Looking Down from the Sky

Je Yun Moon

‘These are part of my story’ says Young In Hong when discussing the archive photos that she chose to work with. Some depict various demonstrations from a distance, others reveal a closer view of the story. Some illustrate the cityscapes of Seoul whereas others deliver snapshots of fierce confrontations on the street. For those of us who lived through South Korea’s democratization movement, this sense of struggle has become part of everyone’s story. For Young In Hong: The Moon’s Trick at the Korean Cultural Centre UK (21 November – 30 December 2017) the artist shares her version of this story through multiple artistic forms, including embroidery, sound installation and performance.

Her story, however, is not intended to illustrate what happened in South Korea’s recent past or how she personally experienced these struggles. The artist transforms archive photo-images into abstract lines and forms as evident in Looking Down from the Sky (2017). Abstraction is a process of filtering information. But for Hong, it is not to eliminate the information but to highlight the limits of expression inherent in an image. To what extent can an image convey information? Can it deliver the smell, the sweat, the heat and the sound of the people it portrays? The sounds of chanting on the street, the smell of tear-gas and the sweat, the physical violence as man and metal collide – this sense of urgency and tension is not something that an image can fully deliver to its viewer. For Hong, abstraction is the material process of highlighting the ‘originary lack’ inherent in an image, where there is the absence of a presence. As if she is looking down from the sky, the artist narrates the story that can never be fully delivered.

Burning with Triadic Harmony (2016) is a delicately embroidered work that demonstrates a particular route that the artist took in order to develop an artistic strategy of abstraction based on the archived photos she discovered. As shown in her previous works such as Procession (2010), Hong’s earlier artistic strategy was to blur the collaged images in order to travel further from the original departure points. Although this method seems to be contrary to the strategy deployed in Looking Down from the Sky (2017), this is a continuous line of thinking that connects these seemingly two opposite strategies, that is to say, a question about the fundamental limits inherent in any image. For Burning with Triadic Harmony (2016), Hong still sticks to her strategy of blurring the image, but one can also see how this blurred image is moving towards more abstract forms. Hong began with the photos that portray a large bonfire that was the centre piece of a folkloric full-moon event welcoming the Lunar New Year – ‘I was fascinated by the moment of combustion’ she explained. Burning with Triadic Harmony (2016) focuses on these moments of combustion and for the first time, she extracted the outline of the image from the bottom half of the image, stitching it on to a separate piece of fabric before attaching it to a larger canvas that functioned as a frame for the two separate pieces.

With images sourced from archived images of protests and demonstrations that took place in South Korea between the 1960s and 1990s, for Looking Down from the Sky (2017), Hong connects approximately 6 different images for each panel and from them she takes their outlines to create an abstract piece. With the outlines extracted, Hong then embroiders the shape of the outlines onto white silk fabric. 5 panels placed together constitute the piece which then serves as a music score. The particular shape of the score represents specific durations, pitch and sound-effects. The reading of these scores however, is entirely open to interpretation.

At the opening night performance of Young In Hong: The Moon’s Trick, Hong invites one Daegum player, one violinist, one trumpeter, one clarinet and two singers to interpret the scores through a joint performance. The artist herself participates in the performance with her sewing machine, whose clatter intentionally disrupts the perfect harmony that could have been achieved. This group of professional musicians only had two rehearsals prior to the opening performance – and it is surprising how quickly these musicians learnt each other’s play when working with such abstract scores.

Yet, despite their professional knowledge of music, Hong’s given structure could never allow them to produce a performance that could be repeated. Each time they play, a new sound and a new combination is created. Moreover, like a fire whose destiny is inevitable, the particular body of sound experienced at this opening performance is always fated to disappear. About 20 minutes later, this group of musicians run towards the climax. The penetrating sound of the violin and the Daegum mix with the rhythmic flow of the trumpet and the clarinet, to which the repeated drumming of the sewing machine adds a bassline, it is then that the two singers scream a climactic, unbearable scream. What is emerging here is a body of sound and/or noise, whose physicality is clearly vulnerable when placed against the passage of time.

The Body of Sound and/or Noise
Six musicians and the artist Young In Hong are pushing the borders between music and sound and/or noise. What lies outside music? By welcoming unexpected clashes and conflicts, what emerges is a body of sound and/or noises. It is a contradictory term. The corporeality of sonic experience never lasts long. It escapes too quickly to ever be grasped. Nevertheless, the creation of sound and/or noise is a material element through which a sense of body is already evident. With this thought-provoking performance, the artist seems to pull out the body of sound and/or noise from the images that she departs from.

By pushing the image to the point that it becomes abstract lines, the artist highlights the inner contradictions of an image that can never fully deliver the body of the event that it was supposed to portray. And when she pushes it further by inviting musicians to use these abstract lines as a score, the body of sound and/or noise finally bursts out of the images and so giving them a new life. These sounds and/or noises are free from positions of superiority or subordination within the existing system of music. It is the failure of these sounds to fit within the existing system of music that allows them to go beyond the exercise of power. As Edgard Varèse says, Let sounds be themselves.

Walking through Young In Hong: The Moon’s Trick
The title of the exhibition Young In Hong: The Moon’s Trick is taken from one of the early poems by Soo-Young Kim (1921-1968). In this poem, the main image is a spinning top which Kim once observed. The poet was intrigued by the vortex that the spinning top created. When watching it turn, he felt that it allowed him to exist on a different sphere. The poet named this moment ‘the moon’s trick’. This moment of ‘the moon’s trick’ is the moment that has not yet been captured either by image or by sound. The closest point one can get to it is the noise of the wheel in one’s memory.

Walking through Young In Hong: The Moon’s Trick, the main body is constituted of 39 framed embroideries on cotton. This is displayed in the main gallery and the L-shape partitions that encircles it. Prayers 1-39 (2017), embroidered in black and white, are derived from archival photos of post-war cityscapes from the Korean peninsula, as well as the frequent protests and demonstrations which occurred during the subsequent modernisation period. Pulling out certain forms from those photos and then pushing the outlines of the images to the point that only abstract lines remain, these items of embroidery become a score from which the artist herself creates sound. Having been trained as a pianist in her childhood, music can be considered as Hong’s artistic mother tongue. Hong mentioned that the nature of her music training could be described as repetition with great perseverance. Hong’s particular background allows her to question the presuppositions of visual language and the foundation of visual experience that pushes her to explore different mediums within the realm of visual arts.

For the first time, Hong decided to play the piano herself as part of her art work. Each recorded fragment of sound is her own interpretation of the 38 photo-scores. From 40 seconds to 1 min, the length of each fragment varies. Including the silence that Hong intentionally added, together the 38 fragments constitute an hour and a half sound piece that can be heard through the speakers unevenly installed in the gallery space. Via these 10 speakers installed on the ceiling, 8 amplifier channels of the final audio file play at prescribed timings. This is why the audience who come to the gallery space encounter a different sonic environment with each visit. It is within this process of continuous production of a different sonic environment that the body of the audience encounters the particular body of the sound and/or noise. What the artist initiates can only be completed by the moving body of the audience. As with the external torque that activates the spinning top, it is the body of the audience that completes the choreography of Young In Hong: The Moon’s Trick.

Je Yun Moon