People / Critic

Kang Seung Lee's Gardens of Hope, Ex-votos of Symptoms: Paganism and Queer

posted 16 May 2019

Anthropology of Images and Contemporary Art: Image and Death (3)

Metal plate ex-votos. Photo© Lee Nara

Metal plate ex-votos. Photo© Lee Nara

1. The Garden

There are two people: Derek Jarman (1942–1994) and Oh Joon-soo (1964–1998). The two both died in the mid-1990s due to AIDS-related complications. The two were also involved in a gay rights movement prior to their demise. And towards the end of the year 2018, Kang Seung Lee’s exhibition 《Garden》, held at the ONE AND J. Gallery, commemorated the two related by the common denominators gay rights and AIDS. There it unfolded: Oh Joon-soo’s life, dedicated to the gay rights movement in Korea, his journals, letters, and his memoir as an AIDS patient written under an alias. His writings, revealing of his deep-set loneliness and fear of death, were exhibited as an archive alongside some of his friend’s written works and drawings, installations, and videos produced by Lee. Then there was the life of Derek Jarman, a filmmaker whose works were considered subversive and avant-garde, yet not a clip of his works was screened at the exhibition. Instead, Lee decided to display Jarman’s garden. It is said that since 1986 when Jarman learned of his HIV infection until his death in 1994, he resided in Dungeness, a remote headland on the coast of Kent, England, tending to a humble garden attached to his home he called “Prospect Cottage.” For Jarman, the garden was not a land of retirement where a sick man would cower into. As verified by his film The Garden, along the shore of Dungeness right beside Prospect Cottage was a nuclear power plant. The wind was fierce and the heavily graveled soil was far from fertile. And on the infertile pebble ground, Jarman gardened, scoffing at the modernistic gardening manuals written by D. G. Hessayon and such. Jarman lived and breathed the fenceless garden, where strange flowers and unexpected blossoms would coexist in harmony. It must have been a space of prehistoric temporality. Francis Ponge, a poet who often discovered prehistoric temporality in subjects such as figs and lizards, once sung about pebbles as follows:

“Each pebble rests on a pile of its past and future forms. . . . But these places to which the sea generally relegates it are the least suited to granting recognition. Whole populations lie there known only to the expanse, each pebble considering itself lost because it is unnumbered and sees only blind forces taking note of it. . . . But these objects of scant value, lost without order in a solitude broken by dune grass, seaweed, old corks and other debris of human provisions—imperturbable amid the greatest upheavals of the atmosphere—are mute spectators of these forces that run blindly after anything and for no reason until exhausted. Rooted nowhere, they remain in their haphazard spot on the expanse.” —Francis Ponge, "The Pebble"

A view of Kang Seung Lee’s 《Garden》 exhibition. Image courtesy of ONE AND J. Gallery.

