DUCK AND VOID
One critic says Lee Kang So "approaches the realm of the origin of painting, where truths and illusions are born. His paintings not only subvert the cliches of landscape genre, but also are simply paintings, clear and refreshing. With this series of new paintings, Lee draws out the very condition of painting, that is, contemplation on perception and consciousness, imagination and material." Lee Kang So's painting does remind us of the first paintings, like the Lascaux. They are representations of men and bison. They were illusions. And they meant something. And these are exactly what Lee's paintings don't have. They might look like ducks, but not necessarily. These brush marks can be ducks or geese or other things. They are not exactly illusions of any specific things. They don't symbolize or mean anything. There is no metaphor. They are there just as brushmarks that don't intend to be anything. This may be the very reason why they are there. Not to mean anything. To be nothing.
Between Umber and Ultramarine
: at the exhibition of Yun Hyong Keun
An art critic quoted Yun Hyong Keun at the talk at Zwirner. “I don’t think there can be an answer to painting. I have no idea as to what I should paint and at which point I should stop painting. There, in the midst of such uncertainty, I just paint. I don’t have a goal in mind. I want to paint that something which is nothing. That would inspire me endlessly to go on.” After quoting Yun, he suggested it sounded like Beckett. Indeed. If I had listened to the quote in Korean, it could have sounded like a statement from any Dansaekhwa artist. But when I heard it translated in English, it did remind me of Beckett’s absurd phrases.
There is a paragraph in Three Dialogues in fact, the correspondence between Samuel Beckett and Georges Duthuit, that seems to be a parallel to Yun’s words. In this short, charming dialogues (where Beckett would “exit weeping” at the end), while they were talking about issues of contemporary art, Beckett reveals his own struggle in creation. "The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express." The last novel of Beckett’s trilogy, The Unnamable ends with “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” which is often quoted as the typical Beckett style. These two examples -- the declaration of the artist that has “nothing to express” and the way of delivering a paradox in such a blunt manner-- summarize well what Beckett has left as his literary legacy, and also, sound as perplexing and wise as a zen conundrum.
There is an anecdote of how Beckett had developed his mature style. While Beckett was teaching in Paris, he met James Joyce. The two remained friends after Beckett helped the research for Finnegans Wake. During that time, when Beckett was back in Dublin for a short visit, he had a revelation in his mother’s room. (He begins his novel Molloy which he wrote after this visit describing his mother’s room as the background.) Realizing that if he continues the way he had been, he would forever remain in the shadow of Joyce, Becketts writes, “Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, ... and he was always adding to it, ...I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding." Deciding to take his own path, Beckett adopted the premise of “not knowing” as a conscious methodology in writing even though it was then not accepted as a valid premise in the Western mind. If so, was Yun Hyong Keun’s comment of saying that he doesn’t know what to paint, doesn’t have a goal, and paints something which is nothing, a methodology as well? Are the minds of Beckett and Yun Hyong Keun comparable with each other since they seem to have things in common?
In the first chapter of Tao Te Ching, Lao-tse said “The Tao that can be told/ is not the eternal Tao/ The name that can be named/ is not the eternal Name. /Nothingness heralded the beginning of our world, / Being refers to all creatures. The mystery of this world is always expressed with nothingness,/ The seeming concreteness of this world is always expressed with being...” Lao-tse did not define what the Tao was. Instead he says that it is what is formed in the relation between nothingness and being, and their contrast. When you have something, that means there is nothing as contrast, and you can understand the world in such a relation.
What Beckett finally declared to the world of “knowing more” is the existence of the opposite. Lao-tse’s “nothingness” is not the state of “absolute nothingness” discussed in Western philosophy. Rather it is similar to the “empty” state in contrast to being. Beckett’s declaration of “not knowing” does not mean that he actually does not know anything. With the attitude of “not knowing”, he wants to convey the mystery of the world he lives in, and ultimately desires the encounter with the world on the other side. During the talk at Yun Hyong Keun’s exhibition, somebody asked a question in the same vein. If you had not intended anything, how could the act of painting be even possible? What Yun meant by saying “he does not intend” is that he would approach painting in an “empty” state of mind, letting go of all the extrinsic intentions that are not relevant to the act of painting.
