A World of Her Own: Presentational
Realism in the Work of Jung-Yeon Min
Jung-Yeon Min’s artworks are highly imaginative and rich. One finds multiple worlds, the extraordinary and the realistic, fullness and lack, notions of micro and macro, and manipulations of space and time in her work. Specifically, her practice offers two equal but divergent investigations. On the one hand, she envisions and explores a mysterious and fantastical world. In a separate but concurrent investigation, she examines the effect of time in the pictorial realm. Sometimes colliding, these two points of inquiry form an intriguing basis for a closer reading of Min’s works as opening up places of potential and possibility.
Min’s works have been profoundly influenced by the theories of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Her engagement with Deleuze complicates and enriches the viewing experience to make it one of intellectual engagement, as well as aestheticism. Highlighting some of his ideas helps to illuminate the work of Min. Deleuze writes about the power of difference, what makes things unique and different from one another, in order to foster a discourse of becoming – the way in which we evolve in order to transform the way we think. Critic Claire Colebrook rightly identifies the major question confronting Deleuze and his colleague Félix Guattari in their text Anti-Oedipus as “What stops us from creating new values, new desires, or new images of what it is to be and think?”1 Similarly, this question is crucial for Min’s art practice. Deleuze challenges the artist to think in terms of possibility or what one may be able to do when one’s imagination is stretched to the utmost. For Min, this utmost exists in the realm between the real and the virtual; the presentation of her imaginary worlds requires that we search for their specific force, their capacity for rupturing and transforming life. Tracing this force within her works offers an understanding of what her artwork achieves and her vision of our potential.
Min’s work Untitled, a mountainous landscape with screens of red dots and a root structure floating above a river with grass, marks a significant departure from her previous work due to her creation of a fantastical or, as Deleuze would define it, virtual world within her paintings. Understanding her virtual world, the world not as it is but the world beyond any specific observation or experience, involves questioning the very possibilities of life. For this reason, Untitled lays the foundation, as a sort of preparatory work, and helps to trace out Min’s construction of this new investigative space. Here, the landscape recedes into the background. There are obvious markers of a perspectival view, a technique first used by Renaissance artists to depict the real world pictorially. However, unlike the Renaissance artists, Min’s use of perspective is not subtle. She calls our attention to the strange floating root in the foreground by using the screens of red dots to focus our attention between what is in the foreground and what is in the background. These screens block all escape into the naturalist mountain range of the background and concentrates our gaze onto that which is strange, the root. Min does not want us to see her worlds simply as familiar experiences; while she uses perspective as a technique to produce a sense of comfort and familiarity, she jolts us with a sense of the strange at the same time.
In the centre of the work there is an unfamiliar root structure, which can be conceived of in Deleuzian terms by the idea of a rhizome. In scientific terms, a rhizome refers to plants, such as potato, ginger, grass, etc., whose root systems are horizontal and not vertical. For Deleuze and Guattari, this biological function can be metaphoric: “The rhizome itself assumes very diverse forms, from ramified surface extension in all directions to concretion into bulbs and tubers … any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be.” In this work, the root connects to the red-dotted screens and to the water below.2 In the root, we see two openings or fissures: “A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines.”3 These breaks, far from being negative, show that the rhizome is breathing; it will continue to make connections in order to grow and to develop. The breakages force new evolutions in the ebb and flow of life. These fissures offer the possibility of new beginnings and for the continuity of life. Throughout Min’s work, this root structure persists. Untitled shows Min’s integration of the familiar world with that of the strange. While she uses perspective to demarcate the division between the world that we know and the virtual world, she emphasizes seeing strangeness in an environment that is known and safe.
In Untitled, one is presented with a familiar world where the appearance of the root signifies the occurrence of something strange; however, in Métamorphose – le Moment est Arrivé, one is caught up in an unfamiliar environment in which a supernatural transformation of a known creature takes place. The polar bear, our only identifiable point of reference, is dissolving before our eyes into the root-like rhizome structure that is now becoming a recognizable part of this peculiar world. The familiar red dots lead us toward the vanishing point, a red square doorway. However, the roots do not seem to be heeding the encouragement of the red pathways leading to the doorway in the background. Rather, the transformation and the roots floating in the foreground seem to be content to forge their own path, suggesting a break with convention or tradition.
