People / Critic

Jiyoung Keem : Light as Bluish Reflection, Light as Red Temporality

posted 23 Mar 2021

Reflected light and things on the backside

This text intends to denominate Jiyoung Keem as an artist who deals with light. To elaborate, Keem’s subject of attention and tenacious exploration is not the pronounced areas directly hit by light but those dimly lit by light reflected off a dark plane. These types of indirect light, whether natural or artificial, are fundamentally cold in property having derived from the shade and tend to adhere to things that share similar qualities. Shedding light on the victims of social catastrophes that took place in modern and contemporary Korea behind the scenes of senseless development, Keem has urged through her works never to forget or repeat these tragedies.

Keem has often introduced her works specifically as those “focusing on the structural issues behind social incidents and how they come to fore to address the relationship between personal and social events.”1) To revisit the meaning of “behind” for the sake of formality, it refers to the backside of an object that is in contact with the front side but is situated in the opposite direction, also understood as an area that’s easy to hide with a tilt of an angle or an inevitable byproduct of a foreside should one be postulated. It shouldn’t come across as odd that the artist pays attention to the backsides of things as the concept intersects with the aforementioned areas lit by reflected light. With an attitude of an activist, she gazes at areas untouched by the spotlight and determines what must be said through artistic language.

It also seems that, in dealing with light, Keem uses darkness to paradoxically emphasize light. Her recent work 〈Look at This Unbearable Darkness〉 (2019) is a series of candle wax sculptures of two hands put together in various praying positions. At the tips of these 60-some hand sculptures presented in the form of a congregation, there remain burnt wicks of the melted candles, alluding to the darkness that would have fallen after the light had been put out while also reminding of the flame that must have been burning there at one point. While demanding to “look at the deep darkness,” the work triggers imagination of the giant sphere of light and heat in the viewers to present an image of brightness in a more effective way. Light as handled and persistently explored by Keem can be examined in two ways: as a quality of something situated on the backside of light and as an element directly implicated in her works.

Confronting the heat

It may be an oversimplification to say that Keem’s works make visible as art the invisible or things hiding in the shadows of our society and daily lives. By choosing to circumvent the subjects rather than directly representing them, the artist invites the viewers to sense the meaning of the works for themselves.2) One example would be 〈Wind Beyond the Closed Windows〉 (2017–2018), a compilation of newspaper articles on the 32 social disasters that occurred from the 1950s to the 2010s including fires, collapses, and sinkings, re-edited from the present point of view. On the top left of each article are the date of the incident and a line of the weather forecast. Stated to the right are the extent of the crisis and the number of casualties according to the Six W’s. The indifference of the weather forecast as usual, next to the calm and collected voice of the article narrating the horrific incident, creates a momentary discrepancy in emotional temperature to act as psychological pressure on the reader.3)

Keem’s new work, 〈Glowing Hour〉 (2020), offers an idea of the artist’s changed attitude in many ways. Consisting of 12 oil paintings, this series captures glowing candlelight in different moments on various-size canvases from size 80 (approx. 145 x 100 cm) to 200 (approx. 260 x 180 cm). Each frame depicts the wick portion of the candle, enlarged to the point where the form can’t be detected at a glance, but the shades of red filling up the canvas reminiscent of the sky at dawn or dusk and the gradation of the shades created by the countless brushstrokes emit a sense of heat. Seeing these direct representations of a candle, the same subject of fire implied by the wicks of the candle sculptures 〈Look at This Unbearable Darkness〉, it’s almost as if the artist has forgotten how to make an indirect statement.

