Flashing Clash of Soullessness and Saintliness
Lee Sun-young (Art Critic) 2011
Rusted and grinded, the subject with disheveled hair and stained blood is exposed between staged light and darkness. The beautiful women in Cho Hyun-ik's works are undeniably subjects of desire. In ritualistic images filled with candle lights imprinted on overwhelmingly heavy and large steel plates, appear women depicted as complex icons entangled in love and desire. Alluring and ominous, the woman is the subject matter and the subject that casts an honest reflection of her own life. However, the trauma of love generalizes personal narrative. Whatever form it takes on, love is the ultimate proof that differentiates human from animals and non-living matter. Therefore, it has always formed the deepest core of art. Love is not too different from art, in which the creator is completely drawn but never easily grasped, and which breeds endless frustration and deprivation on the other side of pleasure. Cho’s works are like the blood-splattering battleground on which the artist confronts this problematic subject that incessantly inflames him. In this battle, the victory enhances the terrible scar into a beautiful marking.
Women are a subject of great interest for man of youth, since they are both the subject of love and hatred yet beyond the control of men. Cho’s works are the artist’s own way of possessing women. The women in his works range from models to actual women the artist loved, but the ways in which they are dealt with are similar. The images root from photographs that capture the women lying down, from above. The Wound Series (2008-2009) portray clear images of women on a bed, receiving a baptism of camera flash. Under complete domination of the camera and the eye, the women’s eyes are either closed or covered. Taken by the artist, the photographs are reconstructed through the computer then carved onto heavy steel plates. The steel plates are left to be corroded naturally for a few weeks, then polished with sandpaper to be reinvented into a dramatic battle ground of light and darkness. A sense of rhythm and texture is created by scraping the surface or applying graphite pigment or oil-based medium on the images transferred onto the corroded steel plates. The complex process involving transitions in sculpture, printmaking and painting pains the artist, but he also becomes the one inflicting pain, as the creator of women through such process.
Bathed in graphite and rust, the massive wound-like woman is fixed with car varnish. The time, through which fatal wound is inflicted and healed, is sealed. However, this process continues to be repeated because sealing it does not solve the original problem of the frustration. This is the reason that years of Cho’s works seem like a series. Desire — which drives love — rides the rhythm of repetition (and difference). Women, the subject of desire, are arranged rhythmically as if to be dancing. Sometimes this sense of rhythm arranges the bodies like strangely stiffened corpses. The women transform from a living breathing body to taxidermy. Cho’s individual images are charged with dormant energy through the artist’s similar play on iconography and conceptualization. Even in the image where the woman is dead still, her hair is in full movement, as if to be in full flames, or to be surging in water. Regardless of her intentions, desire squirms and throws its tentacles of temptation to the viewer. The women in the series Embrace All : Light, Cut Myself (2009) seem to be embracing everything, but the blood splashing from her ankle and the hair tumbled everywhere seem to suggest a dance of death. Desire, endlessly stimulating and depleting man, is closely related to death.
In Cho’s work, Woman-Desire-Love-Death is a never-ending circle in which love ends in death and destruction comes from love. What completes this age-old yet always newly invented cycle is woman, the other that cannot be symbolized. More closely related to nature than civilization, women in Cho’s works are situated in the abyss of darkness. In her book Tales of Love, Julia Kristeva stated that while symbols are meaning, communication or structure, women are a strange channel which degenerates culture to nature, and narrator to biology. The women in the art work, half submerged in darkness, portray heterogeneity that cannot be defined in symbols. The desire for woman is imagined to be more closely related to death, because the womb of life and the origin of destruction are traced to the same place. Woman is a womb and a tomb, a fatal danger of loss. Approaches are taken to confront this danger through the images of sleep or death that suggest confinement and sealing, but when these approaches fail, they form a stage in which desire can powerfully lash out at any moment. This stage is a sluggish state in which all desires have been perished.
