People / Critic

Hwayeon Nam : Surfing the Waves of Schema, Structure, and Portrayal

posted 06 May 2020

An exhibition examining the Hwayeon Nam’s artistic journey with the dancer Seunghee Choi since 2012 is currently taking place at Art Sonje Center. The solo exhibition titled 《Mind Stream》 – also the name of one of Choi’s choreographic works – features six video pieces by the artist alongside a number of new art objects, installations, archival materials, and performances. Adopting her own unique perspective on the archival materials she has assembled over the years, the artist has designed the exhibition setting to suit the works of art; as viewers follow along its path, they discover themselves as additional actors within the show. Focus on the mind streams – Hwayeon Nam’s, Seunghee Choi’s, and your own. The exhibition runs through May 10

“. . . it is possible that even a master such as Rubens might have been influenced in his portrayal of children, even in his portraits of his own boys, by the schema of proportion he had acquired in his youth.”
-E. H. Gombrich, 『Art and Illusion』-

〈궤도 연구〉 퍼포먼스 2018 국립현대미술관 다원예술 프로그램 아시아 포커스 재제작.사진제공 월간미술

Performance from 《Orbital Studies》, MMCA (2018, a restaging for the Asia Focus multidisciplinary art program). Image provided by Monthly Art

“Movement” has always been a focus of discussion for the artist Hwayeon Nam. From 《Operational Play》 (2009) to the ARKO Art Center solo exhibition 《Time Mechanics》 and the Audio-Visual Pavilion solo exhibition 《Imjingawa》 (2017), her conceptual and performative methodology has been one of the chemical transformations that arise as two or more objects are structuralized. What we observed in Mind Stream is how the different forms of choreography and the movements of different actors are each presented as their own living exemplars – movement as such. Plotted out by the artist as she drew her own x- and y-axes on a white sheet of paper and captured the positions of the arrows and courses on the flat ground, the setting could be described variously as a museum, an archive, or a variable stage. The most crucial point is that it does not perfectly resemble any institutional device or medium.

The traces of movement linger powerfully in the artist’s choreography and video work. These traces produce her characteristic trajectories, yet this is not necessarily a spatial issue alone – it is topological, in the sense that it transposes the “subject” and “object” roles of the temporal and historical documents and questions, past artwork and the image before the artist’s eyes at this moment. Since Nam’s early work, movement has been both choreographic design and performance script. This has been served to drive a re-viewing of past images in unfamiliar times and spaces – one that leads in turn to the questions of the artist, who seeks to rewrite the artistic tradition of “schema,” “structure,” and “portrayal.” As we watch the painter’s story that appears in the video work 〈Larger than Life〉 on the center’s second floor, we become aware that what Nam is seeking to grasp here is not the brush (the ambitions of painting), but the reality of nature itself, including the air. The movements that Hwayeon Nam captures deviate, and thus can never be perfectly grasped (1); they follow a cyclical “round trip” motion (2), donning other forms like a snake biting its own tail. The exhibition shows the research that the artist has done over the years in her explorations of Seunghee Choi’s choreography and Choi herself, and we also see the journey within that exploration process. A new “observation-map” is created – through “studies” and training from the standpoint of the artwork, and through reference to the “tour” process and the movements of others from the viewer’s perspective. The exhibition exemplifies a methodology where moving agents are positioned within the “white cube” of the gallery. Here, the agents encompass everything: the artist herself, the audio-visual sound, the archive of documents and film footage, the new video works, and the installations.

Hwayeon Nam’s solo exhibition 《Mind Stream》 presents us with various “perspectives” that catch up with or take in moving subjects. As we follow these points-of-view, we pause briefly, and the act of standing there turning our gaze to either side within the gallery has a choreographic sense to it. This experience of moving our bodies and stopping at different time frames – rather than looking at artwork head on or viewing a vertical and horizontal online score – is all the more special in a time like today. While the presence (figure) of the dancer Seunghee Choi unquestionably constitutes the main structure behind the exhibition, the spatial and temporal coordinates that Nam has devised sometimes represent objects as larger presences than people. In addition to the people presented singly or in pairs, a range of other presences “live” together, each with their own perspective – the sea(s) that the artist has captured in four-channel video, the waves, the small objects that roll with the waves, the very flatness of a smartphone clutched in the hand. In terms of “living,” one may refer to the biology textbook by Helena Curtis that W. J. T. Mitchell found in his discussion of the “picture”: “Living things are highly organized, homeostatic (stay the same), grow and develop, are adapted, take energy from the environment and change it from one form to another, respond to stimuli, and reproduce themselves .”

