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KISS ME DEADLY
Simon Morley in conversation with Lee Joon
Conversation published on the occasion of the exhibition Kiss Me Deadly
11 March, 2015 - 11 April, 2015 in the Gallery Baton, Seoul.
LEE JOON(LJ) Even as we live in an era of globalisation, cognitive differences between Westerners and East Asians remain. Since moving to Korea, you have approached such cultural differences through your work, and are especially interested in the concept of void in East Asian art, You’re a writer as well as an artist, and in the book you edited, The Sublime: Documents in Contemporary Art (2010), you re-published part of one of my texts on void in Korean art, making implicit connections between East Asian and Western concepts. You’ve also used some new techniques in your work since coming to Korea, including working on hanji and mounting works in East Asian formats. How do you locate your works in the context of Western and East Asian culture?
- Simon Morley and Lee Joon at the Kiss Me Deadly Opening, Gallery Baton, 2015
SIMON MORLEY(SM) I’ve been living most of the time in Korea since 2010, and I know I’ve brought with me all my preconceptions from the ’old world’. But I’ve come with a willingness to have them questioned and overturned by my encounter with the ’unknown’. But this is an ’unknown’ that nowadays is threaded through with the familiar. The odd experience on first arriving in South Korea was that things seemed relatively familiar; it was only after a time that they became profoundly strange. American technological consumer culture binds us all superficially together, but it’s only a veneer. As a result, we’re living in hybrid cultures — or ’glocal’ cultures as they’ve been called. This difference and sameness — which I try to explore in my art and writing — reflect the intermingling of once profoundly contrasting ’takes’ on the world — what has been described as the ’holistic’ and the ’analytic’ world-views. I belong to an ’analytic’ culture, and this has many implications for the way I think and lead my life, and of course it determines the kind of art I was educated to appreciate and make. Nowadays, here in Korea, we can still find plenty of evidence to show that things are thought, and therefore done, differently — from within a ’holistic’ consciousness. For instance, if I say ’mind’, I tend to mean something that is disconnected from the body (it might even be something located physically in the cerebrum), while you, as a Korean, will almost certainly consider the translation of this word into your language as referring to something that includes your body, or specifically, your heart. This is because you belong to a culture in which the concept of mind and heart are interchangeable. This represents no small difference, exposing very clearly the contrast between my dualistic, ’analytic’ way of being and your monistic ’holistic’ one.
To answer the practical question about materials and techniques: In adopting some traditional Korean materials I’ve been interested to see what happens when I use unfamiliar means that come carrying a specific cultural baggage. I’ve just tentatively tried to extend my repertoire. But I have no intention of ’going native’! How could I? On the other hand, I am very interested indeed in certain historically inscribed concerns that are neglected in my own culture.
- Installation view of Kiss Me Deadly, Gallery Baton, Seoul, 2015
HISTORICAL/AHISTORICAL KOREAN MONOCHROME PAINTING SUBJECTS
LJ But I feel that through your works you emphasise the fact that despite these cultural differences there are ways of seeing that are universal.
SM My studies in Modern History before becoming an artist mean, I think, that I’ve a rather developed sense of the historical context, and today, more than ever, the ’historical’ confronts the ’ahistorical’, or to use a more overtly denigrating term, the ’essentialist’. Claims for anything that might be deemed ’ahistorical’ are often tagged methodologically suspect, and generalizations about human nature are understood to be distortions serving ideological goals. The value of referring to something called ’East Asian culture’ may seem spurious, not only because it is a form of ’Orientalism’ to be dismissed as mere imperialistic exoticism and romanticism, but also, from another East Asian perspective, because it is judged synonymous with reaction and the failure to embrace modernity. However, ’Orientalism’ in the West can’t simply be identified with the ruling imperialist ideology. Edward Said’s (1935-2003) influential version of ’Orientalism’ simplifies the picture, because for Westerners an involvement in ’East Asia’ has also always included a kind of subversive counter- movement — think of John Cage and Zen Buddhism, for example.
The general lesson to be drawn from recent studies in the psychology of visual perception is that cognition takes place within a body — it is carnal. But while humans share the same neurological ’wet-ware’ and the same bodies, more or less, globalization has thrown into high relief both the variations and contiguities in cognitive styles that are deeply inscribed within societies through time. As humans, our brains are all essentially the same, but what we choose to consider to be ’reality’ differs in important ways depending on the culture to which we belong and the time in which live. If there’s one thing that research in neurological sciences (and postmodern philosophy) shows it’s that there’s no objective ’reality’ out there. It is a construction. While this is rather recent news for Westerners, it seems to have long been a central truth of Taoism and Buddhism in the East. So for me an important side of globalization is to be reminded of aspects of consciousness that we Westerners have marginalized and denigrated, and then as a result, when we acknowledge them, fail to fully assimilate. For instance, Westerners tend to consider emotions, intuitions and feelings as cognitively suspect — as inferior sources of knowledge — but in East Asia, traditionally, an effort was made to incorporate them into a sense of what valid knowledge is. It’s the mind/heart convergence again.
