GOD IS GOOD
YOU ARE ———— SPECIAL
-YOU – ARE- SPECIAL-
GOD IS GOOD
YOU ARE BLESSED
For years, this little poem, made up of vinyl letter stickers and labelmaker tape affixed to paper on a plastic door display, has greeted visitors to Kim’s Corner Food in Rogers Park. While weathered and sun-bleached, this litany on religion, affirmation, nonsense language, and snack cakes—in short, the whole order—has prevailed as a kind of prelude to the ecstatic collaged world that Thomas Kong built inside of Kim’s. As many visitors quickly discovered, the “Food” aspect of Kim’s seemed a secondary thought.
Sure, one could buy cigarettes, soda or packaged foods, but Kong’s collages—recycled cutouts from product signage and boxes—cover almost every inch of the counter and wall space of the store. I’ve often wondered what visiting corporate reps or delivery drivers must have thought about what Kong did with Kim’s. How flummoxed these visitors must have felt upon seeing corporate-mandated signage hacked to bits and reassembled into austere collages.
Kong’s works number well into the thousands, and he turned Kim’s into a gallery, museum, archive and, up to just a little over a week ago, one of the greatest ongoing artworks in Chicago. Kong’s endless and restless production made from repurposing the glyphs from the equally endless and restless production of the marketplace, ended with his passing last week. “A part of me is incredulous that he won’t be making collages at Kim’s Corner Food every day until the end of time,” Kong’s longtime collaborator Dan Miller wrote in a tribute Instagram post. Miller’s sentiment is the one that seems the most unbelievable: Kong seemed to have ameliorated the alienation of being constantly on capitalist time for survival. He would not have ever expressed such a statement himself (at least not out loud), but there was something old-school in Kong’s move, a kind of Situationist or Michel de Certeau-inspired tactical re-maneuvering of the impositions of a life bound up in retail. Consumption “does not manifest itself through its own products,” de Certeau wrote, “but rather through its ways of using the products.” We could use all these things that hold us in their obeisance in ways they weren’t meant to be used, minute coups into the drudgery of everyday life that might feel like it belongs to anyone but us. Kong was never so proscriptive. In an interview a few years ago with Jisu Lee, Kong said his collages were “to give happiness to people for the rest of my life.” Any politics in Kong’s works could only ever be at the level of the inferred. God is good, but also fudge brownies. Regardless, Kong’s model at Kim’s presents an intervention that shows us a way that art can transform circumstances favorably, an invaluable model.
Kong turned to art-making only in middle age. Before purchasing Kim’s in 2006, Kong had a busy life in multiple trades. After receiving his degree in English Literature at Sogang University in 1972, he worked in the marketing department at Korean Air Lines. His 1977 marriage to Sandy (Han Sang Sook) provided him with a familial connection to the United States, and after his move, he was employed as a gas-station attendant, travel agent, shoe-repair-shop manager, and briefly, the owner of a dry-cleaning business. In the years at Kim’s, Kong was dissatisfied with the permanent shelf grime that becomes part-and-parcel of a formerly owned business and decided to cover it up by papering over the shelves with pictures. Satisfied with this aesthetic, Kong created more of these works, using merchandise material to make collages that would expand off of the shelf and onto corners and wall spaces of the shop. Kim’s became, to use Kong’s words, “an art store,” and customers, particularly young ones, expressed admiration for his work. Galvanized by this reception, Kong dedicated himself to being two places at once: behind the counter at Kim’s for twelve hours a day and as a working, prolific artist.
By the mid-2010s Kong, aided by fervent supporters from Chicago’s art scene, was showing frequently in more stable exhibition spaces in the United States. His work would find its way to the walls of galleries in Germany, Australia and Tokyo, and in the pages of art world journals like Artforum and Art Papers. Yet, as Kong’s recognition advanced, his works remained intimately scaled, still composed entirely inside of (and made up of materials from) Kim’s, and with little regard for self-editing. While Kong openly expressed his desire to become an art star, he seemed to have had very little interest in amending his working or thought process to satiate the rehearsed mechanisms of the art world and its market. Kong’s was a work created for happiness, and it was up to others to figure out where in their respective art ecosystems such a compulsion might (or could) fit.
In his last year, Kong was sending near-daily text messages of images of recent collages to friends and former collaborators (a mode of sharing that he had also taken up with gusto on Instagram). The collages he shared were full of his signature iconography: the jumping cow from Horizon brand milk, Camels and horses from cigarette and tobacco products, shapes and squiggles from blocks of color, and straight from the label-maker, the words “be happy.” Repeatedly, Kong presented different combinations of the same, a tweaked angle for an image of a Twinkie or a different shape combination to frame the American Spirit cigarette logo, and these serve as a reminder that repetition need not be a dirty word. In the immortal phrase of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in their “Oblique Strategies” card deck, “repetition is a form of change,” and this is something Kong inherently knew. Things might get stuck in a loop, but there was always the possibility to change. This may be why Kong’s oft-repeated “be happy” labels almost always stayed the same, a stable mantra (or maybe reminder) inside a forever-evolving world of repurposed merchandise imagery. Kong seemed to insist that there was a space for joy wherever one found oneself. This was, among many other things, what he told us via signage upon entering his space: you are blessed. Indeed, we are, and to have known Thomas Kong, we were.
You can contribute to a GoFundMe set up by Kong’s family to help sustain Kim’s Corner Food here.
Chris Reeves is a creative researcher and artist who received his PhD in Art History from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2021. In 2020 he co-edited his first book, “The World’s Worst: A Guide to the Portsmouth Sinfonia” released on Soberscove Press.