Passages of Time in the Paintings of Jung Yeon Min
Upon seeing a group of evocative phantasmagorical paintings by the young Korean artist Jung-Yeon Min, I was immediately struck by how consistently her language matches the process embedded within the work she describes. The crossover between painting and writing is not as easy as one might presume. It is often difficult to put into words exactly what one hopes to express in visual terms. Many viewers – including artists – will become entangled in some form of theory or interpretation long before they begin to describe precisely what is happening in relation to the actual work. In one of her statements, Min makes reference to the French word “somnolence” as a state of conscious slumber, but not really sleep. Within this in-between zone – “this state of confusion between two worlds … dream and reality” – there is a fragile, uncertain, shifting, and unfocused penumbra. Eventually the subject chooses one side or the other, either to fall into sleep or accept waking reality. From the artist’s point of view, the feelings that occur as a consequence of this decision will inevitably contribute to one’s experience.
For the idea of “somnolence” to have any metaphorical significance, it is necessary that the paintings of Jung-Yeon Min provide a context for the viewer’s experience. Only by seeing the actual work can the viewer grasp the meaning behind the metaphor. Collectively titled, Passages, Min’s paintings give a clear dimensionality to the conflict she feels between the virtual and tactile world. Indeed, “somnolence” is a good word to describe Jung-Yeon Min’s work. As a Korean artist living in Paris, she feels a clear separation from her indigenous homeland. Her painting, Somnolence (2007), includes a young woman (who is presumably the artist) and three dogs. One of the dogs is reclining near the woman while the other two appear as mutants flying above her with dragonfly wings. The scenario within the painting might be described as a kind of theater. In the middle of the stage is a white area that could be a patch of snow or a cumulous cloud or even a pile of refined cotton. Surrounding this area, a series of black and white vaginal forms are covered with hundreds of small circles and dots. Interspersed between these shapes is a forest of green bamboo stalks. Are we to presume that this is some kind of Freudian dream wreathed in innocence? Or is it merely another kind of place, somewhere within the virtual world where time has slowed down? Is it possible that within this dream-world nexus a mythic state of awareness has awakened, a shamanistic power that is as much primordial as ultra-modern, a science fiction world suspended beyond the ordinary realm of tactile involvement?
The symbolic content in Jung-Yeon Min’s visual “passages” requires a few words at the outset. There are cloud-like biomorphic forms, animals, human figures, architectural structures, dot patterns, simulated flora and fauna, all contained within a strange, often eerie metamorphosis. The imagery in Min’s paintings functions as an ensemble that offers a fascinating glimpse of an imaginary interplay with the senses. They are forms contingent on the senses as the senses turn inward toward the extended body, that is, toward the imaginary space of the self as a means of grappling with reality. Reality, in turn, is perpetually in the process of redefining itself less in terms of Western psychoanalysis than in relation to Korean signs of transition between a mythological heaven and earth. The signs and images found in the paintings of Jung-Yeon Min encompass a kind of resignation to the hieratic world where the senses denote not only power but euphoric memory of a delicate protocol and sensuality once beheld in the great courts of the ancient Goreyo and Silla Dynasties. In Somnolence, these qualities are given a secular appearance that suggests the inwardness of reflection among Koreans as their industry and economy have clearly evolved into a burgeoning international center of trade and entertainment. The imagery in Min’s paintings floats within a pictorial space enveloped in paradox. It moves poetically between the virtual and tactile domains of experience, the median zone of the somnolence that is well known in Korean culture. This kind of experience is intrinsic to life in the celestial peninsula where people aspire toward fulfillment and abundance not only through a deeply embedded spiritual tradition but also through an appropriation of Western idealism. No matter which direction life moves, the dream world and its material counterpart are enshrouded in some aspect of mysticism.
In another painting, Partir (2006), a friendly pathos pervades the painting. Here the artist’s persona sits with a suitcase as if waiting for a train in an architectural space that is both indoors and outdoors. This indoor/outdoor resonance is accentuated by softly flowing amorphous shapes and familiar regulated dot patterns. These shapes are, in fact, a kind of signature form that recurs within the luxurious habitats, hidden forests, and glandular gardens that equivocate between visceral organs and transmuting animal, human, and plant-like shapes. In Partir the shapes appear to be moving everywhere, piercing through the space into oblivion of non-figuration.
Promenade (2006) is filled with optical dots, suggestive of early work by the optical painter Richard Anuszkiewicz, as a young man positioned in the background walks a dog on a long leash that appears in the foreground. The undulating shapes around them are biomorphic and amorphous, yet are relatively restricted within the architectural frame that at times appears as an exhaustive space vacillating between openness and closure. In one sense, Partir and Promenade are complementary narratives, a kind of romantic sequence or an interlude expressed through the juxtaposition of irregular and complex spatial interiors. Min’s paintings instrumentalize space in such a way as to create both a semblance and a dissemblance that is slightly off balance, yet in a purely descriptive mode. Through these descriptive modes, the paintings incite a somewhat disquieting metaphor of metaphorical time and a pragmatic approach to temporality. The figures are engaged with time, yet distraught by the temporality they endure. In either case, there is stillness with the momentum of time, a languid, often haunting monotone that resonates throughout the space. This optical space perpetually opens and closes as the viewer proceeds to find one’s way through a virtuality of infinite forms and color cadences. In contrast, the corridors of space found in her large diptych, Rencontre (2007), reveal both flat and perspectival views side by side. This interplay between the openings and vestibules, the immeasurable ceilings and disappearing floors, emits a paradoxical vision of space that again carries a certain reference to those created by Escher and Vasarely from an earlier, pre-digital period of high Modernism.
