Kim Yeowoon's Painting
"The Ethics of Nameless Grass or Nameless Things"
When you enter the exhibition hall, you see large and small empty canvases hanging on the walls. Is it an abstract expressionist painting, such as a white canvas with a white square drawn on it (Malevich)? Or is it a minimalist approach that reduces painting to the minimal condition of a plane, capable of painting (Clement Greenberg)? Perhaps it is a conceptual artwork aimed at bewildering those who encounter empty canvases. I have heard about these concepts in art history, but I have never personally witnessed an exhibition that confirms them, which makes the impact of an empty canvas quite profound.
As I was about to turn away, contemplating the combination of reductive or ascetic principles with late minimalism, I noticed a mysterious blotch on the canvas. In fact, a tender sprout was peeking through a tear in the fabric. She had actually placed a magnifying glass in the exhibition hall, and upon closer inspection, the depiction was incredibly realistic and intricately detailed. The downy fuzz on the young leaf, the individual strands of torn canvas at the edges, and even the lifelike shadow were impeccably rendered. It seemed indistinguishable from a tangible object. The artist referred to it as "Nameless Grass," emphasizing its unidentified nature, and she claimed that it was depicted at its actual size.
However, the fact that the artist chose to depict a tiny blade of grass on such a large canvas seemed inefficient and impractical. I remarked that it was truly inefficient, but the artist actually appreciated that comment. She were challenging the conventions of painting. In an era of image overload and saturated meaning in contemporary art, she wanted to limit their expression to only the necessary words and images. By offering a minimal (or rather, reduced) statement amidst a spectacle-driven age, the artist's limitation held an ethical aspect.
Here, the artist questions the notion of appropriate distance or psychological distance. It refers to the distance required to see the painting more clearly and extends to a situation logic that applies to attitudes towards life beyond the realm of painting. The artist seeks to modify that distance, that concept, and in order to see what is within the artist's painting, one must approach the artwork closely. It requires careful attention and meticulous observation. Only then can it truly be seen. Otherwise, there is a risk of passing by without seeing what needs to be seen or, worse, not seeing anything at all.
What it means is that earlier, it was mentioned that these are nameless blades of grass. They can be considered nameless things, entities that are essentially non-existent even though they are part of nature. These minuscule beings emerge and raise their heads when spring comes. They send their roots through the cracks in the pavement, piercing through the cement ground. They grow even in the dust accumulated on window sills, and eventually, they tear through the canvas fabric. Some have even claimed to hear the sound of these sprouts breaking through the earth, but rather than literal sound, it should be understood as a sound that resonates emotionally, a sound that one empathizes with.
The issue at hand is empathy towards existence. In order to witness the essence of existence, to hear the sound of life, there must be empathy towards that existence. However, in reality, these existences are nameless and unknown. Giorgio Agamben referred to those humans who are not even protected by the law as "homo sacer," bare life. The nameless blades of grass that the artist portrays can be seen as a poetic expression of these nameless existences. Thus, in order to perceive the fervent sound of our minuscule lives, the lives of others, we must be attentive and meticulous. It is only through careful observation, by approaching closely, that the hidden meanings of the artist's paintings are revealed. In this sense, the artist's paintings, once again, request profound and attentive consideration towards the lives of others, thereby carrying an ethical aspect.
Interestingly, despite the nameless blades of grass, or perhaps precisely because of them, the artist was giving names to each and every one of them. Names like Angelina, Hana, Sophie, Anna, Eva, Louise, Mia, Virginia, Lisa, and more. Furthermore, the artist, also requested the audience, that names be given to the blades of grass individually. It becomes a participatory project that calls for solidarity. Before I gave them names, they were merely gestures. When I gave them names, they came to me and became flowers. These lines remind me of a poem by Kim Choon-soo. From the beginning, there are no nameless things. From the beginning, there are no meaningless things. From the beginning, there are no minuscule (other) lives. There were only the absence of someone (or an act) giving them names, discovering meaning, and acknowledging the lives of others. Therefore, this project of giving names to the nameless grass embraces the invitation of the other (the otherness) and the acceptance of one's own-otherness (Emmanuel Levinas).
And in this context, there was a landlord and a tenant living in the house. The landlord stated that under no circumstances should any nails be hammered into the walls of the house. However, after the a tenant moved out, she discovered a nail embedded in the wall. Perhaps it was in a hidden and easily overlooked spot, one that even the landlord failed to notice. In such inconspicuous corners, ways of life were being discovered, and fervent lives were continuing. Unbeknownst to me, just like the nameless blades of grass that were living a fervent life in places my perception (or rather, my attention) failed to reach. Therefore, the painting of the nail (or more precisely, the painting of a nail hammered into a wall) that the artist portrays can be interpreted as transcending the boundaries set by norms and finding ways of life, insisting that life should continue under any circumstances, like an allegory of taboo and transgression. In this way, the artist brings attention to the moments of fervent life of these nameless (and perhaps even nameless) existences, and opens our eyes to the ongoing reality of life in even the most obscure corners.