- Simon Morley’s studio near Munsan, South Korea
LJ So as a Westerner you are interested in the spiritual and cultural values of Asia. As a curator and art critic I’m also interested in cultural Identity and cultural differences. I think that cultural identities are formed in intimately mutual relationship not only with the socio-cultural environment, like religion, customs and culture, but also with geo-political elements. Cultures also develop and mature by transcending the boundaries between areas and races, and influence one other. Even though the Koreans are one ethnic family speaking one language, cultural identity is often distorted by ideology, as in the case of North Korea. However, many aspects of Korean traditional culture are intimately related to the Asian philosophy of oneness with nature. This way of thinking renders Korean art fundamentally different from Western culture, which has historically pursued logocentrism and scientific rationalism. Artist like John Cage (1912-1992), Yves Klein (1928-1962), Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967) and Agnes Martin (1912-2004), while deeply rooted in Western tradition, also aspired to embody their interests in Eastern philosophies and ways of thinking, such as meditation and Zen Buddhism. They tried to approach not historical but ahistorical thinking through their works. Here we find both similarities and differences between Eastern and Western art.
SM Exactly. Hybridity is a central characteristic of cultures, and not only so-called postcolonial cultures. While there are many aspects of culture that are indeed historically determined and specific, that are ’socially constructed’ and ’coded’, they tend to constellate around more constant elements in human experience. Above all, they constellate around the fact of our embodiment — the fact that we have bodies — and that we all share the same basic neurological substrate. These ’ahistorical’ elements, or ontological structures, lead to the establishment of important conceptual truths, such as are embodied in religions. This is a key point in relation to art, because such ontological structures determine the conceptual truths that art contains, but, as you say, these concepts will vary according to historically and geographically specific conditions, producing the biases within cultures that lead to some things being prioritized as important and therefore valued over others. I’m very aware that art has a history, and so is implicated in ideologically determined ’visuality’, or in socially constructed ways of seeing. But there are certain basic transhistorical ontological structures, and negotiating the interface between the ’historical/ahistorical’ means taking a kind of ’middle way’. This ’in-between’ is very interesting to me.
- Installation view of Simon Morley’s work in Universal Studios: Seoul at Seoul Museum of Art, 2014
LJ I think your works relates to monochrome painting. I note that recently you wrote about the ’cogito of kneading’ and ’tactile seeing’ (2015) in relation to Korean Dansaekwha. I also mentioned tactile feeling in relation to the aesthetic traits of Korean abstract painting when I curated the exhibition "Spirit of Korean Abstract Painting" (1996) at Ho-Am Art Gallery. I found a concern for tactile feeling in the countless dots on canvas, the special texture and deep colours of rice-paper, and the endless, repetitive labor in many layers. From the artists’ ceaseless experiments and struggles with materials, we also gain a tactile impression. You mention that ’ontological structures’ determine ’conceptual truths’. Could you explain the connections from your viewpoint?
SM Painting directly connects to ontological structures through being something framed and bounded with a ’skin’ of taut fabric, like a body. But also, like consciousness, a painting is open to the surroundings, and is fluid and permeable. So it relates to basic human experience through these conceptual truths. Another way in which the format of painting connects to ontological structures is more indirect - through the technology of the medium itself. The fact that we are used to viewing two-dimensional rectangles as sources of valuable information, links paintings with electronic, digital formats. However, a painting is always more than a visual token that is activated electronically; it is also a thing whose ’thing-ness’ is an important part of the meaning. In this way, painting also mirrors the ontological reality of the finite embodied self in ways that an electronic format cannot.
- Song of Ariran (1941), 2011, acrylic on canvas, 40.5x30cm
But as in consciousness in general, the bias within pictorial concepts — what are given more importance within painting — is influenced by what culture one finds oneself in. I was struck by how Dansaekhwa does and doesn’t look like Western monochrome painting. Obviously, my own practice also relates to this latter tradition, and I was interested to try and understand where Dansaekhwa both converges with and diverges from my cultural norms. One avenue I explored was suggested by the phrase of the philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) — a "cogito of kneading". ’To knead’ means to work something with the hands, and the verb is often used in relation to making bread or manipulating clay to make pottery. Bachelard was referring to a kind of thinking that is more to do with touch than with seeing, more connected to synaesthesic, kinaesthesic experience than with the narrow correlation of eye and mind dominant in the West. I found that with East Asian traditions there is a different emphasis concerning touch, and that’s what I tried to discuss in relation to Dansaekhwa.
- Sources for the series Korean White, 2011 (Song of Ariran is bottom right)
LJ What is your favorite theme? Some that I can identify are cultural curiosity, differences in cultures, political ideology, travel, utopia and dreaming, happiness.
