IM Youngzoo's Journey to Space
PARK Chan-Kyong, artist
Incomplete Effect_Video may not be one of her major pieces but it bears the key characteristics of her overall work. From a general film perspective, this is a poorly made video. Not only is it of low definition, but the whole process of filming and editing seems to be the work of a beginning filmmaker. According to IM Youngzoo, the making of the video had not been planned ahead of time, and a fellow artist who happened to join her on this trip ended up being the protagonist in this video. Moreover, since the footage backup had somehow been deleted from her computer, the artist had to work with images recovered from the trash bin. It’s not strange at all if you have doubts on whether this person is a real artist or not at this point. But, weirdly enough, this low-quality home video sparks great curiosity.
In the video, we can see people loiter around public places such as a shamanic shrine, a church, a Buddhist temple as well as ruins and mountains. When moving from one place to another, the video all of a sudden stops, and then abruptly changes to a stop-motion scene. The goal of such editing is often not clear. According to the artist, it was to give the impression of loose videotape. As such, it seems as if an anonymous user posted a video online solely for fun, but without any particular purpose and not knowing if people will watch it. However, the fact that the person in this video is unidentified is what makes it truly intriguing. This is characteristic of Im’s work, though it appears less in her more recent works. In a world where persuasion, propaganda, proposal and exaggeration prevail, this type of image stands out from the plethora of excessive images because of its peculiar loophole and disinterestedness. Just like the title of the work, it may be a sense of incompleteness. Thus, curiosity is stirred and questions arise. What comes after that hole, a tunnel-like place? Where does it lead to? Of course, the video ends, never revealing its final destination.
I’m afraid I’m using a lot of vague grammar when describing IM’s work. The reason for this is not because of my inability to do so, but lies in the fact that this is an intrinsic value of her work. The artist is obviously fully aware of that and her video work called There Must Be Something (2015) tells a story that also encompasses this idea. This piece of work is an edit that contains dramatically magnified scenes of typical Korean television dramas. According to the artist, the viewers are often left with a cliffhanger at every end of an episode and watch scenes filled with suspense that build up to the climax of the story. When a character’s personality traits, actions and motives influence the plot of the story, it’s understandable that this sort of situation stimulates the interest of the viewers. The fact that IM is able to point out this main characteristic of Korean television dramas proves that she’s a drama maniac. Hence, although it is hard to tell what is happening on screen, the video has been edited so that it appears as if there must be something beyond. In short, the status of uncertainty in the conventional life of television dramas, in which something is strange and unclear, must be the subject that intrigues IM as an artist. If the subject were to be a symbol, it would have to be a question mark.
Curiosity, suspicion, doubt and questioning are important elements in a narrative. The protagonist faces difficulty within the framework of a narrative from which questions arise and answers determine an outcome that can be comic or tragic. If the narrative of a movie or book forms the aforementioned process on both an emotional and logical level and builds up towards the ending, IM chooses the status of belief and/or doubt as her subject and seeks to push the viewers into a situation where it encourages them to question things. What is underneath these doubts and suspicions? Is it one of those “believe or don’t believe” kind of things? Should I believe in it or not? Should I have doubts? To press ahead with the subject, her work called Direction Guidance (2014) brings the viewer into doubtful circumstances.
In Direction Guidance, the artist meets the viewer in a small room on the first floor and moves into a one-on-one conversation. They exchange questions and answers about bedtime routines and the tent that is located on the second floor. Then, the artist conducts the viewer to the room where the ‘artwork’ is located. By adopting the voice of a shaman, the artist predicts something auspicious and tells the viewer that everything will go well in the future once he or she receives good vibes from the room. As can be heard from the recording of the performance, the dialogue goes something like this: “Go up and you will see four rooms, but you must enter the largest room to have things work out for you. The key is in the door lock. What do you see when you walk in? You see mountains, forests and water. Good vibes are coming in. Just embrace it. This place is full of promises and the energy is fortuitous…. Everything is in its place… Praying will do you good… Sir, have you recently had the chance to see the moon? The supermoon? Look, there’s a double rainbow in the sky. Please do pray… It can only bring you good. I hope everything goes well for you. Have a wonderful day.”
