People / Critic

Chung Seoyoung : Knocking Air

posted 03 July 2020

Chung Seoyoung, who is putting on a solo show in Korea for the first time in four years, has filled the gallery space with mysterious objects, as usual. The sentences and a wooden sign gathered on the ground floor allow space for natural sunlight; two metal pillars and plastic walnuts are placed in the corner of the room; and the video work that records a walnut cast in plasticine plays on the first floor. It is not easy to understand Chung’s works in comparison with familiar narratives. The purpose of this article is not to enumerate and describe all the materials that occupy their own space in the gallery, because in a space constructed under Chung’s direction, an explanation for what is plainly visible and on display does not help much. At first glance, the works of art seem simple, but they conceal and reveal details such as the lines drawn on the edges of a framed picture, or a key in an envelope.

Although the critic’s role is not to verbalize the disparate wrinkles on the surface, it is also not to emphasize and repeat the uncertainty of meaning. The abstrusity of Chung's work often forces the audience to lean on a linguistic model of interpretation. It is very difficult to avoid the temptation of the adjective "poetic" when describing her work, due to the fact that when seeing an object which seems to conceal an infinite depth beneath a flat surface, and when feeling the impulse to translate that quaint sense into a universal vocabulary, poetry is difficult to avoid. But it is nevertheless an irresponsible choice. Or perhaps, upon realising that it is not possible to have the initiative to decide the meaning of Chung’s work, various philosophical terms begin to emerge. Just as the language of poetry, for example, sits outside the language of the everyday, her works, without being subordinate to the order of the world, exist alongside it.

〈무제〉, 나무, 천, 120x75x140.5cm, 1994. 《공기를 두드려서》는 정서영이 4년 만에 선보인 국내 개인전이다. 조각, 설치, 영상, 세라믹 텍스트 드로잉 등 1990년대 작업부터 신작까지 총 27점을 공개했다. 사진제공 아트인컬처

〈Untitled〉, wood, fabric, 120x75x140.5cm, 1994. 《Knocking Air》 is Chung Seoyoung’s first solo show in Korea in four years. The show presents 27 new and past works from the 1990s including sculpture, installation, video, ceramics, text, drawings, and more. Image Provided by Art In Culture

However, Chung's work is usually too materialistic to utilise such a verbal model. There is always something at its center, even at the moment of performance, sound, or a sentence protruding into space. Whether it's wood or aluminium, the material exists before our eyes. I use the words "material" or "object" but to be exact what she creates is "sculpture". It is therefore all the more significant that, from the 1990s, Seoyoung has chosen to introduce herself as a sculptor, not an artist. If it is sculpture occupying the space, we should stop talking about poetic, Mallarmé-esque moments, and instead discuss the "sculptural moments".

Building relationships with air; outside of sculpture

Chung Seoyoung's sculpture was “expanded” in an academic term, rather than being restricted by the dogma of medium specificity. The title of the exhibition, 《Knocking the Air》, seems to imply something that is definitely a sculpture, but that is different from the sculpture with which we are familiar. While the act of ‘knocking’ is a verb associated with traditional sculpture in the sense that it means hitting something forcefully to make a form, 'air' is certainly not a familiar sculptural material. If you apply force to air, no shape can be created. Rather, air is an infinite and fluid expanse surrounding the rigid material of the sculpture. This seemingly obvious paradox suggests that Chung's (expanded) sculpture is related not only to the realm based on that which is material and produced by the result of labor – in other words, inwardly 'closed' sculpture – but also related to the outside of the sculpture – represented by the metaphor of air – which has nothing to do with the closed material.

At first glance, the closed dimension of the sculpture seems to be intuitively easy for the audience to pick up on, as what we have before us is undeniably solid material. If we take this a step further, we may well call this closed world the 'autonomous' identity that the medium of sculpture acquired at some point in the 20th century. If the classical sculpture 'acknowledges' where it is placed and what it reproduces, the so-called postmodernist sculpture 'denies' all of this. The sculpture on the pedestal is the place to discover meaning connected to the world. However, not only are the pedestals of Chung huddled together in a rather exaggerated manner, but there are only a few words stamped and engraved on themin a strange way (here language is clearly too material to discuss the visual poetry). What about the sculpture resembles to a wooden sign next to them? The sculpture-like non-sculpture with the English words ‘blood’, ‘bone’, and ‘flesh’ carved on it represents nothing related to those elements that make up the organism. Her sculpture certainly seems to formally build an autonomous dimension, while completely denying the outside world.