SM That’s a good list. Others includes my own cultural identity — I did a show in London around the theme of ’Englishness’. Also, I’m interested in religion and the yearning for some kind of ’transcendence’. Another important theme is painting itself. For example, in Tokyo I did a show of catalogue and monograph covers of Old and Modern Masters. I asked the gallery director to choose the twelve artists from a ’long list’ Actually, perhaps the best answer to your question is to say that my main theme is painting. That is, painting as a ’school of seeing’.
In much of my work you at first see only a colour, then as you move closer some kind of text or imagery emerges. An on-going series are called ’Book-Painting’ - hand-made copies of covers or title pages or real books made in acrylic on canvas. I don’t just choose any book, and they need to have some kind of resonance, and I don’t mess around with the format, just with the colour and medium. They’re monochromatic and the text is painted in relief, so it stands out from the surface, casting shadows.
In the works for the present exhibition, I have added an additional level: you’ll at first see only a colour, then, as well as text, you can make out a random field of blotches. Gradually, vague images of couples kissing, or a profile of a woman (sourced from movie stills), emerge. Psychologically, in order see the spots you’re using ’bottom-up’ (data-driven) processes, which are pre-cognitive and therefore universal, whereas to provide an interpretation of wat we see, we use ’top down’ informaion -conventions, codes- which are culturally conditioned. But at first, when you can’t see the couple kissing or the face, you’re experiencing ’bottom-up’ signals alone, and this is a moment that’s freer from code. The same is true for my ’Book-Paintings’; at first you see vague forms floating in a coloured field, but as you look more closely, they become words, and then the reference to a book becomes explicit.
- Zarathustra (1924/1943/ 1950), 2012, Acrylic on canvas, 120x160cm each Detail of Zarathustra (1924)
LJ You also studied modern history at the Oxford University before you became an artist. Why do you choose literature as source texts? Is it related to your memories, and to Western society?
SM I’m interested in bringing about a convergence between visual art, especially painting, and books and other kinds of discursive, historical sources. These sources I select tend to relate to aspects of twentieth century history, and they are also often specifically chosen in relation to my exhibition’s location. So, for example, I recently had an exhibition in Paris based around the works of Albert Camus (1913-1960), making ’Book-Painting’s’ based on the Gallimard publisher’s first editions. I also did a show in Seoul in 2012 where I worked with books written by Westerners about Korea at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. I don’t mess around with the typography or design of these sources. All I do is change the colour and the size, and make it into a hand-made painting.
In this sense, the words are very important as signifiers. Yes, my sources may well be to do with memories, but not so much personal memory as collective ones. I try to avoid subject matter that’s too subjective or personal. I suppose I work a bit like a historian. I’d like to think of my art as a kind of History Painting, in the old sense of an art that seeks to be a record of events, though mine is wholly ’unofficial’ of course. It’s a very ineffectual History Painting.
- The October Revolution: Lenin , 2012, watercolour on paper, 56x75.5cm
TEXT AND TRANSCENDENCE
LJ Your work engages with found images and words, the visual and the verbal (language). You are the author of Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art (2003), a history of the use of writing by modern artists. Does this book specifically relate to your work?
SM What interest me is the connection between ’text’ and ’texture’. The word ’text’ in English derives from the Latin textus (a tissue), which in turn is derived from texere (to weave). This reminds us that any given cultural form functions within a complex network or tissue of cultural connections. But like Bachelard’s ’kneading’, these roots also lead us back to the fact that cultural forms are things done with the hands, like weaving and spinning — they are ’texture’.
In the West, we use an alphabet in order to write text. A letter in an alphabet is a highly conventionalised abstract symbol that is meant to be a visual equivalent for a sound. Alphabets in fact invite us to forget that writing is actually visual, ’textural’ language - especially printed alphabets do this. We ignore the shape of the letters and go straight to what the shapes are made to mean. This has major consequences. As a result, oral language becomes spatial, and the visual sense comes to dominate the other senses even more than it usually does. ’Alphabetic consciousness’ encourages linear, rational, analytic thought, and the ability of writing to fix and abstract meaning results in us tending to over- value discursive reasoning.
In East Asia, traditionally, you didn’t use an alphabet. Instead, your writing was based on ideograms and pictograms, so it was always recognized that speaking and writing were different. As a result, writing was always attached to image making, and was more overtly ’texture’. It is normal for East Asian paintings to also carry calligraphy, which is made with the same tool - a brush - while in the West, at least since the invention of fixed-point perspective, writing had only a very marginal place in our picturing system. I play with this in one series of watercolours on paper, where I paint trompe l’oeil twigs and leaves that spell words. These came about after first seeing Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, and thinking it looked like sticks arranged in space.