〈Look at This Unbearable Darkness〉(detail), 2019, plasticine, paraffin wax, dimensions variable. Image provided by MMCA Residency Goyang

〈Look at This Unbearable Darkness〉(detail), 2019, plasticine, paraffin wax, dimensions variable. Image provided by MMCA Residency Goyang

What’s notable is the fact that Keem, who has mentioned the deep sense of responsibility and weight she feels in dealing with social calamities even in the form of circumventive representation, is now confronting the candle head-on. In the initial stage of this new project, she showed reservations even about the joy of expression that the act of painting itself might bring her in painting these subjects. Nevertheless, 〈Glowing Hour〉 feels like a dash connecting the catastrophes Keem has dealt with including the Sewol ferry disaster, an act equivalent to reiterating the incidents to herself, or an artistic resolution not to dodge interpretation of the incidents on a broader level. And within the context of this intention, a candle no longer serves as a political or social emblem but a mere object for depiction, that is, a material subject characterized by qualities such as light and warmth.

〈Glow Breath Warmth〉 is a video work which captures the sea, taken along the western coastline of Korea as the artist travelled from Incheon to Paengmok Port. Keem recorded the sea from 7 different ports, then superimposed over the video sounds of human breathing, and video footages and sounds of the waves and the ocean from Paengmok Port the artist recorded in the last 5 years. The gaze in the video, as if it’s that of someone standing and looking at the sea vacantly, reflects honor and dignity while the rhythmic movement of the waves seems to signify human breathing. The reds and blues in the light that opens and closes each day reminds us of the state of “being alive”, which is so priceless yet often taken for granted. In this exhibition, the artist hopes for the work to intimately near the audience’s own breathing, through their own earphones and smartphones.

Working with light, Keem sometimes chases after a dim version of it, sometimes imagines it to be brighter than in reality, and sometimes stares straight into the reality of it. Keem believes that even though the deed may never “be good” (as in innocent or innocuous), there are things that need to be said in the language of art.4) Her works are reminders of how art is a practice of visualizing the invisible light. Glowing Hour feels more desperate in that the artist voluntarily rid herself of the sanctuary she had secured by taking roundabout approaches in her previous works. Hence, it is encouraged that the viewers also look straight into the heat embodied by the red in the work, even if it takes a little toll on their eyes.

1)MMCA, Young Korean Artists 2019: Liquid Glass Sea, 2019, 178.
2)Mok Jungweon, 「Representations that Circumvent the Unrepresentable: Beyond Lyotard and Rancière」, 『The Korean Journal of Art and Media 18』, no.2 (2019): 121–136.
3)For example, the weather forecast on the left side of page 10 of the compilation reads, “January 9, 1953, nipping cold, possible strong wind,” and on the right side, the article begins with “At around 10:30 p.m. on the 9th, Changgyeong ferry foundered into the sea near Dadaepo Beach, Dadae-dong, Saha-gu, Busan. . . . This disaster took the lives of more than 300 people excluding the captain, three sailors, two middle schoolers, and a soldier.”
4)Referring to the phrase “unable to be good” from the title of Keem’s previous project 《Song Unable to Be Good》 (March 6–27, 2015, Samuso Chago). The introductory statement for the exhibition written by the artist at the time states, “Perhaps what we need to stop the series of todays from just pooling around us is not innocent tears of impotence but the best of selfish courage.”

※ * This text was revised for the exhibition 《Glow Breath Warmth》, based on the critical writing of Keem Jiyoung’s work at the 2020 Goyang Residency. And re-published here with the consent of MMCA Residency Goyang.

Heeseung Choi

Heeseung Choi mainly spends her time organizing exhibitions and writing about artists and exhibitions that captivate her. A curator at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (2015-2020), Choi has organized 《Young Korean Artists 2019: Liquid Glass Sea》 (MMCA, 2019), 《Collection Highlights: Synchronic Moments》 (MMCA, 2018), and 《Layers and Spaces》 (MMCA, 2017), etc., and has also co-curated various exhibitions including 《Sailing a Pedal Boat》 (5 percent, 2019) and 《As Two Half Moons Meet》 (BREGA Artist Space, 2018). Choi is currently a curator at the DOOSAN Gallery.

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