Remember today, of all days, that you are a vision.
That you are not the sum of a dozen velvet roses.
And are sweeter than all the world’s bitter cocoa.
And that your heart is but a pit, which craves oil and dust and wine. And if your wet eyes are to dry from the cold wind of winter, they are bound to be damp come spring. Dewdrop tears, forming beads above hazy campfires, under clumsy tents, and in the wild jungles of our youth.
Remember today, of all days, that you have found gold. And it is beneath your soles. Behind your brow. Running through your pretty little fingertips.
Cry with me. Because not everything works out. And not everyone wants you to be happy. But cry with me. Because we are tiny little miracles, specks of cosmic dust, and we carry with us a great, sad secret.
I Made Love To A Stranger At The Hyatt (2012) NAMSAN Room 808. Smoke. I am certain we were on a non-smoking floor, though at this point my memory does not serve me well. Fragile crystal, chilled amaretto—the only recollections I can muster—likely because of the ice cubes, and the way they burn so soft when melting like butter on flesh. My mind plays tricks on me, still; I vaguely recall the green lights of N Seoul Tower, though maybe my dazed eyes were filled with sparks which illumated the framed blueprints placed around the large, square room. I sprained my ankle after we showered, and it made me laugh. The ice that ended up soaking through the sheets, sitting in puddles on the dull carpet, was all gone. And now I really needed it. The pianist was drinking in the lobby when I stumbled out. I remember how happy I was when an orange taxi picked me up and took me down the hill, the lights of the city opening up to me, the bend of Hannam bridge serving as a fluorescent checkmark ticking off some event that I’d once jotted down on my bucket list. Make love to a stranger at the Hyatt. In Seoul there is no lobby as grandiose, peregrine. With characters sitting atop stools and buried in plushness, sharp fabrics and jewels. The tongues of Arabic and German on the air as glasses chink, mistresses laugh, and a pale ghost attempts to hold the attention of a room whose eyes are too distracted by the goliath windows to bother and listen. I perched at the bar, stone gargoyle, and felt no eyes on me but one. And I knew.
Mechanical Carp and Your Grandfather’s Ashes (2012) CHEONGGYECHEON After the Korean War ended in 1953, Cheonggye stream became lined with rows of rickety shacks, home to those who had moved to Seoul in search of a better life. By the end of the 1970s, it had been fully covered by an elevated highway, providing much-needed access to a rapidly industrializing city core. Last spring, I stopped under one of its bridges to cool my tired feet. I met a young girl sitting under a marigold parasol, enjoying macaroons and iced tea. Her name was Mijin, and she told me stories of the old locals who enjoyed fishing and bathing their children there. Her grandparents used to live quite close to where we were resting, and in 2005, they returned to Seoul after a long hiatus to see the stream finally emancipated. Her grandfather, going blind, unable to walk unsupported, did not believe that the stream could really be there. He worked in the area in the late 1980s and was well acquainted with the miles of concrete and smog that had covered his old home. He requested that Mijin help him down so he could touch the water with his own hands. She recalled vividly how he shook with joy, punching the air with his fists, eyes brimming with tears. After her grandfather passed away, she took his ashes to that very spot, just under the half-moon bridge, so that he could forever be free. I remembered my own grandfather. I imagined him in his youth, out on the ocean with the local fishermen, face turned to the sun. Immediately, the water felt different against my skin. It carried with it a special weight, like a million little secrets, of stories whispered at the bank of a stream between friends. I decided to share with Mijin a story of my own, one that I recount with each visit to the area. A friend once told me that a former mayor of Seoul was unsatisfied with the number of fish in Cheonggyecheon. Accordingly, he saw to it that mechanical fish were introduced into the water, giving the place a more complete appearance. Obviously my story was no more than an urban legend, but I enjoyed the effect it had on Mijin. She chuckled heartily, breath sweet, and responded, “good, my grandfather can feed those poor fish with his soul.”