So I’m interested in thinking about writing as visual, ’textured’ language, something that becomes more pronounced when writing appears in the space normally dedicated (at least in the West) to the visual: painting.
I make many of my paintings in one colour or in very close hues and tones, so that the effect is quite different from normal writing, where part of the medium’s convention is to use strong contrast between the letters and the ground upon which the letters are placed to make them easier to see/read. My writing seems to be absorbed into the ground, or is emerging from it. Also, I usually paint my letters in relief so that they have a strongly textured impact, even casting shadows onto the surface. This enhances their ’thing- ness’.
- Choson: The Land of Morning Calm by Percival Lowell (1855), 2011, watercolour on paper, 56x75.5cm
Interestingly, Hangeul is an alphabet, like the Western writing convention. It’s worth speculating on this in relation to ’Korean consciousness’: it seems you’ve been working with both alphabet and ideograms for some time, and I wonder how this has affected your consciousness?
But art functions in two registers: it’s a cognitive sign or a code, but it’s also something noncognitive - a kind of force or energy. One of the most important recognitions in the humanities over the past century or so is that more or less everything is a sign. We don’t have access to some kind of raw, unmediated ’reality’, and must always take a detour through the social. As a result, we now recognize that everything, as Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) puts it, is a ’perspective’. The most obvious kind of sign is a word; it’s more obvious than an image which, especially in the West with our tradition of mimesis, we are tempted to consider as in some way directly attached to its referent. A word is not the thing it refers to. This is obvious when we try speaking or writing in a foreign language, where the words for the same thing vary greatly. In my work, I start with this discursive function through planting words in the pictorial field.
But another aspect of my work opens onto the second dimension of art. This is the one that eludes categorization or code, and is more like a force or some kind of presence. I don’t think we in the West are very good at talking about this dimension. Perhaps it just can’t be talked about. When we do try to categorize it we refer to the ’Sublime’, or ’transcendence’, or the ’spiritual’. More lately, critical theory has tried using the term ’affect’. Whatever it is, it’s not something that sits comfortably within an account of art based on objective analysis of signs, or of social context.
- L’Homme Revolté (1951) , 2014, acrylic on canvas, 30x40cm From the series Albert Camus: Œuvres
LJ Can you tell us about the indistinctness of your paintings? They are very simple; not much is visible, and there’s very little imagery. It’s not easy to grasp the indexical signs in your works. They are difficult to read. How do you consider monochromatic colour in this context? As you mentioned, you are interested in ways of seeing that are less ’colonized’ and not coded. I’d like to hear more about this concept in relation to your paintings.
SM A very obvious aspect of my paintings is that they’re difficult to see. Another important point is that there’s not much of a trace of my hand on the works’ surfaces — not much of an indexical sign, as you say. I want to draw attention to my body as something silent and still. I’m not interested in showing it as something in dynamic action. I want to suggest slowness and contemplation. Also, I want the medium to express itself. I’m not so interested in expressing myself. So I diminish the telltale traces of my presence. I’m interested in the idea of art as a kind of transmission, and for that to happen, I think the maker of the work has to somehow get out of the way.
As images, my paintings don’t sit there on the wall very distinctly, while they are definitely there as coloured rectangles. But what’s inside the rectangles is indistinct.
As I mentioned, seeing is the dominant sense in relation to reasoning, and so by reducing the ability to see or ’read’ image or text I’m also reducing the ability to rationalize. I explore ways of seeing that are less colonized. In some ways, I see a contest in my work between words and colours, although no more than 3 across. The rest is accessed by what is called colour isn’t quite right, as colour too can be coded. One on- going series of works seems to suggest this rather directly - my ’Paragraph-Paintings’ cover over sections of text on real book pages with rectangles of acrylic paint the shape of the paragraphs of text. I have erased the text and replaced it by colour.
There’s a struggle going on in my work between code and what lies beyond code — the ’unknown’. This is what really interests me. Colour offers itself to the senses before it becomes something symbolic (for example, red = danger). But it’s truant or unreliable from a cognitive point of view. Colour never remains the same; it’s always shifting. It’s a property of the retina not of things. I mean: where is colour?
- Chaekgori, 2014, acrylic paint on book page, 26x18cm Detail of one page of 6 from a catalogue of Korean folk painting The text below the image has been painted over with acrylic paint. An example of a ’Paragraph Painting’
But of course, as I say, colour also becomes colonized by code. So mine is just a dream of a pure, boundary-less colour sensation (maybe like a James Turrell (b. 1943) installation). But I make paintings, not installations. Painting can’t do more than produce different kinds of juxtapositions between the bounded and the unbounded. That’s the fundamental ’conceptual fact’ that binds painting to ’ontological truth’. The making of paintings on rigid rectangular-shaped supports, which has dominated Western art since the Renaissance, I think comes not only from the desire to make window-like apertures, but also from awareness that it can function as a visual analogy for the fact that we experience ourselves as both bounded and unbounded, that we are flesh and bone bodies capable of transcending our boundaries, and yet at the same time we are aware that without these corporeal boundaries there would be no self. This dialectic is what painting can enact. In my work I want to evoke a body that is in a state of indeterminacy, which means things are at the limits of the sensible. It’s not clear if what I show is unfolding or in the process of dissolving. It is contained in an undifferentiated space that seems to re-absorb it.