Installation view of Kang Seung Lee’s 《Garden》 exhibition. ⓒONE AND J. Gallery

The sick, who ridiculed heterosexual norms, industrial societies, commodity fetishism, and class oppression, found and settled in a barren land, cultivated a garden, and called it a “paradise” (“Paradise haunts gardens, and some gardens are paradises. Mine is one of them”). In this case, a paradise isn’t so much the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve lived free of labor or shame. Rather, it’s a place marked by labor and struggle, and there, Jarman fought against normality and yearned for peace. The pebbles, as substances or forms, betoken his time in this place. Kang Seung Lee employs drawings, installations, and videos to bring into the gallery space the soil, the plants, the substantial evidence of Jarman’s struggle. With the sculpture made out of the soil and gravel as a background surface, the plants grown in the garden are engraved to create patterns. And along this process, Oh Joon-soo’s body, memory, and place are deliberately overlaid onto those of Derek Jarman: The audience is already well-aware of the “paradise” in Jongno where Oh once frequented—a shabby musical instrument mall named Nagwon Sangga (meaning “paradise shopping mall” in English). Lee overlays Jarman’s paradise-garden with Oh’s paradise, reproducing a soil sculpture Jarman once made using the soil from his garden, and mixing in the soil from Namsan Mountain, Oh’s coveted garden. Using graphite and parchment paper, Lee draws out the objects, traces, and scenes from Jarman’s garden, tears them apart, and buries them on Namsan Mountain (this process is recorded on video and played in one corner of the exhibition space): traces left by Jarman now become a part of Oh’s land. The seeds Jarman had left planted in his garden have sprouted and become leaves and flowers. Lee uses Nishijin gold thread to embroider these plants onto sambe (hemp fabric). This piece of fabric with golden embroidery is 〈Untitled (Garden)〉, but it’s also 〈Untitled (Hammock)〉 and becomes the mat in 〈Untitled (Table)〉. Lee also embroiders, using the same Nishijin gold thread and sambe, the two figures featured on the cover of the newsletter issued by Chingusai, a Korean gay rights movement organization which Oh was a part of. While there are no portraits of Jarman in the exhibition, Oh’s face is displayed in a drawing. This enables Oh’s writings to be envisaged the same way that the seeds planted by Jarman are envisaged, and for the two large pebble drawings on the inner-center wall, 〈Untitled (Pebble from Prospect Cottage)〉, to be imagined as Jarman’s portraits. The elements that make up the garden can be categorized into two groups—the vulnerable and the solid. The parity among the disparate materials such as seeds, plants, embroidery, and text create a sense of vulnerability while the parity among materials such as stones and faces create the sense of solidness.

(Left) Kang Seung Lee, Untitled (Cover), 24K Nishijin gold thread on sambe (hemp fabric), 48 × 33 cm, 2018. Image courtesy of ONE AND J. Gallery. (Right) Kang Seung Lee, Untitled (Garden Book), archival pigment print on hahnemühle paper, 33 × 48 cm, 2018. Image courtesy of ONE AND J. Gallery.

(Left) Kang Seung Lee, 〈Untitled (Cover)〉, 2018. 24K Nishijin gold thread on sambe (hemp fabric), 48×33cm. ⓒONE AND J. Gallery. (Right) Kang Seung Lee, 〈Untitled (Garden Book)〉, 2018. Archival pigment print on hahnemühle paper, 33×48cm. ⓒONE AND J. Gallery

2. The Tradition of Oblation

Part 3 of the series “Anthropology of Images and Contemporary Art: Image and Death” discussed Aby Warburg’s (1866–1929) discovery: hints of the ex-voto tradition remaining in the Renaissance period chapel frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio. An ex-voto is a votive offering dedicated to divinity or a shrine in plea of wishes, or in gratitude of granted ones. While analyzing social contexts in order to explain the iconic elements found in the Florentine Renaissance art, Warburg unexpectedly realized that the figures in the frescoes served the same purpose as the ex-votos found in the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata. Around the time of Ghirlandaio, there was a trend among the wealthy and powerful in Florence and beyond of commissioning self-modeled effigies and consecrating them to church. It is said that such practice was so popular at the time that the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata was replete with such effigies (though they were all disposed of over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and gone by the time Warburg was around). What Warburg wanted to emphasize wasn’t so much the formative similarity between the figures in the frescoes and the ex-votos, but the role they played. What’s important in the images of offerings is not the form or the aesthetic intent that conceived the form. We must ask instead: with what religious intent, or anthropological intent and function at large, was such form of ex-voto conceived and maintained? In other words, “what psychological process” takes place in the “formation” of a votive object?