In the room on the second floor, a pop-up tent is suspended in midair. Lamps and artificially produced objects - a supermoon, a double rainbow, water - are scattered around. Viewers are hit by the wind coming from the installed fan. As the artist recalls her experience, one viewer fully embraced this ‘guide to good vibes’ without even questioning it, while another cried, got scared and even angry at some point. Whatever the reaction was or whether they believed it or not, the viewers must have given the artist/shaman’s words much thought. They must have been influenced by what the artist/shaman told them and what had been installed in the room. The same thing occurs when someone is troubled by the words of a fortune teller and tries to interpret every unusual event as a sign. Despite the fact that IM Youngzoo is not a professional fortune teller and viewers probably consider this a mere art performance, the space and spoken words must have had some effect on the ones who entered the dark room alone and listened to the definite predictions.
As seen earlier in Incomplete Effect_Video, a cultural layer is added to her 'experiment' and this type of act utilizes the codes of subcultures and exudes a very conventional feeling. Some of the artist/shaman’s statements are far from contributing to building credibility: references about the supermoon and the double rainbow, which are hugely popular in Korea, a drug dealer-like voice telling you to embrace the good vibes and a sudden ending of the conversation (“Have a wonderful day”). Yet, this reminds us of how satire is used in the mass media to represent shamans as swindlers who deceive the elderly by selling fake products. The strings of beads and lamps, which are installed on the second floor, are far from being magical. These devices don’t create an illusionary effect. In the climate of 3D and IMAX, the effects that the artist installed turn out to be somewhat scruffy and ephemeral. Therefore, in a certain sense, it might seem that the work strives to sarcastically condemn superstition or expose its fictitiousness. However, what makes it more complicated is that the artist seeks to deliver a completely different message.
IM Youngzoo does not criticize superstition, but rather tries to embrace it. Here we must be careful with the use of this term. When we talk about superstition, the term instantly evokes the concept of shamanic culture as well as new religion, pseudo religion or heterodoxy. However, historically speaking the term ‘superstition’ has been used since the early modern period: the concept became widely spread through Confucianism in the Joseon dynasty, the anti-nationalist policy of the Japanese occupation, the process of modernization such as the Saemaul Undong (better known as ‘New Community Movement’) and the rapid spread of Christianity. Ignorance of religion, implicit faith and fanaticism unfortunately continue to exist and even mislead people and are regarded as serious social evils, especially in Korean society. After all, when drawing the line between superstition and religion, or between superstition and religious belief, it is important to know how to be free from prejudices that have accumulated over history and, at the same time, know how to escape from blind faith in superstition. Having been raised by her grandmother, a shaman, and having experienced different religions, IM seriously takes into account these issues that are inherent to her own individuality.
Before branding it as a corrupt cult, a misdeed or a deceitful religion, Im looks upon the act of so-called ‘superstition’ as an old, prevalent phenomenon in society at large that cannot be reconciled with rational thinking or scientific thought. The subject matter for A Room for Belief, Love, Fidelity (2014) is drawn from the Trinity ring, a famous jewelry accessory from the brand Cartier, and this work showcases stories and images that speak to the idea of superstition in contemporary life. The ring is comprised of three interlocked bands, each a different color, and is said to represent love, friendship and loyalty. The myth has it that it was Louis Carrier who made it for Jean Cocteau and it was meant to represent the rings of Saturn. This contemporary myth makes this ring the preferred choice for weddings.
There exist numerous examples of objects that are perceived as containers of actual power as such. They’re regarded as a symbol or talisman of which the tale of the ring is nothing new or special. However, if you think of it the other way around, there must be plenty of ‘superstitious’ phenomena that we take for granted or pay no attention to whatsoever. The ring as a wedding item itself can be seen as an example of a shamanic act still practiced in the contemporary world. Because, perhaps, it’s not acceptable if one loses his or her wedding ring and doesn’t feel ominous about it somehow. In fact, there are many similar cases. The act of ripping up a picture of someone you despise is basically no different from a psychomantic spell. It is said that a notable conglomerate that sells products made with advanced scientific technology makes use of physiognomy as a tool of recruitment. A cemetery plot for an ancestor is carefully chosen and the unpleasant experience of having a small accident is considered unfortunate.