To actually show or denote this ’unknown’ is impossible. It can only be connoted or gestured towards. I’ve got interested in the psychology of visual perception, the way in which seeing is connected to thinking. I’m especially interested in how ’seeing’ as we consider it in relation to visuality (or social conditioning) is really generated by just a very limited optical range based on the foveal centre. This focused, grasping vision is only about 1° across, and that part of the visual field brought to resolution is no more than 3o across. The rest is accessed by what is called ’peripheral vision’, although ’accessed’ is the wrong word, because ’peripheral vision’, although ’accessed’ is the wrong word, because the periphery is unavailable to rational reflection and control. Peripheral vision is tied to the unconscious, and is less mediated. Focused vision is always a kind of ’tunnel vision’, colonized by code. Our vision is also determined by what are called ’spatial frequencies’, that is, the optics of how we record more or less detail within the field of vision. Focused vision is all about ’high spatial frequencies’ — of seeing distinct edges and boundaries - while the periphery is more concerned with ’low spatial frequencies’ — with coarse, general relations of forms within a total field.
This interest of mine might have something to do with the fact that I was born astigmatic. My eyes don’t focus at the retina, and I have multiple foci. Of course my glasses correct this defect, but I think it’s influenced what I’m interested in as an artist. Maybe you can say that the affects I try to create are ’low spatial frequency’ images. I can’t say they’re peripheral, because as soon as we direct our visual attention onto something it becomes the centre. The periphery rebuffs attention, but that’s exactly why it’s so important.
- Cropped still from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) used for the painting Institutions (2014)
LJ I’m interested in the fact that you’ve noted the connection between ’void’ and ’relationship’. I think the indistinct quality in your work is related to the concept of void. It’s an important issue to try to find new values in contemporary art. I curated “Lee Ufan Retrospective” at the Ho-Am Art Gallery in 2003 and “Void in Korean Art” at the Leeum in 2007. Lee Ufan’s (b. 1936) work unfolds through an aesthetic of encounter and relationship. Lee, who says that void in art is a triumphant space opened up by meetings of the self and the other, has continued to creates spaces of resonance by means of relational operations between the painted and unpainted, the made and the unmade, and interior and exterior. This way of thinking renders Korean art fundamentally different from western art. In contrast with the Eastern philosophy that considers nature to be the very fundament of the universe itself, Western society has used nature as a tool for anthropocentric development. Void is a core term, which encompasses Asian values that contrast with this logocentrism and materialism in Western philosophy. It also signifies a world which is empty yet also filled with elegance, and it compels viewers to see the ’horizon’ of life anew, and, at the same time, it’s a productive space that traverses boundaries and differences. I’d like to say that void is a meaningful concept for contemporary art which is witnessing an excess of media and images in our contemporary visual culture of the so called “Society of the Spectacle”. I can find similarities between you and Lee Ufan in relation to the aesthetic attitude.
SM I remember seeing my first Lee Ufan exhibition in London in the mid-1990s. I also read some of his texts at that time. And now, here I am in Korea! In one text, Lee Ufan describes the perceptual haziness that is the dominant effect of the Korean weather - there is a subtly nuanced and indistinct blueness to everything, which means that no one colour dominates. Lee describes this as “a kind of infinite resonance, suggesting a diffuse clarity, an absent presence, a vacillating stability.” Traditionally, says Lee, Koreans love this inbetween-ness, which is also perceptible in the half-closed eyes of your Buddhas represented in postures of mediation. This, Lee argues, means that for Koreans indeterminacy is a much more comfortable state than it is for most Westerners, and as I understand it, this is the importance of ’void’ in East Asian philosophy and art. In a painting, the seemingly empty spaces are those where potentiality lies. I like very much your phrase “empty yet filled with elegance”. The void “aerates the figure and makes it resonate”, as the French philosopher and Sinologist, François Jullien (b. 1951) puts it. It’s a resonant interval or space between something too tangible and sterile, and something excessive and volatile, where things simply disappear and are forgotten. It’s a way of retaining plenitude. Since being in Korea I’ve realized that traditionally the value given here to the ’indistinct’ is much greater. There is a sense in which what is not clear and distinct is more important than what is. Or, in another register, what is not known is more important than what is. In my anthology of texts about the Sublime and contemporary art, researched after my first visit to Korea, I included your text on void in Korean art because I thought there was a connection between this concept and the Sublime. But now I don’t think it’s quite so straightforward. The Sublime as a concept depends on logocentrism — on a separation of body and spirit, while ’void’ is monistic, and emerges from a culture that, as you say, considers humans as part of nature, not in opposition to it.