No One Jumps Off the Olympic Bridge (2012) OLYMPIC BRIDGE, EAST SEOUL A Korean artist once told me a story when we were drinking soju near the Han river. What he said seemed to come from nowhere, unprompted by anything we had previously discussed. He blurted out, soju dribbling from his chin, “no one jumps off Olympic Bridge, I don’t understand.” I realized a few days later that a 10-year old girl had recently committed suicide. She left a note claiming life was too hard, and I thought to myself that perhaps my friend had been touched by the incident enough to make such a statement. My friend mentioned that as far as he knew, only 5 people have managed to successfully jump to their deaths from the Olympic Bridge, a figure which I have been unable to verify with the Seoul government. Perhaps it is because the Olympic bridge is slightly more well-lit than the others. Or maybe it is the fact that it is further than most from the centralized financial sectors where many work deep into the night. One clear evening, I held a small vigil under its cold metallic flame. Though my candles would not stay alit due to the passing cars, I felt some comfort in the breeze. I thought of the number 5, of the 5 Olympic rings, of how much the city has changed since the 1988 Olympics, and of how I was born that very year and feel I have not yet lived. When I was leaving, I saw a boy walking clumsily along the railing separating the sidewalk from the traffic lanes. Upon approach, he jumped down to the concrete and gave me a searching look. I still can’t comprehend the weight in his eyes. 24 years have passed since the Olympics. Was the city always this heavy?
Before I leave Seoul for an indefinite period, I’ve decided to embark on a solo project that will hopefully become an exhibition + companion art book. I will be shooting nude self portraits at variation locations around the city, accompanying each work with a short essay or snippet of anecdotal text. See above the first work in the series, titled Only The Rich Can Afford The Poor. The reason for choosing the nude as a means of representation is that these high profile areas—locations with a heavy CCTV presence—are profoundly married to the controversial sociopolitical fabric of Korea. I hope I can arouse interesting dialogue and uncover the secrets of the night through this ‘experience art’.
Only The Rich Can Afford The Poor (2012) BUKCHON HANOK VILLAGE Nowhere in Seoul can you see such an exemplar example of the traditional hanok house, with its wood mouldings, stone bricks, and signature tiled roof. Unlike other urban areas, where traditional houses have rapidly been bulldozed to build mass apartment complexes and freeways, the Bukchon hanoks have stood the test of time. As charming as the area is, with its giant doors, tilted alleys, and pruned foliage, the contrived nature of the environment is not hidden well. A friend of mine noted, upon arriving at this popular vantage point, that the gentleman who owns the house at the end of the road often leaves his garage door open to show off his fleet of luxury cars. As is the case the world over, historical buildings of the past have become hollow shells, often devoid of genuine cultural sentiment. Though wealthy government officials and members of the local ‘cultured society’ succeeded in preventing redevelopment of the area in the 1960s, great irony stems from the notion that each house has been grossly renovated since in order to preserve its natural character. Only the rich can afford the poor.
Here are two videos of my performance with Jazoo Yang at Seoul’s NADAFEST. The premise was simple: live painting meets contemporary dance, set to excerpts from Béla Bartók’s pantomine ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. The 9 minute performance was mostly improvisational, the resulting canvas a product of our mutual artistic energy.
The first video was filmed and edited by video artist Joni Els.
Special thanks to Kyungmin Kim from realaudio for the second clip.
2012 has exciting things lined up for Jazoo Yang, a Seoul-based visual artist working across various mediums, including grand painting, installation, portrait work, and performance art. She will be exhibiting in New York, Shanghai, and Berlin, as well as featuring her provocative work throughout the year in South Korea.
Having completed residencies in Beijing, Busan and Jeju over the past few years, Yang is quite active in Seoul’s contemporary art scene. As an elaboration on her own solitude, a product of the constantly shifting physical and cultural landscape of South Korea’s urban space, Yang endeavors to explore notions of history and loss in her work. Influenced by the present-day neglect of social legacy and the ‘culturelessness’ of the modern city, Yang aims to salvage that which lies on the fringe of our social consciousness.
In expansive urban areas, the interminable demolitions, reconstructions, and renovations of the modern era have resulted in an overwhelming loss of familiarity, one which alienates individuals within the city that is their home. This trend is not unique to Seoul; the uprooting of one’s physical and cultural history is a global phenomenon that is both felt and observed in major cities the world over. Yang’s overseas visits this year will be crucial for her research, and will undoubtedly yield exciting results, even impromptu performances or installation projects.
Using entire rooms and buildings as a canvas, the artist recreates individual histories by collecting, assembling, and interpreting found artifacts. Utilizing basic forms such as tape and stencil, Yang’s installations intend to draw attention to spaces that are easily ignored or forgotten. By sharing these visual stories, the artist converts abandoned buildings into historic sites, transforming the artifacts within into relics with legacies worth remembering.