The bear seems to represent the dissolution of self into the flow of things. While alluding to Ovid’s poem Métamorphoses, about a universe in flux in which humans are continually transformed into animals or natural objects by the gods, Min more specifically references Deleuze’s concept of “becoming-animal” by starting the transformation at the animal, rather than human, level. Deleuze and Guattari conceive of the activity of becoming-animal as a way to imagine oneself from the animal point of view. For example, “the wolf is not a signifier of some human quality or figure; it is another mode of perception or becoming. In perceiving the wolf we perceive differently, no longer separated from the world in the human point of view.” 4 In Min’s work, becoming-animal, then, defines a process of an alternative way to explore new worlds, to make the familiar unfamiliar, to explore a different perspective, to open up a fantastical or Other world within our own world.
Passages #3 presents Min’s most experimental creation of an Other world in so far as she develops a self-contained expression of a fully fleshed-out tactile environment with a labyrinth of passageways and secret areas. In this way, her visioning allows for a believable narrative to unfold, or, as Alastair Fowler remarks, “good stories – however improbable – have generally had what C. S. Lewis calls ‘touches’ of ‘presentational realism’…distinguishable from realism of content.”5 The Realism of Presentation can be defined as “the art of bringing something close to us, making it palpable and vivid, by sharply observed or sharply imagined detail.”6 While the world is strange and exciting, the repetition and development of Min’s vocabulary provide a visual safety net and foster an experimental intensity producing new styles of perception and seeing anew. Moreover, Min’s use of polar bears in this painting gives validity to this new world by controlling the scale, while her precise detailing of the various objects offers a sense of the depth and atmosphere to the world. The polar bears facilitate the presentation of realism in this creative scene.
There is a crossing over of spaces signified by a huge blank section on the left, as though part of the painting or world had been wiped away. The starkness of the blank space directly contrasts with both the depth of the fantastic world and the curvy and bulbous forms. As the two bears look back with what appears to be nostalgic longing, they look back at a secret world to which they are losing access, a world that is both comfortable and strange. Near the top of the blank surface and in the center of the work, brown holes that burrow into or under a surface – perhaps rhizomes shown from the inside – are present. These holes suggest possible reentry points into and out of the world; thus, the fantastic world never really is lost as it continues with limitless opportunity.
In Cache-Cache, human figures enter this world in the form of the artist as a self-portrait. The two female figures, one of which is Min, take shelter – one woman is exposed while the other is protected. Huge flower-like plants surround the women and they appear to be standing on the tops of them. The difference in scale is unlike what we have seen up to this point – the figures are extremely small in a massive, almost overwhelming and claustrophobic environment. Though the female figures are small, they do not appear disconcerted by this fact. The physical response of both figures in this environment is quite calm. This use of contrast between large and small inevitably bears comparison with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland. However, it is interesting to consider the difference between this kind of story and Min’s work. Most striking is the lack of visual discomfort that the female figures exhibit in this constructed world. Neither offers a position articulating any desire to return home. In narratives such as Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the theme of entering a new and strange world is always coupled with the eventual desire to return home. In the work of Min, I suggest that this desire is absent, or, as in Passage #3, this desire seems to be the opposite because the polar bears appear to look back longingly at the magical world. They do not express fear of it, nor do they express a yearning to leave it. On the other hand, the fantastic worlds of Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Spirited Away may appear exciting initially, or even at times, but they inevitably cease to be appealing and become off-putting or potentially dangerous. Because this desire to return to the familiar, known world is absent in the work of Min, her attention to this difference suggests an openness to permanently changing one’s way of being in the world, or to the possibility of change in one’s life. The darkness or potentially ominous aspect of Min’s worlds does not negate a possibility of existing there indefinitely. Min’s world not only represents a specific world in itself, but it also represents all the possible worlds that one could enter.