Jung-Yeon Min is from the city of Gwangju – the fifth largest city in the Republic of Korea. Gwangju is surrounded by the sacred mountains of Tamyan in the northeast. It is situated in the province of Jeollanam-do, which is bordered by the China Sea in the southwest. Jeollanam-do is considered one of most important and most traditional regions in Korea.
Many of the great Celadon ceramicists and calligraphers worked in this region during the late Goreyo and early Joseon Dynasties of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In later years, the adjacent mountainous region of Tamyan was considered a recluse and sanctuary for exiled poets and musicians. The shamanistic tradition – both healers and spiritual guardians – still inhabits many parts of Jeollanam-do. In more recent years, this geographical, historical, and cultural location, became the seat of a massive student and worker uprising in 1980 – referred to as the Gwangju Massacre – where over six hundred Korean citizens lost their lives in defense of their civil rights. Many historians regard Gwangju as the living pulse of Korea, as the source and inspiration for the resistance that brought democracy to the lower half of the peninsula and secured the growth of modernization and economic prosperity in the Republic of Korea.
Today Jung-Yeon Min works in her quiet studio surrounded by the vibrant, electric transcultural environment of Paris. “Being a stranger sometime in your life,” remarks Min, “not only gives you some knowledge about another place, but allows you to have a different point of view on yourself, and of what your roots really mean to you. This is why you see so many symbols such as umbilical cords or waiting rooms. It also explains why I am so often the main character in my paintings.” Upon finishing her graduate studies at the Ecole-Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts (2006), Min has continued to pursue her investigations into a type of visionary architectonic style of painting. One might refer to this recent work as signifying organic mutations within the geometric confines of an extended space. Vast nodules and optical surfaces, using non-figurative forms that contain human and animal life, regularly intercept this paradoxical spatiality. Often these non-figurative forms (a terms she uses instead of abstraction) will exist in the process of a metamorphosis, not in the existential sense of Kafka, but in a cyber-spatial context.
Take a look at Marécage (2007). One might interpret this painting as a complete biomorphic infestation. Virtually every shape in the painting appears in a state of transmutation. Nothing is static, or even solid. Each entity is in perpetual motion. There is no human or animal presence, yet there are inferences. Some shapes appear in a state of becoming animals or distended human appendages or revolving ligaments. There is a certain quality of abandonment, a microscopic playfulness transformed into an orgy with each undulation becoming a part of another, as if sharing a molecular circuitry of transmission in time – what the philosopher Jean Baudrillard might have conjured as “the ecstasy of communication.” Yet there are other paintings that appear more intimate, more emotional in their solitariness.
For example, in Le Repas (2006), a woman contemplates her space as if her body were extending into it. Synthetic shapes surround her at every angle. Are these shapes comforting or dangerous? We do not know. But they are irreconcilable. An inverted small volcano is gently spewing out embers or menstrual fluid. There are familiar simulations of vaginal shapes, the systemic placement of black dots on a white floor, and equally familiar twisting organic shapes weaving through ambiguous chambers of open-ended, yet claustrophobic space. “All my paintings represent unlikely links between opposite worlds,” explains the artist, “but, after all, everything in our lives is hazardous what makes like fantastic is the energy created by these differences.”
Min has often referred to the symbol of the bear. In Passages #2 (2006), a polar bear crosses over a suspension bridge, moving from the distance (the past) into the foreground (the present). Gigantic mushroom shapes, fungi, and other mutations from nature, suggesting the presence of the virtual world of applied cybernetics and genetic engineering, surround the white bear. This has a curious relation to the Korean myth where a bear was transformed into a woman who married with an omnipotent male divinity whose son became the ancestor of the first Korean king. Min reminds us that bears are often present in northern Asian shamanism and mythology as, for example, the symbol of the Panda in China. With a note of ironic sentiment, she recounts: “I like to imagine myself as becoming a bear, like a return to origins.”
At the outset of the twenty-first century, one may consider the omnipresence of information made infinitely accessible through advanced media and the acceleration of communications technologies. This, of course, represents the virtual world. For many, there is the assumption that we are communicating better today than ever before. A more sober look at the condition of global environment today would indicate quite the opposite. There is more than a semantic difference in saying that the assumptions made in favor of the information industry do not necessarily conform to the increased ability that allow human beings to communicate. One might consider this brave new world of excess and speed has brought us into the virtual dimension of time and space, but has also diminished our confidence in the human tactile ability to sense feeling. This argument can be extended into the world of Jung-Yeon Min’s paintings. To reiterate once again: Her language comes close to the kind of innovative experience that one may feel directly in the presence of the work. “I try, in my paintings, to give back a materiality to the past that leaves so many tracks in us. We are still a part of where we went, no matter if it’s in our memories or in other people’s memories. Time doesn’t flow: it is like layers one over the former one … Looking at my paintings, you necessarily think about my patience, about the millions of dots I make one by one. What you are watching is my time, the stratification of my hours, of my days, of my weeks, of my months. This sensation, computers are completely unable to transmit.”
Robert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is an international critic, artist, curator, and lecturer who lives and works primarily in New York City. An author of many books, catalogs, and monographs on contemporary artists, Professor Morgan is focused on the problems of the artist in an era of globalized change and renovation. He holds both an advanced degree in Sculpture and a doctorate in contemporary art history, and currently lectures at Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts in New York. He is the author of several major essays on Korean artists, including Paik, Nam June; Chun, Kwang-Young; Kim Sooja; Park Seo Bo; Ha, Chong-hyun; and Hwang, Young Sung. In 2005, he was awarded a Fulbright fellowship as a senior scholar to research traditional culture as a source for the contemporary Korean art. His book, Art into Ideas (1996), first published by Cambridge University Press, was translated into Korean and published by JRM in Seoul (2007).