of Joseon Dynasty. A novel, The Myth of Queen Inhyeon, is a great example written in Korean calligraphy. It is based on the true story of the Queen Inhyeon’s sad life, in which she had to struggle with Huibin Jang, a concubine of King Sukjong. Another great example is “Hanjungrok”, which is The Memoirs of the Lady Hyegyeong describing her life in the royal palace of Joseon Dynasty for 60 years. What Hyun-a Oh writes is not a novel, but it is a literary work based on what she feels in her daily life. Like those essays and journals written by the court ladies reflect the history and politics of Joseon Dynasty, what she writes may be more honest and heartbreaking than a novel, which, especially viewed from the aspect of modern literature, can be more grotesque and less interesting than one’s life story. After all, we write our own history in the form of calligraphy or that of painting, etc.

A novel written in Gungsuh in Joseon Dynasty
Hanjungrok, ‘The Memoirs of the Lady Hyegyeong’ written in Joseon Dynasty

I’ve never asked her how she started making calligraphic works, but, seeing her face, I immediately imagined a court lady grinding an ink stick on the ink stone and writing letters quietly, even though I’ve never seen one in my life. Gungseo was used mostly by court ladies in the orders of the King and the letters of the Queen sent to her mother. The content developed naturally into Korean literature, but obviously, it is different from the old Korean literature written in Chinese characters that were mostly used by men of the scholar-gentry class. Nowadays, many girls learn strenuous exercise like taekwondo and soccer, but when I was young, not many boys learned how to play the piano. I got hit a lot by boys who learned taekwondo and never hit back. Those who learned calligraphy were mostly boys whether they preferred to write Korean characters to Chinese characters. Art reflects the society, and lots of women artists have been making artworks related to Me Too movement these days, which makes me wonder why Hyun-a Oh doesn’t write something more active, being satisfied with the quiet activity of writing in Gungseo. What does she think of feminist artists like Guerrilla Girls who participated in the feminist movement through their works of art? What does she think of a man cheating on his wife? How does she relieve stress from raising two kids as a mother? Does writing in Gungseo make her calm down and understand the reality of Korean society, in which the divorce rate increases during the Korean Thanksgiving Day, “Chuseok,” and the Korean New Year’s Day, “Seollal” due to women’s overwork from preparing food for ancestral rites table?

Guerrilla girls, ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum’, 1989

A Korean artist, Sooja Kim says that one of the roles of an artist is to discover a new meaning in what is already there, not just to create a new thing. As an art student, Sooja Kim, who studied about abstract painters like Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, came up with her “Bottari” series, in which she expressed the beauty of Korean clothes, when she sewed bedcovers with her mother. Through the traditional colors and patterns of the bedcovers that were sewn by Korean women, she expressed the strong bond to them and raised the question of the role of a woman. What did she have in her mind when she crossed her homeland, Korea, in a truck filled with lots of bedcovers as a travel-performance? What did the scene of the performance evoke people, to whom she was a foreigner? I think that the mountain of the bedcovers aroused their sympathy because the bed is where we take a rest, have a dream, and open our eyes with a new hope. It is about life and death, man and love. After all, with her feminine instinct, she tells us the universal truth, in which we are no longer foreigners to one another.

Kim Sooja, ‘Bottari Truck – Immigrants’, 2007
Kim Sooja, ‘Bottari Truck’, Venice Biennale, 1999

I don’t know exactly why Hyun-a Oh wants to keep the tradition of Gungseo. However, it is obvious that her work is literature that she appreciates and turns into her own literary work. By making calligraphic works, she reads and writes phrases that inspire her. If you look at her work closely for a long time, you will appreciate it more as one of her favorite poems written by a poet, Taejoo Na, “Everything looks beautiful when you look at it closely. Everything is lovable if you look at it for a long time. You, too.”

A Korean novelist, Yeonsu Kim explains about the purpose of writing his essay, Phrases of My Youth, “I am attracted to things that are in between, things that change easily, and things that disappear completely. One of my dreams is to depict them in my sentences.” An anecdote of his youth, which he compares with a phrase in the famous book, The Analects of Confucius, explains how he realized another meaning of the phrase, “We should feel sorrow, but not sink under its oppression.” He was having a hard time, trying to get used to being in the army. Cleaning the dirty restroom of the army, he was about to pick up a cigarette butt soaked in urine and sigh heavily, but, suddenly, he roared with laughter. The famous quote of the Confucius was written, “We should feel sorrow, but not fuss under its oppression.” Immediately, he visualized the Confucius saying to him, “I know you are sad, but don’t make a fuss, please.”


I glanced at one of her work indifferently as if looking at the old letters on the eight-fold folding screen behind the ancestral rites table, which I see only during the traditional Korean holidays. However, I realized after a while that her work is the lyrics of a popular Korean song, “I open my eyes in the morning, and the first thing that I say is, thank you for coming to me. I love you who make us one.” Because of the straight and graceful figure of Gungseo, I feel as if I were listening to the song. Like the title of the song, “Like an innocent child,” she expresses her love for life sincerely in Gungseo.


She is one of the participating artists of an art exhibition at Realti, “A Chance Conversation with a Stranger,” which feature contemporary women artists, Hye-ryung Moon, Jenny Lee Robinson, So-hyun Jung, Young-hee Han. It is going to be held from 2018. 9.1 to 2018. 9. 22.


Written by Yoonkyung Kim

Realti Gallery


Hyun-a Oh, ‘Like a Child’, Calligraphy, Ink on Korean paper, 2017


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