"What form is that concealed
beneath yon veil?"
"Truth!" was the answer. "What!" the young man cried,
"When I am striving after truth alone,
Seekest thou to hide that very truth from me?"
Friedrich von Schiller, The Veiled Statue At Sais, 1795
Picture this: a sixteen year old girl, blindfold snug about her head, wearing only a bodice and satin petticoat - so white they are scarcely contrary to her opalescent skin - kneels on rugged wooden scaffolding. Her plaintive executioner leans on the handle of his finely honed axe as she bends forward ever so slightly finding her way through her own darkness. She is understandably tentative. Balanced just so on her knees, she leans faintly left following her hand as it delicately gropes for the angular wooden slab where her neck will rest; her chin just over its forward edge. Someone practiced in a beheading’s preliminaries, helps with courteous hands so she more easily finds her way to the block. Two women, on the left, are as inconsolable as we are. To our eyes, beheadings are nasty and crude affairs, and where sixteen year olds are concerned, the fact only heaps more revulsion onto what is already amply vile.
In it’s telling, the atrociousness of this description is steadily overruled by an ever deepening sense of humanity; the young girl feels for the block, and leaning forward, taking her place on her own accord, she unfailingly obliges her fellow humans who will do their job, and take her life. We empathize with her; we see ourselves in her place, doing what most humans do without thinking really; try to find your place, and be implausibly cooperative to the end. In this sense the scene calls to mind “A Hanging,” one of George Orwell’s narrative essays written while serving in the Indian Imperial Police. He recounts the prison yard hanging of a Hindu man, who Orwell notices, side steps a puddle even as he is being marched to the gallows. It was a simple reflex, like fumbling in the dark, which we recognize as humanity itself. About it Orwell wrote: “It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.”
My description of the beheading is actually a description of The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche painted in 1833, or 279 years after Lady Jane was executed for treason on the green at the Tower of London. Delaroche’s painting was not merely a Victorian fantasy but obviously based on an eyewitness account of the execution (as conscientious as Orwell’s) that he surely must have read. The witness describes the moment Delaroche chose to paint: “Then she kneeled down, saying, 'Will you take it off before I lay me down?' and the hangman answered her, 'No, madame.' She tied the kercher about her eyes; then feeling for the block said, 'What shall I do? Where is it?'” Humanity calls out - intuitively we identify with Lady Jane.
Like Delaroche and Orwell, Hyun-Jin Kwak is a keen observer of moments where traces of common humanity shows through, but rather than providing historical accounts or personal narratives Kwak elicits feelings of empathy through fictions of her own design. In Part 1, Number 8, 2003-04 a Korean school girl willingly submits to a crude and arcane initiation rite where her left forefinger is to be sliced and sawed from her hand. Her physical loss will be irreversible; what she gains psychologically (or psychotically) in return is, equally, if oppositely, inscrutable. What cost camaraderie in a cultish sisterhood? Kwak’s art consistently records detailed episodes of some larger but ultimately unknowable story, making it as explicit as it is enigmatic. Along the way, she has perfected the art of paradox; an unequivocal description yes, but one in search of its raison d'ętre.
Kwak has the touch for staging unsettling scenes where consequence and sacrifice never find their balance; a marching line of students willingly commit mass suicide, the inert bodies of two school girls, slump against trees in a remote orchard, or that snowy struggle where one young girl, defeated and intimidated, finds herself at the mercy of another who stands over her with riding crop firmly in hand. Sexual predator? Physical abuser? Psychological terrorist? Served well by photography’s verisimilitude, Kwak’s scenes, like Lady Jane’s beheading, couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than what they are; only their emblematic meaning hangs in the balance. Do adolescent girls possess these secreted emotions? Do they act on them? What allegory is embedded here? Humanity in Kwak’s art channels our empathy towards feelings of intimidation, or expressions of goodwill; the man’s helping hands, reassuring Lady Jane as she takes her place on the scaffolding, are repeated when one school girl puts a comforting arm around the other just before her finger is taken. Kwak is the master of constructing unexplained crossing points between characters, and her specialty is where things have already gone too far to reverse. To create these crossings, her art has traditionally played on the special province of initiates, on secret lore, and secret love, which has resulted in a substantial body of dramatic moments where she leaves traces of humanity out in the open. But this accomplished body of work has, at least momentarily, been left behind for a diversionary path through three new photographs that make up a series Kwak titles Study of Elements. In these new pictures Kwak departs from the rest of the work in this exhibition creating stark but dream-like interrogations of three other photographs she complementarily titles Study of Elements-encounter. The six photographs that comprise Study of Elements and Study of Elements-encounter provide two parallel but contradictory universes where seeking truth becomes an even greater riddle than the enigmatic charisma that has reigned over her work thus far.
