by Lee Yongwoo (media historian and cultural studies scholar)
On The Unreachable Abject Territoriality
by Lee Yongwoo (media historian and cultural studies scholar)
The Faciality of Topos
The land is not the object of scientific perception,
but a sign that reveals what is within.
— Johann Gottfried Herder1
Henri Lefebvre said the physical space is to nature as mental space is to “formal abstractions,” and that social space is a place of human interaction vis-a-vis physical and mental space. If one posits that mental space or abstract space is not a completely separate concept from social space, but a structure in which groups and individuals coexist in historical contexts, then spatial practice may go beyond the physical properties of territory and land. Not only that, it becomes “a projection onto a (spatial) field of all aspects, elements, and moments of social practice in a cognitive territory.”2 Prior to mankind’s excursion into the modern logic of exclusion and inclusion via hierarchical order, species, and typology brought about by meeting the body, soil, and nature, the earth/place/territory existed as permanent Other within the modern rationale. It was merely a vacuumed spatio-temporality excluded from human perception.
Choi Chan Sook, a visual artist, has long deliberated over the numerous indivisible relationships pertaining to the land and the body, such as those pushed aside, intentionally or unintentionally, within the epistemological topography of mankind, the cognitive ways we distinguish migrants from immigrants, and the processes behind changes in our concept of land ownership. Drawing from her personal experiences as a migrant to and longtime outsider in Berlin, Choi unravels the various meanings behind spatiality and memory in the exhibition The Promised Land (2015) that are attached to the terms “inner emigration” and “physical emigration” through unfamiliar concepts of “Autostadt”3 that evoke scenography,
and “opto-rhodopsin”4—a form of future technology known for optogenetics.5 These subjects, themes, and works are more evident in her exhibition, Re-move (2017), which depicts the victims of sexual slavery drafted by Japan’s Imperial Army, the Yangji-ri women of Minbuk Village at the Demilitarized Zone, Japanese women who were encouraged to marry Koreans (as represented by the artist’s own grandmother), the trajectory of scars in diaspora women, their loose-knit subaltern solidarity narrative and the politics of identity, the instabilities and hesitations derived from involuntary and arbitrary migration, and the archive of memories that spring from waves of anxiety and unrest unfolding like a prism. From The Promised Land (2015) to Re-move (2017), Choi rests upon the constellation of performativity woven by the imageries in the fragmented life of “the Other” and the affect of life. She further tunes the frequencies—their subtle vibrations and cracks in daily lives—of perpetual “Others” who can never settle as they signal through roots that trail long and far before them. The organic narratives of her work continue to expand and contract, revealing contemplative views that, at times, evoke the following: memories of the individual and their ontological validity, various discords created by personal narratives of individuation clashing with collective memories, individual context that has been forgotten amidst historiographic facts and events, and the potentialities in the memories of traces and places of those who have been whitewashed and voided, rendered into empty space.
An Organic Spatiality and the Territorialized Sensitivity: 60 Ho
Her new work 60 Ho (2020) details the personal narratives of women who settled in one of the 112 propaganda villages located up North at the Civilian Control Zone of the Demilitarized Zone. After the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, these villages were established for purposes of land-clearing and propaganda against North Korea. The village of Yangji-ri in Cheorwon, Gangwon-do, spreads widely below the small peak of Sapseulbong. A large immigrant colony formed in response to political promises of cheap land and housing made by the Park Chung-hee administration. In the Google Earth panorama of Yangji-ri, filmed in a bird’s-eye view, the colorfully roofed houses all sport windows facing north—supposedly to facilitate observation of the enemy—but the insides are makeshift, each with its own complex structure. The camera angle passing through the grotesque interiors acts like an endoscope, projecting onto a screen the intimate origin of personal psychogeography regarding ownership of land. This view captures how an individual’s emotions and actions, like a living creature, affects the spatiality—the architectural environment and its intentions—in discernible or indiscernible ways. Following Korea’s liberation, countless migrants flocked to Minbuk village and its context of war, usurpation, reclamation, and speculation. What lay behind the fervid craving to settle in that village? Can we say that the land we stand on is truly ours? Land owned initially by North Korean defectors or by Japanese became land without ownership after the liberation and the Korean War.
