Critic's Note: Lee Yong Baek’s Work and the Heterological Power of Digital Media
Since the beginning of 1990s up to the present, Yongbaek Lee has been working with a variety of technological media, from single-channel video to interactive art, sound and kinetic art as well as Robotics. A variety of Lee’s works suffices to be him acknowledged as a renowned artist representing this realm in Korea. However, his art is highly acclaimed not only because it experiments in technology, but because he is able to express the electronic mass media culture’s unique social issues and imagination found through the form of technology. Drawing a few excerpts from his work from the early 1990s up to the present I will introduce Lee’s interests and visual language through these issues: “the relationship between the real and the virtual in the age of simulation”, “de-centered subject” and “the heterological and subversive strength accompanied by digital media.
First of all, his Angel-Soldier series show that the artificial flowers that fill the artificial spaces that appear in such media as video, photography and installation, stir up the digital simulation composed purely through simulacra. For instance, one is surprised to find a soldier perfectly camouflaged in flowers slowly marching with a gun in such an artificial space of Lee’s video work. In this setting, the simulation is portrayed as an extreme war-zone upon which the subject depends its existence. The artificial flowers here are the simulacra that exercise a power of seduction, and the solider exists solely as a part of the simulation setting, not as a separately independent individual. In the same sense, this work in part brings up human ontological issues, such as the exchange between the exterior (electronic environment) and interior (subject), the reconstruction of the "liquid ego" (Arthur Kroker) in the cyberspace, and the dissolution of the subject. The work also displays the fidgety overview of today’s digital war and cyber commerce that create war between the boundaries of the world of computer simulation and physical reality based on the human body.
Another work in the Angel-Soldier series is an objet installation that utilizes the soldier outfit, and this is a witty work that utters about the concept of the artist and creation in the digital media era. This installation utilizes the flowered solider outfit and other real objects that appeared in the video installation. On each of the soldier outfits, logs such as Windows, Quicktime, Word and Explorer appear as medals, and important famous artists’ names such Beuys, Picasso, Duchamp, Nam-Jun Paik and Da Vinci are written on the name tags. This work suggests a new transfiguration of the simulation era into an artistic creation, through the intersecting of 4 elements: artificial flower pattern, soldier apparel, important symbols of the digital culture, and symbols of the artistic creation. The work is a suggestion that Art today variably and strategically transforms into a product through the process of reproducing, editing, and transforming in the imaginative space. The very life of Art becomes ambiguous, as Art is no longer the ‘original creation’, but a “Post-creation” that relies its expression and existence on the appropriation and re-arrangement through the simulation process.
The other work New Folder-Drag humorously portrays the collapse of the two binary oppositions that are universal issues of today: the virtual and the real. This work is a video projection of a few children pulling a 3 meter magnification of the ghostly computer desktop icon ‘folder’ that displays the words “folder of the reality matters”. The folder icon, which originally has no material weight and is only a graphic image, paradoxically appears subversively as something that is associated with material weight and physical labor. Although we live in what is called a Cyber age, this cyber space is not a closed space but a space that is intimately associated with the real material world. Through a few clicks of the mouse, we naturally perform everyday activities, from shopping in cyberspace, to something extreme as having a cyber war. We construct the world in cyberspace as if it is a game, and through this process, we become alienated from our very own world. New Folder-Drop cleverly portrays the mutual transformation that arises between the virtual space and the real space.
In a large context, works like Mirror(2007) and Sad Mirror(2007) can be understood in the context of the collapse of the conflict between the real and virtual. The work is an LCD projector behind a mirror which projects the video of a mirror breaking and water (like teardrops) forming and flowing on the surface of the mirror. Although a very simple set up, the impression of the work is powerful as the viewer cannot see the projector and the breaking of the mirror surface or the tear drop forming appears real to the viewer. It’s a different sensation seeing the same image through a monitor or projection. This work completely unifies the material sense of the mirror and the virtual sense of the projection. Furthermore, this project creates the feeling of being suspended between consciousness and a dream. Such an inquiry into the boundary between the real and the virtual is apparent since Lee’s earlier works. For example, in Window in Window, a projection of children playing is projected onto a screen that resembles a real window. The scene appears to be real, until technical defects such as blips of letters or blank screens appear, waking up the viewer. An LCD monitor with the image of a corpse exercises, and the children shout “It’s dead, it’s dead!” while looking at the monitor. The important thing to remember here is that the viewer who is watching the virtual image and the image that is watching the viewer has been exchanged. The projection of the children is not seen from one-direction like it is on a movie-screen where it is observed from the audience; the projection itself that is composed as a window frame and the children in this virtual space look back at the viewer. Therefore, the process of being observed through observing the children directs a situation that can be called a “visual chiasmatic reiteration.”