Even from a contemporary standpoint, we can easily think of objects offered with hope, or rituals that require such votive objects. For example, the candle offerings in Catholic churches, the rice dedicated to Buddhists temples—the origin of these objects would be ex-votos. Even today, the entrances of Catholic chapels in Italy, named after saints believed to protect the living from sickness and misfortune, are festooned with metal plates and simple objects engraved with personal or prototypical prayers, consecrated by visitors from all over the globe. If in the past, people sought after the experience of “an aura” within churches or other sanctums, people of today look for “auras” inside the screens or on stages (museums exhibiting the works of great artists may also be one such place). The celebrities standing in the center of these places are indeed bearers of aura, strictly retained through distance—or manifestation of an unreachable distance (though some may seem to approach their fans if only on stages or in cyber environments). These stars are showered with gifts, a custom only continued in a slightly altered manner after their deaths. Around the gravestone under which a celebrity is buried, pile up letters, flowers, and small pendants the fans used to keep close. These objects are modern-day ex-votos, offered with hopes and desires by fans who believe in the sanctity and the mystical powers of their artists.

Going back to older forms of ex-voto: most of the ex-votos found in the various sanctuaries are known to have been primitive and common objects, far from precious, and often resemblant of human anatomy. Oblation of commonplace or anatomical ex-votos began among groups of pagans, even before Christian domination of the European spiritual culture. What’s interesting is that the ex-votos from Greek, Roman, and Etruscan Antiquity share the same qualities as the ex-votos seen in the Christian sanctuaries of Cyprus, Bavaria, Italy, or the Iberian Peninsula: from size and choice of material to fabrication technique and styles of figuration, ex-votos have not evolved much. Georges Didi-Huberman, who studied characteristics of votive objects neglected by most art historians, noted that these objects have been assigned a position far removed from “the grand history of style” because of their “aesthetic mediocrity, their formulaic and stereotypical character,” explaining that the anatomical vulgarity in the objects threaten the aesthetic model of art established by the academies and normative criticism. But these ex-votos weren’t randomly chosen common objects; they were mostly objects that had been touched by sovereign events or symptoms, select objects related to experiences of calamity or miracle. If a man were healed from a leg wound, for example, he would offer the crutch or cane used during his recovery. In addition to crutches, all forms of primitive prosthetics used on injured bodies immediately became objects of oblation: stretchers that lifted the injured; planks where a cripple sat; clothes worn by the deceased; even weapons responsible for bodily wounds. Objects that serve as the aftermath or evidence of a bodily struggle could be formalized as ex-votos. In other cases, people consecrated objects dear to them, just as a fan would dedicate to a celebrity an object that holds a special memory of them. According to this spiritual logic, medieval worshippers offered bread, live animals, valuables, and even their own children to the church. Expressing his keen interest in ex-votos, Didi-Huberman stresses the importance of Warburg’s claims as well as 『History of Portraiture in Wax』(1911) written by Julius von Schlosser (1866–1938), a late-19th century Austrian art historian. (Didi-Huberman also showed great interest in the works of Medardo Rosso (1858–1928) who used wax as his formative medium.) In terms of art history, Schlosser was a significant figure who helped give name to the concept of the unconscious mind in Freudianism and also helped the institution of photography reconsider the value of reproduction and imitation enabled through technical developments and achievements. Schlosser was intrigued by the history of the wax portraitures neglected by the museums on one hand, and the history of wax ex-votos on the other. Historians confirm that the overwhelming majority of the medieval ex-votos were in fact, wax portraitures. Schlosser, in this sense, studied the history of wax portraitures as the only type of sculpture dealt neither by museums nor art history, despite their coverage of all other sculptural bases—marble, stone, wood, and ivory—which is to say that he studied the history of wax portraitures excluded from the category of art. His subjects were anatomical models, ex-votos, and relics made of wax. What was it about wax as a medium that mesmerized him so? Wax portraitures are often modeled after someone living or dead, hence there is the element of direct contact or physical relation between the model and the portraiture. Given such a relationship, wax portraitures, just like analog films that embody direct evidence of the actual model, have characteristics that serve to reinforce the purpose of an ex-voto as evidence or a relic. Furthermore, wax is a medium endowed with plasticity, therefore a material suited for image fabrication and reproduction. Let’s picture a scenario: a patient, who’d been lame in one leg, is now healed and wants to offer an ex-voto of gratitude to his god. He could offer the crutch that had supported him through his battle with the illness, or, instead, he could have mocked up and offered a wax leg. Whereas he can only offer his crutch as an ex-voto of gratitude once he has healed, which is to say in the time of the satisfaction of his vow to get well, a wax leg could serve as both an ex-voto of expectation and gratitude, incarnating the changing conditions as the lame uses his crutch throughout the healing process.