- Altered States of Consciousness (2014), Cropped still from the movie Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) used for the painting Altered States of Consciousness (2014)
LJ Are you especially influenced by any particular philosophers, writers or artists? I can find similarities with Ed Ruscha’s (b. 1937) work.
SM Well, I’ve mentioned François Jullien, and I suppose he’s a very important thinker for me recently, helping me to get a perspective on what separates my culture from yours and also what we share. Jullien discusses ’qi’, or what in the West is usually translated as ’breath resonance’, ’vital energy’, or ’spirit resonance’. I now understand better how for East Asian culture breath holds the place that perception does for Westerners. If ’breath’ is the central preoccupation, then what will be sought is something that can’t be objectified. It is more like an invisible impulse.
As for writers, I suppose an abiding influence is Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), but several others come to mind — Rilke (1875-1926), Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), Paul Celan (1920-1970), Albert Camus (1913-1960), Alan Watts (1915-1973), D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966). More recently, novelist like W.G. Sebald (1944-2001), Haruki Murakami (b. 1949), David Mitchell (b. 1969). Another important point of reference is the English ex- Tibetan and Seon Buddhist monk, Stephen Batchelor (b. 1953), whose written some very interesting books trying to apply Buddhist teachings in a non- religious way. Artists? Before I knew anything about art I loved the German Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). I still do, but now I know a little better why. Also, the English Romantic artists J.M.W Turner (1775- 1851), John Constable (1776-1837) and Francis Bacon (1909-1992). The Americans, Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Barnett Newman (1905-1970), Agnes Martin (1912-2004) and Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923). Especially Agnes Martin; her work is a real inspiration, although she belongs to a generation and comes from a place that believed it was possible to forget history, and as I’m English and younger, I can’t believe that. But, yes, perhaps the key artist for me is the American Ed Ruscha. I love the way he works with text as something visual, and how he manages to be both funny and profound. And, recently, I went to see a Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) show in Seoul, and that reminded me how important he was for me earlier in my career. Seeing the show also brought up the interesting problem of cultural similarities. It’s sometimes said that Morandi is very ’Zen’. But what does that mean when one uses it to refer to someone who, as far as I know, had very little knowledge or interest in East Asia? ’Zen’ in the West is shorthand for something that is a universal human ideal of consciousness, and it’s interesting that we Westerners are obliged to borrow a Japanese word to describe it, because we don’t have the vocabulary ourselves. Why that is, concerns me very much.
- Institutions, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 120x160cm
LJ I can find a conceptual elements as well as links to abstract painting mixed together in your works. How can you define your works? Is it conceptual or abstract?
SM Well, at the risk of over-simplifying, I’d say I’m interested to help bring about a meeting between Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and Mark Rothko. In other words, I’m interested in the ’conceptual’ anti-aesthetic family in art and the abstract ’sublime’ one too. So to answer your question, I’d say my work has a ’conceptual’ dimension, certainly, but it’s not only ’conceptual’, as I’m interested in expressing some kind of vital energy, altered states of consciousness. I also don’t believe in the ’purity’ of painting, and am quite happy to explore other media, when it seems appropriate. It strikes me that in some sense you could call what I do is ’curating’ images rather than ’creating’ images, in that I select from an already existing archive. That’s quite a ’conceptual’ process, I suppose.
- God, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 52x41cm
- What are Soviets?, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 162x194cm
- Ice, Cold, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 52x41cm
’KISS ME DEADLY’
LJ Your new series of paintings brings cinema and literature into contact upon the monochrome surface of painting. I think that your new paintings give more space for the imagination than before. The images borrowed from the movies are love scenes - often of people kissing. I can find words on the paintings which are borrowed from Contents pages and Indexes of books. The relationship between the images from the movies and the texts bring out multiple interests and encourage the imagination in us. But why did you choose a Hollywood film noir, Kiss Me Deadly (1955) as the title for the show? And I’d like to hear about how you go about borrowing images and text, and also what the relationship in this case is between image and text?
SM I’ve been working with cinematic imagery for a while. The cinema is the preeminent art form of the twentieth century, but I certainly don’t see it as a rival to painting. The many ways in which painting and film intersect are fascinating. And now, because of the digital revolution, film and painting seem much closer to each other as they are both analogue media. But as I also often take these filmic images from digital sources, they’re already rather ’corrupted’ by the digital process, and therefore my work is also engaging with the digital form. I especially like the way the digital process routinely degrades images through copying them at low resolution.