Lee’s work not only deals with the ideas of the virtual and the real, they also speak about the transgression of the symbolic order, hybridity, and the issues of the de-centered self. Abnormal is a project that utilizes the technique of morphing to show the digital art’s most important aspects: liquidity, plasticity, and transformative potentials. The project continues in mysterious and grotesque transformations and whirring sound. This transformation is full of blasphemous attempt of escaping the symbolic definition of the icons, as well as displaying such blasphemous metamorphosis as death drive, pleasure of self-inflicted pain and ecstatic state.
The transgressive movements against the symbolic and cultural borders is actually the most important cultural characteristic and state of the internet cyberspace that is dominated by morphing and hybrid technology. This is the downfall refression of everything and anything borrowed, then hybridized, to become a third kind of a mutation. In cyberspace, innocence and regional boundaries do not exist. This project displays the digital culture’s typical characteristics, as all visual symbols undergo a process of transformation and begins to disassemble from its pre-established symbolic order. In other words, this characteristic can be expressed as being similar to the mixed coexistence of the heterogenous dimensions, and it has a close relationship with the concept of the “paganism” suggested by Jean-Francois Lyotard as the important characteristic of the postmodern culture of the 1980s. Concerning Surrealist art, Georges Bataille mentioned "a state that an formal identity is distrupted by the attack of the other", "the impossibility to define as a unique form", "a moment that the world being collapsed by diversity". Such ideas have been linked with heterology and formlessness, and these ideas can also be found in Lee’s projects. To leap further, one can say that in this sense, Lee’s projects as well as a plethora of others in the field of Digital Arts have many things in common with Surrealist photography by artists like Raoul Ubak, Jacques-Andre Boiffard and Man Ray. More recently, Alain Renaud have defined the transformation and collapse of signs, and the liquid aesthetics in digital images, as "the des-anchored signs". This signifies the trendy simulation era’s images being disassembled from their semantic and symbolic functions.
Such matters of concern are also shown in this recent work Pieta. Traditional images of Maria and Jesus are substituted with images of cyborgs in Pieta. This project seems to observe Donna Haraway’s observation that Humans and gods, the symbols of humanism, have disappeared and blasphemous hybrid cyborgs and other biotechnological monsters are taking over. As seen in Pieta, the technical composition of the oscillating monitor hidden in the glass box, has also been diversely applied in other past works. For example, the work Twins in Monitor shows the abnormal, the mutant, and the split subject through a 3-dimensional image as if through a magical illusion. This image is like a conjoined twin that’s been taken from the placenta. This is actually the image that is played from the monitors that perform oscillating motions on the small rail. Hidden in the semi-transparent glass, it’s as if we’re watching an illusion-like 3-dimensional projection. To the viewer, the surreal image of the floating twins that don’t disappear in the darkness appear as a regressive fantasy, and operates as a disturbing fact, as the monstrous being disturbingly mirrors us as our own identity.
It should be reminded the fact that many artists have already been exploring the de-centered self, the disassembled physical body, and the multiple transfigurations of the body, since the onset of the Media Arts. For example, artists in the past, such as Peter Campus or Dan Graham have used the medium of the video and the crafty angling or the use of time-exposure in camera as a kind of ‘mirror reproduction’ that reveals the breaking of the reproduced image of the self and its failure to identify with the subject.
Through Lee Yong Baek’s noted works, we can see that his works emphasize the "com-mutaion" not the communication, and describe the images of human who is expanded, altered and splitted through media. There we can read the new horizon on which lies the high technology art today. This gives us the insight that the virtual can work as the impure and heterological power intervening the epistemological order of the real world, and that it will lead us to the new cultural horizon of posthuman and postmachine.
By Kim Wonbang (Art critic)
Artist's Education: Stattliche Akademie der bildende Kunste Stuttgart, Aufbau Studium(Bildhauerei) Prof, Micha Ullman, Stuttgart, Germany
Stattliche Akademie der bildende Kunste Stuttgart, Normal Studium(Malerie) Prof, Erik Mansen, Stuttgart, Germany
Hong ik University, College of Fine Art,, B.F.A., Painting, Seoul, Korea