Between Umber and Ultramarine  : at the exhibition of Yun Hyong Keun

“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.” An art critic quoted Yun Hyong Keun at the talk at Zwirner. After quoting Yun, he mentioned that 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.

In one of my essays, I once 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.