In contrast to the above works, Métamorphose-Attendre presents us with another way of conceptualizing the creation of a new world. This new conceptualization centers on the deconstruction of time by the use of repetitive elements. It is the avoidance of any dramatic focal point and the repetition of material and character that impede any worldly specificity. The title indicates that the figures here are waiting for a metamorphosis to occur, thereby emphasizing temporality. If we consider this work in contrast to Métamorphose – le Moment est Arrivé, a title that implies that the moment of metamorphosis has arrived and is happening now, we notice that Min shifts from an event unfolding to what can be considered its opposite: waiting for something to happen. By displaying various perspectives of time and temporality in works such as these, she seems to interrogate the concept of time and its effects. Moreover, we are left questioning, what in the painting is waiting for a transformation to occur? Min never settles this question for us, leaving us unsettled about what exactly we are supposed to seeing, what we are supposed to be waiting for. Thus, she disturbs our conventional understanding of time as a progression, from one event or occurrence to another, to a more multi-layered perspective.
The egg-like or tablet-shaped objects are particularly interesting. On the ground, they appear to function as large pebbles, giant seeds or giant eggs in comparison with the diminutive size of the figure, while, in the air, they function as tree leaves, snow-capped trees, or even clouds. An initial glance at the work does not immediately provoke an assessment as strange or uncanny. However, upon further view, they seem somewhat peculiar. What are these objects? Why are there eggs on trees? Why is the form repeated on the ground? And, why is the figure repeated? According to Colebrook, for Deleuze, “Repetition is not the reoccurrence of the same old thing over and over again; to repeat something is to begin again, to renew, to question, and to refuse remaining the same.”7 In this way, both the white seed and the repeated figures are placeholders, holding the meaning of something else. At first, they appear to provide us with enough visual information to arrive at an understanding, a recognition, of these objects. This recognition is, in fact, a misrecognition that leads to the uncanny. What remains is a puzzle of these repetitive moments. The figures of Min document the poses of waiting: a brief nap, staring out from boredom, and leaning against a wall or tree. This series of postures allows us to refine our definition of time to expand it beyond chronological measurement.
In Le Repas, a combination of temporal investigation and otherworldly landscape construction takes place. As with the earlier work Métamorphose-Attendre, there are multiple Min figures, signifying an experiment of a temporal dimension. At the same time, we have an explosion caused by a root or rhizome bursting, a moment that could happen only once. Thus, we confront this multiplicity of both a single moment and multiple moments being represented together. Min and her multiples are sitting around a table making micro-interventions in the space. The gestures of the Min figures suggest many different moments. For example, at the left of the table, with her arms folded, the Min figure seems to be either waiting to begin, or is finished. On the other side of the table, she is eating with a utensil in her hand. At the table, we have the passage of time presented. In front of the table, the two Mins sitting down are almost mirror images of one another, which would suggest the same moment; yet, the slight differences suggest that this is not a mirror portrait of the same Min, but rather two varying moments of contemplation. Thus, time is disrupted, as though it is at once moving backwards and forwards and standing still.
In stark comparison to these multiple moments, below and to the left, we have a rupture of the root. This explosion is in progress. The moment has been suspended, like a television freeze frame. We become witnesses to a moment often just missed – such as a car crash, or an accident – we do not notice it until after it has happened. Min depicts this view so that we can take notice of it. Min’s depiction of several mundane moments, as well as the bursting root, produces varied levels of intensity in this new space. Among these incongruous moments, the sharing of the same space offers another way of seeing and another disturbance of our conventional understanding of time. Environments and time converge and the depth and potential of what is possible seem limitless.
If we consider the metaphor of the Deleuzian rhizome, a dominant presence in Min’s works, connections between what is and what is possible come to light. Min toys with notions of the familiar and uncanny to unsettle them. The presence of realism allows the fantastical world to make sense, so what would otherwise seem strange becomes familiar and inviting. She disarms resistance to this otherness, change and difference. Her worlds offer a way of being that breaks out of boundaries, both geographical and temporal, and that challenges us to envision a life beyond convention.