Because of this connection between desire and death, the ancient hedonists’ skepticism about original love had persuasive powers. According to the argument made by Jean Salem in Ancient Theories of Atom, love was limitless passion itself to the classical hedonists as well as to atomists, and love was thought to be limitless because people are blinded by passion. Love is the only thing that cannot be quenched and ceaselessly inflames the heart with fierce desire. Thus, love can never fix the human pathological fear, not even in the moment of possession. In other words, love can never be bounded, or limited; it’s infinity of desires that cannot be controlled. For this reason, the real hedonists (sage) do not fall in love that casts alienation. Even more dismal is the conception of love in the modern times, since the Middle Ages in which men were governed by the love of God. In Kristeva’s Tales of Love, love is not only the hidden side of death, but relies on death, according to Baudelaire, the key philosopher of modern times. Beautiful women embraced in death appear countless times in fin-de-siècle Symbolism paintings of belated Romanticism, the apostles of the religion of aesthetics.
According to Kristeva, dead woman is pleasurable as nostalgia. She is graspable, but is an existence of impossibility that has been forever lost. Precisely in this sense, women (the other, subject) are perished for love after death, the ultimate crystallization. In love after death, the artist possesses her and projects the omnipotence of his desire to eventually possess himself. In Cho’s recent works, the reappearing Medusa or Ophelia arouse the desire for possession. However, since they cannot be possessed, they are ominous women. Because the artist cannot possess (control) his passion for women, he becomes the passion itself. In the works in which death impulse is encoded, love is actually Thanatos, the hidden side of Eros. The women lurk behind the symbols of Thanatos. Women are lying down, evenly spaced out, and the artist absorbs the women of his love through his gaze. Such visual absorption of his subject of love signifies the destruction and obedience of the subject. Love cannot see the true beauty; it only sees the illusion and gaze. However, the gaze of desire perpetually fails to capture the other; thus, the figures of women are continuously repeated.
Cho's works portray the desiring subject, or the subject of lack. The real truth behind the confined women in his works is ‘lacking’. Jacques Lacan said that “…poetic creation consists in positing an object I can only describe as terrifying, an inhuman partner.” According to Lacan, subjecthood is attained through the purification of torture and pain. The Laconic interpretation of love which proclaims the absence of the subject yields to the stubborn attack that tries to supplement the lack of genuine relationships. Although Lacan believes that the truth is composed by the small difference between representation and the object of representation, he renders love into a void by concluding that truth is nearly impossible. In Utterly Dark Spot: Gaze and Body in Early Modern Philosophy, Miran Bozovic interprets love from the Laconian perspective. To Lacan, those who love lack something, but do not realize what they lack. What they lack does not rest in those whom they are in love with. The drama of love is played out in this discordance. In reality, there is no such thing as the subject of love who holds the immanent cause of love of the other.
The finite subjects we love are probably loved because of certain coincidental and partial similarities they hold with what’s lacking. This lacking subject is the ‘Subject a’ coined by Lacan. According to Laconic reasoning, no one is capable of loving besides God. Loving the other actually signifies a metonymic bond which ties the other to the subject of one’s true but inaccessible and absent love. In reality’s impossibility lies the tragedy of human love. In Cho’s work, this tragedy is rather stimulating. Like in the poem Wound by Wolf which Cho quotes, his works are a process of engraving “you…gouged out with a blade on the blood covered memories.” The artist encages “you…in the blazing flames with an eternal lock.” Because the woman provokes but does not gratify “to the ends of immortality where the damned are exhausted” she is judged as the sign of death. The reddish translucent fluids that suggest blood and semen are smeared with desire that has been solved with violence or negligence. The image of death in Cho’s works ranges from woman lying down as if dead in Wound (2008) to woman confined in coffin-like space in Love-Ecstasy, The Coffin of Medusa (2008-2009).