Then the National Land Use and Management Law was issued in 1972, and the government recognized land-ownership rights in the Civilian Control Line area in the early 1980s. After that, the “landowners” claiming registration documents appeared one after another, causing friction with the current residents of Yangji-ri.6 Numerous migrants, especially women who had long been indigenous to the land, were denied ownership and eventually reduced to tenant farming.
Choi Chan Sook contemplates this strange series of events and sharply captures the points evoked and expressed by the network of land/body/ownership, territorial and political events, and “organic spatiality,” where mankind and land twist and turn as if they are homologous structures. Furthermore, she navigates a close microhistorical viewpoint of future socio-legal directions and potentialities for change inherent in land ownership. Under the patriarchal family-register system, female migrants who lost their husbands to war, or to the mines scattered about their everyday living space, cannot claim ownership of their territory. Like ferns clandestinely sporing in a perilous ecosystem, they settle temporarily in the “kitchen corner or tiny room,” the twisted interstices of the village. In this state of temporal tranquility, these people, silently enduring with a desperation to become true settlers—clearing land that bears the names of men whose soft hands know neither labor nor dirt—become numbers. Village soldiers begin to address them as such. 60 Ho refers to a human reduced to a mere number in the place where she resides. In this village, it is humid and cool even in the summer. In Artificial Sun (2017), heat fans are placed in various corners of a house, lending the lives of these numbered female migrants a warmth that burns brighter than the sun. We are faced with the artist’s disenchanted perspective that seems almost apathetic, simultaneously delivering the video’s rush and shock. The handheld camera glides across the maze of a Yangji-ri house, as if in an RPG, and summarizes via Google Earth the ruins of the Demilitarized Zone—a symbol of historical catastrophe. Ironically, the artist’s indifferent gaze makes us more acutely aware of the relationships of coercive coexistence, of the secularized memories of places/territories of inhumanity, and of the “otherization” people have had to face, in all its absurdity, within a macro-historical landscape.
There are qualities of the unheimlich, pathological traits, and waves of emotions or ambience triggered by the symbolic meanings behind oblique territory/land/place. Further, there are subtle, invisible frequencies that go unreachable and undetectable by the macro-worldview and collective memories much like the imperceptible face/faciality7 of the abject, of those caught in involuntary decline, referred to as 60 Ho. All of these pierce through the deepest trench of imagined geographies in those who have lost their names, revealing in detail the dynamics of attraction and repulsion brought about by the resonance between mankind and space. The screening zooms in on and fades out from people self-mockingly singing trot songs (“I am I am drama, who will know of my story”), while Donald John Trump creates a sense of crisis between the two Koreas with a political speech asserting that the North will face “fire and fury.” Just as the two scenes are mutually juxtaposed, land and settlement, migrant and memory, sedentary and non-sedentary, and the succession of images and connections woven by rhythm all become allegories that accumulate and scatter. The work gradually breaks down the narrative and symbolic skeletons embodied by the memory of the body and the materiality of land, altering and superseding them with fragments of minerals and drifting inorganic substances. In compliance with the artist’s contemplative intentions, the viewer’s gaze follows the image of inorganic substances that operate as signifiers of visual narratives, advancing the narrative under the guidance of the mouse cursor. The images of minerals in 60 Ho, represented as rocks or copper, substitute for the physicality/materiality of subjects that have been genderized and Otherized, while embodying the memories of the land without ever having owned it in Choi’s previous works. Eventually, these images begin to correspond with the non-human subjects of the abject (such as minerals) that run on empty in the pitch-black darkness, denied inclusion permanently in the frameworks of territorialized sensitivity and geographical conceptualizations of the norm. Just like parallelism, these images continue and lead into qbit to adam (2021).
