Something in Between Belief and Action
Sunyoung Lee (Art Critic) 2016
The sparkling atmosphere of Cho Hyunik’s exhibition in which the artist had used metal as the main material, suits with China town which is where the exhibition space is located. The golden wallpaper often used in the interiors of Chinese restaurants where there are lots of fancy and oily menus was also used under the same context as the iron plates or brass sheets. Although metal is a material that is heavy and hard to handle, it also seems like a light and easy method. When metal is hit by light, it minimizes its own materialness. The metal reacting to light demonstrates the ‘duty of faith’ that is in between belief and action, oscillating between the material and the nonmaterial. However, after humans have far broken off from nature, light has also become various things. Light is the source of life but it can also become the means of delusion. Whether it be actual metal or simulation, the ones in Cho’s artworks possess an irony which elicits lightness within the heaviness, and heaviness within the lightness. The complex process of photography + painting + sculpture, in which the artist colors or carves with a grinder after transcribing a photograph onto the metal plate, enables us to approach the images installed in the space in a theatrical way.
In this exhibition, in particular, the artist has even provided an empty stage for the viewers. Dividing the exhibition room, where its height up to the ridge of the ceiling is approximately 7.5m, into symbolic territories of lightness and darkness is also a stage device used to reveal the irony inherent within dichotomy. The candles installed along the second floor railing and the mural-scale artworks beneath them transform the place which had been a warehouse during the modern period into an art exhibition space which has come to play the role of religion of the secular world. Due to the solemn presentment, the space was reborn. Appropriated space, which is being compared to white cubes, is appropriate for showing postmodern artworks. Appropriation of place informs us that the distance between products and artworks are not far from each other. Including the piece decorated with golden wallpapers which we can frequently see in Chinatown, things like the loss leaders posted on flyers are one of them. For instance, in Attached Leaflets, in all sorts of religious bills hung on the metal mirror inside a golden frame, there are also coffee or candies hanging, and, although they are very modest in form, here, we can see the relationship between religion, art and products.
These three terms phylongenetically repeat the things of the past, staggering, going through its ups and downs, over time in history. In products of today, there are religion and art, and in art of the modern times, there was religion. The artist presents things that look like art, religion and products jumbled up into fetish objects. The candles surrounding the second floor railing, a metallic sound from somewhere endless coming into hearing, or somewhat dark parts in exhibition space, etc, elevates the religious atmosphere. Of course, we are unsure what that religion is. It is because the various materials collected from reality themselves are pan-religious. The exhibition is satirical and violational, and such attitude itself also possesses a religious, yet somewhat ironical atmosphere. Although it cannot be called a certain religion, lets just put it this way: those that are religious are a religion on life. To the artist, there must be a religion on art. It is because like religion, it gives meaning and form to life, and it communicates with others. Communication today includes from the generalized mechanical communication to awkward persuasion, intense seduction, oppressive ways, etc.
Even the main icons are ironical. It is identical to that of the female figure(or love), which used to appear as the main icon in the past artworks, possessing codes of sanctity and lowliness at the same time. Sanctity is above reality and lowliness is below reality. It is because humans are too weak to face the reality as it is. The image of the artist’s son appearing as the main character of the works instead of the woman which used to fill the picture in the past is adorable, however, it cannot help but become a grave existence that makes us dwell on the ‘duties’ of father and husband. When thinking about the relationship between lightness and heaviness, to the artist, sincerity must be the motivation that enable his work to continue. Sincerity is a requisite in the art work process, another hardship added to the hardship of the so-called ‘life.’ It is because artists work as they live, not work within the time and space of zero gravity. The bitterly passing time, which automatically enlightens us the fact that there is not much given time left, enables us to feel the force of gravity even stronger.
However, sincerity is not the only thing that makes art. Nietzsche, who said art is the lightness that fights against the heaviness of life, was one of few philosophers who had put art at the center of life. However, in order to become light, we must first become sincere, and the incoherent lightness of the so-called ‘sincerity’ merely drifts away with lightness. The territories distinguished by the angel statue, in which light and shade coexist, found at a corner in New York, as the starting point, have simply been separated in order to be mixed. Originally, angels are existences of the above-boundaries that cross over heaven and earth. Nowadays, instead of angels, information carried by all sorts of electromagnetic waves are being distributed. The leaflets, which started these works, is the primordial form of information. Leaflets inserted inside the apartment’s metal mailboxes en bloc are mostly information that will be thrown away without ever being seen, and they are born into a subject which enables us to think about the lightness/heaviness of life/art through artworks. The flyers in question, which created the exhibition title, ‘duty of faith,’ most likely were a practice of a devoted believer, doing his/her best for his/her own ‘duty of faith.’
