Believing is Seeing
MUN Hye Jin
“Why do you paint?”
This may come off as a silly question, considering IM Youngzoo majored in painting. Although it might sound redundant, this question is pertinent to my inquiry of whether or not the medium of painting is conducive to tackling themes in IM’s oeuvre. From her early works, IM consistently addresses how a belief system is formed and embodies the precarious state between truth and fraud through her works. Her select works operate as a divine and miraculous tool that connects reality (viewers) to other worlds (characters in her works). This is done, on the one hand, by making the viewers laugh at the characters who are immersed in nonsensical scenarios; on the other hand, the viewers are curious about what lured the characters in (or making them engrossed by the story through their viewing experience). This can be found in IM’s works Sul Sul Sul Apt (2014), AEDONG (2015)—a work on Chotdae Bawi (t/n: a candlestick-shaped rock) and idolization, and Rock and Fairy (2016)—featuring people who search for moon rocks and alluvial gold. In terms of the tool, painting seems to be too stiff and obstinate medium to achieve fascination. While video can be a medium that fascinates more easily by having many elements such as image, sound, and text subjected to manipulation, painting cannot contain speech, and its materiality is less than sculpture due to its two-dimensionality. Painting has only two materials of expression: canvas and paint.
Matter ⇔ Non-Matter
My supposedly nonsensical question was resolved and lead to two answers after listening to IM’s explanation. The first answer was suggested by the structure of this exhibition, Look, Here Begins the Omega (SANSUMUNHWA, 2017), in which video and painting have been realized on separate platforms. Video and painting in IM’s works operate as two freestanding factors––one is not subordinate to the other. And yet, it is more proper to say that both mediums are in an interdependent, symbiotic relationship than exist as irrelevant entities—one is in need of the other for its survival. That is to say, in IM’s works painting requires video for its existence while video also depends on painting. This kind of inter-dependency is also revealed clearly in the way IM works. Her daily routine demonstrates a well-arranged plan to adjust the balance between her mind and body. She watches a morning soap opera when she gets up in the morning. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. she paints. After having lunch, she edits videos from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. She finishes her day by watching a nighttime drama. Her daily routine is an elaborate apparatus to control her biological rhythm and rhythm in the mediums she works with. Time flows relatively slowly in the medium of oil painting because some time should be allowed for the paints to dry. Meanwhile, time flows quickly in video because you need to pay attention to every second while editing–– seeing one second as multiple frames. Moreover, video’s open structure that allows for infinite re-editing makes videographers insatiable, continuing to make changes. Because of these features, video tends to make its practitioner develop a short temper. Painting, on the other hand, seems to have an alleviating effect on the impatience that video causes. In this respect, IM has an optimized routine in which each medium’s distinct characteristics are in balance with her biorhythm: she begins her day with the slow pace of painting, raising the speed by becoming engrossed in the fast pace of video, and ending her day when things get tiring. In this way, her paintings and videos complement and support each other with their differences in pace and working method, although both were produced in the same period and deal with the same subject matter.
The interrelations between painting and video do not merely happen on the physical level in IM’s production process. The consequences of their mutual influence are interestingly manifested in the form of the final product. For instance, the way paintings are arranged in the exhibition space seems like an extension of the still images in the video to me. A good example is a relationship among images in IM’s video AEDONG and her painting The Bottom_Gristle and Synovia (2017). While paintings of Chotdae Bawi is the subject matter of AEDONG, The Bottom_Gristle and Synovia, a series of three paintings—one of the sea from a distance, another featuring the panoramic view of the Chotdae Bawi, and the third of an enlarged surface of rock—seems to materialize the scenes that are cut into zoomed in and out units. A trick in the way of installation reveals that IM’s approach to arranging her paintings is the same as that of video editing; in order to see a complete image, the viewers need to combine the separated images marked by the protruded column on the wall. Multiple canvases are connected normally or upside down, while different shapes and numbers of canvases are placed together to make a new arrangement. The method of playing with the combination of elements to create new arrangements exactly corresponds to editing in the medium of video. IM’s painting technique that crosses the boundary between figuration and abstraction also parallels the repetitive zooming in and out in video that blurs or accentuates images. Meanwhile, her video is also influenced by her paintings. This is manifested in the shift in her methodology from focusing on stories to images. Her 2016 work Rock and Fairy was a turning point. Other works made after this point such as STARRY STARRY (2017) and Aurora Reflection (2017) are highly image-centric. The influence of painting is evident in the fusion of images in her videos. For instance, another set of paintings under the title of The Bottom _Gristle and Synovia shows a leap in thinking in which the form of a candlestick-shaped rock is transformed into knees. Her videos reflect this free association technique. In STARRY STARRY, the messages sent to the universe leaps into a glacier scene in a (South Korean animation film) Dooly the Little Dinosaur where Dooly’s origin is explained, and the scene cuts to the image of Neptune covered with glaciers. This chain of image associations is an example where the spatial jump in The Bottom_Gristle and Synovia is transformed into a temporal leap.
