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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Use of the Useless

Photo: Elizabeth Mann

Use of the Useless


Son Man-jin

Korean, born 1964

Son Man-jin, an acclaimed artist in Korea, brings a contemporary perspective into traditional art forms. He often transforms Chinese characters into abstract shapes, to the extent that the characters are no longer distinct.

In this work, Son Man-jin wrote the two characters ("the useless") in dark ink in the right half, and saturated the left half with ink wash in varying shades, then used the unpainted area to delineate another two characters ("use of"). Read from the right to left, the calligraphy references a quotation from the Daoist classic Zhuangzi (ca. 300 B.C.): "All men know the use of the useful, but nobody knows the use of the useless.
Ink on cloth
31 1/2 x 110 1/4 in. (80 x 280 cm)
Gift of Frank S. Bayley III
Provenance: The artist; to Frank S. Bayley III, San Francisco, CA, 1999; gift from Frank Bayley to Seattle Art Museum, 2011
Photo: Elizabeth Mann
Not currently on view


Exhibition HistorySeattle, Washington. Asian Art Museum, Calligraphic Abstraction, May 9, 2015 - Oct. 4, 2015.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Asian Art Museum, Boundless: Stories of Asian Art, Feb. 8, 2020 - ongoing [on view Feb. 8, 2020 - July 11, 2021].

Seattle Art Museum respectfully acknowledges that we are on Indigenous land, the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people. We honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future.

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