Absence and the Continuum of Natureby Robert C. Morgan
Oh Chi Gyun
Chelsea Art Museum, May 29 – July 12, 2008
Musee des Arts Asiatiques, Nice, France, July 2 – September 30, 2008
For those who travel from the city to the country during the summer months, the landscape is a place not only for recreation but also for viewing, a place to nourish the body and mind through the act of perception, through the process of coming down, of slowing down, and thus removing oneself from the diurnal routines and omnipresent anxieties that many assume to be second nature—the simulated “nature” of the urban environment. The notion of separating nature from culture or landscape from metropolis is perhaps more of a Western concept than an Eastern one. Having recently written an essay of the Chinese artist Lin Yan, who reads signs of nature within the details of the urban complex, I became more keenly aware of how much growing things—such as blades of grass, weeds, and saplings—reveal themselves in the most mysterious and unlikely places. Old bricks and metal floors that were constructed fifty or sixty or a hundred years ago suddenly have something in common with the landscape.
Oh Chin Gyun, a Korean artist, paints scenes from his hometown of Sabuk, outside Seoul, the capital of the Republic of Korea. Whereas Seoul has evolved over the past half-century into a diverse, bustling, beautiful, and ever-changing cosmopolitan center, the much smaller, quaint town of Sabuk has the appearance of having never changed, maybe for decades. Oh paints the rooftops, stone stairways, tiny alleyways, and winding roads in relation to majestic mountains, densely-packed snow, pine trees, frozen rivers, and crockery barrels of fermenting kim-chi lined up again the exterior wall of a cozy habitat. Paintings such as “Winter of Sabuk,” “Alley of Sabuk II,” and “Pray,” painted in a dark, densely hued impressionist style, offer far more than a decorative adjunct to one’s living room. These paintings—in contrast with Oh’s extraordinary complex, yet systemically patterned views of Manhattan and sun-baked plateaux near Santa Fe, New Mexico—suggest a plethora of conceptual references to the continuity between nature and culture. Indeed, these are sites in the wilderness of the mind that inspire a rethinking about the realities of where we live and the symbolism of the countryside. They offer a syntactical notion of time and space, or history and memory, as parts of a continuity that coheres as it extends outside the vastness of time. We remember these paintings as sites, as places the artist has studied intimately in the process of painting.
Another artist, Shim Moon-Seup is a sculptor. He is also Korean and works as much with time as with three-dimensional form, using meditation as a studio practice. Rather than building forms to be placed in nature, he constructs elements that alter the way we perceive nature within the context of urbanity. Looking at the transitory sculptural installations of Shim Moon-Seup on the grounds surrounding the Musee des Arts Asiatiques in Nice, I am impressed by their implicit sense of absence. The planks of wood, modestly cut and carved—as well as with other, more eclectic materials such as metal, stone, water, neon and incandescent light—are made into extraordinary sculptural objects and components, often designed in relation to site-specific environments capable of reorienting our sense of space and movement. From a Western point of view, Shim’s deeply felt Korean-style work carries a phenomenological orientation. Examples would include planks of wood and steel that float indeterminately in a pond, or a single neon line stretched through an arcade of trees. By this I mean, it refers to the body and, by referencing the body, the forms implicate every aspect of our perception. This reference to the body relates to the way the body perceives space and time, and to the sense of absence whereby materials situated in a field or nearly hidden between trees appear as dematerialized structures. In this case, the emphasis is not on the form, but on the emptiness invoked by the circumstances in which the materials are seen that is, seen within their function or purpose. This point has been discussed often in relation to Zen Buddhism (in Korean: Son) with certain traits implicitly borrowed from Chinese Taoism. The language used to express these ideas—between phenomenology and Zen—is obviously different from the purely Eastern idea. Nonetheless, there is also the possibility of a certain contingency between the two approaches as one enters into a discussion of Shim Moon-Seup’s sculpture. Both Western and Eastern attributes offer a common platform for discussion. We may, in turn, see Shim’s work contextually as a form of “emptiness”—a space and a place with “no mind”—as it functions in direct relationship to nature or, as is the case of this exhibition in Nice, between nature and the constructed world of a functional architecture. Yet somehow the two interact, come together, reveal their dependence on one another in visual and conceptual terms.
These objects are impressive as they are truly about “emptiness.” Their stringent absence has a prevailing aspect, a lingering aspect that refutes any predetermined notion of identity.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.