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Mak and bium: imperfection and emptiness in Korean aethetics

Hanok house, andong poongsan chamam house (photographer jangsup cha)tc

The informal spontaneity of mak and poignant vacancy of bium permeate both aesthetics and way of life in Korea

The Korean worldview is underlined by a characteristic spontaneity. Elements that to the uninitiated may pass by overlooked, often reveal a rich emotive resonance on deeper inspection. This subtle tone infuses Korean space, asserted often through a directness that permeates design. The resulting aesthetic capacity of these conditions is conveyed particularly well in one specific word, mak

Untitled, byoung soo cho (1)

Untitled, byoung soo cho (1)

The paint overlaid on the existing texture of the board of Byoungsoo Cho’s Abstract versus Concrete (2005) accepts the pre-existing context

Commonly used to imply a vulgarity or crudeness, mak elicits something overlooked, castigated in a hasty indifference to finesse – makgeolli, for instance, is an unrefined state of soju, a smooth mainstay Korean drink. Yet this notion is more than just a word; mak is a mode of thought, a temperament, which hides everywhere in plain sight. So many things, from our food, to our traditional dance and even to our understanding of the city, manifest a certain matter-of-factness about how we approach being. Korean aesthetics endorse a distinct fondness towards the unexpected. Such is the special condition of Korean culture: a solemn abjection of the refinement for which so many others strive. We value humility that bears witness not only to a work itself, but also to an embracing compassion for the context in which we realise it – be it an object or a building.

‘Like sombre statues from long ago, a tangibility invites those who encounter them to sense intimately the soul of the building’

Korean architecture derives an overall character from a strikingly unrehearsed act. This includes every part of the building’s identity, from the material to the tectonic. At Byoungsanseowon, a 16th-century Confucian school, you will find withered columns lifting the weight of the building’s mass above a ravine. Raw and seemingly unfinished, these are not a concession to ageing, but an aesthetic statement. Their splintering perimeters speak, almost literally, to something more than the disintegration brought on by time, and instead suggest an innate tactility, an emptiness that is wholeheartedly Korean. The wavering irregularities of the Byoungsanseowon columns expound a kind of emotional depth implicit in the architecture. Their deformed whimsicalities resist being painted over or sanded down and are welcomed for their ability to endow a space with exciting rawness – their asymmetry is as if they were laid by the intuitively unthinking hands of a potter. 

Haeinsa (probably) 02

Haeinsa (probably) 02

The notion of mak is embodied in the columns of Haeinsa temple in South Gyeongsang Province. Photograph by Byoungsoo Cho

Like sombre statues from long ago, a tangibility invites those who encounter them to sense intimately the soul of the building. It seeps between the uneven stone plinth below each column, individuated by their oblong arrangement. Sinking into the sea of rough sand that covers the floor, the tender fragility of the columns’ misalignment fills the space with an energy of dislocation. Where in Western architecture an axis of symmetry might spatialise a reassurance of hierarchy, Korean structures feel off-kilter. The visitor is let free in this vague but declarative aura, at one with the space as it is itself with nature. This milieu is constantly alive with a vivacity of movement and slippage. When I stand between the columns, I feel not only the softly misshapen figure of their silhouettes or the depth of their wooden materiality, but something more significant. There resonates an ephemeral vacancy brewing in their imperfection. 

‘Their asymmetry is as if they were laid by the intuitively unthinking hands of a potter’

We call this state bium, literally ‘emptiness’. Mak produces this sense of emptiness, a deference to surroundings that grants testimony to both context and material. This emptiness is more than the simple vacancy of space. When potters do their craftwork, for example, they might whisk a clay piece haphazardly in seconds. The swift liveliness of their act obliges a candour between author and work. Haste overcomes perfection, enticing a state of unadulterated creation between author and medium where no preconceptions may exist.

Maksabal bowl (attribution to be provided soon)

Maksabal bowl (attribution to be provided soon)

The maksabal bowl ia an all-purpose bowl made using clay unfit for white porcelain

Lee Ufan, an influential Korean painter and theorist, identifies moon jars – renowned Joseon dynasty (1392-1897) pottery – as asserting an honesty devoid of pretension. Sculpted from two hemispherical bowls joined at the middle, their lopsided profiles approach near abstraction. Through this rawness these objects ‘lack completeness and presence as an art work’ and yet they attain ‘an impressive affinity to [their] surroundings’.

In traditional Korean hanok houses, a courtyard – a space of literal emptiness in the architectural sense – anchors the household with a public void. Their architecture is in different ways saturated by both the calm vacancy of bium and by the informal directness of mak. Their walls are textured by spontaneous constraints and site conditions, not overarching ideals and concepts. In lieu of precise arrangement, openings fit between the warped wooden contours of beams, and rafters remain unprocessed where Japanese or Western buildings might prefer the abstraction of sawn wooden units. This impression persists in the contrast between the rough concrete for which Seoul has become famous, and the white Minimalist spaces of contemporary Japanese architecture. The hanok home finds a unique personality in its uncompromising faith in respect of a negotiation between spontaneity and space, a serene balance between the acts of making and being.

