Information: a long journey of confrontation, conflict, union and its end
My twenties were all about America. The thin young man from a distant country suddenly found himself a ‘social, ideological’ alien in this new world. The American dream promised success and wealth, but the reality was that some innocent youth in every other house were dying on the battlefield. This was a country where democracy had bloomed from, but the young ones seemed to be doomed to an unfair death. Some were dragged into a meaningless war ending their lives in a far away jungle, while others absorbed themselves in antiwar campaigns and marihuana, crossing the boundaries of freedom and dangerous self-indulgence.
On the other hand, it was obvious that human life was becoming richer in a material way. I remember that the early seventies were full of rosy views predicting that human will conquer all diseases and create a new settlement in another planet within the solar system in the new millennium. It was almost as if we could rebuild the Garden of Eden with our own hands. Nevertheless, it somehow seemed that the society itself or even mankind itself was becoming more and more incomplete. The streets were filled with automobiles and the enormously large supermarkets were stacked with new goods and groceries everyday, but man himself was somehow driven into a corner. The society ceaselessly encouraged us to consume, and we were always exhausted spending a tremendous amount of energy. Moreover, the resulting increase of social entropy was all coming back to us, no matter how hard we tried to avoid it. Addicts and homeless people were lying around in broad daylight and invisible class distinctions existed; the human being was devastated and human relationship depended on the financial status and social position of individuals. In all this, my humanistic views and ideas based on Asian traditional values was no more than a useless outcry of a young alien who couldn’t adapt himself to the capitalism, materialism, scientism of the new world that called itself America. In a world that was led by materialism and scientism, I could witness how the human being, who created all this in the first place, was now neglected and estranged. There was of course resistance against these changes. The media were all talking about the conflicts constantly happening between the rich and poor, black and white, democrats and communists, victims and suspects, clearly suggesting that the world we lived in was becoming more and more chaotic.
The artist is a witness to his times, and the canary in the coal mine. After the Second World War, Abstract Expressionism was blooming in America. It was the first specifically American movement to achieve worldwide influence, putting New York City at the center of the art world. Of course it soon was followed by Pop Art, Fluxus, Conceptual Art and Minimalism, but I was instantly attracted to Abstract Expressionism which seemed to be the best way to freely express my surprise and sadness of witnessing the huge gap between idea and reality. The juxtaposition of conflicting colors that were tabooed in traditional paintings were encouraged, the brushstrokes themselves proudly emerged on the surface, creating a tension between abstract forms, colors and the canvas. The high tensions were bursting out all over the canvas, leaving diverse color lumps and wild brushstrokes like the tail of a comet. Until then, I was used to traditional art classes that forced one to have one’s artistic imagination censored by one’s teacher, but I soon accepted the freedom of Abstract Expressionism. I wanted to express the conflicts and struggles that were constantly happening between people, or between the past, present and future, though delicately hidden behind a dangerous harmony. Abstract expressionism was the answer to my problem. However, when I started making artworks based on abstract expressionism, I could hear the voice inside my head saying: “This is not wholly yours. Are you not doing it just because others are doing it?” My peer artists and young gallerists often praised my work but the voice inside my head became gradually louder and it was hard to ignore it.
Abstract Expressionism was best to express the chaos and struggles of the world I lived in, but my ‘artistic fastidiousness’ undermined my devotion to this art form. Soon, I began to feel a sense of shame that I might remain a second-rate artist, as far as my artistic philosophy and method were borrowed ones. The image of cursed artists who endlessly painted second-rate imitations in a gloomy studio started to haunt me and I felt devastated. Why can’t I just compromise with reality? How can I find the best way to express my art? How can I, as a Korean artist, create my own original style? Even after I returned to Korea, I didn’t stop asking these questions to myself. I carried on with my artistic practice but as long as I couldn’t find the answers to my problems, the atelier was not a happy place for me.
On a late spring day in 1995, the room was filled with warm sunlight coming through the window. Having been sick with a nasty cold for a few days, I sat in the living room and stared at the water glass and a package of pills that my dear wife had brought for me. I grabbed the felt the pills through the thin paper package. Suddenly, an old memory struck my mind. When I was young, I was a sickly child, and my mother used to take me to the Chinese medicine doctor in the neighborhood. I never liked the place because of the strong odor of infusion, and the threatening sight of the acupuncture needles. While the doctor felt my pulse, my mother held my hand, and I fixed my eyes upon the ceiling, hearing the doctor muttering something to himself. I remember that numerous packages of mulberry paper were hanging from the ceiling, each holding a name card of the medicine wrapped inside. The image of my old memories of the drugstore lasted in my head for a while. I always had a desire to communicate my art through a Korean sentiment, and the image of the medicine packages hanging from the ceiling became a new theme in my art since that memorable afternoon.
