Essays



Seoul, invisible city

By Park, Dae-Jeong

A review article on my web project Strolling around Seoul, which was a part of on-line group project Public Art Seoul in 2008.

In his novel, “Invisible Cities (Le città invisibili)”, Italo Calvino paradoxically describes images and features that he wants to find in actual cities through imaginary cities that do not exist in reality. He focuses on strange features of a familiar city while exploring various traces happening in a contemporary city. He writes, "But, you have only to walk in a semicircle and you will come into view of Moriana’s hidden face, an expanse of rusting sheet metal, [...] blind walls with fading signs, […] but instead it has no thickness, it consists only of a face and an obverse, like a sheet of paper, with a figure on either side"

Hye-Seung Jung (who is from Seoul and currently lives in Canada), a visitor in the metropolis of Seoul, has created the Seoul Guide using a series maps made from the traces of Seoul found in her visits. She writes about Seoul based on her visual memories after her own reading of the city. In other words, She has created the guide employing multiple working methods, of which reading is converted into writing. It should be noted that Jung has expressed Seoul as a mapped space. By definition, a map is designed to provide information to other who are not familiar with a place, or cannot orient oneself in a new surrounding. However, the meaning of a map is not limited. What is important is that a map is not merely a substitute of a specific place, but also an additional expression beyond what it represents. All maps ultimately functions to demonstrate the fundamental of experiences in the world by replacing it with maps themselves. Jung leads us to view Seoul in a new way by adding new dimensions to Seoul, in other words, by reveling places of others that are not discovered in metalanguage of Seoul. (For example, she has placed numerous red dots to the map of Seoul Station, the heart of Seoul, in her Seoul Guide. The red dots denote the density of the homeless in Seoul who are openly considered as others.) In this context, the function of Jung’s Seoul Guide can be explained with the concept of "supplément" proposed by Jacques Derrida. Supplément “is not simply added to the positivity of a presence […] its place is assigned in the structure by the mark of an emptiness.” Therefore, supplément is neither presence nor absence in itself, and only exists as an effect of traces. However, the traces transform the whole structure. That is why Jung portrays Seoul as a city with no essence.

Clearly, her guide is strange to visitors who come to Seoul for the first time. It does not provide useful information on Seoul. In fact, what first-time visitors need is a general and easy-to-use guide that can offer practical information. Why does Jung produce such a map that is “strange strategy without finality” according to the expression by Derrida? A clue to this question can be found in his documentation of Japan in the essay titled “L'Empire des Signes” by Roland Barthes. People who visit Tokyo for the first time should have a guide to find a direction. Barthes writes, “to visit a place for the first time is to thereby to begin to write it: the address not being written, it must establish its own writing”, which means that a reader should rather read signifiers that a writer is not bound by transcendental signified. The process of reading turning to writing informs us that visitors should read Seoul as an ultimately unreadable city; Seoul is an empty place with no essence, therefore is always replaced and supplemented by the reading and writing of others.

In short, self-identified Seoul is not in existence. Seoul is a place of supplementation and substitution, which is inseparable from the logic of contamination. This is why Calvino argues that the existence of unhappiness is necessary to a future city and why Jung created the unfamiliar Seoul Guide.


Park, Dae Jung is a curator and writer based in Seoul, South Korea. She studied philosophy, museum studies and arts administration before she received a doctorate with her research on Virtual Museums from Department of Visual Arts Studies in Ewha University in Seoul. Previously, she has worked at Moran Museum and The Museum of Hite-Jinro Group where she curated a number of exhibitions and worked for their collections.