“Wax . . . adapts itself plastically to misfortunes and to prayers, it can change when symptoms and desires change. If the lame find themselves healed in the leg but succumb to a bad dose of pneumonia, they can always melt down their wax leg and use the recovered material to make a beautiful pair of votive lungs. . . . Wax, as the material of all manner of plasticities, lends itself perfectly to all the labilities of the symptom that the votive object tires magically to involute, to heal, to transfigure. Wax . . . is polyvalent, reproducible, and metamorphic, exactly like the symptoms it is charged with representing, on one hand, and warding off, on the other. . . . One might say it permits a gain of flesh.” —Georges Didi-Huberman, “Ex-Voto: Image, Organ, Time”

On another note, Schlosser asserted that wax sculptures contributed largely to the advent of realist portraitures reflective of scientific observation and proportions, and that in dealing with the emergence of “autonomous portraits,” Giorgio Vasari neglected the influence of wax portraitures therefore distorting the history. Schlosser goes on to describe the emergence of realistic wax portraitures, which Vasari had failed to notice, though there are certain aspects he too overlooks in eager attempt to rectify the evolutionary schema of portraitures. Didi-Huberman concludes that, in discussing wax ex-votos, Schlosser may have magnified the importance of wax portraitures, saying that, in regards to the 1630s for example, the importance of wax effigies has to be relativized: as opposed to some 600 wax effigies, there were around 22,000 anatomical ex-votos modeled after human organs or body parts in Florence. Who is to say that these anatomical ex-votos unaccounted for in Schlosser’s studies—the isolated ears, tracheas, limbs, hearts, and even life-size testicles—aren’t as representative of their consecrators as their portraits? Didi-Huberman goes on to pose interesting questions and hypotheses about these crude, almost repugnant imitations of body parts offered to God and their relationships with their consecrators. Simply put, these anatomical ex-votos do represent their consecrators. They represent not through realistic description of their external appearance, but rather, through description of their symptoms, prayers, the moments of experienced by their flesh. It can be said that what the consecrators sought to replicate through wax was their state of pain, their desire for transformation, their hope to reclaim peace and wholeness, their yearning to change. As can be seen through some of the hypertrophic body parts, perhaps the characteristics of the consecrators’ misfortune individualizes them as much as their facial features. But then we encounter yet another skepticism: how can “loaves” or “raw and vulgar masses” of wax and wax portraitures carved with finesse hold the same amount of aesthetic value and importance? Wax sculptures are inherently products of contact (with the model), which makes them “indicative” according to Charles Sanders Peirce, and owing to the plasticity of the medium, they embody the potential for resemblance. (Aside from wax, ex-votos in the form of thin metal plates or paper—also materials with plasticity—were also common.) Based on the belief that the almost non-figurative lumps of wax represent the consecrators’ characteristics, we can infer the definition of “resemblance” prevalent at the time. Didi-Huberman refers to the medieval ritual that still exists in the Mediterranean basin of weighing sick children in hopes to save them from their illness: the child is placed on one side of the scales and wax is piled up on the other side until it reaches the exact weight of the sick child. In this case, the weight of the wax becomes the basis of their resemblance. Aside from this ritual, there have been countless cases in which ex-votos were selected based on their materialistic resemblance to the consecrator’s “organic weight . . . encumbrance . . . [and] suffocating presence.” And here lies the paradox that the most organic and symptomatic qualities are often manifested through the most physical of properties.

Kang Seung Lee, Garden, 3-channel color video installation, variable size, 2018, Image courtesy of ONE AND J. Gallery.

