▲ Kim Kyum’s institute of conservation and preservation. Photographed by Lee Ji Hoon.
▲ An artifact in need of restoration process. Photographed by Lee Ji Hoon.
▲ Conservators absorbed in their work. Photographed by Lee Ji Hoon.
▲ Various tools utilized by the conservators. Photographed by Lee Ji Hoon.
Everything, whether it be alive or not, is inevitably subject to time. To put it another way, everything changes as time progresses, aging and fading before it eventually dissipates. There is, however, one exception to this seemingly irrefutable law of nature: relics of the past. Encountering ancient artifacts in museums or in historical sites grants us the feeling of stepping back into the past and reliving that time. This imaginary experience is made possible through the work of conservators, whose job mainly focuses on restoring past relics, and resurrecting them in present times.
“Conservators are basically doctors that treat damaged patients; the only difference between the two is who, or what the patient is,” explained Kim Kyum, a fine arts conservator as well as an affiliated professor at Konkuk University. The work of a conservator mainly has to do with restoring impaired or problematic relics of the past to their original form, as well as applying preservation treatments as a means to retain the restoration process. All these procedures are concerned with maintaining and passing down the artifacts to future generations in their most intact form.
Kim Kyum is one of the most renowned conservators of Korea, participating in the restoration process of diverse artworks from eminent artists such as Rodin, Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein, and Paik Nam June. Kim first started his career at the department of conservation science in Hoam Art Museum, and had been in charge of repairing sculptured relics. “To tell the truth, I never really had a concrete vision of becoming a conservator; but my experience at Hoam granted me the enlightenment that this job undoubtedly fit my aptitude,” he said.
After leaving his initial workplace, Kim then worked for the National Museum of Contemporary Arts from July, 2005 until February, 2011, right before he established his own research laboratory. Like Kim, conservators generally work in preservation rooms or laboratories of various museums and university organizations. Due to the fact that there are solely about 400 people who pursue an occupation in this field, interchange among these institutions are actively arranged as an effort to develop continuously and effectively. “The Korean Society of Conservation Science for Cultural Heritage holds a semiannual meeting where almost all conservators of Korea attend to discuss efficient methods of advancement with regards to conservation science,” Kim added.
A typical conservation process starts with determining whether an artifact calls for restoration or not. Normally, though, a majority of relics do undergo restoration work. However, there are three cases where experts decide not to execute this process. First is the case of buried relics, where more damage could be inflicted if restored, such as when drastic external environmental changes have occurred. Second is when there is no secure or definite method that suits the artifact, and third, when financial issues are brought up.
When it is settled that a relic be provided with an operation, it is then categorized depending on the material it is composed of. These categories typically include paper, wood, organic matter, and inorganic substances. “The main reason behind this classification lies in the fact that each category demands distinct treatments,” explained Kim. Since each relic is born with different constitutions, the relics possess distinct methods to which they respond, adapt and change in accordance with their surrounding environment.
“One of the most memorable sculptures that I worked on was the one by Yves Klein, an unconventional artist known for his excessive use of the color blue,” Kim Kyum said. When the sculpture was first commissioned to Kim, its ankle had been completely fractured and needed immediate treatment. “The fundamental problem that we were struck with, however, was the fact that the blue paint sprayed on the artwork smudged as soon as we touched it; in other words, we had to restore the work without touching it.”
As a solution to overcome this dilemma, Kim decided to encase the sculpture with parchment papers and suspend the art piece from the ceiling, so that contact by human touch would be minimized. “Although we were taken aback at first sight, the restoration work turned out to be quite pleasant, watching the artwork gradually gleam and sparkle as the process went along,” Kim elaborated with a beaming smile. He also added that this was precisely the reason why he is gratified with his work; watching the artifact resurrected through his own hand feels as if he had saved a terminally ill patient from death.
There are difficulties, however, that a conservator could confront when restoring ancient relics. One instance is when information regarding the historical background behind the artifact is insufficient. An example of this instance is Bulguksa Temple, where wood architecture skills of the Joseon dynasty were applied during its restoration, owing to the shortage of historical references to architecture techniques during the Silla dynasty.
Nevertheless, Kim stressed the importance of implementing reconstruction even in situations similar to the case of Bulguksa. “The principal reason why ancient relics and artifacts are appreciated is because they are an explicit depiction of the flow of time, and thereby teach us a lesson through that period of time; examining past experiences gives advice on how we should plan for the future,” Kim answered. He also added that no artifact exists that has not been influenced throughout the passage of time and environment, and they have constantly undergone reconstruction and extension works. “This reflection of the improvement process behind the antiquities itself is another valuable lesson we could learn from restoring,” he said.
All throughout Kim’s words, it seemed clear that he held much pride in his career as a conservator, contributing immensely to making artifacts accessible in their most unblemished form to the public. “Valuing artworks especially holds its importance in the current time, in that they guide us to an authentically fluent life, advising us to appreciate spiritual values in a materialistic society,” Kim Kyum added. His faith and belief toward improving the quality of life through restoring past relics and presenting them portrayed the significant roles that conservators play in the modern period. By restoring and remedying the damages to the past relics, conservators are actually communicating and healing the general public through their work.
▲ Conservator Kim Kyum explaining his views on restoring artifacts. Photographed by Lee Ji Hoon.