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GapChul Lee

Capturing a Rustic, but Most ‘Korean’ Spirit and Soul.

KyungHan Hong - Art Critic

Things that are pretty overwhelm us. Whether drawing or photography, they are all beautiful and decorative. Moreover, there is a lot of rehashed artwork that adds groundless rhetoric of ‘Korean’ to the western ghosts that have been dead for over half a century. This is the consequence of adapting art to consumers’ taste and pleasure for money, as well as the ugly fruit of the contemporary art world that substitutes commercial possibility for aesthetic standard.   

The black and white photographs by Lee Gap Chul are not pretty, but are rather spooky and rustic. They are intense and even insecure, yet bear a mysterious air and subtle thrill. Perhaps it comes from the realistic language he uses to deliver this Korean spirit and soul, which is densely possessed by our people – lending a spiritual atmosphere.

Lee Gap Chul shocked the world of photography when he drew inspiration from the unconscious of Korea through his solo exhibition Conflict and Reaction, held at the Kumho Museum of Art in 2002. His particularity won credit through his ‘decisive moments’ that captured the invisible subconscious of the human - which undoubtedly exists -, being received as an artist who finally stands on his own feet by stubbornly exploring Korean identity. Conflict and Reaction was an important point of inflection that left a great mark on the world of photography as well as the artist’s personal history.

In fact, the works presented in Conflict and Reaction are obviously photographs of Koreans taken by a Korean—the photographs capture archetypes that are closest to our own culture. It goes further than mere representation or documentation — capturing visible objects in the frame —rather, it is like a requiem that recites the yin and yang of our lives, pouring out the grief and spirit inherited from our ancestors. Notable is A Shaman putting a cow’s head on(1992), marked by its primitive and shamanistic tone, and Shaman(1992) which represents a shaman with bloody face who seemingly slashes the wounds of the world.

Dreaming of deliverance-2(1992) is a work that foreshadows his later works that add tranquil resonances through a refined language. This work was produced at the cremation rite of Monk Seongcheol, held at Haeinsa Temple, Hapcheon, in November of 1993.

On that day, while the ceremony was held in a solemn atmosphere, Haeinsa Temple and Gayasan Mountain was very crowded. Many photographers focused on the rite, to not to lose a single scene of the event. The artist, however, found the energy the monk left in the sky, wind, and trees. He read an indescribable energy that embraced the temple from a quiet meditation of a monk on a rooftop. It was silence, but also an extension of Nirvana and a farewell to the great monk’s pure and rich scent that spread all over Gayasan Mountain, along the fire and smoke of the cremation. Lee Gap Chul intuitively captured this moment. While intentionally meditating the finality of a life as a part of nature, he captured the dimness and heartache behind the cultural traditions of Koreans, through sentiment of silence and stillness.

After Conflict and Reaction, which raised much sensation, Lee Gap Chul’s aesthetics advanced further. Subjects like people’s lives and death, life and agony, spirit and mind, and reality and wish, hide inside nature like the sky and the earth, trees and the grass, and water and wind. The energy inhabited in the mountains and streams of Korea usher in this new ground in documentary photography. His work is obviously different from other general photographs that are highly polished. Lee’s subjects are things of Korea, but the contents were certainly not restricted in Korean and there are some things clearly different.


Born in 1959, Lee Gap Chul studied at Shingu College. Beginning with his first solo exhibition Yankees on the Streets in 1984, he has continuously published many series of works for 32 years, along with 11 solo exhibition and over 20 group exhibitions. Two solo exhibitions at The Museum of Photography, Seoul, in 2002 and 2007 were great opportunities to review his works in greater depth.



1959   Born in Jinju, Korea

1984   BFA in Photography, Shingu College



Kumho Museum, Korea The Museum of Photography, Seoul, Korea

National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea

Face of Paris (J.J. Magazine, 2002)

Conflict and Reaction (Ddan World, 2002)

Lee Gapchul, Photography (Hanmi Arts & Culture, 2004)

Energy (The Museum of Photography, Seoul, 2007) 

ENERGY-氣 (Hanmi Foundation of Arts & Culture)

The Amazing Beauty of Korean Garden (Ddan World)




2015   "Busan Observation," GoEun Museum of Photography, Busan, Korea

2011   “Disappeared but Remained,” Australian Centre Photo, Sydney, Australia

2010   “Chaotic Harmony: Contemporary Korean Photography,” Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA

2009   “Conflict and Reaction” Andrew Bae Gallery Chicago, IL

2007   1 ere Biennale des images du monde, Musee de quai Branly, France

            “Energy”, The Museum of Photography, Seoul

2005   “Three Korean Photographers”, Gap City, Paris

2002   “Contemporary Korean Photography”, La Galerie Photo, Montpellier, France

            “Lee Gapchul”, The Museum of Photography, Seoul, Korea

            “Conflict and Reaction”, Kumho Museum, Seoul

2000    FOTOFEST 2000, Houston, TX

1998   “History of Korean Photography”, Samsung Photo Gallery, Seoul

1996   “Human Breath”, Korea Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA

1988   “The Land of the Others”, Kyung-In Museum of Fine Art, Seoul

1986   “Image of the City”, Hanmadang Gallery, Seoul

1984   “Yankees on the Street”, Hanmadang Gallery, Seoul

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