Perhaps my favourite of Yang’s works are her large-scale Excretion paintings. Her highly physical method results in works that are grand, yet also intimate and expressive (shades of Twombly, anyone?) Using primarily her hands, she harnesses the momentum and intensity of her moving body to document her present emotional state. The excretions, then, become a form of evidential catharsis, available for shared contemplation by artist and viewer. Yang intends to provide a glimpse into her soul, a genuine expression of her own solitude and a gesture of humanity within the bleakness of the big city.
It’s been nearly two months since I’ve written something here. I’ve been anxious, confused, even angry, but most of all quite enlightened by my own darkness. Something about wintertime in Seoul has really affected me. Perhaps it’s the early sunsets and the indecisive flurries, two culprits one is quick to judge, but I have a feeling it has something to do with the overuse of heating systems, the underuse of running shoes, and the unbelievable amount of cheese one person can consume just to feel something deep down in his gut. I’ve had my fair share of cold sweats these past few weeks, but I’ve been shaken awake.
This year I’ve decided to shift the focus of this site. No longer will I only post about my experiences in the Korean art world; I plan to write about anything and everything art-related that sparks interest in me. Too often do I attend an exhibition and not feel obliged to write something about my experience. It’s difficult for me to butter and sugar my work, to make false emotion ooze from nothing. And it’s difficult for me to feel so boxed in, focused so intently on a specific place at a specific time of year. I started this site because I love to write (and occasionally accidentally rhyme), so that I shall do.
Remember when Ai Wei Wei had nine thousand children’s backpacks assembled together in commemoration of those affected by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake? The massive installation was vivid and politically charged. The work, titled Remembering, spelled out the sentence ‘she lived happily for seven years in this world’, quoting a victim’s mother. Local Chinese governments cut corners in the construction of schoolhouses, resulting in their crumbling and the subsequent deaths of thousands. During the aftermath, the investigative work of Ai was crucial in bringing such truths to light. The resulting installation filled the facade of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, drawing much critical attention to the controversy.
Works of art such as Remembering serve to remind us that we are entitled to such knowledge, that sentimentality is not something to fret over when we are deprived of basic rights and freedoms. Ai Wei Wei punctuates the importance of the individual. His art breeds contemplation and breathes a fierce realness into our daily monotony. His use of social media, specifically Twitter, is fundamental to his practice. He is not fighting for fame or glory; he cares about his country, he demands change and transparency. This is the inspiring stuff. This is the stuff that makes your knees do that thing that they sometimes do.
I think I’ve found a suitable replacement for dairy.
It’s been nearly a month since my last article, and though it may seem that I’ve neglected my duties as an aesthete by not attending any events or shows as of late, I really have been on the ball. Despite the biting winds, I’ve been out and about, perusing David LaChapelle at Seoul Arts Center, Candida Höfer at Kukje Gallery, Ellery Queen (the absence of, rather) at Space O’NewWall, and a whole array of other great exhibitions. In fact, I’ve been quite dedicated to Seoul’s art scene lately, doing my part to contribute where I can, even if only to leave behind traces of carbon dioxide and a trail of eau de perfume.
One of my highlights of the past month was attending a private poetry reading at a friend’s studio in Anguk. Titled ‘A Secret Love Affair’ the event was hosted by a group of Korean artists and curators, each sharing their own personal creations or favourite works. Naturally, the theme of the event was love, and seeing as I have limited romantic experience (there’s no point in lying), I was a bit hesitant to read-aloud my short, sensation-laden piece. Perhaps to ease the pressure, readers were given the choice of either leaving the lights on or turning them off. Red wine, candles, love and whispers… rather than let things spiral out of control, I figured it would be best if the lights stayed on for my performance.
After picking cheese from my teeth, I quietly read a poem titled “Sacro Speco”. Inspired by a Canadian hike, some readings I had been immersed in at the time, and the prospects of a European tour in the coming summer, I wrote the poem in the spring of 2010 (really dating myself here), not expecting it to ever see the light of the day. The audience seemed to enjoy the work, though I am certain they were unable to understand much of what I was saying. Similarly, my ability to understand Korean is infantile at best, yet I was genuinely moved by the emotionality and sincerity of the others’ performances. Such is the case with auditory art forms: the textures of voice and volume transcend both definition and denotation. Even a nervous stutter or an extended pause can have the most exquisite effect. Ultimately, all of us present at ‘A Secret Love Affair’ were just happy to have each other’s company, despite our linguistic differences.