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Exhibition Text For “All Along” by Stacey Watson and Hye-Seung Jung at Pith Gallery, Calgary

By Andrea Williamson

This text was written in conjunction with the exhibition All Along which ran February 1 - March 8, 2013

The quantity of things that could be read in a little piece of smooth and empty wood overwhelmed Kublai; Polo was already talking about ebony forests, about rafts laden with logs that come down the rivers, of docks, of women at the windows….[1]

Our lives we have carefully constructed from watermelon sugar and then travelled to the length of our dreams, along roads lined with pines and stones.[2]

Over the past year Calgary has welcomed financial incentives and collective nudges to become a more self-defined city, a culmination of the many ideas we each have of what that would entail. This is of course necessary to come to the idea of “a city” in the end. But what if we suspended that idea for a moment? Left in its tracks are singular, disassociated places in time. Without the connective tissue of a city, we have areas of activity and expanses of non-activity, or holes in between; isolated encampments grounded in a space without a centre. Historically, a “city” was any settlement with a cathedral, a central place of religious rule. By that definition today, Calgary’s many places of worship would make it a city of cities. Artists are often keenly aware of social processes such as the formation of a city’s identity and see their role as creative and critical thinkers within these processes to be necessary. In All Along, Hye-Seung Jung and Stacey Watson propose that there are a multitude of cities within every city—as many cities as there are living inhabitants, as well as those gone before and those yet to come.

In his novel Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino proposes the idea that unseen cities are all around us, no matter what our atlases and maps tell us. Wherever there is a landscape, real or imagined, there is a city to be found. Therefore, cities of unborn inhabitants can be imagined living in a marble vein, “since the unborn can be imagined of any size, big as mice or silkworms or ants or ants’ eggs…”[3]Similarly, poet Richard Brautigan crafts a novel about the commune, called iDeath, within a town built of watermelon sugar, pines and stones. There is a tendency for us to imagine ourselves inhabiting the infinitely small and the infinitely large; this expansive way of thinking is both utopic and transgressive, for we are working within and outside of imposed borders.

Jung has studied cities such as Seoul, Berlin, New York and Tokyo. Her ongoing “city of wishes” projects reveal that, for her, the raw material of cities, it’s constitutive units out of which the city is made, are the thoughts and wishes of individual inhabitants. While doing a residency in Japan, she discovered the Shinto practice of writing one’s wishes on small wooden plaques, called ema, to be hung within a public shrine. The equivalent of a wishing well or votive candle, believers must invest in their place of worship in order to be granted some favour with its gods or spirits. The Jewish National Fund sells paper leaves to be glued on the metaphorical tree of the homeland, drawn on the walls of Hebrew schools and synagogues. In this instance, citizens of Zion are wishing for, and investing in, the collective idea of a native homeland, where forests of trees mark a special place in the world for a people to call home. For the people of this diaspora, their “city” is in fact a wish, as well as the traditions and stories that keep it alive.

Jung’s City of Wishes: Calgary is her version of a wish-making apparatus that doesn’t require any monetary giving (unless you consider government funding grants which sometimes enable such projects) but counts on the investment in the idea of a collective body, a somewhat rare thought in cities such as ours. The participants of her public project don’t share in any particular historical faith system, but they must share in the idea of community for the project to work. The places where Jung installs her shrine building blocks, her participatory stations in various cities, are not sacred houses where spirits of our ancestors live, for almost all of us today make up one diaspora or another. Neither are they regional treasures or historic sites. But wherever they are situated, these stations become shrines to a community of individuals asking to partake in language, to be listened to by the community. Jung’s work is in enabling independent cities (of individuals, of wishes) to grow within our city.

In Jung’s ema constructions and open networks of community-minded activity, the voice, spoken and heard, is materialized to structure a metaphorical landscape representing possible future cities. A wish takes place in the present moment, but can be completely transcendent of it and involve future or past, hence distant landscapes. Removed from a specific temporality, the wishes can exist independent of water, earth and rock, as well as mayor, premier and prime minister. These global landscapes are based solely on moral imperatives for life: fundamental desires and needs. In this way, a conceptual realm is created where human beings don’t occupy a landscape, but rather constitute a landscape.

Stacey Watson develops the idea of a different kind of landscape in her photographs, one in which natural forces are the prime movers. The landscape seems to threaten our existence, hold power over us and push us to the edges of the frame.

