Critic's Note: I for an I, other for the other: The Theory of Yee Sookyung
“I am I, the other is other”--Nishida Kitaro
From the beginning, a distance exists between the artist and the work of art. Although the work of art emerges from the expression of the artist’s intentions, the work has an autonomous object-hood, just as the artist has a personhood. Such an objecthood is fated to inhabit the space of viewers, who form a condensation of interdependent individualities.
If the space of the artist is that of the self, the space of the work of art is the world of the other. The task of producing a work of art becomes that of the artist negating the self and making “an other similar to the self.” When viewers sense an artist’s particular expression, what they may be describing is a world of the self that has been exteriorized through its long inhabitation of other’s space.
However, occasionally there are works that have not been externalized but remain firmly a part of the world of the artist’s individual self. In this case, the possibility for predicting the work becomes difficult. How protean and capricious is this self that has not been opened out to the other. Yee Sookyung is of this nature. Her works are difficult to categorize, considering the myriad of changes they have undergone. She has shown works in all media, from objects and videos to painting and drawing. Hers is a rare case among Korean artists.
From “Getting married to Myself,” (Indeco Gallery, Seoul) her first solo exhibition in 1992, to her latest show “Paradise Hormone,” (2008, Mongin Art Center, Seoul), the change and variety of work makes it difficult to connect them with a particular personal style. This is most likely because the time needed for the world of the self to be exteriorized and digested by others is constantly overtaken by another hidden world within her that manifests itself. On a more fundamental level, it is important to point out that several complex but uncompromising layers exist in the space between her works created of the self for the self, and those of others and for others.
The Japanese modern philosopher Nishida Kitaro once used the expression, “I am I, the other is other,” to suggest that this individual “I” could never become the “other.” Thus, it suggests that the space that makes up the world of the self and the world of the other forms absolutely different dimensions. If the space of the former is an individual topos (basho) made up of a condensation of fragments, the space of the later is a cosmos beyond a homogenous space that is continually expanding. No matter how many topoi overlap, they can never make a homogenous space. Although these two worlds can never mix on an essential level, on an everyday, basic level they communicate with relatively little conflict.
The reason why a coherent sense of individuality seems so faint in Yee’s work is that in the majority of cases of other artists, a sense of personality is that state of flux where the world of the self is caught up in the world of the other. For Yee, she begins by questioning this notion and from the very beginning distinguishes clearly between the world of self and the world of the other. This kind of attitude of the self for the self, and the other for the other can perhaps be called the secret of her work.
I for I
In Yee’s “Flame” series, she shows an extreme world of drawing. Drawing is a completely self-engrossing act of individuality. Another person cannot partake in it, while the medium perhaps most directly reveals a sense of bodily space. Because the body includes the territory of the self, that space cannot be traversed. The body is also the vessel that contains the soul. In this sense, drawing is the most effective means of revealing the hidden aspects of the artist’s individual selfhood. In most cases, drawing takes over the entire space of the canvas in an instant. This is because the artist’s body is thrown toward the picture without resistance. Thus the body itself becomes expression. However, in the case of Yee, the body that appears in her drawings is manifested as threads that thin out to resemble something like lines of information. Is it possible to call this kind of drawing a form of “expression”? On a more subtle level, is it an act of abandon rather than a self-controlled form of expression? Within our bodies are thousands of cells that each contain a destiny, a function and habit. But like data that has been put through a document shredder, she breaks apart these lines into individual, single files that fly onto the picture plane. This act of drawing is similar to the terms of a religious confession, where the individual self is gradually negated. Just the amount of time taken to produce the larger works she has done is months. For making drawings, this is a considerable amount of time. The reason why this cannot help but be the case is that the body is torn to the extreme into thin and long pieces of information, know-how, judgment; all of the records contained in that body and soul must be cast aside. In order to do this, a larger surface of canvas can’t help but be used.
The body and soul are one and the only way to determine whether the soul resides within the body is to divide it into cells and to show each of those individual tiny particles. This way of bringing the body to bear upon the picture plane is different from typical drawing methods. Instead of expression it is a form of negation, while the act of negation becomes a religious form of self-disciplining.
In order to accomplish this, a line is drawn every time energy is received from the body. But this energy is different from that used in the traditional calligraphic techniques of ink painting. The energy comes from the topos of the I, from the invisible within the body. In order to capture this other energy, Yee looked at the supernatural energy found on Goguryeo cave paintings. The notion of yeonggi, is a kind of invisible, supernatural vital energy in objects that is not palpable, but that has a definite existence. It describes a kind of essence within the space of topos. One can only call it a kind of noise. It is said that when the body’s central processing unit becomes conscious of its surroundings, only about 30% can be grasped by logic. The remaining algorithms appear as noise. Who knows whether our individual existence is not itself made up of these masses of noise.
If we want to become receptive to the world around us, we have to become open to the invisible, spectral world, a world of noise that is not perceived by logic alone. Although the world of noise is invisible, it is one that exerts a strong control over us. Is it not that the yeonggi that appears in her work an attempt of bringing the invisible world into the visible? However, this kind of noise does not stop at the simple act of painting with Yee, unlike in the Goguryeo cave paintings. Painting has physical properties. Matter moves beyond the artist and aims toward otherness. Thus instead of such matter becoming rarefied, the topos of the body becomes more present in drawings.