Faith creates not only conscience, but also action. It may become a false awareness, and action, too, can become blind, willing to even die; however, humans live within such ideology and ideological devices. The artist translates one of the keywords of the exhibition, ‘Tao’, as ‘duty.’ I would also like to add an ideology (of broad meaning) to this as ‘duty’ is not the reality itself, but a certain aim and Sollen. In aim and Sollen, there comes matters of ideology. Although in this exhibition, superficially, religious ideology is made into its subject matter, it can be interpreted in various dimensions of art, politics, etc. Terry Eagleton, a British literary critic, in his 「Ideology: An Introduction」(1991) which he wrote around the time when ideological wall between east and west collapsed, diagnosed that ideology had never disappeared. The situation, lately, where there arises conflicts in parts of the world, also puts the problem of ‘the end of ideology’(Daniel Bell) into the shade.
Therefore, whether it be simple conservatism, or discourse equipped with forms of refined theory, ‘the end of ideology’ itself is being criticized as an ideology. We can immediately see it is so when we look at North Korea. Those addicted to a dictator and the ruling ideology decorates the evening news due to the ideological needs of South Korea. These serious laughing stock is immanent all around. Absolute power or rival forces each criticizes each other’s thoughts and actions for being ideological, but they never regard the thoughts and actions of themselves as an ideology. In a ‘liberal’ society, ideology reveals not its true face. They operate since the stage of the subject’s formation through desire, rather than plain doctrine. Terry Eagleton says that the most efficient suppressor is the one who persuades his perpetrator to love and desire his power, and identify themselves with it. Ideology which rationalizes and justifies the thoughts and actions of humans applies not only to the ruling ideology but even to the resisting ideology.
Ideology can be compared with culture or the outlook on the world, rather than being a certain biased thought. It forms common sense and doxa within the everyday lives, widely used as something natural and obvious. In case of religious ideology, it reaches from the highly abstruse metaphysical principles to moral prescriptions in meticulous detail that rule the customs of the everyday life. According to Terry Eagleton, religion is one way to raise the most original question of human existence on the peculiar life of individuals. It also rationalizes the gap between the two; in other words, it explains why I cannot live in accordance to such universal truth, and it includes the doctrine and conscience for tuning in my everyday actions to those needs. As faith creates solid actions, it cannot be simply a false matter. A British sociologist, Abercrombie, in his 「Class, Structure, Knowledge: Problems in the Sociology of Knowing」, writes that had ideology be purely a false belief, it will not be as powerful. Ideology is realistic and, at the same time, deceptive.
Terry Eagleton, also, denies the stance of ideology being simply unrealistic and a fantasy completely divorced from social reality. According to his words, rather than being a reflective theological system, ideology is a series of action-oriented belief, providing goals, motivation, prescription, orders, etc, to the followers. Just like the action of a passionate believer who had persistently put the flyers inside the mailboxes in the apartment of where the artist lives. Even whilst coming to the place of this exhibition, I saw an elderly man wearing a hat inscribed with a cross in the middle and red letters written ‘eradication communism’ on the left and right sides. The bag was converted into a megaphone, and he was probably on his way to the Jayu Park in Incheon where similar types of people frequently gather at. Even last year, I once saw a poster offering 3kg of sugar on participating in a seminar of a certain conservative commentator. Infantile and lame, yet, because it is so, things that seem to be forms of innocent phenomenon, all the more, catches our attention. However, such noticeable actions are a tip of an iceberg; what is more omnipresent may perhaps be the ocean of the so-called ‘commodity fetishism.’
In Cho’s exhibition, the golden surfaces, which unfold spectacularly, represent commodity fetishism. As it is shown in the image of a child sitting on a golden king’s chair in the piece, Duty of Faith-Birth, fetishism forms a series of environments from the moment you are born. Fetishism implies that behind what shines, there is something that does not. Abercrombie saw that the fetish thinking is not peculiar to just capitalist form of production, but the capitalist form of production promotes fetish thinking more than any other form of production in the history of mankind. Fetish thinking is the result of the laborer losing the relationship with his own products. Because it cannot possess an organic unity which is necessary within the fulfilling lives of humans through the increase of division of labor for the sake of rationalization and specialization, it prevails. Here, commodities are not simple fantasies but a reality that act as concealment. Abercrombie states that such materialized world shows to be of something natural and permanent rather than it being constructed socially. Naturalization and generalization of something is an act of ideology.