- Video grabs from Peach Blossom Land, video, 4 minutes 55 seconds The video samples a Youtube video of a North Korean traffic policewoman, juxtaposing it with the legend of the Peach Blossom Paradise
And I’ve also been making my own videos for some time. I always try to include a video work in my exhibitions, and will be showing one in the Gallery Baton exhibition. A short slow- motion loop of a clip from Hitchcock’s movie Vertigo (1958) — the famous 360 degree camera shot of the kiss — is viewed through a peephole cut in a rice paper cabinet. Perhaps I approach the time-based medium of video in a ’painterly’ way; I’m certainly interested in the texture and colour of the digital image, especially when it’s degraded. I also like the way in which it’s possible to sample video imagery easily. So in some ways, I do the same in the time-based medium as I do in painting.
For Baton I’m also trying something new: laser-cut sculptures in aluminium. I will be exploring similar themes to the paintings but using real, not illusionistic space. The images in the sculptures, like those in the paintings, are very alienated from their sources, and are further distanced because they are reduced to a single hued flatness. This is similar to the way writing functions — a flat shape on a ground - but in relation to images, this simplification often makes them difficult to ’read’ as images, and we have a moment when they’re just shapes, and then we must decipher the shapes using ’top down’, conceptual processes.
Again, the way I use cinema in my work can be determined by the location of the exhibition; I did a series of DVD covers of classic Japanese movies for a show in Tokyo, and a series of paintings based on Italian movie posters from the 1940’s to 1960’s for a show in Milano. On the other hand, the film can relate to some more general theme; I did a series called ’Hitchcock’s Blondes’ for a show in Tokyo in 2009, where I used the typography as it appeared in the specific film in which the actress starred, and in London recently I did a show loosely based around the Frank Capra (1897-1991) film Lost Horizon (1937), which was based on a novel by an Englishman named James Hilton (1900-1954). It’s the source of the place called ’Shangri-La’. The exhibition included a group of paintings in which various names for this elusive dream world - Utopia, Paradise, Arcadia, The Matrix - are floated over images of the Lamasery as it was imagined for the movie set. I was motivated to think about this theme because of the failed Utopia of North Korea.
- LOST HORIZON No, III, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 35x70cm
The title of the new exhibition is from a classic Hollywood ’film noir’ directed by Robert Aldrich (1918-1983) in 1955, so just a couple of years after the end of the Korean War. It stars Ralph Meeker (1920-1988) as a tough private detective who kisses several women while trying to foil a plot to steal radioactive waste. The act of kissing and the threat of nuclear Armageddon are rather unsubtly bonded to each other in what is essentially a movie of Cold War paranoia.
One of my paintings appropriates a kiss from the movie as part of a series of paintings of such staged embraces from a wide variety of films. For this exhibition I wanted a title that was alluring and playfully kitsch, and I liked the initially unlikely juxtaposition of the two words ’kiss’ and ’deadly’. But actually, love and death are age old topics. The stills I’ve used in the new paintings come from both Hollywood and more ’art house’ sources — from Gone With the Wind (1936) to Antonioni’s (1912-2007) La Notte (1961). Many of the acts of kissing I’ve depicted are often very similar in pose (there are only so many ways to film a kiss!).
As is usual in my work, the initial visual experience of the new paintings is that of an undifferentiated field of colour; only gradually do images and words emerge from the chromatic envelope. This initial moment is the one that’s least cognitively engaged. What’s new for me in this work is that I’m no longer using the formatting of ’ready-made’ sources, such as book covers, but instead juxtaposing different sources on one surface and creating some new forms of my own. The images are removed from their original context, becoming just suggestive and elusive fragments. They’re also quite transformed, and I make greater stylistic changes than in my earlier works, radically cropping them.
- Vertigo No.1, 2014-15, painted aluminum, 30x20.5x8cm
Yes. You’re right. I think that in these new paintings my app- roach is definitely more imaginative than before, and reflecting now on their possible meanings I see them as the fruit and fullest expression of my five years of living in Korea. In my studio I have a poster of a beautiful scroll-painting in ink on silk of bamboo by an artist of the late Joseon period, and recently it suddenly dawned on me that my new paintings have much in common with it. The work is monochromatic and very minimal, and the ink is used thickly in some places to give the feeling that the bamboo is close to the viewer, and then more thinly to suggest depth and atmosphere. It’s all very suggestive. The seventeenth century Chinese scholar-artist Tang Zhiqi (1560-1570) said, "When you paint, there is no need to paint all the way; if with each brushstroke you paint all the way, it becomes common." I like the idea that indistinctness is a way of retaining plentitude. When something isn’t finished, when it isn’t done ’all the way’, it’s much more fulfilling. I’d also like to mention another Korean work I admire very much Chusa’s (秋史, 1786-1856) ’Zen Orchid’. This very simply painted orchid is surrounded by colophons and seals and I can’t understand them, but they certainly add to the meaning of the work. This is important too in relation to my own work; my texts may not be understandable to Koreans or non-English speakers, I realize, but they still function as a kind of ’effect of language’; that is to say, they engage with the expectation of discursive thought while not actually delivering any textual information.