In Study of Elements, Kwak’s dramatic structure becomes increasingly abstract, even metaphysical, eclipsing her earlier devotion to laying bare flashes of the human spirit. Structured on a telescoping mise-en-scčne, a uniformed school girl creates a theatre of three hand shadow performances within a school building of classical proportions and style; a whimsical theatre upon a classical stage. These scenes seem to take place in secret and at night, and each one is more abstract than the last. On top of this compilation, when the three pictures are read in order they, more or less, follow the semiotics of Gustav Freytag’s classical dramatic structure. That is, they run from exposition, to rising action, climax, to falling action, and where Freytag calls for resolution in the fifth act, Kwak provides a surprising dénouement. Study of Elements represents an abstract world calibrated to ever higher levels of paradox that we could never have imagined.
The very title of the series, Study of Elements suggests a dispassionate concentration on the essential ingredients that provide accounts of these three enigmatic rituals. The rituals are intangible, and her visualizations of them follow suit. At the end of a darkened corridor within the academy, the school girl reaches towards the handle of a set of great mahogany double doors. Study of Elements 1 manifests Freytag’s exposition and rising action; these doors are about to swing open as the student dramatically reveals hitherto secret truths that, we can only assume, are the foundation of erudite knowledge. But of course the doors aren’t about to open because it isn’t the real hand of our protagonist at the handle, but its portent silhouette as she acts out a shadow-play. Kwak has especially staged the Study of Elements to betray its theatrical artifice beginning with this, the opening act. The student stands on a chair, throwing her shadow, and she is placed to the right of the central scene, but well within the picture, so that the guile of her play is fully revealed. Ironically, the behind-the-scenes ingenuousness turns things into an even more beguiling riddle. What is a shadow-play if not the power to re-make the world in exactly those terms that prescribe one’s own imaginative version of reality? Why then, sabotage this artistic conceit? If it’s easy to see the shadow-play as a metaphor for the artist’s power - to re-make the world according to her own imagination – then what truth does the protagonist (artist?) wish to reveal by her treachery?
In the second photograph from the series the wiles of shadow-play are again, fully exposed. The school girl from the first picture returns to the academy to mark off a hard distinction between her world of creativity – awash in vivid light – and the rest of us, blanketed by shades of darkness. As if she were a classical humanist broadly describing the human condition, Kwak has drawn off two metaphorical spheres; one centered by the light of truth, the other the gloom of ignorance. But in her categorical universe she makes no pretense to hide what would otherwise have made the sphere of knowledge magical and powerful. She indicts truth and knowledge as no more than trickery; the girl stands on a chair, stage right, and leans forward ever so slightly but in full view so that the creative charm of the shadow-play is spoiled. What she does seems trancelike; leaning out, stretching her arms and hands so that they are perfectly centered between the two columns that separate audience from show. We see the poised silhouette of her head, upper body and outstretched arms. Her hands and beautifully delicate fingers appear ready to hold something curved and tantalizing, if not already caressing an imperceptible entity with her weightlessness touch. Here is Freytag’s climax which almost immediately gives way to a falling off of action. Like the doors that will never be opened by immaterial shadows, nothing will be caressed by these shadowy fingers except what our imagination might project. Kwak’s paradox is that seeking truth is really to navigate a world of falsehoods.
We call Gustave Courbet’s masterpiece, The Painter’s Studio, 1854-55, a manifesto because it surveyed his aspirations and often enigmatic aims. And it can be fairly said that the Study of Elements, likewise an appraisal of desire and intentions, is Kwak’s manifesto. If more restrained than Courbet’s rank of pretentiousness, it is also more judicious. A mere coincidence, but it is as if the sailor-suited student reprises the role of the young boy in peasant dress who stands as close as he can to Courbet in The Painter’s Studio; he personifies the innocent quest for knowledge. In Courbet’s peasant boy we catch a whiff of the humanity Kwak called out in earlier works, but ultimately Study of Elements behaves like a cycle of mystery plays serving a timeless plot: the neophyte seeking truth. The seeker, the student, the artist venerates the realm of creativity and knowledge, even by the uniform she wears, but Kwak sets her up for a fall in the first two photographs which re-casts the student’s earnest search as fool’s errand. The abstract speculations within the academy, represented by the shadow-plays in the first two photographs, offer no access to a higher truth. And so the seeker must find her own way.