Here, society it shows to rule humans and be of something outside human control. Materialization and mystification is not of two separate processes but two aspects of the same process. People draw their own social relations as though they are objects and see them as something natural. The golden light in Cho’s exhibition enables us to think about the problem of exchange that mediate by means of abstract object of the so-called “money.” During the gold standard, money was regarded as something equivalent to gold, but today, where common use of money puts its basis of value, is unclear. Ideology is not the truth because it is real, but it demonstrates its powers when problems of manipulation and modification becomes significant. The various phenomena of society which seem to be absurd are usually results of conflicting interests. In Cho’s work, due to the mission of the janitor who must get rid of them before the residents of the apartment sees them, the ‘duty of faith’ of a religious man had gone straight into the trash bin. And this event, which, all of a sudden, had given enlightenment to the artist/resident, appears in another territory through works of art.
The process of going through numerous stages-from a believer to the artist- informs that in human society, there exists more than one duty and that each of the duties, at times, conflict with each other. The awareness on reality where the method of resolving such conflicts conforms with the principle of power rather than reason would create the black-humoristic manner that can be found in the Cho’s works. Some faiths are false and some are true, and when they become difficult to follow, they get thrown away. The word ‘One Mind’, inscribed with embroidery in the piece The Abandoned Family Precepts II, hung at the entrance of the exhibition room, is a family precept made by the artist’s mother herself which, although it used to hang inside the house when the artist was a little boy, it had been abandoned in the family storage for decades. The calligraphy written ‘Perseverance, Sincerity and Diligence’ which the artist had picked up from a street was probably a precious value which someone had once tried to follow. ‘Duty of Faith’ that appear in a grandiose writing, surrounded by two phoenixes, has made the artist to summon the things that had been thrown away. The artist had not made any corrections to it, however, the choice itself has a certain message and he had presented in a way that looks worn.
Whether “one mind” or “perseverance, sincerity and diligence”, values that are hard to follow, or rather, seem to have been made into things that have disappeared now that it is hard to follow any more, stand alongside with artworks that must be noticed. Like the many ironies that penetrate this exhibition, to enshrine means it had disappeared. Mailboxes and urns, appearing after the abandoned family mottos, notifies us of the receivers of which the messages are being delivered to and their absence. The image of the work Duty of Faith-Mailbox, where ‘duty of faith’ leaflets are stuck inside each mailboxes, seems to have reduced the standardized collective residential area into a small scale. It is the same with the message that is being spread indiscriminately here. The piece also symbolizes the atomization and, at the same time, also the product/message that is being transmitted to the standardized families. The urns next to it, similar to the mailboxes’s method, are, one by one, put to rest inside a grid structure. Even in death, the product/message delivery path is alike. From life till death, within the gridified space, what is coordinated is consistent.
Ideology is omnipresent within such abstract structure as much as concrete actions of someone that deliver his own beliefs through leaflets. Structure today demonstrates a power bigger than any other subject. Structures, to some extent, foreshadow the lives determined uniformly. The metal plates, where reduction model of life and death have been inscribed, do not hide the trace of time such as the corrosions or scratches. Like dominos made to stand in order to be knocked down, the firm plates were used ironically to not to be that way. The piece Duty of Faith and Condolence Wreath, unfolding throughout 3 planes in an altarpiece style, inscribed things that were lying on the ground on the firm plates like flyers inscribed with those words. However, the condolence flowers on both sides inform the fact that this set-up is simultaneously a collapse. The metal plates that have naturally been marbled due to humidity and pressure doubles the condolence atmosphere. The process of carving the plate in order to inscribe an image is a process of reordering the chaos; however, this, too, must endure the test of time.
In this exhibition, the artist had delivered the message by adding artificial scratches, besides natural contaminations. The piece Duty of Faith left its center empty. Traces of corrosion dripping down from the sacred icon, the phoenixes, cross over the blank center. In this piece where was frequently used as a photo zone to the viewers during the whole exhibition period, the artist leaves it to the imagination of each person what had disappeared and collapsed. Of course, the artist, who is the deliverer of the message, did leave something dropped on the ground, where it is not very noticeable. They are a certain type of flower that usually show up with the phoenixes. The grave yet satirical atmosphere that fill half of the exhibition space becomes light and cheerful from the point of Guardian Angel, in which lightness and darkness coexist. It is probably because it is a territory which a young life, having been born recently, leads. Here, even the leaflets that get spread in the streets are attached onto a golden frame or mirror. Messages, like mirrors, reflect humans, and thereby, form humans.
