Forest of the Combined, An Intrusion Between Reason and Desire

Tae Man Choi (Art Critic)

Yeo Hyun Kwon is an avant-garde artist. Since his debut in 1980, he has produced tremendous amounts of work covering various media; painting, photography, drawing, sculpture, installation, performance and video. The level of his productiveness has been proved by thirty or more of his solo exhibitions he has had in and abroad the country. What fuels this vigorous productivity of his? I used to find the answer to that from his unique habit. That is, the habit of looking at a television or a computer screen while on the phone, with his other hand drawing. This could mean that all of his senses are constantly open towards the outer world. In other words, Kwon utilizes his eyes, nose, mouth, ears and even his tongue, hands, feet, and skin to analyze the essence and phenomena, and the self and others. Kwon’s greed for art is evident in this habit. I have once termed his paintings a ‘republic of images’. However, now I observe them to be a ‘federation’ instead of a republic. It is an enormous federal that links images with the arts of philosophy, psychology and sociology. This can be seen in the diversity and hybridity of his work. Rich, multifaceted and even loquacious works of Kwon are composed of parallel layers of the combined. Therefore, his works are a heresy to purebred-dominated Modernism butaliberalzoneforcrossbred-honoredPostmodernism.Inshort,Kwon’spaintingsareoverloaded,sophisticated,passionateandcalm.

A recent work <Conatus’ Forest> can be an example. The background is an undefined forest. A snake called Ouroboros lives here. The snake wraps around a tree dividing the center of the canvas like a tree of God. Then there is human in the area of the coiled up snake. In this secretive forest, Nietzsche with medusa’s hair and Spinoza in the form of Hermaphrodite are facing each other in nude like the first mankind from the Garden of Eden. The person next to them that the snake is attempting to swallow is Arthur Schopenhauer. Jacques Derrida peaks beneath them and Korea’s national treasure no.83 Seated Gold-bronze Statue of Mediating Buddha all of sudden reveals itself. On the right section of the canvas, an Indian dancer lures the viewer and a donkey grows roots from its legs. The image itself is surrealistic, supernatural, mysterious and dreamy. However, the texts that appear on the bottom of the canvas bring out an intellectual question on the structure of this illusionistic scene. The snake Ouroboros is bearing a book called [SYSTÉME DE LA MODE](1967) by Roland Barthes. Underneath, there lay books written ‘Conatus’ in Latin and ‘Ouroboros’ in Greek. At this point, the painting now is to be read and not to be seen. It could even be said to be an encyclopedia of philosophy written with images. Moreover, symbols of never-ending cycle appear which makes it even more confusing. Paintings are to be interpreted and not to be described. Even so, there is a need for us to carefully go through the artist’s concepts in order to understand the structure of his magical and uncanny forest. But there is one image not yet portrayed, which acts as a key to understand the meaning of this painting. What is meant by the image of this young woman lying caught in a net? She is in a deep sleep, undressed. Or is she hypnotized?

Yeo Hyun Kwon’s keywords of his recent works are; conatus, Ewige Wieder-Kunft, monad, spiral circulation, ambivalence, the mirror stage, the gaze, glimpse of the real, macguffin, desire, hegemony upon ideology. Conatus, mentioned in the title of his painting earlier, is an ‘urge and desire to sustain, develop and complete one’s self’ as Spinoza had stated. Therefore, the meaning derived from the title itself, <Conatus’ Forest> is a world of continuous lives. Nevertheless, Spinoza had said that the best of conatus will be displayed through the political system and so the forest is not a world of darkness and chaos but a world composed with harmonic relationships. However, humans are not the ones who conquer this world. They are rapped around with Ouroboros and stems flowing out of the tree. The Ouroboros biting its tail creates a big circle and symbolizes reincarnation or eternalness where the beginning is the end and the end becomes another beginning.