And in addition, there is an installation artwork where three poles are leaning against each other. The three poles are bound together as if they are one entity, and the white-painted surfaces bear English letters such as "Life" and "Variable." It is likely that these inscriptions represent guidelines for life, or perhaps symbols or signposts of life. One cannot live life alone. We must rely on each other, cooperate, and show solidarity. In the process, unexpected variables may come into play. Life is bound to be that way. Kim Ji-ha likened life to a wobbling balance, thus implying the concept of flux. It would be fitting to interpret it as another expression of variability, akin to the concept of variables.
The artist stated that humanity is the central theme running through their entire body of work. In this context, the artist's pursuit of humanity does not refer to anthropocentrism, but rather to individuals who go against the system, who stand by their own standards rather than those imposed by institutions, and therefore, individuals who embody autonomy. Thus, this work signifies the solidarity and cooperation among autonomous individuals. Although the forms may differ, it brings to mind the works of Joseph Beuys, where two sets of clothing are stuck together as if they are one, symbolizing collaboration. It evokes empathy and solidarity with Beuys' social sculptures, which seek to bring about change in people's consciousness through enlightenment (education).
Walter Benjamin likened the artist to a person who repairs a broken world. Anselm Kiefer compared artists to firekeepers who ignite the world to ensure the crops of the following year. The artist, too, perhaps gains the legitimacy of art from these repairers and firekeepers, and may be seeking a logic of practice for the sake of art. In this process, she pay attention to the nameless, and perhaps even the nameless blades of grass-like existences, to the fervent moments of life continuing in obscure corners, and to the solidarity among autonomous individuals. It awakens awareness of what I may not know, what my perception (or rather, my attention) may not reach, and what has been there all along. The artist designates the underlying theme as "There they are." It is likely that she wanted to demonstrate the existence that was there all along, the reality of fervent life in that place.
2023, Kho Chunghwan (Art Critic)
About thought experiments that continue to deepen.
“Not to be confined by the greatest, yet to be contained by the smallest, is divine,”
That is the inscription on the headstone of St. Ignatius Loyola. This inscription was adopted in Fridrich Hölderlin’s masterpiece Hyperion as a major promise some 200 years later. The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy used this phase in the work The Birth to Presence again, another 200 years later.
No matter how great something is, there are things it cannot surpass. Yet, it gladly embraces those things no matter how trivial they are. Is there such a thing as this. If there is, we are not able to hear it or know of its name; we cannot do so, we still try to hear and call out its name.
We are utterly finite beings, but at the same time we know that we are infinite beings as well, our minds are able demonstrate this. We, as finite beings’ have thoughts that are infinite.
I see it as the will of human beings to contemplate that infinity. Why? Why do we feel that need to think about infinity and then have the need to express it?
I would like to address this in the context of the work of the artist Yeowoon Kim.
Let’s first think about what a drawing is.
Initially, it may have been an act of drawing something in the dirt simply for communication. Then, at that time, it may have worked well.
Then along came the people’s common interests – perhaps ultimately their concern for their own future. To escape from an uncertain tomorrow, they may have begun to think about something bigger, something infinite. By drawing infinitely extended images of food, they soothed themselves, even motivated themselves, gave themselves, the will to live.
This act of drawing became something else. It evolved into having a memorial ceremony which later became institutionalized. This memorial ceremony, of course, an illusion. Letters were invented to criticize this illusion. A drawing is the beads and letters are the string to thread these beads. Letters and drawings are combined with numbers to make the world seem logical.
This coding of the world made it possible to rationally comprehend the world as a string of neatly threaded beads. The coding of the world embodies logical equations which gave birth to modern science. Later, this science made it possible to invent the camera lens and the computer.
In reality, the computer’s image is the ultimate result of this logic – the binary system. Letters that were invented to criticize that initial illusion of an image produce even finer illusions. Therefore, even though we are comfortable in believing that we are living in the era of advanced technology, enabling us to stay away from all the illusions, it is not the case – we create our own illusions.
Science, indeed, is magic too. The law of reality relies on Newtonian science. The atomic world relies on quantum mechanics. The universe beyond the earth follows the theory of relativity. In between the microscopic world and reality exists the Grey Zone.
This Grey Zone is impossible to define.
Yeowoon Kim’s critical mind understands this space. The artist questions the idea that what we see through the lens of science, a computer created to deliver a standard answer is simply a truism. The framed canvas, often used in painting, resembles the social norm. It demands of the artist that they make content and techniques that only within the confinement of a frame. Such a method embodies fixed moment, a fixed event, a screen set on permanent pause.
And yet, the artist wants something else. To express the free-flowing passage of time.
Framing a canvas in an asymmetrical way and having the content suspended in midair gives the viewer this flow – almost a delightful sense of liberation. This is not the simply the artist attempting to do something avant-garde – it derives from her awareness of our perceptions, how they are created and where they sit in our world to be explored.