〈습작〉 유토, 철사, 나무 2020. 사진제공 월간미술

〈Study〉, clay mixed with oil, wire, wood, 2020. Image provided by Monthly Art

The methods of “representation” seem to me to be an important question in this exhibition by Nam, which focuses in this way on objects, people, and the lingering traces of movement. In several works, the artist has addressed the relationship between choreography and archiving, between diagram and execution, as she has interrogated the visualizing of objects, the capturing of moving reality to convert it into different forms. Nam questions the act of portraying and mediating the processing of “changing into something else” within the contemporary visual environment. Through various hints hidden about by the artist, we experience in different bodies and sounds how the clues in these artworks and all of their attempts at comprehensive representation exist in a changing state. More than the reality of change, the key thing here is the speed and the resolution of the body (living or dead). The artist’s techniques here are not a matter of traditional narrative arc or a dichotomous cause-and-effect structure; they move together, impinging on and unsettling each other as they do. In 《Mind Stream》, the visual arts aim of “representation” moves in multilayered ways with the temporal arts – or performativity – that generates moments through moving bodies.

Representation × Movement

If this is the case, then who or what is “moving” in the gallery? The first thing moving there is Seunghee Choi. Choi is the artist’s research subject, as we see in the gallery, and the medium-based interrelationship that Nam has been puzzling over since 2012 through the relationship between “archiving” and “performance” has also spurred the artist to motion through her audio-visual record of Choi. The surviving archival materials exist not as a chronology of Seunghee Choi but as audio-visual documents and actions that float in the air, exerting influence (power) even after her death; to Nam, they are clues that inform her as she devises choreography in her own ways. Although it cannot be distilled into any one answer for this exhibition, the ultimate destination of those clues is the body of a woman. Also moving together with Choi are the bodies that appear in the gallery – the living bodies of 2020 that exist through movement, pauses, and intermediate stages, as we see in the video work 〈Study〉. They move the artist herself, and there is also the movement of the women with their dancing bodies who appear in the different footage, archives, and photographs found in the exhibition’s video works. Moving according to established rules as well as new rules tailored to one’s own body, they are “actors” entering a different state – not something related to Seunghee Choi alone, but something we can discover in the results the artist has observed.

〈사물보다 큰〉 4채널 영상 25분47초 2019~2020. 사진제공 월간미술

〈Larger than Life〉, 2019-2020, 4-channel video, 25min 47sec. Image provided by Monthly Art

Within the gallery, the viewer encounters images of waves – the emergence of a third moving object. Boasting the highest resolution among all the actors, the waves gaze upon the viewer through 〈Larger than Life〉, the work screened the center’s second floor. Incorporating moments that stop just short before the camera, the different scenes in the four-channel video work include moments of movement and stillness, each of them dancing together according to their own choreography. As the fourth, I would name the letters written by Hwayeon Nam, which appear as objects alongside the waves. Letters frequently appeared as objects in the artist’s past works as well, traveling through different times and spaces as key elements expressing voices. To begin with, the letter is an object. Composed of text, this object is a substance transmitted to a different world – from “A” to “B.” Even when the story is quite small, it includes new sentences that generate cracks in the existing world, conveying feelings and events. Whether moving slowly or delivered at high speeds, the voices in letters capture the aim of a different world as they move, viewing the different waves – even the waves portrayed by a classical artist – from a specific perspective.

The next thing that moves is sound. Each living substance has its own speed – from footsteps to the sounds of the nighttime, from choreographing and remembering voices to the categorical instruction that survives as a sentence teaching the "act of fending off.” The fifth thing that moves is the viewer. One of the characteristics of Hwayeon Nam’s solo exhibitions is that the visitor can keep moving. The idea of moving, and the space and time where we move individually according to the coordinates the artist has creates, represents a spirit of choreography where the viewer moves together with the art work. As we can observe from the etymology, the new choreography that Nam designs as a spirit of writing – a restructuring of the methodology of movement and the temporal axis of past, present, and future. A few more lists of movement could well be written for the gallery, with its arrangement of domains of movement and issues of representation. (Postscript: If it is more vivid than the reality, then what is more vivid? There are issues of transformation and changes in substance. The sound of footsteps stirs.)

마크 쿤스트할 오르후스에서 열린 《Abdominal Routes》 전시 광경 2019 Courtesy of Kunsthal Aarhus 사진: Mikkel Kaldal. 사진제공 월간미술

Installation view of 《Abdominal Routes》 at Kunsthal Aarhus 2019. Courtesy of Kunsthal Aarhus. Photo by Mikkel Kaldal. Image provided by Monthly Art

Hwayeon Nam was born in 1979. After graduating from Cornell University, she completed a specialist graduate program at the Korea National University of Arts. Her recent exhibitions include 《Abdominal Routes》 (Kunsthal Aarhus, Denmark), 《Imjingawa》 (2017), and 《Time Mechanics》. In 2019, she was selected as a representative artist for the Korean Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, where she presented works including 〈Dancer from the Peninsula〉. She has also actively taken part in group exhibitions in Korea and overseas. She currently works in Seoul.

※ This article was originally published on the APRIL 2020 issue of Wolganmisool Magazine and is provided by the Korea Art Management Service under a content provision agreement with the magazine.

Seewon Hyun

Working as an independent curator, she plans exhibitions and writes on images and art. 

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