Depicting a man who hides in his own shadow in his struggle to avoid the light, MOON Sohyun’s Poisoning of Light (2007) appears to present a metaphor on the situation of humanity in modern society while criticizing the technological control over humans. The artist continues her observation on humans in modern society in Life in the Park (2016, single-channel, 12-channel installation), a stop-motion animation of her very own puppets which she worked on for two years. The artist reveals that she composed her works based on the things she saw in a city park that she visited to rejuvenate herself from the weariness of life. Aside from the monster that appears in her sandbox footage, all the objects and people in her works are those that are often commonly found in a park, such as water fountain, playground sandbox, birds, dogs, trees, construction site, gym, and people going on walks, exercising, or eating. Despite this ostensibly quotidian scenery, the world created by the artist offers the viewer a certain bizarre experience. The dog sits gnawing at its own leg, the leg of the man slumped on the ground grows limp and wobbly, a crowd lines up to feed the ducks, while another man pulls at a bow without a string. Such sight stirs up a creepy and eerie sensation. An avid reader of the works by François Rabelais (or at least Mikhail Bakhtin’s interpretation of Rabelais) and Georges Bataille, she almost always presents unsettling and eerie sensations in her works, which can also be described as an ‘uncanny’ (scary unfamiliarity, unheimlich) experience. However, as Freud noted in his analysis of heimlich, the German base word for unheimlich, ‘unfamiliarity’ is an emotion that assumes the presence of familiarity. This is because the word heimlich also includes the meaning of “hidden,” in contrast with the meaning of ‘familiar’or ‘comfortable.’ We sometimes encounter the paradoxical feeling of unfamiliarity in “very old yet familiar, familiar yet very old”things like our homes (Das Heimische). Such unfamiliarity is not a feeling of encountering something that we have never seen before, but rather deeply unsettling anxiety experienced when we encounter abstruse aspects of familiar objects, minuscule secrets, or the concealed. Death inspires the most potently fearful sense of unfamiliarity among us because death is an event that incessantly hounds us despite our lack of complete understanding thereof and something that we can witness within ourselves. The sceneries created by her are not of a completely removed, abject, or grotesquely terrifying realm of fantasy, but rather a creepy sight of a familiar yet unfamiliar world. These are not scenes we see in our dreams, but rather what we witness along the edges of our dreams as we awake from slumber.
There are two aspects in which her works inspire the feeling of uncanniness or scary unfamiliarity. The first comes from the way in which a familiar space manifests itself to us in an unfamiliar way. The other comes from how objects that resemble us appear to us. On her stop-motion work in Life in the Park, the artist remarked that she used puppets “to clearly reveal the form of actual live people rather than to create a fantasy.” Like ghosts or zombies, these ‘pseudohumans’ are frightful not because they are creatures of the night but because they resemble us so much aside from the slightly different movements. The artist’s puppets maximize such horror inherent in the human form. Even in the puppet-less works that followed Life in the Park such as Fireworks Festival (2018) and To Paradise (2018), their spaces remain unfamiliar and run rampant with pseudo-humans. The artist took photos of familiar locations such as Songdo of Incheon, Wolgot, Suwan, Paju, motel district in the outskirts of Busan, Lotte Tower, giant structures like the DDP, and the light festival site, along with ordinary objects such as cake, slime toy, sex toy, figurine, food, and bonsai. She then manipulated these videos to create a multichannel installation. Comprising Fireworks Festival are Burning Night, the animated scenery of neon signs; Take the Cake, the close-up shot of syrup pouring on cake, which so often represents celebratory occasions; Exploding Fireworks, the footage of bugs combusting from the bug zapper edited to play at 99 bpm; and the screen sculpture A Dancer and a Singer Around Bonfire, which consists of four screens installed beneath an artificial fire structure created by using LED lamps and fans. In A Gentle Beast of To Paradise, the artist projects images of a slime-covered bonsai; body images created by the seemingly convulsing and melting sex toy figurines; and images of animal puppets. Set up as a two-channel work, To Paradise plays each of Glowing Night and A Gentle Beast on different screen formats. While a flat rectangular monitor plays the scenes from the light festival in Shining Night, a human-sized cushion placed beneath this display serves as the second screen, with A Gentle Beast projected on the cushion. An identical cushion is provided across this screen-cushion for the viewers to sit on and watch the two screens, during which the viewers come to discover their own bodies in the screen and footage of A Gentle Beast, a video that presents images of fragmented bodies and creatures. Thus we come to discover our own bodies manifested in such a deeply unsettling manner in the work.