Once I summarized the characteristics of Dansaekhwa in two points; repetitive action and “rarefication” of materiality. To get to these aspects, I had to point out the culture of Seon Bi, Korean scholars of the past. The spiritual world of Koreans is generally a mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism (with a hint of Shamanism, of course). In this mixture of spiritual traditions, self-culture through self-discipline is considered to be the most significant value, methodology, and ultimate goal. The Korean scholars before modern era used to read (out loud) and write (calligraphy) on a daily basis. Their purest objective was to attain the utmost “level” of a person(the other objective, more practical one, would be to pass the exam to be a government official). The method in reaching the level is to be in a constant paradox; by obtaining knowledge, you gain the wisdom to discard knowledge; nonpossession is the ultimate goal even when you can’t escape from possessing; you can accomplish the lucid state of self through self-oblivion, not intending to be yourself.
In order to do so, Seon Bi would read and write (often the same phrases and sentences) everyday in repetition. The act of calligraphy consists of grinding the ink stick, having a calm mind and right posture, and writing with a brush on hanji(Korean mulberry paper). They would write their own essays or rewrite others’ poems or sentences. The Korean scholar’s calligraphy has two major characteristics compared to Western writing. First, the act of writing involves your body. The corporal position and movement would result in a certain writing style. Eastern calligraphy is a mixed form of writing and drawing/painting. Whereas corporality is generally excluded from the Western writing, Eastern calligraphy considers the corporal and mental attitude of the calligrapher more important than the calligraphic style itself. One needs to let go. Letting go of all the thoughts and intentions would lead your body to move naturally. Calligraphy was the result of disciplined, empty state of mind and body.
Second main feature of calligraphy is that it displays the sublimate of the scholar’s integrity in visual style. Integrity signifies the virtuous qualities, the ‘level’ of them that a person would attain. It is a hierarchal thinking, like class. The difference is that it is something you achieve. There is no scientific standard in measuring one’s virtue, but a certain person could be considered to be on a higher position as a person over another. It could be as obvious as the fact that one is wealthier than another, but doesn’t have anything to do with one’s wealth or social status. Korean calligraphy and drawing/painting were all viewed in this respect; One’s style and virtue were not two different things, they are one. This is where Beckett and Yun might differ in a fundamental way even though they seemingly have the same methodology.
Yun Hyong Keun often said that his painting was inspired from the calligraphy of Kim Jeong Hui(pen name: Chusa). As we can guess, his painting sprang from the tradition of Korean calligraphy and ink painting, and this would mean that when he paints, his body and mind are in one. When they talk about integrity in the Korean culture, it is not about just living up to the moral standard required of the era, with simple good intent. In order to attain integrity in its highest form, one should reach a serene state of mind through forgetting oneself and not intending. In meditation, one should get rid of thoughts and efface oneself to exist in the present. As such, lofty integrity requires oblivion of desire, intent, attachment, and taste, in order to attain the empty state of mind which does not flicker according to worldly breath, like a candlelight staying still in the middle of a room.
Yun Hyong Keun’s painting springs from such premises. He chose the method of hiding all the repetitive action and form, rather than that of making repetitive pattern by repeating certain actions(found in paintings of Park Seo Bo, Chung Sang Hwa, etc.) His action of continuously reapplying paint entails the effect of darkening the paint color on the canvas. He painted with two contrasting colors, like being in a paradox, umber and ultramarine, which deepened the color to a profound psychological state and a certain truth on the canvas. Yun says that he does not know what a painting should be or what a painting is. Yun’s humble declaration of “not knowing” may be reaching the mysterious state of painting itself.
Machine: Eros of the Internal
The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.
- Sol Lewitt
It was Duchamp who brought in a machine to the contemporary art scene. In fact, his first ready-made was Bicycle Wheel. Duchamp may have not intended to make a ground breaking art when he placed one bicycle wheel on a kitchen stool. The bicycle with pedals and two wheels was first mass produced in 1860’s (the term bicycle was also coined around then). So taking one bicycle wheel and putting it upside down on a stool in 1913, was an act as avant-guard as using a part from the latest spacecraft. Duchamp’s first ready-made object, removed from a bike, still could spin, so it is also the first kinetic sculpture. In that same year, Duchamp drew Chocolate Grinder and began working on The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (also known as Big Glass) that had the chocolate grinder painted on one side. In 1925, he made a motor-attached machine called Rotary Hemisphere. It was a vortex-drawn wooden hemisphere on a turning disk which created optical illusions. Duchamp, who was not satisfied with "retinal" art, created a machine that baffled our visual field.