Hanok house, andong poongsan chamam house (photographer jangsup cha)tc

Hanok house, andong poongsan chamam house (photographer jangsup cha)tc

Andong Poongsan Chamam House, a typical Korean hanok house, displays warped beams and rafters that have remained unprocessed. Photograph by Jangsup Cha

In these homes, architectural elements are shuffled within the unrehearsed nature of their surroundings, tilting and shearing between their organic boundaries, just as the building itself snuggles into the hillside. Truly Korean architecture often acquiesces to its natural surroundings, relinquishing the hilltop, stretching subtly across the rolling valleys below. The culture has come to reflect this informality towards our heavily mountainous landscape through architectural ‘co-operation’. These topographical challenges have strongly determined the character of Korean design. About this, Lee makes another intriguing distinction: that it is not Korea’s quantity of mountains (plenty of countries encompass such mountain ranges), but the quality of their arrangement that influences the Korean experience: ‘Korea’s natural environment isn’t very expansive or especially beautiful … [rather it] is a living environment that is temperate, easy to adjust to … much like a mother’s embrace’.

To exemplify this, we might visit the Buseoksa Temple, perhaps one of the most famous traditional religious sites in Korea, where one can feel how the arrangement of the compound fuses into the mountains. Though prominent examples of Chinese and Japanese Buddhist temples from the same period follow clear axial arrangements regardless of terrain, the architecture at Buseoksa melds with nature in the form of elegant pragmatism. Buildings skew from entrance to shrine, leaving distinct voids between their edges. Rather than struggling against topographic challenges, the temple acquiesces in the entropy of nature, underscoring an inclination across Korean architecture to explore the possibilities of a site before imposing extraneous ideas. 

Screen shot 2018 01 23 at 13.43.47

Screen shot 2018 01 23 at 13.43.47

In their make-do posture, these artefacts of architecture define a naturalistic comprehension of the world, akin to the Confucian Sunbi doctrines that contextualised them during the Joseon dynasty, frugal but imbued with affection, connecting craft and emotion. From the flick of a maksabal potter, to the casualness of a temple’s site plan, to the rawness of a hanok beam, Korean culture revels in the process of creation, where an intuitive nature of making finds aesthetic prominence in a literal expression, a humble bluntness between crafting and object. 

Mak is sensual and intuitive, celebrating the act of creation instead of adhering strictly to dogmatic principles’

Mak is sensual and intuitive, celebrating the act of creation instead of adhering strictly to dogmatic principles. Impressed into its material form is the pure craftwork of a human creator without the hubris of perfection, unlike the preplanned designs of China and Japan. Where those styles articulate consistency through established principles, mak has historically allowed for a vast diversity in Korean design. This lineage is united not by an aesthetic uniformity but through kind-hearted imperfection.  

2617023474 1d5a78ae17 otc2

2617023474 1d5a78ae17 otc2

Japanese architecture, in contrast with its Korean counterpart, exhibits clean lines punctuating bright white, as seen here at Kinkaku-ji Temple in Kyoto. Photograph by syvwlch/flickr

Because it engages the transient nature of being, Western spectators might note that mak is not unlike the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. While both emerge from a Confucian lineage of humble pragmatism, however, there are some important differences that distinguish Korean design from that of its neighbours. Although both value the inaccurate splendour of the human touch, Japanese examples are generally crafted in the image of gentle imperfection. A Korean proverb goes so far as to ironically place Japan’s 1592 invasion of Korea as a consequence of daimyō Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s obsession for maksabal. A playful exaggeration, it is nonetheless the case that the Japanese returned, accompanying a large group of expert Korean artisans whose work would hold immense ramifications for the country’s aesthetic development. This begins to contextualise the Japanese preoccupation with a rough appearance in and of itself, rather than with the process whence it emerges. 

In Korean designs this humanness is not a prearranged aesthetic ideal, but an excitedly spontaneous derivative of their creation. In Korean seungmu dance, for example, performers break from the rhythm of their performances to adopt spur-of-the-moment alterations in choreography. This nonchalance distinguishes us from the careful eloquence of Western aesthetics, as well as from the prearranged compositions of Japan and China. Where the trajectory of historical crafts in other cultures pursued a studied refinement, Korean crafts hold little regard for straightforward perfection. If we study the docility of the Zen gardens at the Ryōan-ji temple or the muted refinement of chashitsu (tea houses) in Japan, we encounter environments whose unassuming temperament is in appearance only. Their humble demeanours are, in truth, the product of considerable planning beforehand. 

10 seungmu dance, 1969, korean intangible heritage digital archive

10 seungmu dance, 1969, korean intangible heritage digital archive

The traditional seungmu dance in Korea is performed by Buddhist monks who spontaneously improvise and alter the choreography. Photograph courtesy of National Intangible Heritage Center

While this coarse spontaneity has become less outwardly apparent in Korea since the first decade of the 20th century, soon after the end of the Joseon dynasty, it continues to pervade Korean identity in our modestly unadorned cuisine, in the briskness of the city and in the primordial crests of the mountains that still define our landscape. Contemporary Korean art can be traced back to these traditional ideas. Artists such as Seobo Park and Lee Ufan paint with an attention to the informality between fabrication and emotion that relentlessly harbours this rawness. Even in Modernist architecture in Korea, we witness what Hyungmin Pai has described as ‘Korean identity in spaces focusing on qualities of emptiness, non-existence and madang [traditional courtyards]’. As a new generation has taken the reins of architecture in Korea, many – myself included – have considered anew what it means to design from this standpoint. In my own work, a vocabulary of rough materials and a process focused on the intimacy of construction and detailing attempt to engage the spontaneity and honest beauty for which mak allows.

Mak remains, though outwardly less apparent as an emotive backdrop to Korean identity. If its traditional conception presided over an ambiguity between process and creation, perhaps the contemporary version of this attitude lies in an ability to make us consider the depth of life, to surprise us with its vivacity in a way that might provoke afresh the kind of close thought and emotional consideration so deeply embedded in our history.

This piece is featured in the AR’s February 2018 issue on Korea – click here to purchase a copy