The Surface of the City and the Depth of the Psyche
As ancient Hebrew nomads searched out of an endless desert with only an absolute faith in Yahweh in search of the most glorious of all lands, a land flowing with milk and honey, Canaan, modern people today, without exception, must also go on and survive in this complicated society like a labyrinth infinitely. They rove around in the labyrinth without knowing its beginning or end, inside or outside nor any escape route or even coordinates. Generally, a labyrinth is often used to refer to situations that are very difficult and unlikely to be solved or to modern cities directly displaying such characteristics. Jacques Attali explained labyrinth as ‘describing the world with something about predictable and unpredictable at the same time’, something that is ‘unstable and dangerous passing point, like a crack between the two worlds’. It must be a journey that gives joy and anticipation in one way, or a fateful wanderings or a process of life with numerous obstacles and dead-ends, going back and forth, that no one can defy even if a monster such as a Minotaur comes up as a lurking danger. For modern people who are routinely trapped in a virtual reality labyrinth, they range restlessly the sea of information like Odysseus to confirm their identity as a digital nomad. This is not a new phenomenon. Metropolis was ‘the realization of an old dream of mankind about the labyrinth’ for Walther Benjamin as well. For him it was like an ambiguous boundary of inside and outside, a dream and a reality, a labyrinth mixed with the ancient and modern worlds. The monolithic logic of the world in which the most efficient direct route and the perfect vertical and horizontal is a virtue is very often blocked by a wall of labyrinth dotted with winding, crowded, vague, opaque, unforeseeable, and disordered paths. A chaotic place like this is used as Kyung Hwa Shon’s metaphor for a modern city that is not fixed by particular principles or system nor understood by clear and transcendental logic which makes it inevitable to loiter around endlessly. Being a stranger slowly strolling the complex structure, the audience will also engage in contemplating the meaning of this—a structure of maze physically and an imaginary city space built by the artist’s reinterpretation at the same time.
As Kyung Hwa Shon studied and worked in the cities like Paris, Chicago, and London, she had lived most of her life as an alien. The artist who always had to adapt to the new city environment and culture has been working to transform and expand such urban life experiences into a psychological and internalized landscape. As a fóoter(flâneur) in this maze-like city herself, she newly explores the familiar and ordinary time and space without any purpose or intention, nor any particular route or method repeatedly. And each time, she encounters a thousand different faces of the ever-changing city. When a goal is set to leave, the fóoter becomes a perambulating pilgrim of the city on a voluntary basis.
Once you walk into alternative space LOOP, where the exhibition is taking place, you will be able to have a bird’s eye view of a thumbnail of the abstract form of the city in whole. As you gradually approach downstairs, then you will be able to actually experience the city by walking. This is when a saying by Michel de Certeau, “the relationship of walking behavior on the city system is the same as the relationship of parole to language”, becomes significant. The artist, across the two-story exhibition place, instantly transforms a fixed topographic view of the city when viewed from the top into a tactile place of actual practice. This is the moment of transition by active operations of irrational senses and bodies which cannot be achieved by just eyes only.
The way Kyung Hwa Shon treats the city is distinguished from the way bystanders simply look at the city landscape or tourists travel and enjoy the city. As she experiences a reality of the modern city extremely personally and critically reads a huge text formed by the interaction between the metropolitan and the world of things at the same time, she contemplates and asks a question. How is the modern city encountering the artist written and what secret words does it speak?
Flashy spectacle and panoramic landscapes radiated by artificial phantasmagoria is the inevitable product of the metropolis, and this produces ‘shock experiences.’ Working at this time, discontinuous, accidental, momentary and fragmented way of perception enables a ‘critical distance’ which makes something familiar seems unfamiliar by collapsing the aura. Dialectical thinking enabling ‘awakening’ in the city can also be activated from such a manner that applies a crack in the conventional system of cognition and judgment. ‘Awakening’, enabled as fragmented traces that were submerged beneath the depths of consciousness before acquire newness, is the moment of self-realization occurred by the rupture in the ordinary self which is comparable to a ‘moment of absurdity’ of Camus, ‘creating a new perspective’ and ‘a sudden moment of awakening’ of Satori in Zen Buddhism. Marveling at something that is not expressed but hidden, insignificant, accidental, and old, and sensing new things and assigning meaning from this, ‘mindfulness’, which can be called as ‘pre-logical’ or ‘pre-reasonable’, would be the ‘knowledge before knowledge’ that is generally agreed. As a fóoter(flâneur), Kyung Hwa Shon goes on a urban search to find out about the secret code of truth that she could not have thought of before through ‘awakening,’ the artistic device that would carry new thoughts.