The background pattern repeated in many of Cho’s works is like the omen of decay that drives life to death. This pattern is like the seal stamped onto the original sinner. Although the artist claims that the pattern happens to be the pattern of the blanket the women are lying on, but subconsciously, it references sex and death. In Ophelia (2011), flower bouquet is thrown and flowers become liquid. Here, Chrysanthemum becomes a symbol of death. Erupted like the bouquet, desire finds no way out but disperses in the air like foam. Women are fixed in all ways possible in order to clearly capture the trace of desire. They are confined in visible and invisible confining mechanisms. Eyes closed and smeared in white semen in Ophelia 1 (2010), she becomes confined in a nailed-down frame in Ophelia 3 (2010). The sealing is intensively done in many layers, with nails and bolts holding fast the surface of the image. Sometimes, the woman freezes the viewer with her Medusa-like gaze. The hair is expressed with greater importance in the Medusa series, spreading out in all directions infinitely. Medusa is the original femme fatal that holds both enchantment and cruelty.
While women in Cho’s works close their eyes and become a subject under domination and possession, the wide-eyed Medusa freezes and turns the viewer into the subject. Fear of castration immanent in the gaze of Medusa is related to the 2010 Light-Cut Myself series. The woman in the work stands behind the blade of light, but the one that’s sliced is not the woman but the viewer. In the Light-Cut Myself series, there is blood at the end of the light that starts from the neck of the woman with disheveled hair. The glares emitting from the flood of bodily fluids like blood and semen signify pleasure that leads to death. The woman in the image is submerged in bodily secretions and decapitated by the sword of light. At the same time, the glare is the mirror that reflects the male on the outside, and coins the artist’s remark that this series is a “rebellion against the gaze on women.” Light-Cut Myself strives to cut out the desire that leads to death. There is a trace of the ancient ritual of sacrificial offering in sacrificing the subject of desire. The candles appearing in the image or installation enhance the ritualistic ambience of Cho’s works, which are even more enriched by the captivating size of his large canvases. They become an immersive experience that transcends references from religion to subcultures.
The Candlelight (2009) series bring to light the significance of candles by darkening the surrounding, or transforms the grinded part in the middle of the rusted plate into the realm of flaming light. In Gathering Rays of Light into a Focus (2009), a candle frame surrounds a women praying with her hands clasped. The artist claims that the duality of candle light is similar to that of women. Flaming up yet melting down, the candle signifies simultaneously the exaltation and decline of the body and mind. This duality is clear in images that traverse the boundaries of sacredness and blasphemy, soullessness and saintliness, and in the dichotomy that divides women into Maria (purity and life) and Eve (blasphemy and death). The women in Cho’s works are mysterious, but the mystery ranges in extremes, from oppression brought about from ignorance, to ideals that transcend democratic rationality. Whether a villain or not, the images of the goddess-like women are also immanent with religious sensuality which claims that “only complete darkness is similar to light (Nicolas Bataille).” In this sensual experience based on Bataille’s reasoning, Kristeva discovers an inclination of Catholicism to fully accept the rationality of sin and lead its internal collapse.
Thus, in this context, the woman traverses between blasphemy and sacredness in Cho’s works, in which two opposing semantic ideas of light and darkness — infinity and futility — confront each other in the end. The saintliness of love, according to Kristeva, is the non-subject, non-object called abjection. The glare in Cho’s work expresses the point at which soullessness and saintliness, the basis of love, dramatically confront each other. In between soullessness and saintliness, and infinity and emptiness, love traverses across boundaries and taboos, and summons up fear. The dark monotone works with uncannily brilliant reflective surfaces arouse a feeling of melancholy. In Kristeva’s Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, the depressed patients defend themselves from the insecurity inflicted by the subject of their sexual love. The depressed cannot endure Eros, and arrives at negative narcissism that leads to Thanatos. In that sense, melancholy is the dark hidden side of passionate love. Like the promise of nothingness and death, that signifies a union with impossible love that’s always elsewhere. The hard inorganic substance of oxidized metal on which the subject of love is imprinted symbolizes death that lurks on the other side of love.