We think what we see is real. However, the world we see, touch, and feel is a phenomenon created by our consciousness. This Schopenhauer called a representation, Buddhism panca-Skandha (五蘊). Our perception, which we believe to be perfect, is in fact imperfect. The world extended before us is not stable, like the picture on canvas. It follows us as we move to see what we desire to see.
It is impossible to comprehend the world. The world we think of is, at best, a mosaic of the fragments created by time, by physical difference and by our point of interest. We let all things outside our interest’s flow into the drain of subconscious.
Therefore, Kim’s new series is suspended in midair like a mobile.
Our minds create the world with a mix of phenomena that we see through our eyes, while building up the visual fragments we mentioned before, around the axis called time and movement.
Based on phenomenological analysis, Yeowoon Kim attempts to show both the essence and the limits of the world and of painting in that world.
Then what is the artist’s intention – is it to reveal the essence of painting. Why does she strive for this?
We ought to think about what it means to say “art is a preview for the future.”
It may not be easy to believe that what happens within art always tends to happen in reality.
However, if we think about a paradigm it becomes understandable. A paradigm is a way to see the world within a set period. It is not a continuous linear model. The model is sometimes helical and itself, of course, can get broken from time to time, all within the context of this fluidity.
A paradigm is not invented by scientists. More often than not, it was and is led by artists through their dreams and their visions. Yeowoon Kim is suggesting that we must understand ourselves before we are able understand the outside world. The true understanding and acceptance of others is derived from an earnest understanding of ourselves. Furthermore, an earnest understanding of human beings shows us the way to the right understanding of the world.
The artist is striving to broaden our perceptions, of nature, the universe and the world, upon the foundation of a rigorous understanding of ourselves.
The artist is endeavoring to embrace a thought experiments about infinity.
The works reflects that of Emmanuel Levinas – a perception that presupposes responsibility. The artist’s ‘thought experiments must continue, will deepen over time and we will be able to discover the true version of ourselves and the world we do not yet understand.
When this ‘whirlwind’ of understanding of oneself and of others can be seen in art, such a paradigm can spread into other realms, that of politics, the economy, and of wider society.
Yeowoon Kim is trying to achieve this now.
2017, JinMyung Lee, Curator at Kansong Art and Culture Foundation
Since the beginning of human history, humans have been distinguished between the strong and the weak. In the beginning, the boundary was merely a matter of who had greater physical strength. Yet, as human society became more evolved, the determining factors also diversified. Generally, money and power have been the key, but nowadays one’s education, job, and even appearance have surged to become the standards that determine the line between the weak and the strong. Although its forms and measures have changed, this act of distinguishing, from the very beginning, has served a purpose of violence.
The artist rather explicitly addresses the presence of violence in human society by means of comparing desolate contemporary men with animals. The manner, in which all these phenomena are so beautifully and elegantly portrayed, even intensifies the shock. What surprises me is that Kim does not criticize the strong, nor does she express a voice of sympathy for the weak. Rather, the artist alludes to modern humanity’s unknowing of themselves stranding on the verge of despair.
2011, Sanghoon Yoon, Senior Curator of Interalia
A Sacrificial Art
The art of Yeowoon Kim springs from her observation of the dynamics, and victims, of modern capitalism. But the means to her ends are subtle and indirect. By turning to examples from the natural world, Yeowoon represents human oppression and isolation, depicting animals as substitutes for those who have been, and continue to be sacrificed. Her meticulously created exhibition spaces suggest domestic interiors, which she then fills with lovingly detailed paintings of living creatures which have been “collected” and are on display. We --modern humanity-- are the innocent, oftentimes harmless animals --captured, imprisoned, and isolated-- that decorate the curio cabinets of an acquisitive consumerist society.
The eye is drawn to small canvases of startlingly realistic birds and animals, with a resulting sense of immediate emotional engagement. But upon closer inspection the viewer realizes the majestic owl or adorable kitten is in fact encased in a Perspex box. The smallness of the box emphasizes the compression, isolation, and objectification of each individual subject. The knowledge that no living creature could survive long in such a plastic enclosure engenders fear, alarm, and empathy with the “sacrificed” animal. Her art is a mirror held to our faces, reflecting back indirectly and quietly the outrages perpetrated upon us by ourselves.
Some of the paintings show apparently living animals, others “trophy” heads, or only plundered remains, such as in the ivory paintings. A rabbit and a wolf cub trapped in the same box appear equally vulnerable, despite one being considered a predator and the other prey. Doors and windows imply the exits and escape which these creatures are forever denied. The freedom that seems reachable only makes their reality crueler.
An entire universe fills the window in a door, and presents a new motif in her works. Modern science has allowed humankind an unprecedented arrogance, a false sense of dominance and mastery, and such images recall viewers to their own essential fragility in the contemplation of her paintings.
2010, Octavia Randolph. writer