Yeo Hyun Kwon: What is Magic in Magic Forest?

Dong Yeon Go (Art Historian)

Yeo Hyun Kwon’s exhibition &#8211;<Magic Forest> portrays a forest in the state of a mixture of the present and past; mythology and mass media; noble and the ordinary. In his <Magic Forest>(2008) the woman with a quiver resembles the mythical Hermes, however her face is certainly the one of an Asian. Her clothing also reminds us of a Greek Goddess; nevertheless the rose patterns are those of a modern culture. Plus, the background seems rather inappropriate for it to be a fully mythic natural view. Children’s cartoon characters &#8211; Thomas, Dora, Robots- or the lion from Henri Rousseau’s paintings appear in Kwon’s forest and they do not correspond to each other. What is the reason behind the artist’s desire to create a forest that is a mixture of the past and the present? What does the magic refer to in the <Magic Forest>?


Yeo Hyun Kwon is a Painter of Forests.

“The uncanny aspect of the forest allowed the ambiguity and the crossover of images to be spread across the canvas.” (From an exchange letter with the artist.)


For the past few years Kwon has developed his theme &#8211; the forest. Precisely by painting it. The artist started painting forests since 2003, and it started with a parody of Henri Rousseau. Kwon had recognized Rousseau’s paintings whilst searching for works where the background (or objects, events placed within) played an important role.

It is interesting to compare the forest of Rousseau and Kwon. The forest carries crucial aesthetic meanings for both artists. The forest of Rousseau, a French Sunday painter during the late 19th and early 20th century, acts as a device for the artist to create his very own unique world of painting despite the surrounding art world and the effect of western civilization. The darkness of the forest in the foreground creates great contrast with the brightness of the sky in the rear ground. The dark colored forest is a secretive and individual area like the deep sea, completely blocked from the outer world.

Kwon has started using Rousseau’s image of the forest since 2003, as a draft for his paintings. This method led Kwon to develop his style of portraying the painting along with the appropriated photograph. For the artist, Rousseau’s forest is significant in terms of creating a new dimensional world beyond the suppressed reality. Various images can be easily placed within the forest. Animals or objects that seem unrelated are composed in the forest producing a dream-like or surrealistic atmosphere. Furthermore, Kwon has inserted his own face in the forest’s creatures. As shown in <Snake Calling Woman>(2006), a snake or other beasts with the face of the artist appear behind the naive and uncontaminated image of the woman. Through this process, Kwon becomes a creator of this secretive and unknown world; and at the same time, the cast of his own painting. The hiding beasts secretly peeking over the woman seemingly planning an attack provides tension over his forest.


The “Uncanny” Forest, and the Rediscovery of The Ordinary  

The depth of the forest both of Rousseau and Kwon cannot be accurately measured. We cannot predict what is hidden where. It is a space where visible images may vanish behind the lush leaves then suddenly appear again unexpectedly. We normally call this situation “mysterious”. However, a space of unknown depth can also be seen as a symbol of fear. Kwon actually uses the word “uncanny” when explaining his forest.

The word “uncanny” in the form of fear or phobia is used widely amongst Art critics or historians due to the effort of psychoanalysts. Unheimliche, the antonym of heimliche which means ‘to be familiar with’, ‘to know’, ‘to be like home’ in German, shares its meaning with ‘uncanny’. Therefore the meaning of the word can be explained as something that is ‘unfamiliar’ or ‘unsafe’. However, Sigmund Freud has stated in his essay <The Uncanny>(1919), the alternate meaning of ‘uncanny’ to be ‘the hidden’. In other words, to Freud, the ‘uncanny’ was not only a scary uncertainty but what has been hidden underneath the ordinary consciousness which will reveal itself at some point.

