From Bed to Coffin, Cradle to Grave
Kho Chung-hwan (Art Critic) 2009
The works of Cho Hyun-ik begins with photographing nude female bodies on the bed. Most of them are captured from above, under the camera flash. Suddenly becoming a subject of depiction, the body covers her eyes, turns her head or closes her eyes altogether to avoid the flash. The flash symbolizes the artist’s voyeuristic desires, as the female body is reduced into a mere thing, a subject and an object, exposed to the violence of such desires.
The act of seeing incubates desires and violence. In fact, the history of seeing has a profound relationship with the history of epistemology: the act of seeing does not terminate with the mere visual mechanism of seeing itself, but exercises knowledge, analyzing, evaluating, exploring and lusting. The act of seeing activates a complex mental operation. One sees the world (other), and the world (other) is seen by the seer. Therefore, seeing is always unidirectional rather than being interactive, and it encompasses a struggle between seeing and the gaze of the seen. Cho’s work proclaims ‘you’ to become a thing, a subject or an object in order for ‘me’ to see you better. Your closing your eyes is more of a reflection of my desires and needs to objectify you, rather than being an expression of your own autonomous will. Even when your eyes are closed, your body is still exposed, becoming your eyes that gaze back at me. In facing your gaze, I shrivel up in perplexity. My intention to objectify you is defeated the moment I meet your gaze, and it only intensifies the ontological lack that can never be satisfied under any circumstances.
The decisive moment in this tension between seeing and gazing back arrives when you open your eyes and acknowledge me. The artist links this moment to the myth of Medusa, in which all who looks into the eyes of Medusa turns into stone. Medusa’s eyes symbolize truth and veracity, and all those who face the truth die (castrating anxiety). Therefore, the living can never see nor realize the truth. That moment comes unknowingly, as unexpected as it was to realize that you could open your eyes, and the truth rests beyond the humanly perceptible realm as if the gaze belonged to the body, and not the eye (mind).
The artist conjures up the image of Medusa’s head of snakes with the woman on the bed with disheveled hair. Women are like Medusa and femme fatale to the artist. The hair of sleeping Medusa warns the human desires to arrive at the truth (women). The truth (woman) has her eyes closed for the moment, but they can open at any given moment. Tempting and cruel, with seduction as great as destruction, the truth (woman) can wake up unpredictably from sleep and freeze the soul of the seer. However, this is safe as long as her eyes are closed, like in the photograph. Although the woman is fossilized the moment eyes are shut, locked up in a steel plate, then concealed under coats of urethane, lurking behind the layers is the fatal castration anxiety.
Such act of photographing a nude woman denotes an almost definitive meaning, as it not only provides the original source of the work, but also forms a symbolic, mythical, formal and psychological meaning and aura that characterizes the artist’s work. Under no circumstances is it possible to look at a subject or photograph it without any desire, as photography has a profound relationship with desire, and even more so with the desire to possess. And the desire is propelled the moment the real and the image are equated (One possesses the other by capturing the other in a photograph). The act of taking a photograph, collecting them and classifying them is strongly interlocked with the desire to possess, fortify and structuralize one’s very own world (the other). Cho’s photographs restructure this true nature and mechanism of desire.
The artist inputs the information of his photographs into a computer, and then carries out a certain amount of manipulation work before he enlarges them and prints them out. The printed partial images are assembled into one, and the whole image as one is transferred onto a rusted steel plate. A steel plate is used as a surface on which to re-trace the image, rather than on canvas or paper. As tableau artists labor and toil to create enough texture (body of painting) on the canvas before they actually start painting, Cho also elevates the material quality (property matter) of the steel plate as one of the definitive elements of his work. It entails building up rust in a highly controlled manner through oxidation process. For instance, he creates random scratch marks and sandpaper marks, then exposes it to air and oxidizes it. Cho’s works usually go through a natural oxidation process, but when particularly strong image is desired, he puts acid (chemical products) or water to artificially intervene in that process.
After transferring the image onto a steel plate with the desired texture and color, he focuses on the brighter areas by sanding them down. Here, mainly just the rough silhouette remains from the original transferred image and the detailed form is hidden under the outline. A process of sanding is used to touch up with different shades and details. In other words, sanding is used to reveal the full spectrum of shades on the surface, from dark and middle tones to the highlights. In a way, this process is very analogous to erasing an image to uncover brighter areas in a dark pencil drawing. Contrary to the pencil drawing which becomes darker and darker with marking, the eraser or the sandpaper brightens the image. Ultimately, it’s an eraser-drawing which inversely applies the method of drawing, while also having some similarities with the traditional black and white ink drawings.
In addition, sanding doesn’t rest merely on depicting shades and forms. As the subject deals with the nude female body, the sanding reveals the soft skin texture and the abundance of half-tones found in a nude female body. This method thus takes a step further from simple visual representation to dealing with tangible qualities. Through this process, the result is a photographic work in which there is permeation between the brownish rusted steel plate and the grey-silvery nude body, dark and bright areas, and the rough texture and smooth texture. At times graphite power is added to emphasize a coarser, softer and darker color and texture of hair, while pearly, partly transparent pigment is used to fortify the aura of sexual fantasy. Hence, the weaving of rough and detailed, and of light and darkness symbolizes the duplicity of desire (where temptation and violence juxtapose and fortify each other) and contradiction (temptation that leads to death).
As aforementioned, temptation brings on violence, and death is inherent in desire. Although this equation usually rests at the level of entertainment, gesture and imagination, one can also assume its reference to Sadism. In Sadism, the level of violence, pleasure and quality of temptation are all interlocked. While temptation is commonly known to be caused by the qualities of the subject (precisely the voluntary will of the subject), it’s actually sparked on by the seer (the desires of the seer projected onto the subject). Supporting this idea is the fact that the subjects on which the desire is projected are diverse, and that desire can also be directed at subjects beyond common sense.
While Cho’s work reiterates a branch of humanities in which life and death, urge for life and urge for death, Eros and Thanatos, are intimately reciprocated, they suggest the heterogeneity and contradictions of life. Furthermore, the artist emphasizes these points by employing actual coffins into his work. A model poses in a coffin lined with vinyl and filled with water. As if to suggest the death of Ophelia, the tragic female protagonist in Hamlet (in a Romanticist painting, the corpse of Ophelia is depicted as if she were sleeping eternally immersed in water), the artist perpetuates the symbolic legacy of Romanticism, in which water symbolizes chaos, femininity (anima), death and rebirth. And finally by spilling blood (symbolizing sacrifice offering and death) and semen (symbolizing rebirth) on the female body, Cho sheds a light on the mythical significance of women as an emblem of sacred chaos.