Aside from the interaction of the two mediums, painting is needed for the sake of materiality. IM Youngzoo said that she is interested in the ways paintings are hung. In other words, for IM, the frame of the painting is as important as what is depicted in painting. Her use of canvases of diverse shapes such as circles and ovals, as well as standardized squares shows her perspective on painting as “an object” of a specific shape and size. The act of hanging a circular painting next to a square painting or placing a stone on the frame of painting also reveals her vision to consider painting as an object. Then, can we say that the reason why IM incorporates paintings or objects in her video works is because these media fill the gap of materiality lacked in video, which is an immaterial medium? This is an interesting point: it is not important for IM to emphasize the sense of “realness” normally expected in materials, or the sense of presence that you can feel through touch and feeling. Any dichotomous distinction between the real and fake is meaningless in IM’s work, in which no clear division is marked between the sacred and profane, the belief and disbelief. Rather, her intention is to greatly experiment with the effects that would make people take fake for real. A clue to better understand this statement is IM’s words from an interview where she said that any religious body has its own music, picture, video, and performance. Her exhibition is directed in a way that paintings and objects spatially complement what cannot be achieved by videos. The flatness of paintings is supported by the comprehensive stage effects of video’s three dimensionality.
What makes viewers believe?
As mentioned above, IM’s previous works are based on the interest in the structure that engenders beliefs. Rock and Fairy, a story that features explorations of club members who collect meteorites and alluvial gold is simultaneously a documentary based on interviews and coverage following the subjects and a fantasy genre story searching for a fairy. The culture of the exploration club looks like a pseudo-religion and such suspicion is intensified by the effects used in the video that make an absurd belief look significant. These delusional mechanisms captivate viewers are as follows: narration with an echoing effect, incomprehensible conversations (repetition of “I want to see”-“You will see”-“I am seeing”), mysterious sound effects, multiple viewpoints that oscillate between an omnipresent viewpoint and a participant’s point of view, and camerawork that captures close-ups and repeated shots. As examined, one of the most important characteristics of IM’s work is the fitting pairing between content and form. The confluence of content and form especially stands out through her use of “effects” in her videos: AEDONG, STARRY STARRY, and Aurora Reflection.
The structure of AEDONG is relatively simple: it features Chotdae Bawi filmed at an interval of one hour from sunrise to sunset. The composition of each video is almost identical as they were filmed with a fixed camera with a repetition of zooming in and out. The video shows Chotdae Bawi that appears enlarged and again distanced within a time cycle of about three minutes. Slight variations are made in the color of the sea and the light that gradually changes as the sun rises and in the close-ups. A piece of overly solemn (and thus comical) music, which is a variation of a passage that says “Donghae-mulgwa [The water of the East Sea]” of the Korean national anthem, is compulsively repeated at every cycle. The experience of watching this video is quite weird and painful. Your senses are paralyzed if you are exposed to the same song and similar looking images repetitively for 30 minutes. The catchy sound, in particular, contributed much to the effect of watching this piece, because the song lingers in the mind of viewers even when they do not watch the video anymore. This strong effect on the viewers’ visionary and hearing senses paralyzes their ability to make judgments. In fact, repetition, the most salient feature of AEDONG, is associated with the subject matter of Chotdae Bawi. This rock was one of the rocks called Chuam, which was a part of superb landscape called Neungpadae. After the image of the rock was used for the video of the Korean national anthem, this rock has become famous and a tourist attraction for viewing the sunrise. According to IM, visitors to this place take photographs of this rock only, not the whole landscape: all of the photographs are similar because the rock is enlarged. The essence of idolization is to equally and quickly consume the icon, removed from any context. It seems that IM associated this vulgar act of consuming the image of rock to pornography [the title AEDONG is appropriated from “yadong” (porn films in Korean)]. The rock and pornography share similarities in that both are filmed in a way that the focal point is enlarged without any storyline or emotions and both are produced and consumed in a repetitive pattern. A semantic zoom-in that is abbreviated into a flow that shows Neungpadae, Chuam, and Chotdae Bawi is merged with a close-up of the video, and the suspension of judgment equally applies both to the rock and her work.
