A Prayer Through Ko Seung-hyun’s “Gayageum: The Sound of a Hundred Years”

Jeon Won-gil / Artist & Director of the YATOO-I Project


A collection of over 20 works on Gayageum, a 12-stringed Korean zither, of Ko Seung-hyun has been made into a recent book. Watching the Gayageum series, which Ko has worked on for over a decade, being edited into a book, I got the impression that I hadn’t had with each individual work. Every work contained in each page of the collection was so beautiful that none was to be neglected. Looking at the images of the Gayageum works, I volunteered to write a foreword of this publication.

If an artist continues to produce works in the same pattern, there must be some reason. If it can only be described as simple “repetition,” it would represent the absence of the author’s creativity. On the other hand, if it can be explained as the “deepening of the art world,” it then would attest to the artist’s ability to concentrate persistently. However, I would like to interpret Ko’s continuous Gayageum works from a different perspective.


For a start, Ko has produced his Gayageum works in widely different areas—some 30 places in 11 countries. He has named his works after the region where they have been produced like, for example, “Abiko Gayageum,” “Richerode Gayageum,” and “Masuleh Gayageum.” Most of the tree trunks he uses for his works are those which have been fallen or cut, including those struck dead by lightning, those fallen by a storm, and those cut down in road construction. They also cover a variety of species, such as pine trees, cherry trees, gingko trees, white birches, paulownia trees, and persimmon trees.


Following the structure of Gayageum, Ko’s works take quite a lot of time to finish but they still maintain the natural shape of the trunks. At some distance, they just look like a long trunk itself and anything more. People come to the works as if they approach trees and touch the works to produce sounds as if they play a musical instrument. His Gayageum works draw instant interest and participation from spectators. They become popular among them probably because they do not display themselves as lofty artworks but they present themselves as a musical instrument, an everyday object, in nature. To me, it’s only befitting for his works to be set in open outdoor areas. While many sculptures proudly impose themselves, dwarfing nature as a setting, Ko’s Gayageum works harmonize with the contours of the hills and fields in the natural landscape.


In addition, his works naturally mingle with the touches of the artist’s contemporaries and listeners to the musical instrument. In fact, Ko’s “Sound of a Hundred Years” does not work as an artwork before a spectator involves with it by “playing” it. As the artist said, the sound which is produced when a spectator plucks the strings tied to the works calls out and resonates with the various sounds permeated in the annual rings of the tree trunks. The works are sublimed into becoming complete artworks at last when this abstract idea of the artist’s is materialized in real life.

The moment Ko Seung-hyun sets about his work, he is full of excitement and expectation just as he was when he first embarked on the Gayageum works. Ko’s Gayageum, a rebirth of the dead trunks, always comes fresh in their shapes and with the resonances of their sounds.


The fact that Ko Seung-hyun uses “sound” as a material is an important aspects that differentiate him from the other YATOO members whom he works with. However, dealing with the sound is in itself not unique in modern art where visual art is often fused with various art forms in different genres. Then we need to think about what makes Ko’s Gayageum works unique as artworks.


As implied in the title of the book, “Gayageum: The Sound of a Hundred Years,” which the artist himself christened, the musical instrument Gayageum is a very important motif in Ko’s works. The overall structure of the works, including the way strings are tied, is similar to that of Gayageum. Apart from the Gayageum’s design reproduced on a trunk, viewers may have difficulty in understanding what unique perspective the artist has when he deals with sound and how he expressed it artistically.


Ko’s Gayageum works takes the form of a modern installation, using natural materials to produce sound. However, I am of the opinion that Ko’s art world could not be properly understood when it is approached from the same perspective as those on other modern artists who pursue new methodologies or make attempt at some formative works using natural materials.


In order to fully understand what meanings his works have, somehow we need to know that he has formed his view on art by understanding nature worked on his art world worked on his art world based on his Christian world view. He has been moved by the beauty of nature, which he finds is unrivalled by any art work in the world, and succumbed to the workmanship of God who created it all. Being thankful for his living in the beautiful and unmeasurable nature, he has also learned what kind of art he has to do through dialogue with the living nature.


To Ko Seung-hyun, nature is the beauty itself and an absolute state he has to accept. As a result, to him, art does not stop at showing anything beautiful or new. He is interested more in thinking about how to reveal to the maximum the beauty of nature in its natural state than making it look more beautiful aesthetically.