Our imagined extinction from the planet is behind the desire for true wilderness in the city of Baucis, which hovers above the clouds on stilts so as not to touch the earth:

There are three hypotheses about the inhabitants of Baucis: that they hate the earth; that they respect it so much they avoid all contact; that they love it as it was before they existed and with spy glasses and telescopes aimed downward they never tire of examining it, leaf by leaf, stone by stone, ant by ant, contemplating with fascination their own absence.[4]

However, as historian and environmentalist Simon Schama writes in “Landscape and Memory,” such a view of an untouched land is in reality impossible for us to glimpse, for “the very act of identifying (not to mention photographing) the place presupposes our presence, and along with us all the heavy cultural backpacks that we lug with us on the trail.”[5] Watson’s fog northwest is as close as we might come to an image of Calgary in our absence: the sky is uninterrupted by our flight and lights, and untamed prairie grasslands stretch out as far as one can see.

Our common desire for this kind of Neverland or invisible city, where we have not yet turned landscape into ‘manscape,’ is born in part out of our guilt for the destruction of the planet. But Watson’s images are not derisive of human activity or the compulsion to alter the landscape and exhaust “resources.” Instead they offer what Max Oelschlaeger feels we need in order to restore the balance between ourselves and the rest of the earth: new creation myths.[6]

And so Watson takes her camera to the vestiges of untouched land within the city and its surrounds: Nosehill park, Bowmont park, the Elbow river and Johnston Canyon. In these places, aided by smoke bombs, fog and her personal aesthetic, she captures the version of the sublime found in such myths and tales, where we are at the mercy of gods and tempests.

At the beginning of the world, a newly created world, if we are there to witness nature at all then we are dwarfed by it, as are the figures in cave or burg, laura at nosehill and rope bridge. Our relationships to the figures in Watson’s photographs are often troubled: faces are veiled or shrouded, lone silhouettes linger lost within great fields of charged atmosphere, people are reduced to marks within a Turneresque vision. It is as if in her photographs she wants to refuse her subjects an identity, and hence rid them of any great power. As we walk in a land where we are not the dominant force, we carry objects that tell of our awe and respect of non-human beings, such as a serpent in replica of the walking stick. We carry a modern version of a torch, Watson’s assembled “lightstick” barely discernible at the end of the long bridge in ropebridge and proudly wielded like a weapon against the dark in kiarra lightstick. Watson’s images take us back to a time when we hid in caves and fog, where we acknowledged that the landscape still held power over us, in the hope that this may still be true for us today.

All Along brings together two female artists who believe that the future of our cities and landscapes resides in the act of listening, listening for something bigger than the individual. The unending supply of blank ema, and of unmarked places to create shrines to a future city, help us remember that we are not permanently defined by a landscape; that we always have space to make one. Watson’s photographs suggest that there are forces bigger than ourselves and our technology. There are still stories to be told within our city, of giving ourselves over to natural or supernatural influences. Perhaps if we look for the cities within cities, or the cities that have been here with us all along, then our imagination will allow us to work within the creativity and unpredictability of the land.


[1] Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (New York: Harcourt Inc., 1974) 132.
[2] Richard Brautigan, In Watermelon Sugar (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968) 109.
[3] Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (New York: Harcourt Inc., 1974) 141.
[4] Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (New York: Harcourt Inc., 1974) 77.
[5] Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (New York: Vintage Books, 1995) 7.
[6]Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993)


Andrea Williamson is a visual artist and writer based in London and Montreal.

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Work of Hye-Seung Jung: Alpha City

By Jane McQuitty


Depending on whether I engage with Alpha City through systems or semiotic methodology, its aesthetic moment of fusion reads as the moment of a successful dispelling of a false difference, in which case it is by definition a successful work of conceptual art or of wavering out of consciousness of a true distinction, in which case judgement of value becomes much harder. I am left wondering does this mean that a work of conceptual art must be based on an originating idea that I find utterly convincing in order to be worthy. What can I say about a concept that does not convince me, executed in an aesthetic tradition that places idea above material and aesthetics?