Love and death drives are in the same category, forming a cycle. Death suggests an abyss-like mystery. The dark shades of Cho’s monotone works flood and dissolve the viewer. The women are deep in abyss devoid of any sense of time or space in Cho’s works in which dot pattern suggests a morbid omen and rusted spots suggest decomposition. In Black Sun, the various sexual deviations appear like the other side of depressed wife. There we can find the forever impossible perverted sexual desire —melancholic pleasure— that we’ve always dreamt, desired but never confessed. Pleasure is immanent in sighs and cries. Kristeva goes on further to say that the escape of patients suffering from melancholia consists of actually avoiding the danger that faces such eroticism. This is because the sexual desire ensures the balance between the subject and the other, and ultimately ensures the meaning of life. The lonely candle burning dangerously in the dark is a dramatic image of melancholy. The artist says that the candle light is similar to the silhouette of the female sexual organ, and that its nature is analogous to the passionate lovemaking. Candlelight is a light in the dark, and also a paradoxical existence that can only live by dying. It’s a union of the moment and eternity.
However, the flame is snuffed out the moment it’s tried to be possessed, and leaves a wound. The act of oxidation, splattering, burning and grinding in the process of his art making evokes a process of infinite consummation that reaches a state of sanctity. Light and darkness confront each other in their extremes in Cho’s works, in which the blinding light and the blinded darkness coexist. In Cho’s work, sweet love gives birth to tension and anxiety, because love is a dramatic experience through which one meets the other. The encounter with the other demands collapse of boundaries, and this becomes the simultaneous origin of happiness and misfortune. In Tales of Love, Kristeva says that the limits of the individual identity are abolished in the passion of love. Love, according to Kristeva, drives one crazy, transcends the person, and goes beyond the limitations of the individual. Love is time and space through which one can grant oneself the right to be extraordinary. Here, the self is not an individual but a monarch. We reach a superhuman mental phenomenon of infinite space through the fusion with someone we love. In love, one stands at the peak of subjectivity.
On the other hand, love is lonely. Like the women in Cho’s works, it’s ambiguous and fleeting like the candlelight. Thus, modern psychoanalysts do not specify the subject of love. According to them, there is no such thing as subject of love or it’s something that never comes. Cho’s work in which ominous and impossible subjects lurk, is a method to feel and grasp one’s absence and ambiguous presence. To the artist, his work and the women in his work are the same thing. In the sense that it’s an attempt to possess what’s not possible to possess, loving and art making are analogous. Like the skeptics that Alain Badiou criticized in his book In Praise of Love, if love is ultimately nothing more or less than social plot to firmly inherit the means and vested right to continue the human species, then love can never be a genuine subject in art. Skeptics believe that love does not exist, it’s just flowery words of desire, and that desire is the only thing that is left.
This perspective thoughtlessly concludes that love is just an imaginary constituent that’s apart of sexual desire. Such ‘liberal concept’ —which Alain Badiou sees as real antagonist of love — understands love as nothing more than unnecessary danger. It’s like concluding that one can possess both the attributes of a prepared couple ready to indulge in the pleasure of consumption and the delightful sexual compromise that’s filled with pleasure but lacking in passion. Artists, who usually remain outside of dominant systems, are some of those who refuse such simple conclusions that comply with reality. Love in Cho’s works endows substance and meaning to life, rather than being a simple conclusion that’s like a ‘liberal contract between two individuals who devote to the system that serves the mutual interest of a man and a woman (Alain Badiou).’ To the artist, love is ‘a creative play of difference (Alain Badiou)’ and a thought. To quote Socrates in Platon’s The Republic, “Things not based on love can never arrive at philosophy.” Likewise, it’s the same for arriving at art.