- Vertigo No. 2, 2014-15, painted aluminum, 30x20.5x8cm
One side effect of this is that they also register more as shapes rather than meanings. As Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982) (who ’stars’ in my painting ’Silence’ via a still from Casablanca (1942)) said: "A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous."
LJ From the evidence of the lists in your paintings your reading includes history, philosophy, religion, psychology, social science, and more. From such intellectual introspection we hope to gain wisdom. I think your intellectual struggles are reflected in the way of seeing presented by your work. In order to understand human nature Sigmund Freud (1856- 1939) described the Super-Ego, Ego and Id - the three elements that construct our personality and that are related to each other through conflict or collaborative relationship. You mentioned to me when I visited your studio that your work seems to show this struggle, and the quest for some kind of balance.
SM A Freudian interpretation is certainly useful. It’s impor- tant that the lists of words come from the indexes or contents pages of books in my own collection, and they appear in the paintings in the same order in which they appear in the original sources. In my earlier work, I always used the typography present in the original sources, but for the new work I chose to always use a font called ’American Typewriter’.
- Abiological, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 52x41cm
- Silence, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 52x41cm
- God, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 52x41cm
Ironically, it’s a digital font, so it mimics an aspect of a now obsolete technology. But I like the font because of the resonances, because it is a no-nonsense font that is very closely associated with the history of the twentieth century. Imagine all those news reports, novels, and so on, composed using such a font. These words, appearing in orderly rows and superimposed on the ghost-like images, almost like scabs, are sourced from my collection of books of politics, poetry, philosophy and religion. As you say, they evoke a world characterized by intellectual thought, a heavy awareness ofhistory, the quest for meaning, value, transcendence. They are books that I don’t have with me in Korea — they’re in my house in France. So maybe I’m using the lists as a way of keeping in touch with my past, as much as for the content. I’m also struck by how they remind me of the fact that when I was young I was convinced I’d find the answers to the ’big questions’ within the covers of books. I’m not so sure of that nowadays! In contrast to the flatness of the images and texts from the movies, these letters are painted in relief and are just a tone lighter than the rest of the painting. They cast shadows, and so are more clearly present, responding to the sense of touch. Perhaps they’re the second thing you notice, after the field of colour. They introduce a discursive dimension. But removed from their original contexts and functions they are enigmatic fragments. The meaning of the words seem to be at odds with the celebration of pleasurable eroticism in the imagery and the soft immersive colour-field (the world of the ’Id’?), as if their sober and serious messages are coming straight from my ’Super-ego’, from a father-figure (Perhaps it’s significant that my father died this year).
The monochromatic colours I use are sensual but subdued, and do not consciously relate to the image or the text. I think most of all, they relate to the environment where my studio and home is — the countryside just a few kilometers from the DMZ, north of Seoul. Although they have nothing to do with the images, unexpected relationships and analogies nevertheless suggest themselves. Indeed, while I intend no obvious connection between the words and the images, nor between these and the colours, I certainly play with our natural tendency to make meaningful connections, just as we organize the initially random-seeming jumble of splotches in my paintings into patterns, linking only a subset together so that an image eventually emerges from its camouflage in the background (’top down’ processes, again). There’s a spatial effect too. The text and image float in the coloured space, and the text seems to be in front of the imagery, creating a deeper illusionistic space. But this is contradicted when we see the three-dimensionality of the text: it sits on the surface. Again, I’m interested in producing visual ambiguity.
- Peep Show, 2015, video monitor installed in rice paper cabinet, designed by Chang Eung-Bok 150x130x60cm. Duration of video: 2 minutes 12 seconds
LJ We can say that art is a reflection of our collective consciousness and has an important role to play in spiritual healing. However art has become more like a political power game in a globalized art world characterized by international Biennales. What is your vision as an artist? Why is art important?
SM Wow! Big questions. I definitely think that today an artist can’t afford to be pessimistic or too ironic. I think the time when the main task of art was ’disenchantment’ has passed. It’s definitely time for us to think about re-enchantment. The artist has a role to play in this, though only a limited one. After all, as you say, art is part of the problem as well as part of the solution. It’s become too closely involved with commerce and power politics. The idea of a real avant-garde is difficult to sustain. I don’t see myself playing an avant-garde role. Painting is too ’conventional’. But for me, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Painting keeps a passageway open to tradition. It’s a kind of negotiation, or as I mentioned before, a ’transmission’. I’d say art at its best helps us to be less deceived — about the world, and about ourselves. ■
- The Ascent of Truth, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 52x41cm
Lee Joon is Deputy Director, Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art
- On Religion (Marx and Engels), 2014, acrylic on canvas, 160 x120cm