Various kinds of ancient mythology based on the region’s climatic conditions like the ones of the artist are present. Ancient Mesopotamian myths built upon Tammuz and Ishtar are a metaphor of the cycle of rainy and dry season. Like the sun setting towards the West and the moon cycle have brought up the idea of birth and death, the on going circulation of flood and drought gave rose to the notion of nature’s cycle and ultimately of an inalterable eternity. Ancient Egyptians expressed this with their hieroglyphic characters. As an example, ‘Ra’ the sun god like Horus, was represented as a man with the head of a hawk and a solar disk on top with a coiled serpent around the disk. The Greeks observed the skin shedding of a snake to be a renewal of the body and created Ouroboros – a symbol of continuous rebirth. Metaphors on the permanency of time were passed on to Gnosticism. They used the Ouroboros to express the idea of a unified world, but also to symbolize the rebirth of Jesus Crist. Medieval alchemy noticed the Ouroboros as a creature holding both beginning and end, considering it as a symbol of the ‘philosopher’s stone’ represented as ‘0’. Overall, it would be no harm to define the Ouroboros as creation, eternity, infinity, immorality, entirety and alteration. Thus, the <Conatus’ Forest> can be seen as a space of Mobius strip, never-ending with no beginning or end.

Herman Hesse has stated in his novel <Demian> that we must break the eggshell and fly towards Abraxas. However, our mortality does not allow us to be released from Ouroboros. Death is not what leads us to a perpetual world from the world of impermanence but just another step returning to the structure of circulation. To prove this, Kwon has summoned a coiled up circling snake along with Nietzsche and Spinoza in his canvas. This is also where one of his keyword, ‘Ewige Wieder-Kunft’ comes in. Doesn’t Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return point towards a Dionysian moment of birth? Born from a wholly Christian family, Kwon chose to kill god and accept an absolute being with self-will to overcome a nirvana of good and evil. What Nietzsche tried to say about eternal return through Zarathustra is the ‘moment’ of released ego from a Dionysus state becoming an independent and creative man. The metaphysical moment, which gives birth to the Arts. Thus, the forest of conatus Kwon has presented is not an eternal and stable paradise but an unstable and vibrant active-space. Moments are vibrant, drama occurs and the desire of preservation - conatus is activated. But it cannot be liberated from Ouroboros-the chain of fate. The accidental encounter of Nietzsche and Spinoza can only occur within the net. The net is not what restricts the mind or the body but what links the relationship. Hence, the net can be seen as causality or Indra’s net from Buddhism. Causality relates to a Buddhist concept of the cycle (birth and death) of mankind. Here, the sleeping woman and dancing Apsara wrapped over in the net is a sign of cause and effect.  

After all, trying to analyze Kwon’s works in logical terms will only lead us to be caught in his trap. This is because the net is not just a tool for capturing images but a sort of a bait. A decoy! Come to think of it, one of the keywords he suggested is macguffin, meaning a trap or a lure. Also known as one of famous Hitchcock’s technique, the macguffin does not affect the story line but grabs the audience’s attention with intentions to deliver fear or confusion. Hence, the existence of Nietzsche, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Derrida, the Seated Gold-bronze Statue of Mediating Buddha and Apsara in one space corresponds to the Surrealists’ use of the ‘unfamiliar’ (depaysement). In the end we-those who are looking through philosophy books to read the images of his work- are distressed in his chaotic world that he had set up as the conatus’ forest. Similar decoy appear in many other works of his. In <Jeanne d’Arc’s Forest>, Jeanne d’Arc is no longer a heroin. She is either a Medusa or an arrogant actress holding her Oscar’s Trophy up high towards the screaming Wonder-woman.  We mustn’t think the owl upon her shoulder makes her Minerva because it will lead us to become captives of Kwon’s macguffin. A sudden presence of pine tree in his Henri Rousseau-like imaginary forest is as awkward as the appearance of Jeanne d’Arc’s servant dog. This dog recalls the one in Albrecht Durer’s print following a knight bravely marching through death and devil’s lure but it is not logically connected to Jeanne d’Arc. So is the robot (Mazinga-Z) supporting her left hand. Subsequently, in Kwon’s painting, the center is slips by its surroundings and metaphor is sucked into the essence.