Every piece of information is the end product of a struggle for hegemony, as well as an accumulation of human experience. One hypothesis ceaselessly conflicts with another, and finally becomes a new knowledge. While these kinds of processes are sometimes made in a peaceful way through debates and publications, they sometimes happen in the shape of physical conflicts like wars led by the governing class. Chingiz Khan’s Mongolia provides an example of this, and the Crusader’s war brought great changes to the ideas and lifestyles of the neighboring countries. Even now, in Africa, the only method to distinguish one tribe from another is whether they dress alike or speak the same language. In the beginning of the world, when God tried to break up the people who were building the tower of Babel, he just made their language different from each other. According to the bible, the people who used to share the same information and language started to fight with each other as soon as the different language system disturbed communication. The paper bags of Chinese medicine become information the moment the doctor writes their name on it. Each medicine has a different use; a healing medicine to one patient can be a deadly poison to another. The package I fumbled with on that afternoon is a type of information, a product of human knowledge and experience. The refined tablets of medicine are accumulations of numerous experiments with virus and bacteria, and thanks to the fact that this information was available to me, I could shake off my cold in a few days, while my unfortunate ancestors had to depend on their lucks for their lives. My recent works that started from the images of the Chinese medicine packages were the essential expression and private documentation of my desire to regard the triangle cells as the minimal unit of information. Each triangle package covered with Korean and Chinese characters was based on various old documents of different times and ideas. The pieces of old documents that were the only means of transferring information at those times were reborn in my hands as the minimal units containing different information. A page from the Analects of Confucius attains a new meaning through the artist – who is the god of the small universe which is art -, and this new meaning sometimes confronts the original idea of the book itself. In other words, the classics of eastern philosophy are randomly reconstructed by the artist, creating numerous new meanings on the boundaries. Sometimes the accidental combination of words consists of old geographical names or ancient people’s names but sometimes they assume a totally new meaning that is opposed to the original idea of the book. When you look at the rings of a tree stump, you can see the traces of the tree’s struggles against harsh weather conditions. The tree itself is a constituent of the wood, but it ceaselessly has to compete against other trees for more sunlight and water supply and has to fight against the whims of nature. The tree rings show whether there had been a severe winter, or dangerous wood fire. People make assumptions of a person’s social position based on his first impression or behavior. Just like that, all members of the nature system have their own inherent appearance, and we try to decipher the information of time and history that is implied inside them with the help of our senses. Each of us human beings starts from the basic unit of information: the egg and the sperm. Our appearance and nature becomes different through numerous cell divisions, but even these various factors depend on the first information that we had as an egg cell, or sperm cell. We know that this information is a product of a long held struggle by our ancestors against nature, times, society and environment.
To me, the triangle pieces wrapped in mulberry paper are the basic units of information, the basic cells of life that only exists in art, as well as independently expressive social events or historical facts. By attaching these pieces one by one to a two dimensional surface, I wanted to express how the basic units of information can create harmony and conflict with each other. This became an important milestone in my long artistic journey that desired to express the troubles of the modern man who is driven to a devastated life by materialism, endless competition, conflicts and destruction. After almost twenty years, I was now able to communicate with my own gesture and words.
A wound is a trace of the battle between the invading bacteria and the defensive white blood corpuscle of our body. Simple wounds leave small scars (the empirical documents of the disease), but severe diseases like measles which calls for a harsh struggle of our body leave large scars that sometimes last for a lifetime all over our body. Individuals have trivial arguments, sometimes accompanied by physical violence. Between nations, when the nonviolent form of ‘diplomacy’ becomes useless, it is physical wars that follow. As previously stated, I tried to transform my canvas and the mulberry paper pieces into a window that reflects the history of human life. The scars of our bodies, conflicts between society members, wars between nations, man’s exploitation of nature and nature’s suffering from it – all units and the natural, social groups they constitute are dynamically conflicting with each other, and I wanted to chronically document ‘the force and direction of their energy.’ Just as two nations in war transform the border line every moment leaving scars on their neighboring countries, or just as billions of years ago the continents collided with each other creating deep oceans and high mountains, in my small universe, the small units of mulberry papers create projections and holes all over the surface. If the collision between particles in my previous example of Confucian Analects represented the collision between different thoughts and ideas of individuals and societies, that is, a difference of opinion within our system, the mass collision on the canvas symbolizes a stronger clash of events, which leaves permanent changes and deep scars.
The round and oval shaped black hemispheres and whirlwind-like images are the product of an artistic desire to create strong tension and dramatic movement over the canvas, as well as a metaphor with various meanings. The confidential documents of the governments still show black lines in certain parts even after their period of confidentiality has expired. These black lines serve not only as a permanent cutoff of sensitive information, but also as a metaphorical sign that forms a borderline between those who are available to the information and those who are not, creating a visual tension on whole the document.
The black spheres and whirlwind-like images in my work are the outlet of my conscience regarding the numerous pieces of information that are censored, fabricated, and cut off. They mean the destruction of historical facts and damage of the truth by dynasties and governments all over the world, including the Chinese emperor Shih Huang Ti who burned books on the Chinese classics and buried Confucian scholars alive. The blackened pieces that have no words derived from old books no longer retain their original value of communication and are unable to compete with the other neighboring pieces. As the black strip of oil coming from a stranded oil tanker instantly reminds us of dead fish and dead sea, the pieces that are blackened by the artist represents ‘death’ and ‘nonexistence’, and is a final requiem for the numerous names of existences that are no longer alive on this earth. In my recent works, I also introduced red and blue in addition to black, but the basic philosophical approach is not much different.
The small, minimalistic pieces of mulberry paper are finally reborn through the act of sticking them together on the canvas – creating collision between information as well as deciding the moment of ‘vanishment’ and ‘death’. The black spheres and the colorful pieces move in groups all over the surface, making scars, creating movements and depicting confrontations and conflicts. This irregularity and instability, as well as the overall sense of movement of the canvas is a methodological approach of conveying my artistic imaginations that I wanted to express since I was young, and also my own serious way of reconciling with Abstract Expressionism in which I once was so deeply absorbed.