A certain familial sensibility hangs over Seoul, draping its inhabitants in a warmth that I have yet to grow accustomed to, and although the temperature outside is steadily dropping, I am certain I will continue to find great comfort in the company of those met indoors. Further, I look forward to continuing my work in the coming year, fueling the not-so-secret love affair that I have with this city.
When golden leaves glow from beneath
I think of tiny bumps on parchment
and how Morse had no idea
when he painted The Chapel of the Virgin at Subiaco
that he would set you free.
Like an eclipse cannot contain the spark
I am filled with a delicate anguish
encircled by river water, hanging from cypress boughs
at peace with aplenty in which I am born
but solemnly caught between sanguine and sea.
Despite my condition and your conditional vision
we burn brighter than hot oils caught in the salty winds of summer.
For those brilliant fingers, chapped and fluorescent
did nothing to illuminate the caves of our fathers;
bound, our graphite hands will forever be.
Just over a week ago, I attended the opening reception for ArtSonje’s latest exhibition, ‘City Within the City’. A contemporary art space located near Kyunbok Palace in central Seoul, ArtSonje is surrounded by a fusion of tradition and trend. The center’s location in Sokeuk-dong felt like just the right place for the curatorial project, one that catalogues the experience of the individual within created, enforced, and imagined environments. The event was a success: a mélange of artists from various nations participated in the project, it seemed well-funded, exceptionally curated, and all in all, the exhibition wholly satisfied the veritable checklist of things a gallerygoer comes to expect from a place with such an upstanding reputation.
I could delve into detail about the activities of the evening, of the works themselves, of the interesting conversations, the enjoyable after-events, the enigmatic people that seem to find you everywhere in Seoul, but all this I will spare. I want to talk about one thing, and one thing alone, which really hit me that evening. It wasn’t on my mind whilst strolling the exhibition spaces upstairs. I had no idea of it when my attention was focused on Kim Beom’s dark Three Worlds, nor did I even feel it tickle my imagination as I integrated myself into Abraham Cruzvillegas’ appropriated Autoconstruccion.
It is quite difficult, really, (even after a week of mulling it over in the shower) to place what this feeling actually is. It is not so much a state of knowing as it is a sort of personal understanding devoid of meaning. In certain streams of modern philosophy, hell, in general, we ascertain that consciousness exists as a sort of unbreakable chain of self-awareness. But I am not convinced that I have become aware of this feeling through a gradual undulating of sentiment. Arguably, it can be sustained that this thing, this peculiar feeling, has always been a part of me, perhaps buried deep in some metaphysical crevice, and it was simply the culmination of a variety of experiences on that faithful evening that have allowed me to contemplate anew. No, I don’t buy that, either. Needless to say, all this time I’ve thought something from ‘City Within the City’ has stayed with me, but after standing that thought on its head, I have come to realize that what’s true is quite the opposite.
For whatever reason (at this point I am not too concerned with figuring it all out, anyway) and as a result of a variety of things (bits and pieces of aesthetic euphoria mixed with a tinge of intoxication and a healthy dose of camaraderie) I feel within the city. A part of it. Not a visitor, not a piece in a puzzle, but a cardboard component. The material necessity of a given space. Nay, the immaterial. Sure, that sounds silly, but think about how we often seem to mime our lives and only ever so often feel lost in the moment. I know you are no stranger to the burden of bliss and what comes after one was happy and is no longer said to be. So, entertain me for a second, and imagine too, that you are organic. It’s a strange thing to force and maybe I am naïve and all this is last year’s news, but I am not entirely convinced that this is so ordinary.
I do know that I am an integral part of the community, what with my transactions and abstractions, my annyeonghasayos and my ability to make traffic stop when I simply choose to cross the street. I used to know that I was a single person occupying a finite amount of space at any given time. But now I know that’s not all of it. As singular as I am, I feel unbounded; confined to a given area but also linked with an infinite number of connections, relations, and bonds. Perhaps I’ve always known about this feeling and understood its potential—maybe it has visited me in dreams or danced on the back of my neck—but now that it is here, standing with me in this very room, hollering over the buzzing in my head, I am not so sure I’ve ever really known anything.
It is not that I all of a sudden feel welcome here or part of something larger, but rather, I now feel that within me, within my own physical body, my own intimate environment, I contain something smaller (or greater?), something powerful and wonderful and worthy of contemplation, yet also above it. I feel like I am a destination, my appendages and organs open for exploration, dark chasms and tunnels awaiting ignition, allowing revelation, the chambers of my heart stained glass cathedral windows and my lungs bombshelters filled with grain and dust and earth. I am the city.