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Yun Hyong Keun | The Beauty of Returning to the Soil

Sages of the East | Yun Hyong Keun

At Melixir, we believe what is the most natural is also the most beautiful. In our Sages of the East series, we highlight and honor Asian artists whose work and practice align with our mission. 

Today we are introducing you to South Korean monochromatic artist Yun Hyong Keun, who dedicated his life to capturing the beauty of the inevitable life cycle of all living beings that eventually ends in the soil.


Artist Yun Hyong Keun [윤형근] (1928-2007) wrote about the time when he noticed a towering tree that had fallen on a mountainside. The tree was rotting and decaying to the point that it was beginning to turn into the dirt at the root, making its return to the earth by becoming one with it.

He fell silent upon that sight. “My paintings and I shall end up the same,” he thought to himself as the moment became an etching on his soul. 

We’ve all experienced a moment in nature when, as we observe its sceneries from a distance, we are suddenly presented with what feels like a religious experience. Nature's grandness jolts us awake almost in an intimidating way, making us feel as if we’ve become tiny specks of dust. We then begin to think about how our time on earth is like a millisecond, compared to the entirety of history, before we go back into oblivion. 

We realize, “in the end, everything on earth returns to the soil,” just as Yun wrote in his diary. 

It’s a bit gloomy, yes? But strangely enough, it is also freeing in a way. Suddenly, our everyday problems and worries that once felt so dire begin to feel trivial when we recognize the brevity of life and the inevitability of death. 

Yun surely had a fair share of suffering and tribulations in his life. He survived an arduous period of the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, and military dictatorship ridden with near-death experiences, torture, and arrests. But upon realizing that no living being is exempt from the natural cycle of life that ends in the soil, perhaps he was finally able to make peace with his lifelong, innate torment and trauma. 

Everything is bound to turn into dirt in the end, to be forgotten forever - centuries-old trees, dictatorships, masterpieces, even the pain inside us we just cannot seem to let go of.

And so, throughout the remainder of his artistic career, he often recounted the moment of the fallen tree and fixated on the remarkable beauty in everything organic that’s fated to wind up in the ground.

All truthful things align with nature's organic life cycle, whereas everything fabricated is created to resist that. In a world filled with multi-colored objects made with artificial materials to outlive expiration dates, it was the artist's pursuit to become one with nature by stripping away any unnatural influence.

He wrote in his diary, “whenever I look at nature, it’s always simple, fresh, and beautiful. Could my work also embody such a world?” In his desire to create paintings that encompassed the honest ways of nature, he thus accomplished in developing an artistic practice which he called “the gate of heaven and earth.”

Yun utilized only two hues in his paintings - ultramarine, representing the skies, and burnt umber, representing the ground. He then painted his simple, yet bold single-color square blocks on raw linen or hemp without applying any primer. This was his way of honoring the materials’ true characteristics so that the way pigments were absorbed into the fabric was as natural as rainwater being soaked into the dry earth. He added layer upon layer over a lengthy period often for days, even months, as if to patiently grow a tree, to ultimately end with his intensely dense and dark colors. 

Gazing into them in person, it gives out a multitude of impressions. Perhaps it’s the ancient tree that’s completed its transformation into dirt. Perhaps it’s the traditional ceramic pots where our grandmothers used to store and ferment kimchi to feed the family and neighbors. Or perhaps they're gates that open to the heavens.

They say sometimes the heart can see what the eyes cannot. Visibly, Yun’s paintings may look plain, simple, and effortless. Yet, they carry an unexplainable aura that draws people in. It’s a lot like that energy of transcendence and connectedness we feel in nature. It’s peculiar and special. It feels like our old home in our distant memory yet a place we’ve never been. 

Yun had made his return to the earth a while ago, but his paintings live on to inspire us like soil that still bears fertility. From his art we are reminded to revere the power of nature and understand that the epitome of beauty is beheld in everything that is in its natural journey of returning to the earth.

To see Yun Hyong Keun's work, feel free to head over to the PKM Gallery website.