IM Youngzoo brings the Trinity ring as a medium of myth and prayer in her adaptation, A Room for the Holy Sound of the Trinity (2014), which features Jean Cocteau as Mr. Jang and Louis Cartier as Mr. Woo. Its sister artwork, The Birth of the Top Class XXX Seat Cushion (2014), displays a trinity of three red seat cushions that have a circle embroidered on them with golden thread. By replacing the content of Cartier’s marketing tactics with elements of folktale and blessing, the artist makes a statement about the universality of superstition that dwells in the contemporary world of luxury. The artist suggests that superstition is a universal phenomenon as such, but this is by no means always the case. One can satirize and look down upon traditional blessings, yet believe in a superstition embedded in extravagant goods. Although the artist wants the viewer to sit on the trinity seat cushions and listen to the mesmerizing sounds of the clinking trinity ring so that he or she can receive love and loyalty, the story isn’t reliable. As in Direction Guidance where the artist exaggeratedly impersonated a fortune teller, the work is basically an imitation of a religious act filled with fakery. Her positive take on superstition, on the other hand, reveals her affection for fakery. Though it is yet hard to grasp the motives behind her work.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that what the characters in her work believe in is purely based on ignorance and superstition. Likewise, the various effects that derive from editing and sound programs and are frequently used by the artist in video production shouldn't be regarded as immature or unfashionable. Without any hesitation, she freely makes use of sound effects or image editing tools (partitioning, blurring, digital manipulation, etc.) that most artists stay away from. This makes this ‘believe or don’t believe’ story even more phony. For example, in Rock and Fairy, the story is told from the point of view of a meteorite. The echo effect added to the voice sounds like a radio host mimicking the voice of God. This type of mass media technique used to be a successful method for delivering messages from God, extraterrestrial beings or wizards. Today, however, it’s known as a technique from the past and used as a tool to make the audience laugh. In this way the reality of effects draws more attention than the reality of an object. The reality of the effects in her work suggests that there’s a repetition of the subjects she deals with. Operating media tools is regarded as an attempt to determine the media’s authenticity. Hence the following question emerges: can we come close to a state of purity when we believe in something? Aren’t these effects of media technology similar to the context in which we are led to believe in something?
Setting aside its value judgement for a while, let me explain the structure first. We recognize and feel to some extent that belief revolves around fictitious subjects. We would be able to gaze at the foundation of a desire or the landscape of human truth within this exaggerated fiction. Truth would be situated as a certain subject or a situation under these circumstances. In other words, the artist’s main interest isn’t to judge the issues of fiction by the measure of truth, but rather to expose a certain truth or state in which fiction itself becomes a truthfulness. Then again, the artist seems to prefer comedy over tragedy. Tragedy shows the achievement of a sincere goal through multiple failures and sacrifices of the main character, but comedy focuses on the different mistakes of the main character who had little success from the outset. In the case of a successful comedy, the main character’s daydreams, vain attempts, exaggerations and mistakes allow the audience members of contemporary times to feel sympathy for having lost their own purity. As for IM Youngzoo, this lost purity is intertwined with spirituality, faith, aspiration and so forth. For an ‘educated person’ or a ‘refined urban dweller,’ this sounds cheesy. To me, it seems like the artist has a deep sympathy for purity which embraces its own cheesiness.
The work of IM often aims to find out the truth of a ‘believe or don’t believe’ state or thing. In addition, we come to know that the significance lies more in the people she encountered through the process of verifying the truth or falsehood than in the actual process itself. The work Sulsulsul Apt. (2014), also known as ‘the female apartment’, tells the story of an apartment in Myunggok-ri, Daegu, where a rumor circulated that women easily got pregnant there. In terms of Feng Shui, the apartment had strong yin energy. Thus, a phallic rock had been installed in the middle of the apartment so as to balance the flow of yin and yang energies. Hence, infertile women came here to become pregnant. That’s how the story went. In the process of making, the artist recorded the conversations she had with the head of the village, an elderly woman from a retirement home, an apartment resident, a local merchant, a real estate agent, a Feng Shui expert and an elementary school teacher from the neighborhood. Then, she edited some parts of the transcriptions of the conversations by inserting them into the video. In Rock and Fairy (2016), she accompanies the meteorite and placer mining explorers, carefully listens to what they have to say and delivers these words through images and sound. These people might seem like daydreamers or patients with OCD, but the characters are being twisted out of shape. These surprisingly ordinary neighbors share their unique faith while hiding their mental abyss. The artist rather aims to describe them as people who are free-spirited, have a firm belief and enjoy life more than anyone else. Navigating her way through the vague boundaries of superstition, religion and science with the guidance of these people, IM eventually defines superstition as a ‘system’. The superstition that we often disparage has a total different meaning for people who see it as hope and faith which is logically inexplicable.