The artist also recognizes parks, contemporary festival sites filled with colorful lights that are no different from fake flames, and motels adorned with neon lamps as a means of exercising control over the components of the workforce and market system by providing a brief moment of respite so that they can work even harder. In the festival site, she does not find the campfire flames that fill a childhood experience with wonder, nor does she find a momentary dissolution of social order like in the carnival festivities, where social hierarchies are flipped upside-down. To the artist, festivals are not only brimming with human desires but are also a venue to control such desires, vanquishing any hope of fulfilling them, just like how the human body serves as the primary means of enabling human life and productivity while also remaining vulnerable to falling under others’ control and subordination. As such, festivals and sex toys become ambivalent venues and objects for the artist. She simultaneously presents the production and control of desire through her multichannel installation that stands as a structure as well as a destruction of the structure.
In The Black Flesh in the Mouth (2012) and Make it Vanish…Vanishes (2009), tongue and flesh become the main subjects respectively. Like the literal body parts the artist worked with in these two works, she continues to treat urban venues and structures as a sort of a physiological existence, in that the exterior and interior components of urban spaces are as intricately intertwined as the external and internal instruments of sensation in the human body. Thus, the structure and destruction of structure become a question of bone and flesh in her works. The neon lights, bug zappers, and screen installations act as the structures or ‘skeleton,’ whereas the drizzling syrup, the bugs crashing into the zapper, and fidgeting sex toys act as the ‘flesh’ that have escaped the confines of the underlying skeleton and even had such skeletal structures taken away from them. An exposed skeleton or structure is, in essence, the frail remains of the internal components, the aftermath of a damaged, flayed, and filleted body. Diderot, the philosopher who was already pondering about the issue of representing deformity in 18th-century paintings, complained that painting of “the flayed man” unnecessarily revealed a person’s insides instead of representing the external human form. In contrast, Goethe criticized Diderot’s ignorance, arguing that even a body without a single scratch on the externally ostensible skin ‘manifests’ its ever-changing ‘insides,’ i.e. the entrails et alia. Georges Didi-Huberman suggests a concept he described as “an opening image.” Even works like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus—hich is lauded as the paragon of balanced and elegant aesthetics—presents the mineral-like elegance and careful externality of the naked body while also shedding light on the ruthlessly shocking image of the inside. This dualism of elegance and gore in images reminds us of the orifices and openings in our own bodies. Such is the nature of “opening image.”
The jumble of the pseudo-human entrails in her work allows the audience to experience their own image, and therefore such images qualify as “opening images.” In Life in the Park, the artist deliberately erases the boundary between contrasting elements such as those between the dog leash and bowstring (control and attack); the human and dog with the deteriorating legs (humans and animals); the live duck and duck meat burning on the grill (the living and the dead); and water and blood (purity and impurity). She extracts, cuts, binds, squashes, and spreads open the shiny surface (as well as the skeleton and the image as the skeleton) of the system to control, regulate, and conceal. Because the surface flickers ‘without gaps’ as light, it splits apart as a gap itself, a gap that reveals the face (as well as the flesh and the image as the flesh) of anxiety that manifests as seizure and convulse. her studio and exhibition space serve as the laboratories for experimenting with the blurring of boundaries between and uniting the outside and inside, familiar and unfamiliar, soul-less object and soul, mechanical repetition and organic convulsions, and the one doing the experiment and the subject of experimentation.
LEE Nara is an image culture researcher. She received a doctorate degree at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris for her research on how contemporary films express materiality and flow. She studies contemporary aesthetic theories on films and moving images, and strives to write critically about anthropological images and contemporary image work. She currently serves as a researcher at the Dong-eui University Cinema and Transmedia Institute.