Thence, what does the artist really want to say with his forest of chaos? A conclusion that all living things die is too humble and one-dimensional. In my perception, he seems to be arguing with his images that existence cannot be classified through a set proof of logic. Ambivalence could be a concept that clarifies it. Approaching his works with binary categorization such as existence and absence, the subject and the object, idea and phenomenon, good and evil will only shift them away from our reason. Even so, he is not wondering in the depths of agnosticism. As always, he is speaks his opinion through his paintings. Uniquely, he has always set his self-values or philosophies up prior to presenting the work. This aspect makes Kwon a highly intellectual artist. In earlier days, he was engaged in existential philosophy. These are six principles he had suggested in order to present it via painting;

First, a solid background and a thin layer of humans

Second, sectional abstract and overall figurative composition    

Third, a phased procedure

Fourth, different styles in each section

Fifth, the principles of drawing – bold compositions, sharp lines, strong light, mixed arrangement of completely differing places

Sixth, disparate abstract form is unified by color and content

(Solo-exhibition ‘Real Space-n’ and ‘Form and Content-n’ 1987)

Of course, the above principles are methods to visually portray the philosophy that he pursued, but what he never gave up during the process were the hands. Drawing with the hand has constantly been the essence of his work excluding the portrait photograph of him disguising as various classes and types of people. Affection and belief towards his hands are a crucial element of his work. This is similar to his attractive physique and opposing complex (people who know him will soon recognize this) being the source of his narcissism. A fancy photograph was created as a by-product of his performance video <Savior>. His hands were smeared with paint whilst rubbing the paint on to the canvas placed on the floor with his whole body; ‘accidently’ making them resemble the ones of a pilgrim under exposure to ultraviolet rays searching the highlands for sacred sites. If one were to be confronted with this hand not watching the sequence, it would be hard to define the owner of the hands. Whenever I encounter this photograph, Jackson Pollock comes through my mind. This is not because he has gone through outrageous performances where he throws himself onto the floor-spread canvas and flounders vigorously. We often only view the canvas that Pollock has poured paint onto. However we do not pay much attention to his hands that had flicked the stick-like brush all over the studio. Pollock’s hands portray liberation from the old traditions of painting. Kwon rather tosses his whole body into the scene. Nevertheless, he exhibited a photo of his tainted hands as well as the resultant of his dynamic performance – the canvas. What could be understood from this? Perhaps, Kwon wanted to admire his own hands and even worship them. Even in paintings, his hands enhance the materiality of paint and the canvas vibrates with energy. Precisely set compositions slop as if a rock fell on a water surface, and his brushstrokes reveal its Shaman-like ‘spirited madness’. But his state of trance is actually very short and his head becomes overwhelmed with too much to refer to. And thus he has chose to mix the conscious and subconscious together, known as the method of ‘mise en abyme’. This method of inserting images to another image requires a high level of constructed composition. The result is a repetition of mixture and the combined as seen from his work, however, this is only what is observed from the visible surface of the image.