What does it mean to embrace superstition? If someone experiences a supernatural phenomenon and is convinced that this is a message from outer space or if someone makes unattainable goals, it may be difficult for us to disparage this as a superstition. However, we are well aware of the fact that those in power suits can effortlessly exploit this kind of irrationality. Perhaps, coupled with ideologies and commercial tricks, the latest systematic superstition is being initiated within the mass media, whether wired or wireless. Once you step into this world, it is even harder to distinguish what superstition is and what is not. Placed in a set of circumstances where we are faced with not only a sea of information but also the unreliability of a source, the risk of believing things that are not true is higher than ever. We do know how to identify and distinguish irrational beliefs from accurate ones through selection, evaluation and clarifying criticism. However, this ability requires intellectual effort that has become increasingly tiring. Hence, embracing superstition seems like an issue at a glance. How can we embrace superstition in a situation where there’s a vast lack in distinction between truth, falsehood and rational judgement?
IM Youngzoo takes the direction opposed to that of preaching or the idea that irrational beliefs are the truth. Acknowledging the irrationality per se, IM choses the way in which preconceptions coming from science and the rational mind or the uncertainty caused by that are presented as a type of conventional farce. The artist explores the certainty of uncertainty which has challenged both modern religion and science. In other words, IM aims to find the aesthetic rationality of embracing superstition as well as adopting a laid-back attitude towards social ethics.
In the exhibition THEWESTERLIESWINDCOMESANDGOES (2016) at Space O New Wall, the artist strives to look for ‘superstitious’ elements embedded in science by focusing her approach on issues concerning faith and superstition. In these scientific experiment-like videos, the artist throws discredit on the absolute authority of both religion and science by inserting pseudo religion and pseudo science. Depending on how you perceive it, the language of meditation is similar to the instructions of science experiments given in elementary and middle school textbooks. For instance, “Hold the object close to your ear and listen to the sounds”, “What do you see?”, “Allow to heat for three minutes using the alcohol lamp”, or “What happens next?”. The act of placing a hand on a heated rock in Test_Material (2016) or having the sound of a hand patting a rock recorded by a mic in Rock Force (2016) can be considered a science experiment as well as a form of meditation. The core of the THEWESTERLIESWINDCOMESANDGOES exhibition consists of weather forecasting, the Westerlies and the nuance of foreboding. The artist argues that even if we consider today’s weather and today’s horoscope as two completely different prediction methods, it’d be hard to tell the major differences when it comes to finding out how both are being predicted. Perhaps, the weather forecasting is more objective and accurate. However, the necessary knowledge and data are required to be able to draw a conclusion on the absolute difference between weather observation and fortune telling.
Besides putting in question the concept of unquestionable faith and shifting ‘uncertain faith’ to something certain, the artist also aims to bind faith and desire tightly together. Test_Material and Rock Force which were shown in the exhibition THEWESTERLIESWINDCOMESANDGOES are the by-products of Rock and Fairy (2016). In Rock and Fairy, the artist guides us in recognizing mysticism as the vitality in people’s lives, whereas in other works she tries to expose the ground zero of truth and falsehood by faking science experiments. Blinded by self-delusion while searching for a meteorite and placer gold, the characters in Rock and Fairy - Woonshin, Mono, Daemulggun, Odu, Hae Shim Myung - rather seem to enjoy what they’re doing. This type of amusement can be seen as a weekend getaway after a week of hard work, an experience of the sublime or a sentiment like erotic ecstasy. While IM Youngzoo makes use of ‘crappy’ audio and video techniques without a hitch, she counterposes the prevailing culture of religion in Korea that includes Confucianism, Buddhism and Christianity which are all closely linked with religious faith and asceticism.