But it is not that simple. Chung's sculpture solidly constructs a sense of autonomy through the material, but it stealthily acknowledges the outside of the closed world of sculpture. The walnut figures displayed in certain corners of the exhibition space signify this kind of indifferent positivity. For the artist, walnuts are "the thing that overtly occupies space and interrupts my time", "really realistic" and "the evidence that people are bent on making something 'existing'”. The moment of casting things that are objects, reality, and the evidence of the world in plastic and plasticine, is the moment of finding meaning connected to the world outside of the autonomy of sculpture. It's a very short moment, but the space of negation called sculpture briefly affirms the world.

왼쪽 〈같은 것〉, 알루미늄 주물, 49x37x76cm, 2020 오른쪽 〈피, 살, 뼈〉, 나무, 68x52x236cm 2019. 사진제공 아트인컬처

left 〈The Same〉, aluminum cast, 49x37x76cm, 2020 right 〈Blood, Flesh, Bone〉, wood, 68x52x236cm 2019. Image Provided by Art In Culture

Walnuts: both the evidence and allegory of the reality

A somewhat conventional relationship with the world (of course, this excessive mediocrity itself gives a radical feeling, which is perhaps because walnuts are both an evidence of reality and an allegory at the same time) is merely a part of the "sculptural moment" which Chung create. Take a look at the video work 〈The World〉 (2020). At the very point where the world seems to determine the meaning of the sculpture, two walnuts appear, not one, and the sculpture begins to deny the outside. Now the meaning is not that a walnut exists in the world, but rather that a matter of difference occurs between the two walnuts (language occasionally intervenes in sculptural moments in this way, as meanings are determined by the difference of signifiers, not anything else.) At this moment, the meaning of the sculpture is in between the two sides; the autonomous space created by the differences of symbols and the 'utterly realistic' world. One walnut, which looks relatively intact, and the other, which is slightly broken, are different not only in the direction they are placed, but also in the shapes of the shadows.

The movement between the autonomous space of sculpture and the outside world does not stop here. The shapes of the walnuts in front of the camera lie there for the duration of time that the change of light determines the color of the shapes. The subtle changes in the shadows show that the walnuts cast in plasticine have left the sculptor's hand. Now the meaning slowly shifts from the closed space of material to a matter of perception, left open to infinite directions. The duration of time begins to shift from the moment it begins to focus on the difference between the two shapes to the moment that it affirms the outside, recognizing the world as a sovereign determining its meaning from the outside of the sculpture. But the pace of this change is never fast. The figures of the walnuts are still in the very unfinished movement that once confirmed the world, but then returned to their own formal space. Thus, the duration of time "pushes" back the objects that had been previously occupying a space in-between world and sculpture, to the threshold of the world. At this moment, the different dimensions of the object (‘walnut’ as a reenactment; ‘walnut’ obsessed with the logic of formalism; ‘walnut’ as it exists in the world) gradually push up against their counterparts, which are placed in different ontological positions.

정서영 개인전 《공기를 두드려서》 전경. 사진제공 아트인컬처

Chung Seouyoung 《Knocking Air》 Installation view. Image Provided by Art In Culture

This movement doesn't seem to be ending any time soon. Even if one cannot finish this odd moment of superposition reciprocating in autonomous space and the outside, one can at least preserve this sense of 'sculpture' within a closed materiality. The fact that the back of the object cannot be seen means that the walnuts, by the choice of the sculptor, are still lying in an autonomously controlled space, not in an infinite world dominated by light and shadow. This time is edited for about 10 minutes and flows on the screen. A frame of moderate size hangs on the wall like a picture. If, in this way, the autonomy of sculpture, the moment of preserving the negativity blocked from the world, can be called a "sculptural moment", the strange sound that dominates the space pushes this sculptural moment to its extremes. The audio composed by musician Ryu Hankil affirms pure vibrations of the air without allowing any hypotheses to be connected to the world, just like the sculpture. At the same time, the two screens have a slightly different level of brightness. This shows that the space placed in a "sculptural moment" by Chung cannot escape the autonomous logic of the form even on a screen that contains the world. At that very moment, everything is sucked into the autonomous kingdom of sculpture.

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

Jang Ji Han

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