The Non-Sedentary and Spatio-temporal Translocality:
qbit to adam Belonging to No One, and None to All
Physical environments and places aren’t meaningful from the beginning; they gradually form meaning by forging relationships with the humans they surround in due time. In other words, the accumulation of such relationships and memories—created and altered in relation to environment and place—can be seen as proof and a vital part of settlement/the sedentary, and as presenting a more comprehensive sense of place. In her new work qbit to adam, created during the pandemic, Choi expands, both conceptually and spatiotemporally, her focus on “individuation” and the “non-sedentary.” That has been visualized by land and territory—an interest formerly scrutinized via themes of the Demilitarized Zone, border areas, migration, and the women’s narrative. The narrative of locality is a narrative of the central/centrifugal, static/dynamic, and opening/closing. In it, we see fragmented memories like stamped seals of those who were pushed aside in the village of Yangji-ri; we feel a sense of loss amid the breakdown of a rejected community that has undergone migration, settlement, and the extinction of self. From the mines of the ancient Atacama Desert in northern Chile to a virtual world in digital space, qbit to adam expands the artist’s worldview of locality and bares the ontological flesh of questions connecting locality to translocal body/land/place by exploring the spatiality within the numerous kinds of spatiotemporal nature. With qbit to adam, Choi Chan Sook critically reappropriates the knotted arguments of the body/land/historicized texts and “pours out” a number of questions pertaining to the following: ontological and metaphysical semantic networks and their alternative directions, and human–nonhuman individuations of land/place/space “that belongs to none and none to all.”
Just as Walter Benjamin was transfixed by the immortality of the wax figure at Musée Gravin that resisted organic decomposition,8 qbit to adam, which begins with a metaphor of the Copper Man, is in itself a metaphor of organic/inorganic, the boundary between life and death, and a dislocation of future and past that poses numerous ontological questions about the following: the acquisition of individuality in the extinction of land and the death of non-humans as inorganic substances that the tomb of earth metonymizes as the soil sprinkled atop the mineral waste of an abandoned mine; the relationality revealed in dualities of the self and others, inclusion and exclusion, and body and land that were incubated in the process of establishing a modern and contemporary concept of territory in regards to ownership and crop yield; the expansion of the virtual subject as an extended territory of new spatiality and bodily sensation that are reappropriated by the digital environment and data; and the spatiality as a “topos” in which objects may interact with each other purely as objects, gaining a singular, immaculate, and complete individuality within the relational time of the present. The recursive conclusion to the questions derived from these themes is here on the very ground we step on, in this mental and physical space that reflects us vaguely—like the surface of a bronze mirror.
Fragments of stone, copper, flesh, and metal circulate. These weightlessly drifting fragments of land are then visualized into images of memories/data. (This repetitive structure of circulation is also replicated on the video playing on the semitransparent copper mesh screen facing the three-channel screen.) Meanwhile, the narration holds together these intersecting videos for 33 minutes in three different voices/transcendental subjects. This serves as the center point, conveying the artist’s desire to hold the audience completely in her narrative within this “space” of the exhibition. The individual narrative of land/body/ownership, spread across an overwhelmingly large screen, is not presented as any of the following: an operational system, its reason of existence, or a measure of individuality that explains the possibilities of said existence. In fact, it operates as an “intermezzo” that permeates the space and screen like liquid, forging a smooth connection between the different topographies of land/body/exhibition-space. It also conveys the “undecided nature of the open space” inherent in such topographies, and a non-hierarchical “analogy” that defies all parallels, references, and coordinates. The amalgamation of these narratives can be seen as a journey towards joining, separating, and reestablishing relationships within the singular space of the exhibition.
The exhibition floor is set up dark and blurry, much like the bronze mirror of a Mongolian shaman. The self-reflective image bounced back by this surface is an appropriation, hardly a faithful representation of self and screen. (The installation boasts a finish of the same copper sheets that were used on the floor, but not on the screen.) Namely, it operates as an ontological mirror9 designed not to self-reflect but to attempt to escape from present space and the self of reality. Its subtle distortions and shaking images incessantly stimulate and encourage contemplations on thoughts or reason by continually dislocating the images, making them amorphous and variable. The artist approaches the design of this “space of thought that transcends time and space” like a meticulous scenographer, subtly tilting the screen 10, 23, and 28 degrees from the right side of the exhibition space. Much like ending rhymes that seem to parallel one another before subtly diverging, the screens are placed at angles, similar to antennas that detect the wavelengths of the universe. Snow formations called “Penitentes” “grow” towards the rising sun in the spitting image of kneeling human figures doing penance. The screen follows the trajectory of the artificial sun and projects the image of the earth, acting as a stage device. Images and the exhibition space reflect and overlap as three distinct voices evoke a sense of presence in “synesthesia.” Through this synesthesia, which pertains to the body and space of the audience, viewers themselves become objects of the artwork, operating as a stage device filling out the empty narrative space of the exhibition.