Presented in a dark room on the base of an illuminated white Plexiglas light box, Alpha City is a ghostly, glowing white model. It depicts a roofless city of angular buildings, each building constructed on the partial or full footprint of a letter of the Latin alphabet. The installation presents a playful model composed of toy-sized structures with a vacillating utility that falls between writing and text. In the question of which identity of the little structures dominates, letter or building, much depends on the viewer might interact with this model by losing awareness of the buildings’ role as letters by becoming a little imaginary person who might dwell in this half-finished abstraction of a city or imagine the aerial view best for de-coding text. At times the viewer can have a fleeting synaesthesia of perception of function—that the dwellings and letters are all one mixed third object that is not unfamiliar intellectually, yet has never been seen before. This is the installation’s central aesthetic moment when it becomes more than an extruded collection of letters or organic assemblage of model buildings. At the same time, Alpha City’s open planes and reduced scale create a sense of an initial, tentative and light-hearted exploration. This is helped by choice of material, as Foam core is perfect statement of a tentative preliminary study in course.

These moments of fusion into a sign/city require the help of a kind of model making in which there is an en-action of the scientific method, entailing a great deal of stripping away from the mess and layering of a real city and extraction of letter forms from word and meaning. By stripping the individually familiar of nearly every characteristic except its recourse to geometry, the artist holds out to the viewer a chance to participate in the quantified and lucid pleasures of science or mathematics. Particularly from the imaginary perspective of a dweller in this space, one can easily imagine that the hypothesis of this experimental set up is that perceptual intake is blindly semiotic. For brief moments when one lets go of all past experience of purpose, buildings and letters become a sign/city. The fugitive duration of this moment coincides with post-Structuralist reflections about the lack of awareness that attends ordinary subjectivity. Most of the time our bound response to the pervasive cultural sign is masked from awareness under a wish to understand our identity as free and self-determining, perhaps to think a building is ‘just’ a building. It is only ‘unnaturally,’ with difficulty, that we can grasp the extent to which our everyday life is informed by the conventions that engulf us. One can see Alpha City as setting up a hypothesis the understanding of building or letter as essentially separate is false—everything carries symbolic messaging and the superficially various appearance of the carriers does not change our subjection to their effects.

I think it helps Alpha City to escape a lazy read as a fairly simple and illustrative version of this kind of philosophical reflection to point out that this conclusion about the work’s meaning can be deconstructed by analysing the very same installation with recourse to the less familiar methodology of systems theory. Systems theory, to quote Principa Cybernetica authors Heylighten and Joslyn, “is the trans-disciplinary study of the abstract organization of phenomena independent of their substance, type or spatial or temporal scale.” More interesting to a Systems theorist than an observation that buildings ferry semiotic meanings is the observation that groups of buildings—cities—and groups of letters—alphabets—are physical correlates of systems, whose organization does not have the least similarity.

When viewed through the lens of Systems theory, one sees that cities are the traces of dissipative, complex, self-organizing processes that result in a long-term stability of identity. On the other hand, alphabets are traces of the stability that can come with a closed system that avoids process. Examples will make the distinction clearer: the last change to the closed system that one calls the Latin alphabet was the addition of J U and W in about 1000 years ago. The other twenty-three letters have been fixed in form since c. 500 BCE. The open system that is the city of Rome has survived an equal length of time, but to do so has required that it engage with change at a dizzying rate in comparison to the alphabet. First built in 125 CE, Hadrian’s Pantheon is considered a modern marvel of architectural endurance because it still functions as a building today, but from the point of view of the identity through time of the city of Rome it is one building out of countless numbers that have come and gone.

The capricious organic accumulation of structures that Hye-Seung uses as the street layout of Alpha City speaks of the discretionary, individual responses to changes in needs and environment over time of imaginary open-system inhabitants.