Although most of these lines of noise resemble waves, at times different formations appear as if nodes of energy have created them. Dragons, monsters and women appear among other images, forming the patterns of a repetition compulsion. They are like glimpses of the invisible, of images compressed within the zip file of the artist’s personal topos. The artist confesses to this and by unfurling them proceeds to erase the noise of the self. This is because the world of the other is a world where the self has been effaced and released.
Other for the other
In a sculpture project, Yee made a public work of art by asking the local residents of Echigo Tsumari in Japan and Anyang in Korea to participate in a survey, an exemplary instance of a public work that started from her world and was given to the world of the other. The survey asked people to choose among the body parts of different religious founders such as Confucius, Lao Tzu, Mary, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Ganesh, and which icon’s body part would be the most suitable for the sculpture. She made a new icon from the results of the survey. Is this not the very definition of the world of the other, a world of self-sacrifice for the public good? This is the public sphere. This is the form of the ultimate public work of art. There is no space for the artist’s self in a work like this. From the first, it is a clear, transparent and rather noise-less world. The more others participate, the more I disappear and the noise completely disappears.
The heart of the reason for choosing the subject of religious icons resides in this as well. Such icons are individuals that left the world of the self in order to become part of the other. And these icons teach us by example to throw away the world of the self in order to obtain the world of the other, to become the world of the true self. However, Buddha and Jesus have been seized upon as the more iconic even among other icons. In other words, these supposedly self-less icons appear to take on the form of individual selves. Excluding herself from the process as much as possible, she used the survey format so only others would participate, undoing the individuality of the icons by turning them into a new, truly public icon.
In her “Translated Vase” series, she shows the step-by-step process of turning the world of the self toward the world of the other in an elaborate and complicated way. The artist asked a ceramicist if she could pick up and use the discarded, broken ceramic fragments found around the kiln. What are those fragments? At one point dirt, they gained a viscosity upon contact with water and when meeting the hand of the potter and the spinning wheel, achieved a solid plate form, then when meeting the fire of the kiln hardened into a ceramic form and after deemed a reject, broken apart. At the beginning it was an other similar to the self of the potter. Ceramics are a form of art closer to the world of others, because unlike the fine arts, ceramics must be made while paying attention to function rather than just expression. And when the ceramic vessel is broken up into fragments, it can no longer rely on its function as a useful object and thus has become something completely other.
Yee gathers such fragments and makes a new ceramic vessel. There is of course no reason that these fragments should fit together. There is an original shape that they retain from the original intentions of the ceramicist. And ceramics have a limit on what shape they can assume, as a result of the physical motions of the potter’s wheel. Thus the fragments can’t help but come with a certain symmetry and curvature. In order to make these reconstructed vases, thousands of fragments are needed and must be fitted together. What results are ceramic forms that do not retain the original symmetry and curvature of normal pieces, but are deformed and misshapen. But it is at this point that something strange occurs. A balance emerges from the attempt to piece together parts that don’t fit. Perhaps it could be called the order of others, created from bringing together different pieces. It comes from the gilded glue used to join these fragments, from a noise that doesn’t belong to the safe order of space of the original whole pieces. However, this noise is not unstable. This is because it is a noise that has passed through the third person. And it emerges from a new sense of beauty that Yee has created. This stable noise that emerges from letting the different shapes of the fragments come together rather than imposing a form upon them shows a different world from the opaque topos seen in her more personalized drawings. Looking at the process alone, one can say that a homogenous space without noise has been transformed into a topos with noise. However, the result is a work that is neither completely the state of otherness, nor that of the self. Rather than saying that there is a particular expression that links all of her works together, they are connected by the notion of negating the self. This kind of stance allows the works for the self and those for others to be equally observed. One can say that in the attempt to create works where the self is rejected, they are extremely religious. This tendency manifests itself in yet another way in her recent work, “Portable Temple.”
The portable temple is a personal temple for the artist. In this work, we see the backside of five Buddhas on a six-part folding screen. All religions teach us to throw away the self and become one with the other. Thus the space that religions aim for is a “space at one with the other.” However, by arranging the self within the space behind Buddha, the space is filled with noise and transforms into a pre-meditated topos space. This work is similar to the later translated vases series, in its insistence on transformation and the way it changes the flow of the space. Religion, which always demands a transparent world of the other rather than the artist’s opaque world of the self, would understandably make an artist nervous, for fear that their power of expression may fade. Many artists today have considered this problem of the encounter between religion and art. Yee Sookyung is a rare artist who creates works of the self and of the other at the same time. Most artists would try to indicate works for others as the official works and hide the works of the self. In a way, pop art, which lessens the power of the self, may be an art form which manifests one of the most religious tendencies. One can even say that the popularity shown for pop art shares a point of commonality with peoples’ enthusiasm for religion. Confessional works of the self thus become hidden away.
Yee makes both of these kinds of works and firmly shows both of them. Yee is different from the pop artists we are familiar with. Interpreting the many dimensions of the relationship between the world of the self and the world of the other in new ways, Yee offers the beginnings of a new possibility of resolving the conflict between religion and art. Perhaps this is the greatest gift that her works give to us.
In Hwang Art Activist
Artist's Education: 1989 MFA in Painting, Seoul National University, Seoul
1987 BFA in Painting, Seoul National University, Seoul