When hanging around the streets of the city, it gets to come across various carved traces several time layers entangled like a maze. ‘Involuntary memory’ caused by madeleine from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time similarly applies to the artist as well and also suggests another possibility. ‘No matter how far away it is, as a state of something nearby’, the ‘trace’ has an everydayness as an opposed concept of the aura. It is sometimes exposed on the surface of the city and visible but sometimes it is hidden in the deep abyss and exposed by encountering a fóoter(flâneur) in a unforeseen and unexpected way. Whether it would be dreams, unconsciousness, memories, fantasy, imagination, habits, feelings and such related to the artist’s personal psychological or emotional secret, or a vestige of this place, now or a memory of another one at another time, the latent fragmented montage of the trace with the overlap of the current situation together forms a constellation. The newly organized this way in the ‘place of the sudden emergence of awakening consciousness’ makes it possible to produce a strange creation. Along with the artist’s newly perceived information, by finding clues that transcend time and space, when jacked into the deep traces freed from ‘entrapped memory’, an image shining like a flash is embraced dialectically and infinite network of meaning overgrows like a rhizome.
In this exhibition, Kyung Hwa Shon used a character Stillman appearing in Paul Auster’s novel, New York Trilogy as a motif in building this maze-like urban space. The artist would discover indeterminacies in everyday, concealed things, existence of invisible things, cracks and gaps between great causes, a relationship between existence and nonexistence, over the temptation of phantasmagoria, that cause wanderings by deferring important information or clear interpretation in this urban labyrinth. As Benjamin said ‘figure of the detective was already indicated in the footer’, the artist becomes a detective to trace out this enigmatic being which is not easily grasped just like Quinn from Auster’s novel. Existing but invisible, present but absent, Stillman is like a ghost. Ghost is something that roaming around the boundaries of life and death and cannot be referred to be ‘nothing’ since it exists. It is between ‘reality and non-reality’, ‘realistic and unrealistic’, and ‘existence and non-existence’ and the clear distinction between them is impossible. This reminds of Jaques Derrida’s ‘presence of absence’ and Emmanuel Levinas’s ‘existence without existents’. For the artist, the journey of tracing Stillman is like to think about this kind of properties in the city.
This is a point that is impossible to be caught by the artist’s hand or to be reduced to a single regulation, it is indefinite and opaque, and always a vague point where it meets the real. Such thing is not possible to be represented in systems of language and discourse and cannot be integrated in the symbolic world. This fracture and split that are never be able to be filled up, this slippery point is where a deficiency occurs. The essence of this ‘slippage’, the city is a typical ‘gathering place of desires’ with lack and crevice. If it is capital, pleasure or different types of desire, in the basis of the city’s change, there lies a desire reproduced constantly. But we desire exactly the same things which the Other-the system operating the city desires. City creates illusions to hide the deficiency and imperfectness which are called unsatisfactory desire. These things foster more desire that will only bear another deficiency and absence. This illusion deceptively fulfilling the desire is like a screen projecting the virtual image as an actual reality.
Kyung Hwa Shon overthrows the screen of the symbolic and tries to find the missing dimension of truth and the unknown thing of the real through the point—which shows that one’s point of view is not absolute—where the ‘gaze’ stays. There is a clue that can be found in her work of curtain installed in the exhibition space for this kind of understanding. As it seems to be the prelude to the upcoming events to be unfolded in the stage called a city, this large curtain represents various meanings of Shon’s work which bears the urban context. The curtain, unable to stay still and constant against a flow of light and subtle changes of air through non-homogeneous wrinkles, gives a deviation and strangeness to the continuous context of the space, suddenly appearing in unexpected space and producing a momentary ‘caesura’ situation. This shows the way of perception of the complex and chaotic, informal urban space symbolically. Meanwhile, the glamorous and seductive veil is reminiscent of the Parrhasios’s veil on the wall. His veil, which fooled Zeuxis, was a dark trap of illusion, and behind the veil was only an empty space with nothing. At the moment of transition of the sight from a picture that never actually existed behind the veil to a trompe-l’oeil, that is to say, being freed from the definitive way of thinking—recognizing things in a habituated and familiar symbolic system, the artist might have been focusing on the encounter itself with a new world, never recognized before. Without forgetting that Lacan’s ‘the visual pleasure’ occurred from there.
As a closing remarks…
For Kyung Hwa Shon, metropolis is not just a plain landscape or an everyday living space. It is a perception stimulating event itself, and as well a huge text in which many evidences can be collected, drawn, and analyzed from. This dynamic place, capturing diverse chinks in layers that remain concealed beyond the definite reality and letting her muse is an operating mechanism of her internalized psychological structure established by actual experiences of metropolitan reality. While presenting ‘rover’s return’ which chooses to stroam and saunter by and prefers to make a detour in a congested everyday life as an evidence, she is trying to seek a flexible meta-reality and find the mysterious object without sinking into a rigidly coded reality. When something that cannot be recognized under the abyss of the soul, emerges to the surface of the city, it might be possible to provide an opportunity to escape from the blind thoughts about the city.
Written by Jung Ah Lee
Curator, Alternative Space LOOP