Compared with a real Gayageum, well-tuned by a master, Ko’s work would be like a sham musical instrument. To someone who is accustomed to elegant and beautiful sculptures, it may look like a useless object. However, when we abandon sensuous judgment, discard any theoretical questions and look at nature as he directs, we could then meet his Gayageum where he stands.


As a way of showing nature as is, the artist makes a continuous effort to work on the trunks, maintaining their natural shapes as much as possible. He has adopted for his works the shape of Gayageum of all musical instruments probably because its structure is similar to that of the trunks. What he does with the trunks is making a simple structure by gouging out the tree trunks and tying strings to produce sound by resonance. He has not attempted to make any significant changes to the design of the works because he has maintained the basic concept that his works should make the most of the natural shape of the materials and avoid manipulative working as much as possible. As a consequence, his Gayageum works, from the earliest to the recent ones, have shown little change in their overall shape except that some are laid on the ground while others are placed on end.


Scooping and hollowing grooves out of the trunks to make the sound box requires a considerable concentration. Otherwise, it may make a hole or split the trunk. The process in which Ko makes a sound box out of the trunk is, I assume, the moments when he feels a sense of unity with the tree or nature. It must also be the moments when he forms rapport with the trunk, feeling the quality of the woody fibers delivered to his own body from the edge of the chisel, and imagines the sounds that have permeated into the tree for over a hundred years.

When the sound box is hollowed out and the strings are pulled to be tied at the other end, the work turns into Gayageum in every measure. The fact that Ko takes for his works the form of a musical instrument of Gayageum is, I believe, an important part of his work. He doesn’t feel much inclined to make unique shapes out of his original imagination. Instead, by adopting an object of a real musical instrument of Gayageum, he creates an effect that the image of his works is overlapped with that of Gayageum. It should be noted that Ko approaches his works this way out of his intention to show nature as is rather than seek uniqueness in shaping his works. I would like to emphasize that this attitude of his testifies to the modesty and courage that he has as a created being, openly attaching more importance to the workmanship of the Creator of all things than to himself.

Ko’s Gayageum, worked on the middle of the trunk, can be played just like a real musical instrument when the strings are properly tuned. Sometimes people put their ears to a branch of the trunk and listen to the sound. The sound transmitted through the tree is deeper and livelier than the one transmitted through the air. The sight of people listening to the sound exactly captures the spirit of the Nature art. Having worked as a key figure in the nature art movement in Korea for the last 30 years with YATOO as its central force, Ko has materialized the spirit of nature art into reality, which he has intended to achieve, through his own works and not with only words.

Here, I think the short but lucid quote from his work note would do a better job to give an answer to the question why he makes Gayageum than my comments on his works.

“I live with Nature. The breaths that I breathe in Nature are nothing but my prayer and the time I spend in it is my religious life. I try to go with the dispensation of Nature. My work in Nature is a process in which my self-esteem is recovered and my identification is confirmed.”


In Ko, Nature, God and his own works of art are all united into one in his religious faith. He gives up on himself and tries to find true himself by following the providence of God working in nature. It is what speaks most about his attitude, purpose and meaning as an artist. When he meets with trees in nature, makes sound boxes imagining the old sounds hidden in it, ties strings and plucks them with his fingers, the sound thus produced is not simply a resemblance with a real Gayageum produced from a tree trunk. He wants to listen to the sound of God inherent in nature as a natural man and artist. His art is an expression of his wish to live by the providence of God in the resonance of the sound. Perhaps it is his prayer to go through art and reach beyond.



I don’t believe that Ko’s attitude confines his works within the narrow boundaries of an art by some religious man. Rather, this book proves that his works are such proud and beautiful ones created from his art spirit unleashed free based on the artist’s pure love of human beings and nature and his deep religious faith on God. Fully displaying elaborate techniques from a skilled artist, his works never depart from nature. Instead, what this “Sound of a Hundred Years” does is attract the hearts of the viewers and stand them in front of his Gayageum, eventually leading them to sing with him the workmanship of the One he loves.


This collection is more than just a record of Ko Seung-hyun’s Gayageum works of over 10 years. It is a serious testimony to his placid, but burning passion and genuineness which leaves nothing to be desired to capture the depth of a hundred years. I wish that Ko’s Gayageum will be completed as works that deliver a message of reconciliation and peace between nature and people in many parts of the world in the future. I also pray with him that his works will help their viewers open their ears and listen to the numerously different and various sounds of life in nature anew.


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