So is it enough to call Duchamp the first "machine artist"? Bicycle Wheel, Chocolate Grinder, and Rotary Hemisphere have something in common. They all have a circular part which rotates. Duchamp said, "I always feel the need of round things and rotation. It is a kind of narcissism or self-fulfilling ......like masturbating. It was very strange to see chocolate made by miraculous process of running a machine." It sounds like a fetish. Apart from the fact that it could be an existential metaphor, repetition and rotation seem to have a strange appeal in general. They grant a certain autistic pleasure, immersive like Bach’s arrangement of repetition and variation of a theme. “Artists are above all men who want to become inhuman.” What Apollinaire meant by this was that “to humanize art,” artists would want to be inhuman, defy personality. In Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, the eros of nude is replaced by the eros of its movement; bachelor’s desire in Bachelor Machine, which is also called Love Machine, is represented as a rotating machine. But is "poetic impersonality" the only context for Duchamp’s infatuation with the machine? Was a machine to him just a "distancing" tool to convert sadness and pathos into pleasure and logic? When he first took a bicycle wheel and put it up on a stool, he said he just wanted to look at it. He would spin the wheel and watch it turning. We could say, at least, that he was the first artist who gave a meaningful gaze at the machine itself, even the eros of it.
Jung Sung Yoon's 2013 solo exhibition Heavy Dot showed two large mechanical structures. One of them, Heavy Dot, with a huge black disk as a head and two weights hanging on both sides, is standing precariously balanced on a wooden crate. The work is inspired by a poem called Statue by Park Yang Yun who now no one remembers. This poem, in fact, is about a dot, distance, and rotational motion. The poem starts with the line, “If we can see the Earth rotating, it was moving just like that”, and then develops its image. Something was turning in an orbit at first, then comes closer becoming a stationary statue. And the statue starts to turn by itself. In Jung’s version, a dot is envisioned as a huge black disc (Although, in geometry, a dot is a unique position that has no weight, size, volume or color) which is static but unstable, seems to represent a certain finality. If Heavy Dot came from an idea of a dot, You did from a line. You involves rotating movement. A five meter long stainless steel bar suspended from a vertical pole, structurally resembling a tower crane, turns like a revolving door, opening space or blocking you. Depending on where you stand, the bar comes at you or leaves you. You is meaningful only when it moves (not the other way around) and the movement makes it impossible to meet. It is an endless rotation of impossible encounters. Jung says it is sad looking at a machine; it is always moving. It is not the same as saying that life is sad. Life is sad, let’s say, because it ends, machine’s movement is sad because it doesn’t stop, at least theoretically. It is sad to watch it move; sadness becomes libido, which is what moves Jung. A series of video work Symmetry X is a good example. Desire born out of sadness, gives birth to a steady gaze, which produces life again. He took a silent long-take of a moving tower crane in a construction site. In the video, he creates kaleidoscopic images of a cropped crane that moves slowly, quickly, and sensually like an insects’ thin long legs. He created this shining, symmetric life form because he wanted to show a machine on a construction site as an organism from another planet. “Tyger Tyger, burning bright, /In the forests of the night; /What immortal hand or eye, /Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” As William Blake admired nature’s mysterious patten, here, a machine, a human invention, reborn as nature’s fearful symmetry. It is noteworthy to point out that symmetry is in the form is X. X is a perfect symmetrical character and a symbol of the unknown and negation. Machine has been a life time obsession for Jung. When he was a little boy, he divided a drawing paper in half and drew the outer shape of a robot on one side and drew the cross section of a robot on the other side. Early awareness of inner parts developed into erotic recognition of the internal. He says internal parts of people and machinery are intrinsically erotic; their endless rubbing and friction going on with gooey lubricants and bodily fluids present. For most people, it would be unseeming or even terrifying to look at what is inside human being or a machine. Because it is hard to understand the internal structure and processes not to mention its relation to death and destruction. Jung's fascination exactly lies in what others are uncomfortable with. In his first two web work, Memory Device and Love Letter, it is suggested that these works were built with mysterious paths on the web, like the inside of machine, nuanced of a certain sense of finality and death. Surprisingly, Memory Device, which he meant to introduce himself, is composed of images that look like ones of the deceased. Love Letter is an intellectual, but schizophrenic requiem for lost love. He looked up every word in a letter from his lover in a dictionary, and arranged the definitions which completely changed the meaning of the letter. The mechanical act of lookin up all the words eventually leads to deconstruction of any meaning. In this case, sadness becomes a steady gaze which becomes a state of empty confusion. It can’t get any sadder than this. Recognition of inner life is sad. Like a Machine, Jung's power is inside (his recognition of sadness). Sadness becomes a machine that makes the art. And his art would make us look inward. Jung Sung Yoon will keep moving in this loop like one of his machines.