Kwon is an artist, but also a talented actor. Disguising takes place in his paintings. We recognize cropped images of well-known early masterpieces. Art history provides his sources and so does mythology. However, it is important that we realize that they are traps of macguffin that he had set up. What he really wants to deliver is not art historic information or knowledge of myths. Thus regarding his works to be a parody of the original is not a satisfactory conclusion. The original piece does not speak for his work. It is rather precise to see it as the absence of the speaker. This is why it is an intricate labyrinth. Nevertheless, this interval created is what makes his work peculiar. Kwon’s paintings are full of layers, and placed amongst horizontal layout of images and between the canvas and paint. We mustn’t be hoping for foreshadows that lead us to a conclusion. To dissolve even that is what his work aims to do. For example, we recall Velazquez’s portrait of the pope and a scene from Sergei M. Eisenstein’s <The Battleship Potemkin> in the work of Francis Bacon. Of course, the original is significant to Bacon’s paintings. However, what he wished to show was not the form recalling the original, but a secretion like blood or sweat and desire expressed through his brushstrokes. Bacon had collected enormous amounts of images in search for his motifs although most of them were photos from a news magazine. Kwon searches for it in the history of art. Then he covers it with a philosophical discourse. Philosophers he refers to are diversified ranging from psychoanalysts like Jaques Lacan to poststructuralists such as Gilles Deleuze or Derrida, along with Spinoza, Leibnitz and Nietzsche. One may even be confused if the painting is to be simply viewed or to be read based on philosophical history. Motifs composing his works derive from all sources. From philosophy, mythology, religion to science. This reflects his pedantic style and also a reason why I am lost between thoughts either to see it or read it. However, a deeper observation gives rise to the notion that both myths and philosophy are used to argue about idea of existence. Starting from the questions on existence, with a bold manner overcoming his feverish body exploring his unendurable desire in the 90s, and in early 2000 he had finally ended up on the recognition of his existence to be floating. The theme of his works had been on existence and especially on the self. Obvious from this consistency, he has pursued the fundamental questions on existence as a social, historical and subjective being, not depending on what decoy or image trap he sets. Yet, what is important to him is a state before cogito, in other words, a doubting self. I am, because I doubt not because I think. And of course, suspicion is a result of thought. It is a question on what we normally believe as the truth. In that aspect, he may be a skeptic. However, his thoughts did not end up in his mind.

Like questioning the self leads towards obsession on multiple personality, through his skepticism; he was able to gain assurance on legitimacy of his hybrid. Thus, discover the Ouroboros – a chain of existence/desire. Not through a consistently logical structure but through the fine gaps of inframince (one of his keywords). In the inframince; reason and sensibility, sub-consciousness and desire, self and others do not face each other but are layered after one another. In Kwon’s paintings, humans become plants or animals, plants co-exist with machines and the self is portrayed as a dominator but also as a pray caught in a net. What links them together is a massive and intricate root (either the rhizome or the Indra’s net), which grows and restricts one another. Could this be the matrix? Or is this another macguffin?

 Kwon’s movie <Macguffin Desire or Net Hunter>is quite allusive. Was the cause of Ophelia’s death really the fact that she was abandoned by Hamlet? Or did she disguise her death to take revenge on Hamlet for the murder of her father? The end of this movie is rather confusing but the hunter master (the artist) is murdered by Ophelia. Well-written scenario; from the windy fields (I recalled <Angel’s Camp> by Emanuelle Antille in this part) to the scene where the hunter master’s throat is cut (I couldn’t help but bring up <Judith Slaying Holofernes> by Artemisia Gentileschi), and the effect of repeated montage similar to Fernand Léeger’s <Le Ballet Mé canique> all add up to making a step forward from the <Savior>. Yet, the subtitles dizzying the screen, especially the ones about the artist’s philosophical terms are unfamiliar and descriptive. The murdered hunter master is revealed to be Ophelia’s family and the inherited box turns out to be a macguffin. The whole story hints us about people’s complexes. Ophelia did not die. She did not wish to murder herself but the net of fate that surrounded her. Maybe like Hamlet, she might have delayed her death in a state of uncertainty. What she saw that moment floating on water was the desired death of the other. The real death is delayed as Jouissance is reached. The hunter master is reborn and delivers knives to the hunters. Is this all a dream? Or a scene of active gaze peeked through a gap between reason and desire? The screen returns to a family photograph as soon as the macguffin reveals itself. The scene of a windy field reappears and the story hints its repetition. And so will Kwon’s spectacles and sophisticated stories continue through his paintings, performances and movies.