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In Search for the Lost Faith

Jade Keunhye Lim (Curator, Seoul Museum of Art) 2016


When I first met Hyun-ik Cho at his solo exhibition Duty of Faith, a title that sounds both plausible and contradictory depending on who you ask, and the artist seemed both predictable and serious. I sensed a bit of anger, a kind of shock and excitement that he seems to enjoy simultaneously in any given moment upon his face. He was returning back from the police station where he had just reported that someone had removed a found-object (a church flyer) from his painting and disappeared with it. He talked earnestly about the moment he realized that the flyer was missing- who would took it and when, where, why and how for quite some time. I couldn’t help but think about the negative light the policeman at the police office would have seen him under, due to his attitude.  

His conclusion that this kind of accident can assert another meaning is like the work of Duchamp on a crack, where we are supposed to believe that ready-made objects cannot be totally controlled, that spontaneous inspirations are created through the participation of audiences or their accidental intervention, and at the same time, we are supposed to understand these moments as collisions and shakes of ‘faith’, occurred from different awareness and attitudes towards the same object. As the artist wanted, the flyer was exhibited as an artwork with a new value- but the person who took it would never realize or perhaps intentionally ignored the artist’s purpose. In this situation where a silent or explicit promise has been made for the artwork to be managed and protected in order to keep the original forms forged by the artist, the gallery and audiences have extended the context of the exhibition where a matter of faith in people has been raised.

The title of the exhibition- borrowed from a phrase on the church’s flyers that are often found on apartment’s mailboxes- can be read differently depending on how the interpretation on the genitive case ‘’s’ is made. One interpretation could be the 'duty that faith (a believer) has to carry’ or ‘the duty called faith’. In other words, ‘faith is the duty of human beings’. From looking at the flyer that the artist selected, it is obvious that in this exhibition, ‘faith’ is used as a religious term. However, if the artist’s continuous theme of the pain- originated from betrayal among the worldly relationships with people-is portrayed, ‘faith’ in his exhibition comes to bring more comprehensive readings.

Hyun-ik Cho's exhibition seems to be emphasizing that faith acts as a variable standard in order to be doubted, kept and even thrown away, rather than revealing that it is the duty of human beings which has to be followed, or believed as an absolute value. Although the embroidery and calligraphy of ‘One Mind’ in the entrance of the exhibition, in addition to the words ‘Perseverance, Sincerity and Diligence’ on the work The Abandoned Family Precepts 1, 2 were mottos aimed towards members of a family regarding their personal lineage, the artist actually found these mottos thrown away in the street before bringing them to the exhibition space. As I approached the space from the entrance, I found the cold images of two ‘Condolence Wreath’, and a church’s flyer accompanied by the phrase ‘Duty of Faith’ on three overwhelmingly large metal plates.

These are the main works of this exhibition, and seem to be making a statement about ‘the end of faith’. The church’s flyers in the mailboxes of an apartment as well as the cremation urns- arranged horizontally and vertically- make reference to the life of modern people who have lead standardized and uniform lives. Ever since the Romans chose a new religion based on the teachings of the one and only God, breaking away from their former polytheistic beliefs to dominate the colonies, Christianity has adopted each region's culture and politics in order to spread across the world. It is no coincidence that Christianity became so popular during the 1970’s and 80’s, when the whole nation was focused on developing the economy of South Korea in order to get out of the poverty. At that time, even under big political oppression, most people devoted their whole life based on the idea that faith in this world leads to salvation in the afterlife. This religious belief filled up absent of values in the Anomie of the modern era, where mental growth could not catch up with the speed of material growth, and all faith in pursuit of good fortune through prayer or financial support inspired visions of hope and a synergy effect similar to that of the Saemaeul Movement. Evidence in our history where religion succeeded in all its ideology reminds us once again of the blindness of faith.

Doubts pertaining to faith probably do not have to be only about the religious nature of faith. The depiction of the patterns of a Phoenix on the corners of an empty metal plate, similar to that of a typical certificate of government officials in South Korea seems to symbolize the meaninglessness of the value that has been infused in a nation, or absent of the nation’s ideology. The government monopolization of South Korea, which was ghastly revealed in the fall of 2016, trampled our beliefs that the power of a nation comes from the public and that the common sense of government administration has to be transparent and fair. This realization drove the public to the state that they want to deny the existence of their nation. The empty surfaces implied through the traces of a Phoenix were created in the work previous to this event, but came to fully embody the situation of the present when the supreme ruler lost all the public's faith.

In the past, the artist had focused on psychological wounds resulting from faith and betrayal through the portraits of women, rather than religion and nation in his practice. The mysterious existences of these women- pure girls, femme fatales and sleeping women- looked as though they were standing on the boundaries of life and death, where they appear among scattered red paints acting as both traces of violence and decoratively beautiful all at the same time. Furthermore, the artist made a continuous effort to encounter the situation without an absolute value or faith, through mixing sacred and profane images, such as imagery of religion and pornography in his art, as a means to discuss the duplicity or double-sidedness of pure desire and life and death. The loss of faith in a lover extended to doubts on faith of religion and a nation. As the range seemingly expanded, we are left to wonder why the feelings became lighter and brighter in depiction.

The series of works in gold frames, with backgrounds of the gold wallpaper, such as the work that looks similar to an award certificate with the patterns of a Phoenix accompanied by words that seem to be written by a young child, the portrait work of the artist’s young son wearing a diaper while holding a rice bowl, and My Mother and Me-Prayer where bell-like sounds accompany a rotating table and spoon reminding us of a funeral procession or the cycle of life and death- these works appear more hopeful than his previous works of dark colors. The act of pursuing the most primitive and absolute values, survival and coexistence, as much as the false nature of ‘Duty of Faith’ in the systemized societies of the modern nations is revealed, is also the ironical result of the history, repeated in times of crisis.

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