In the same context, one may notice that the concept of sex continues to explicitly make its appearance in her works. Sexual symbols, stories and imagination play a crucial role in most of her works. Raised by her grandmother who was a shaman, perhaps it is related to her religious background. IM has said that it felt natural for her to accept the unrestrained intersection between the sacred and the secular in Korea’s shamanic culture. As a matter of fact, in a traditional shamanic ritual, dirty jokes are frequently being told and secular desires are easily unfolded. And yet the ritual quickly turns into a solemn ceremony that is driven by its own unique cultural and religious dynamics and in which spirit possession is about to start or has started. Unlike the aesthetics of the sublime in ‘high class religion’ in which emotions are uplifted vertically, the playacting of horizontal sympathy strongly exists in shamanism in which honest sentiment and culture of the people have permeated. And yet this way of having faith in nonreligious subjects like a meteorite and placer gold in Rock and Fairy somehow resembles the dynamics of shamanism. For those who search for placer gold, gold is gold, but it’s also ‘fairy’ to them. Also, the candlestick-looking rock that appeared in Ae-dong (2015) is a phallic stone that became sacred when objectified by women who prayed ceaselessly for a baby boy. Ae-dong, the title of this video work, is a little tweak of the word ‘ya-dong’*.
(*an acronym for x-rated videos in Korean)
IM’s videos often come in the form of travel documentaries. In Sulsulsul Apt, the journey starts on the platform of a train bound for East Daegu at Sinyongsan Station and continues on a bus bound for Myunggok-ri. You get a strange feeling because the scenery or the buildings under construction are completely emotionless. In Incomplete Effect_Video, there is a rather baffling jump cut where religious facilities are suddenly replaced by a motel building. In Rock and Fairy, various sounds and landscapes appear during this journey of exploration in search of the meteorite and placer gold. On this sacred journey of finding an object that has travelled through space and fell to Earth, the mechanic GPS voice with its strong Gyeongsang Province dialect spoils the mood. Scenes of a falling comet have been added to this video. These clips were actually taken from video footage retrieved from black boxes in cars. Such absurd jump cuts are prominent throughout her works.
The size of the universe is infinite, but that of a Moon rock fragment, a political gift given to the citizens of South Korea by the U.S., is as tiny and insignificant as a grain of rice. Lately, IM Youngzoo has been watching ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) videos a lot. This new type of medium, which triggers auditory sensations with the sounds of scratching or tapping a microphone, is as if it reveals the mysteries of the universe. The very subtle sounds also demonstrate that the eccentric habits of people living in the world of today have reached a new level. If IM Youngzoo's journey to space were to be a simple trip from Earth to a star, from one star to another, from a small space to an infinite one, or from a secular to a sacred one, it wouldn’t be that interesting. Instead, a countryside motel, a guy with a nickname Paranranningu watching an online tutorial on a game of Go, people searching for gold mines in Moogeuk, Goobong and Imchun, the candlestick-looking rock at sunset, shabby ritual venues and all that, are all marvelous mysteries despite the fact that they are surprisingly ordinary people and places. The journey to space becomes an even more genuine journey as it evolves into a spiritually free travel documentary comprised of intriguing jump cuts. This attitude does not suit with all those absolute authorities that aim to straighten things out. In fact, superstition, heresy and occultism go hand in hand with the fear of themselves. IM’s work parodies those fears while loosely taking the concept of obsessive superstitions. The rest of the superstitions are rather ordinary mystiques. Within this ordinary freedom, sympathy for people with eager longing may occur and mysterious, luminous object may attract one’s attention. In a country like Korea, where fanaticism and blind faith mingle with politics, religion and science, this kind of freedom is highly required.
Born in 1965, Park Chankyong is an artist and a filmmaker based in Seoul. His subjects vary from the Cold War to the culture of Korean religion. His major films are Sets (2000), Power Passage (2004), Flying (2005) Sindoan (2008), Radiance (2010) Anyang, Paradise City (2011) Night Fishing (co-directed with Park Chanwook, 2011) Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (2013) Citizen’s Forest (2016) and many more. His films were presented at various venues: Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju; De Appel, Amsterdam; RedCat Gallery, Los Angeles; Atelier Hermes, Seoul; Tina Kim Gallery, New York; and many others. He won various awards including the Hermès Foundation Missulsang in 2014, the Golden Bear for Best Short Film at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2011, the Grand Prize for Best Korean Feature Films at the Jeonju International Film Festival in 2011, the Best Feature Film or Video Award at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival in 2015, and the Best Director in Documentary at the Wild Flower Film Festival in 2015. In 2014, he served as Artistic Director of Media City Seoul 2014.