Kang Seung Lee, 〈Garden〉, 2018. 3-channel color video installation, variable size. ⓒONE AND J. Gallery

3. The Pagan and Queer Traditions

Going back to Kang Seung Lee’s 〈Garden〉, commemorative of Derek Jarman and Oh Joon-soo: Lee superimposes the two deceased men over each other through superimposition of places, soil, vessels, and performances. Lee tributes the two men who had foreseen their deaths and attempts to relive their pain. But instead of portraying their lives as a narrative of pain, he remembers them by reenacting their asceticism of gardening. Hence the garden is both an ex-voto in itself and a sanctuary for oblation. Just like the consecrators who prayed and hoped as they offered ex-votos resembling of their symptoms to their sanctuaries, Lee consecrates objects resembling Jarman and Oh in a sanctuary of their own, transforming the artworks into ex-votos imbued with artistic devotion and desire to be remembered.

Aspects of religious formality and ancestral ritual can be sensed throughout the exhibition space. From 〈Untitled (Names)〉, installed in the entryway of the gallery, we can read the names: Oh Joon-soo, Chang-ho Oh, Kyung-min Kim, Da-bin Kim, Luca, and “the slut of Jongno.” These are names, nicknames, and aliases Oh used to go by, and from “Luca,” a baptismal name, we learn that he was a Catholic. Next to the embroidery piece depicting the cover of the Chingusai newsletter, there’s a pencil drawing of the Virgin Mary wall piece found inside Jarman’s cottage 〈Untitled (Icon at Prospects Cottage)〉. How ironic is it to highlight the Catholic aspect of Jarman, out of all the things he was—a queer activist and a figure symbolic of iconoclasm? We could argue that Jarman had never quite deemed Christianity itself as futile, that although queer activism served as a means of iconoclasm in his all-Latin film 〈Sebastian〉(2014), in 〈The Garden〉—a film that reinterprets the stories of Adam, Eve, and Jesus with a queer sensitivity—criticized the capital-corrupted church rather than the religious ideology itself, using motifs such as Santa Claus and Judas to represent commercialized clergy and credit card use. Rather than eliminating or being fettered by Christian implications, Lee breeds them with other cultures, places, and times. For example, stone or stone objects such as sarcophaguses and altars are elements emblematic of Jesus and his birth and suffering on earth. Lee’s also makes multiple uses of sambe, a fabric used in Korean funerals, especially in 〈Untitled (Table)〉—he places sambe over the sarcophagus, a place symbolic of Jesus’ death, and over the table, a place symbolic of missal service, arranging on top, a garden, a place symbolic of the blood shed by Jesus. This way, elements of Jarman’s garden are also placed among Oh’s photos and records on the table. Through this process, the symbol of Jesus’ blood is metastasized into another symbol, a flower. The symbols continue to migrate from one medium to another, from one place to another. This is why symbols in Lee’s works not only serve as symbols but also as indicators and trails. Didi-Huberman made the same remark about the images of ex-votos: “Every image, in this area, is charged with . . . a highly symbolic or contractual aspect, on one hand (the relation to the Other, the relation do ut des: I give the representation of my symptoms so that You might give the reality of its healing) and, on the other hand, the always immediate and real, very carnal, aspect of the votive situation (my suffering organ, my clothes here on the effigy, the material reliefs of this symptom, of that miracle).” Here on the altar are dedicated: things symbolic and evident, things that have life yet seem collapsible, things that remain as black graphite.

The tradition of ex-votos, originally a pagan imagination, was clandestinely passed on and into the Christian culture. Kang Seung Lee’s works do not end at recreating or re-conducting the hopeful works once dedicated to the world by Derek Jarman and Oh Joon-soo, but proceed to remind of the queer tradition constantly flowing and spreading within the Christian culture.


※ This article was published in the January, 2019 release of Misulsegye Magazine as part of the Visual Arts Critic-Media Matching Support Project by the Korea Arts Management Service.

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