Looked at though the apparatus of systems theory, Alpha City requests the viewer to consider that what makes its moment of fusion between city and alphabet so difficult to hold in one’s mind is the impossibility of one system having the identity of open system and closed convention simultaneously, as well as, if this is the case, to which kind of system humanity bears closest resemblance. Within Systems theory analysis humanity bears much more in common, in its cultural process, with a fire, or hurricane, or city, other life form, or complex eco-system than it does with an alphabet.
Looked at through the apparatus of post-Structuralism Alpha City requests the viewer to consider that what makes its moment of fusion between city and alphabet is so difficult to hold in one’s mind is the power of one’s inner desire to understand subjectivity as ideologically unyoked. Faced with a parallel problem in regard to determining the transcendental nature of the electron, quantum mechanics physicists have had to conclude that the measurement of all properties and actions in the physical world is non-deterministic to some degree. Similarly, depending on whether the viewer measures Alpha City through a semiotic or a systems theory cosmology, the work’s significance flickers as much as its moment of visual fusion. It either lies in a momentary, truthful and difficult dispelling of false sense of difference, or in the way that a willed into being hypothesis of similarity founders upon more foundational realities.
2007

Jane McQuitty is an artist, educator and researcher who is interested in urban green space and land management. She received her MFA in Painting from University of Calgary in 2007. Jane has show her work in exhibitions at the Nickle Arts Museum, Untitled Art Society and The New Gallery, and had been the co-chair of the Calgary artists’ cooperative Untitled Arts Society. She is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary, while teaching at the Alberta College of Arts.

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The Art of Dislocation: The Work of Hye-Seung Jung

By Maureen Fenian


Korean-Canadian artist Hye-Seung Jung explores the connections between the body and space – specifically, the experiential and imaginative possibilities that open up in moments of spatial, sensory, and cognitive dislocation. Most recently, that setting was a studio space in Toronto, where Jung was completing an artist’s residency and her multimedia installation, Gibraltar Studio (2006). Here, taking the studio environment as her point of departure, Jung used video to document the movement of her body through the space, later transcribing this document back into a three-dimensional image drawn with one continuous line of string. The consequence of Jung’s process is the translation of the ephemeral passage of her body into an objective representation of it. With this, she transforms the studio environment into an elaborate web of intersecting lines suspended in space. Hovering like a disembodied arterial network, the web connects a flow of motion and memory, making tangible the relationship between the subject and the space they inhabit.

These material traces of Jung’s movements subsequently challenge the viewer to consciously navigate their own passage through the space. In near obstacle-course style,
the viewer moves over, under, and through the space to arrive at Jung’s work displayed on the walls of the gallery - photographic documentation of the very same project.

The vocabulary of form, the tenuous physicality, and direct references to the artist’s body mediate the representational economy of Gibraltar Studio and mark a decidedly minimalist departure from Jung’s previous installation work. In her work, Project_ House (2004), the artist explores the territory of the unfamiliar; however, she does so by paradoxically using the most iconic symbol of familiarity: a house. Comprising three freestanding structures, Project House takes up the metaphor of dwelling as the principle motif for negotiating the meaning and experience of the work.

Project House [skeleton house] encodes the “homeliness” of familiarity using the clichéd and ubiquitous A-frame structure. Like Gibraltar Studio, the piece works as the structural equivalent of a line drawing, but this time rendered with raw lumber instead of yarn - a decidedly more weighty material, both literally and symbolically. Embellished with fairy lights that shelter the welded steel-skeleton of a bathtub, the structure manifests a decidedly surreal presence. This effect is amplified further by the placement of a mirror on the floor of the work, effectively simulating the visual sense and, more significantly, the metaphorical possibilities of water.