IM focuses more on effect than content in her recent works such as STARRY STARRY and Aurora Reflection. STARRY STARRY takes its theme from the effect that makes people believe in something. The video integrates various audiovisual materials about the universe—such as Morse code, glitch effects in VHS, and footage of Apollo 13’s atmospheric reentry of the Earth’s atmosphere—causing an odd hypnotic effect. The noticeable video technique here is “looping.” Bizarre phrases that are like instructions at a meditation center (e.g. “The eye sees the nose – The nose sees the mouth – The mouth sees the navel”) are repeated with the word “again” as a starting point. The image displayed with the narration is Object Discovery (2016), a video of water drops on a running car’s window. What is interesting here is what reacts to the word “again” is not just the narration––a water drop that was running leftward starts to run rightward signaled by the word “again.” This reversed cycle is applied to the whole structure of this video. The first scene of Starry Starry shows discordance between image and sound. For example, excited voice of those who discovered meteor is put together with the last scene featuring a burning satellite that reenters the atmosphere. In this way, the beginning and end is connected to form a looping cycle.
Aurora Reflection starts with the color green in the green screen that is used to synthesize images. This work discloses an editing technique that makes the fake look real. This video technique reflects her interest in the effects that engender belief systems. Its first scene symbolizes the meaning of the entire video in which the Chotdae Bawi images from AEDONG are pixelated and green lines (signifying the aurora) are generated in between images. The joining of images, which should not be exposed to make the images look real, has become the main character here. One of the outstanding moments of this work is a scene in which two-channel videos that look like they are in the same color, but are slightly different and combined into one through the process of screen adjustment. The images and sounds in the videos of each channel do not match up with each other. The images are falling apart when a circle passes through the border of the two channels and sounds make dissonance as if two tones are played at once. The viewers would burst out laughing when the video enters into the universe at the moment when the images and sounds are perfectly synchronized. This minute editing demonstrates IM’s unique technique that pays attention to details and blends humor with seriousness. Failed editing is not encouraged normally, however, in IM’s works it unmasks the process of creating trickery and leads the viewers to see the mechanism that lends credibility to images.
“It looks that way if you squint or gaze at one spot,”
said someone who is an aquarium hobbyist. This is no different from what IM thinks about belief systems. A fake rock whose surface is made of fiberglass looks real if placed in a proper context––so does a belief. People are ready to take anything—whatever it is—for truth if it is supported by apparatuses that make things look real. Scientific statistics, standardized ways of presentation, or objective tone in speaking, enhance credibility, while the tone––like a fortune teller, groundless assumptions, and illogical connections decreases credibility; although both the weather forecast (in the tone of the former) and today’s horoscope (in the tone of the latter) are equally inaccurate. IM’s attitude toward beliefs is more so that of an observer than of a believer in that it is focused on the effects generated by beliefs than actually having beliefs. Distance, not immersion, is required to grasp the structure of things. Perhaps, the works by IM Youngzoo play with the operating mechanism of art by experimenting “again,” and “once again,” with the structure that makes the viewers believe in her intentions by the apparatuses she has laid out.
MUN Hye Jin is a critic, translator and lecturer on contemporary art. After She had graduated in material science at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, she majored in Art Theory at Korea National University of Arts. Her major interest is the formal analysis of technology-based media, the interdisciplinary study on the crossmedia and the contemporary Korean art. She currently teaches contemporary art theory, photography and video art in the School of Visual Arts, Korea National University of Arts. She is author of 90's Korean Art and Postmodernism: In Search of Origin of Contemporary Korean Art (Hyunsil Munwha, 2015) and translator of two major textbooks: Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art after 1980 written by Jean Robertson and Craig McDaniel (Oxford University Press, 2010); Photography: A Critical Introduction edited by Liz Wells (Routledge, 2009).