The third picture from Study of Elements departs from the first two; the girl has left behind the hallowed halls of the academy and we find her in a raw decrepit chamber with iron doors and barred windows. Like its setting, everything about this photograph is noticeably coarse. For once we see the angry glare of the flood light, and rather than a well-mannered performance as in the first photograph, or something as polished as was the second shadow-play, her circumstances here seems rather disagreeable and unreconciled. Is she in purgatory? The grotto’s heavy doors and secure windows, rather than entrap the student in some hell, promise her solitude where she is free to explore, and create her own utopia. And what does she discover in her liberating dungeon? That poetic intuition can unite the finite and infinite within the self as absolute truth; once a principle desire of the Romantics.
In Friedrich von Schiller’s, The Veiled Statue At Sais, 1795 we read about the culminating moment in a neophyte’s search for truth, which is a foreshadowing of the journey of Kwak’s own student. In a temple at the Egyptian city of Sais the youthful searcher finds a colossal stature which the Hierophant assures him is “Truth” itself, but in a further and paradoxical warning tells him that while he has found Truth at last, to unveil it, to see it, would be fatally blasphemous. The exchange follows:
"'Let no rash mortal
Disturb this veil,' said he, 'till raised by me;
For he who dares with sacrilegious hand
To move the sacred mystic covering,
He'--said the Godhead--" "Well?"--"'will see the truth.'"
"Strangely oracular, indeed! And thou
Hast never ventured, then, to raise the veil?"
"I? Truly not! I never even felt
The least desire."--"Is't possible? If I
Were severed from the truth by nothing else
Than this thin gauze--" "And a divine decree,"
His guide broke in.
Truth, in its purest form Schiller tells us, is unattainable. It is beyond comprehension, unsayable, and surely impossible to portray. It remains however, an uncorrupted promise, absolute and therefore emblematic of the utopian ideal. Look at Kwak’s picture. The student’s back is to the wall. Significantly, and for the first time, she cannot see the shadow she casts. Trusting her intuition, raising her body in an animalistic pose, she casts a colossal shadow of herself stretching along the floor, up the wall and across the ceiling precisely to the point where vault meets wall. Is it a fiend sneaking up from behind or an immaterial entity hovering to protect? Let’s begin here: the shadow is hers alone; independent of the mysterious tasks or perfunctory roles in the other two photographs. It is a direct or unmediated expression of her selfhood and as such, the esoteric emblem of absolute truth. And no matter how large or infinite her shadow might become – there are no logical limits - it can never be separated from her finite and physical body or truth would disappear, and at this symbolic moment, the infinite and finite take form as an emblematic truth. This is her dénouement. Kwak’s student, like the neophyte in Schiller’s poem, ultimately finds truth, but with the difference that the neophyte lifts the veil and suffers just as the Hierophant foretold.
He speaks, and, with the word,
lifts up the veil.
Would you inquire what form there met his eye?
I know not,--but, when day appeared, the priests
Found him extended senseless, pale as death,
Before the pedestal of Isis' statue.
What had been seen and heard by him when there
He never would disclose, but from that hour
His happiness in life had fled forever,
And his deep sorrow soon conducted him
To an untimely grave.
There is not a trace of irony in either Schiller’s poem or Kwak’s photograph, but rather we see their open hand to the earnest search for absolute truth. Why is this significant in our era? Some believe it suggests that artists are beginning to re-discover faith in concepts definitively fixed and absolute; even if that means, as Schiller promises, that absolute truth is definitively unattainable. Perhaps Study of Elements is destined to join growing numbers of works by other artists, architects and designers that have begun to navigate beyond the prevailing rhetoric of critical theory and into the open realm of post-critical thinking. In and of itself this would signal the degrading faith in relativism’s true effectiveness, and an accumulating doubt regarding critical theory’s mute responses to questions about creative alternatives to the objects of its critique. This means a re-opening of art and design to humankind’s truly fundamental questions; death, love, truth, subjects of late relegated to religion and philosophy. Are we witnessing a reawakening of the belief that art possesses the capacity to address these questions with profound sincerity, offering constructive and creative resolutions to their confounding dilemmas?
all rights reserved, copyright 2007 HYUN-JIN KWAK