As demonstrated, qbit to adam is an attempt by incomplete narratives to escape across boundaries and meet a new “land.” On this journey, countless individual narratives intersect and nomadize, untethered by any particular nature/land/territory/spatiality—constantly on a path toward new meaning. Concurrently, the exhibition also becomes an “exhibitionary dialectic discursive sphere” that borrows and repeats former concepts and discourse, creating differences by leading to a new flow of creation. And all this begins from the fragmented visualization of the discourse on nature/land/territory/spatiality that has been permanently otherized from the frameworks of a narrative structure of modern history; from reflections on nature/land/territory/spatiality that has been regarded as “irrational, otherizing, unscientific, and of indeterminate form”; and from the artist’s proposition of reinstating what lies behind the narrative of modernity best represented by humanistic choices, along with the human affects triggered by all of the above. Through this ambitious project, Choi actively reinterprets and re-summons intimate personal narratives of human–nonhuman subjects occupying nature/land/territory/spatiality that previously had no choice but to exist in a narrative vacuum of historical statements. Furthermore, she transcribes these narratives onto a palimpsest of memories and interpretations on which such spatiality is printed. Moreover, qbit to adam manages to reproduce via “imaginative crossover storytelling” the artistic effects, imaginary topographies, and mythological, literary, and scientific discourse regarding the catastrophic contemporaneity of Planet Earth, where mankind dominates nature, our footprints permanently marking the trajectories of geology in the Anthropocene epoch. This is built on foundations of human–nature hierarchy, COVID-19, the metaverse, and the advent of a post-apocalypse triggered by the collapse of the ecosystem—all themes of interest to the art discourse at this time. Now, the actuality of an exhibition space comes alive in viewers’ minds with all the partiality that imagination entails. And, without a doubt, this entices us.
Coda: On Spatiality as Pure Memory
The resonances are dispersed on the different planes of our life in the world,
while the reverberations invite us to give greater depth to our own existence.
In the resonance we hear the poem, in the reverberations we speak it, it is our own.
The reverberations bring about a change of being.
It is as though the poet’s being were our being.
— Gaston Bachelard, excerpt from The Poetics of Space10
Gilles Deleuze explains how the past is a transcendental condition that defines the present via the concept of the paradox of “contemporaneity.” That is to say, present time may flow only when the past and present exist within the same timeline.11 The pure memory of Henri-Louis Bergson speaks to an epistemological state in which a certain lesson has been learned in the past that cannot be repeated and is not internal to the body. Pure memory is not simply limited to registering the past through remembrance or the act of reminiscing. It is a state in which memory itself has the potential for ontological independence as it defies the passage of time, contracting and relaxing for eternity in a mode of existence that enables simultaneous coexistence.12 It is not unlike how Anaximenes’s age-old question of memory dawns on us, evoking our own pure memories as we observe the dislocated minerals from a mummy’s knee expand and enlarge into fractals: “We are told God created man from soil and breathed life into man so that he may become a living soul. Was his breath cold? Or hot?”