This same attention to the visual and metaphoric resonance of materials is active throughout the installation. In Project House [balloon house], the viewer is confronted by the curious pathos and fragility of white balloons carrying tissue paper cutouts of tiny
houses, tenuously aloft in the interior space. The viewer encounters a similarly uncanny experience in the structure titled Project House [fishing line]. The discomfiting (even if innocent) perversity of this house - rendered, as the title suggests, entirely out of fishing line - appears invisible at a distance and seemly transparent, except for the sequence of weights that hang 7 feet from the ground.

The uncanny conjunction of materials animating a palpable sense of dislocation in Project House are calculated to amplify the sense of disorientation that is a principle experiential feature of contemporary culture and global economies. The work plays off the figuration of home as a place of comfort and belonging, while at the same time elaborates on our perception of what may constitute it: home as a culture, a place of belonging, a site of stable identifications, and, consequently, an identity. Like Jung’s more recent studio work, Project House actively disrupts this sense of the subject’s concurrence with place, articulating instead an uncanny sense of disjunction and dislocation. While the notion of orientation implicitly suggests a destination that is known in advance, its opposite – disorientation – opens up a range of possible outcomes and experiences. It is precisely this openness to experience that Jung aims to provoke through her increasingly subtle strategies of dislocation.

The article was featured in the magazine Locus Suspects in 2006.



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Dwelling Along

by Sarah Adams

An essay written by Sarah Adams, an artist and visual arts writer, for the two-person show at the Truck Gallery held from February 23, 2007 through to March 31, 2007


“The ironizing of nostalgia, in the very act of its invoking, may be one way the postmodern has of taking responsibility for such responses by creating a small part of the distance necessary for reflective thought about the present as well as the past.”
--Linda Hutcheon*

Negotiating nostalgia in the wake of recent history seems a tricky territory. We can long for “the good old days” prior to obesity epidemics, celebrity derelicts, and looming ecological ruin, but never without the tainted understanding that we are intentionally fabricating our idyllic histories. We know that our past was nothing more than symptomatic groundwork for our imperfect present, and we have been conditioned through apathy, nihilism, and disillusionment to know that our nostalgia is convoluted and likely based in our fear of the future, yet we dwell regardless. Like a child wildly imagining the future, we wildly imagine the past, and hopelessly reaching for one crystallized moment of good, we create our beautiful memories.

Sprouting out of a postmodern archetype and into a new millennia of extreme and disparaging self-awareness, our distilled sentiments of nostalgia can only be received by first endowing them with precise measures of a contemporary force-field, irony. Irony, however, seems to have evolved into an idiom apart from the proverbial shoe-less shoe salesman that grade school taught us. Irony has somehow seeped into our general consciousness, situating itself into our everyday responses, causing us to see droll contradictions and quaint paradoxes at almost every turn.

Being connoisseurs in all things ironic, we are keenly able to recognize its victims, and have adapted its uses, protecting our own sincerities from becoming nothing more than fodder for droves of savage cynics (a cannibalistic group to which we belong and whose subtleties we know well). This isn’t to say we shrug our sentiments before anyone else can — exposing our stripped and shivering affections and laughing at their inadequacies to prove we are, rest assuredly, in the know (although this is sometimes the case, but is a practice unappreciated by the true savages). More likely, we are simply so well versed in the nuances of irony that even a knowing wink has become too obvious. A picket fence, familiar only because of television and storybooks, precisely “broken” to reveal an ephemeral world of toy airplanes and golden wheat (Broens’ Fencing Planes); a web of strings indicating a place long forgotten yet precious to the artist (Jung’s Chebudong Project); such productions softly weave through diminutive ironies, at once sincerely representing and elusively exploiting the delicacies of nostalgia.

We have learned the art of exploiting ourselves; the artist presents the world with his or her innermost longings, and rather than propping it with a punch line, simply stares at it like everyone else. If someone were to mention to the artist that the work seemed particularly nostalgic, the artists’ response might be, “Maybe. I suppose. Do you think so?”

*Linda Hutcheon, “Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern.” Methods for the Study of Literature as Cultural Memory, Studies in Comparative Literature 30 (2000): 189-207