Freud’s definition of the ‘uncanny’ provides an important axis for analyzing Kwon’s work. The grotesque effect of his forest does not derive from its overwhelming mood but rather from the break away of various subjects from their original values. Furthermore, the artist-faced beast corresponds to Freud’s suppressed desires or the recovery of the ordinary. The collaged face of the artist is the alternate form of irrational and hidden ego and thus, is where the restrained have been revived. Moreover, the appearance of objects related to children is not a coincidence. In E.T.A Hoffman’s <Der Sandmann>(1817), children’s toys are redefined as a medium of fearful secrets. Toys that are hidden in Kwon’s paintings reveal a childish but at the same time dangerous, violent and offensive attitude. This is because the ‘uncanny’ effect is maximized when the most familiar changes into the fearful, and at the same time reminds us of the history of struggle between the basic desires (represented by children) and the society of grown-ups.  


 Open-meaning of the Forest?          

If the main definition of ‘uncanny’ is what penetrates the ordinary thus, the alter-meaning of the original, the ‘uncanny’ found in Kwon’s <Magic Forest> series does not overwhelm the viewer any longer. Freud, in <The Uncanny> argues that the ‘uncanny’ experienced in everyday life and in Art offer different effects. The reason for this is that the viewer or reader of the ‘uncanny’ in Art already know that the situation they are facing have been made-up and manipulated. Therefore, they cannot experience this strangeness in a strict sense. If they do receive the sensation, it requires them to ‘be fooled’. However, those fooled grotesqueness cannot be compared to the effect of ‘uncanny’ faced in real life. Recent works of Kwon exposes the limit of ‘uncanny’ in Art as Freud had stated, and suggests a breakthrough. Kwon’s forest does not focus on the ‘uncanny’ itself penetrating the viewer anymore but rather on revealing the limit that it holds. The scary beasts do not creep on the wondering goddess anymore in the <Magic Forest>. Overall tone of the canvas has been neutralized and the images are composed in a more natural manner. The grotesqueness of the dark has turned into a clear juxtaposition of images.

The <Magic Forest> canvases have grown its size and the structures have become horizontal. By horizontal structure, it indicates the importance of overall arrangement of images as appose to a vertical structure where the individual images and what they symbolize are emphasized. Of course, earlier works of the artist have lured the viewers to imagine a narrative between the pair of snake and goddess. However, in the <Magic Forest>, these pairs seem to have been more randomly listed and arranged. The forests have been viewer-friendly composed for it to be read through easily not requiring a vertical understanding of the symbolized. As a result, the viewer’s anxiety in search of the beasts or certain allegory is less needed.

Images arranged floating around the canvas provides a pleasurable observation needless to investigate what each images signify. Nevertheless, a few significant trees now represent the forest instead of many encircling the whole canvas. The pictorial method has taken over the place of the art of a well-organized composition. Strong brush strokes, detailed description of the leaves and less-skilled illusionism co-exist. In other words, Kwon’s work does no longer struggle to deliver a secret message through pictorial contrast but is a random juxtaposition of the ‘uncanny’ and the ordinary.


Yeo Hyun Kwon’s Magic

After all, what is the magic in Kwon’s <Magic Forest>? I personally think that the magic can be referred to the minute joy we experience while observing the composition, rather than the enchanting sensation delivered through mythical paintings. In the <Magic Forest>, the overly ordinary image of Thomas and the goddess walking with a bicycle beside a classic greyhound with an Asian woman’s face adds to the preposterousness.

Is it possible for us to define the image of Thomas the train passing behind a goddess magical? Will this not harm the mysteriousness of the word? Both questions can be answered either way because mythological images of our era are neither alluring nor transcendent. Ideas of questioning the real has developed through 20th century’s phenomenology to modern psychology, based on interests on complex relationship between the sensed reality and the imaginary world. The idea pays further attention on the imaginary world where the real gains more ‘reality’. Moreover, questions if we have favored the imaginary world over the real surroundings. However, the fabricated world does not need to be fabulous or overly beautiful. As Freud has explained, we wish to experience the ‘uncanny’ even though we know that we are being fooled. The ‘uncanny’ in novels might seem less hazardous than the real situation. Kwon’s forest lures the viewers to question his magic. The magical forest he suggests is somewhat ridiculous to be fully engaged but too crowded to be realistic. Yet, more excitement will be delivered by Kwon’s forest when the viewer is not completely deceived.  

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