The artist’s interest in humans’ ambivalent ability to breathe cold and warm, the coexistence and order of those two worlds, and the possibilities inherent in change are tied to her own life. Choi’s interests inevitably mix with her experiences of vividly worrying about the future of her unborn child—soon to awaken in a dystopian reality—and of remembering the tactility of death she felt while watching her mother gradually pass away. By juxtaposing her maternal self breathing cold air—while “imagining the order in which one will die” in a “near-death experience”—with the vitality of warm breathing like her future sleeping child’s, Choi questions the spatiality of the body as a non-sedentary that empties and fills, withstanding fluctuating temperatures. Just as Bergson preached that pure memory precedes images but may contain the possibility of existing in the form of an image, the artist is attempting to visualize the “coexistability” of incommensurable “substances” that encompass everything and behind which some kind of conception may be/is lurking. This speaks of a representational system of memory that is general, ambiguous, without tense, and unable to be regarded as the basis or token of a certain phenomenon like a body or substance. These images are invisible yet present, experienced as a perception or memory already inherent in our minds.13
In this sense, the overlapping metaphor of “knees” that makes repeated appearances in Choi’s works is full of significance. Minerals derived from the knees of Copper Man connect with the emersion of landforms in the shape of kneeling penitents called “Penitentes” and, soon enough, join on the cross-screen of an emotional insert of a mother kneeling before residents opposing the building of a special-needs school in Gangseo district. The knee metaphor makes real a moment of “surrender, penance, and awakening” (“slap one’s knees” is a Korean idiom akin to “Eureka!”), referring to the creation of yet another object begotten from an object. [seulha 膝下 in the Korean phrase “the child of seulha 膝下” literally means “under the knees.”] To the artist, the personal reasons behind what she considers the safest non-sedentary space for her unborn child to occupy in the near future, are a desperate, important pure memory that brings awareness of the land/place/spatiality. In due time, the child will learn to meet the world by bringing to its mouth whatever is strewn about the room or burning itself on something hot. This is why the parent keeps the child in the safest land/place/territory: below her knees. As such, qbit to adam is a “topos” of organic totality in which the heterogeneous subjects of artist and audience—through their individual bodies observing the exhibition—extract perception and memories and seek the possibility of coexistence via contemplation and reflection. The metonymization of spatiality revealed in qbit to adam, along with the expansion of the conceptual/sensory meanings behind nature/land/territory/spatiality brought about by advancements in technology, emphasizes the indivisibility of the land and body, or possibilities of coexistence in the land and body—not unlike the Copper Man, in whom the two “states” of organic and inorganic coexist (the Copper Man later appears in the face of an avatar in cyberspace). From ancient mines to the mining of cryptocurrency, the artist overviews the “history” of past labor and the concept of virtual ownership in the near future. In doing so, she overturns the foundations of modern epistemology—namely, the narrative systems and discourse frameworks based on rational thinking—and intentionally bypasses, affects, revolves, and recreates the directions of meanings radiated by these prisms.
As such, Choi creates a nondiachronic narrative of pure memories pertaining to a primal nature/land/territory/spatiality that knows not the concept of ownership and promise—in other words, the “potential as a priori condition”—and dictates that negotiations between human “intervention” and nature cannot by any means dismantle the original meaning of land/space/territory. Furthermore, she asks the audience the legitimate meanings behind “actuality”—the sense of the earth we stand on. Here, viewers may interrogate the intended reinstatement of the memory of the other, the individuation of nonhuman spatiality, and the dismantling of the meanings behind the other/land/space/territory that exists in a narrative-imaginative vacuum built upon a foundation of communal silence. What did Choi intend to say with these matters? As Bachelard articulates in The Poetics of Space, in the “resonance” we hear the poem, and in the “reverberations” we speak it. The “resonances” and “reverberations,” created for the possibility of coexistence in “substances,” draw out a “change in existence.”
The metanarrative and post-genealogical symbolic representation exhibited in Choi’s qbit to adam and 60 Ho visualize the political/social/cultural hierarchical topography pertaining to the invisible nature/land/territory/spatiality that has always existed yet had little choice but to be hidden and oppressed. At the same time, the work reads as a resilient pledge, or token, assuring us of the eventual recovery of the original textures that were once warm and smooth. It does this by dismantling and rupturing potential realities that could never be clearly defined with the inherent pure memory of individual senses. The artist’s intimate personal narrative ends with an epilogue of stone, copper, flesh, and metal. “What land would I return to upon death?” This question reverberates like a round song in the exhibition hall, resonating with the audience. And there lies the “promised land” that belongs to none and none to all.