The mirror which shows imagination and not reality, develops the ego as much as it symbolizes. Because it is difficult to face reality, imagination and symbols demonstrate power. Likewise, rewards for great actions are also messages that form humans. The award certificates over-issued to a child who would probably not even know the meaning of it, express the authority or power of the transactor giving out those awards. The pieces Words and Search are in forms of award certificates given to a baby who is just starting to learn how to speak. In case of native language and not the foreign one, we learn naturally, not knowing how we had learned them. Language possesses a status of unconsciousness, deriving from others. Of course, parents would treat their child from an educator’s position, however, the child learns to speak through listening and imitating. The piece Search, where there are images relevant to the weird words inside the award certificates such as Gukgung(Doogung-lid), gyereung(gyeran-egg), eemabang(sunpooggi-fan), are arranged in the form identical to Words, at the opposite side. Like the recognitive process of a child, words and objects aim for proximity but they do not completely overlap each other. Such discordance creates an incorrect perception. However, at the same time, such immatureness is also the hope that can renew the relationship between words and objects.
Duty of Faith-Birth II, where there is an image of a child inscribed on a brass sheet that is 3m in height, is a monumental portrait of the artist’s 17 months old son, and with a spoon and a rice bowl grabbed in his hands, he seems to be ambitiously heading forth. The naive child holding a rice bowl and a spoon seems to be bearing hopes to become like the in-word of today, ‘the golden spoon,’ within the modern society harsh to the extent that the old saying, ‘each are born with their own rice bowls’, sounds like hope. As in another piece, Duty of Faith-Birth, this also applies to the image of a child that is sitting on a king’s chair. In Cho’s works, such wishful thinking is atavistic because the spoon and rice bowls used in the work Mother and Me-Prayer at the front were ones used when the artist was a child. The childhood spoon descending on a gold chain from a high ceiling continuously strikes the bowls on top of the dining table, which is circling round and round by a motor device. Life to humans, who must resolve three meals everyday as though Earth revolves, is serious. When humans dwelled upon problems of life and death, that is, the limits of humans, religion was born; it is a matter that cannot be solved solely with economy.
The spoon-striking sound resonating the whole exhibition space, in artist’s words, reaches us ‘in different ways according to who is hearing it; like the wind chime of temples; like the jingling sound of biers; like the peal of catholic church bells.’ Although religion as a unilateral message, carried on leaflets, are satirical, when considering the big and small miracles that must follow all the process of life reaching from birth until death, it spreads, resonating as the Truth which no one dares to deny. The piece Eternal Light, which hangs at the last point of the viewer’s movement line, is covered with chrysanthemums, surrounded by candles, exuding a ritualistic atmosphere. There is an affiliation of elements reaching from sticky material to luminosity. A woman lying as if dead is also the image of death that exists at the peak of sexual ecstasy which many male artists had enjoyed using as an expression, including Bataille. It takes the form of ritualistic ways that represent the drama of life and death. Reaching from a single page of flyer to religion that takes the solemn form of altar style, the artist brings in various methods, ruminating over the fundamental forms of life. Even though Cho is not a believer, he is assumed to be a religious man.
Because art had inherited a certain aspect from religion, to those indulging in the works of art, religious sentiments can be detected. However, the ironical expressions which he makes use of are at the inside of religion, but then, they will also take forms of the outside. He arouses sanctity through blasphemy, crossing over the boundary. Religion, which had become blunt due to system, is shown better through such negative ways. This also applies to art. For instance, the over extravagant presentment shown in the piece My Mother and Me-Prayer rings an alarm on all kinds of serious hypocritical forms including art, which, in the end, can be generalized into ‘matters of livelihood’, had we taken out the autobiographical story. A series of ‘duties’(the artist) inherent within the chosen exhibition subtitle, the so-called ‘Duty of Faith,’ shows the disjunction between the aim of value and the reality. Besides icons that have strong symbolic meanings, emptiness, excessiveness, scratches, dripping, etc. are forms that correspond to these disjunctions. Although reality is busy trying to hide such disjunction through ideology, in art, it is revealed candidly because art is a territory of the mind that emerge when body and existence called ‘material’ strike against each other.