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An archaeologist possessed: Sunkoo Yuh.

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SUNKOO YUH'S WORK, ABOVE ALL, IS GROTESQUE. THE 'grotesqueness' of his work, however, is not a by-product of his intense assault against form, like those of European Art Informel artists. It runs contrary to the 'brutality' of German New Expressionism artists. The space that his grotesque images inhabit is either a transcendental space ungoverned by reason and logic, or a place where all memories from his consciousness are preserved. Yuh is an archeologist excavating this extinct space, and is a medium possessed by all spirits existing in this extinct space. In this sense, his method is similar to that of Jackson Pollock. By spreading a canvas on the floor, Pollock represented colour and form through psychic improvisation. Before embarking on sculptural work, Yuh unfolds hanji, a type of traditional Korean paper, and draws images on it as if he is a possessed shaman. While we can define Pollock's work as abstraction referring to an absence of concrete objects, Yuh's work is like figuration with destroyed colour and form. If so, how can we account for his bizarre, chaotic images' grotesqueness?

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Martin Heidegger argues, in which the truth a work of art champions is elemental, an artist assumes nothing but the role of medium. This assertion downgrades the artist's role from a subject to a medium. This means the artist's body and spirit is nothing but a device to call back deceased souls or elemental images. Heidegger's elemental truth, however, can also be interpreted as 'punctum', deriving from images dormant in Yuh's unconsciousness. Punctum, termed in Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, refers to a small photographic element, that is, the plethora or deficiency of meaning outside an objective sphere. (1) Punctum in Yuh's work is also revealed in his artist statement for his solo show, Chaos, held at Clayarch Gimhae Museum in 2013: "My memories and feelings, buried and forgotten for more than 25 years before I left Korea, oozed out from the surface of my mind."

The image, long submerged under the surface of Yuh's unconsciousness, suddenly emerged from his consciousness and is the punctum of chaos. It seems that his 30 year stay in Korea and 25 year residence in the US are fraught with confusion and scars that are hard to overcome. The punctum he felt was probably further solidified through the discovery of a similar condition in his native country, where he was born and raised. For Barthes, punctum belongs to a transcendental arena at which we cannot arrive with only reason and our intelligence, accompanied by uncanny feelings alongside chaos and disorder.2 The grotesqueness of Yuh's work is a manifestation of the punctum of the soul, by which he was possessed; that is, the "return to the repressed", using Freud's term, or the "return to the real", based on Lacan's view. The terms, 'grotesqueness' and 'punctum', however, are not enough to elucidate Yuh's work. That is why humorous images (the tiger appearing in traditional Korean folk painting, laughing swine and dokkaebi, a type of spirit with a horn on its head from Korean folklore), life forms and objects, such as cars, jars and corns, are used.

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These witty images can be explained with 'metonymic rhetoric'. According to critic Kim Hong-hee, "Like metaphor, a metonym is a type of allegorical rhetoric that banishes the original form of reality, and is modified into and replaced with other objects." (3) Yuh's work depends on metonymic allegory in a mixture of Oriental and Western figures, a juxtaposition of past and present persons and a coexistence of religious and mythic icons. The original images pertaining to first love or family gathering are not found in his works, such as First Love, Family Union and I Want to See Your Smile. The events and situations Yuh experienced in reality are innate to his unconsciousness and become unwitting inspirations. The images, however, are neither the ones he saw in person in reality (indicative of mood), nor similar ones (metaphor), but are replaced by the principle of the metonym. In other words, the images appearing in Yuh's pieces are somehow randomised; they are not dependent on mutual relationships or cause-and-effect relationships.

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Inspired by the Iraqi War, False Start, featuring an Arab man in a turban, a soldier operating a canon, and a grenade, unveils a metaphoric attribute, breaking away from such metonymic randomness. These images look metaphoric at a glimpse, but, on closer scrutiny, a crow in a witty atmosphere and dokkaebi with a horn on its head are visible. What do these images--completely different from sanguinary war images--mean? The images appearing in Yuh's work inhabit his unconsciousness, and are then replaced with similar or completely different symbols. This can be viewed as a dislocation of the symbolic in his unconsciousness, that is, 'metonym'. These works are similar to rhetorical hallmarks of Postmodernism, such as "contingency, linguistic materiality, negative corporeality, vacuum of meaning and rhetorical games on the surface". (4) As Ronald Schleifer mentioned, it can be said that Yuh's work is metonymic in nature, depicting "a world where events occur without depending on any standard of transcendental meaning". (5) Mammoth sculptural pieces exhibited at his solo show, Chaos, including Monument for Parents and Athens Fall, are all particularly marked by metonymic rhetoric.

This view is in contrast to the perspective of Kate Bonansinga, who sees Yuh's work as a "theatre of the absurd". Kate studied a stage from an architectural evolution of his work's base, and interpreted sculptural pieces as if they were characters on a theatre stage. She also interpreted the theatre of the absurd as the central axis of Yuh's work, applying uncertainty from ceramic alchemy and anxiety and the agony of life that German expressionists unveiled in reference to Yuh's work. Any theatre of the absurd recognises absurdity in human existence and denies any logical principle of cause and effect. Seeing his work only as a form of the theatre of the absurd, however, may result in a failure in taking a view of his oeuvre. The statement he wrote when his daughter was born is as follows: "My work expresses my inner emotions, communicates my life and directly draws from mundane experience. Particularly through my daughters' births, I understand that everything can have both universal and personal meaning. While making art may be a quest in search of broad meanings or answers, it may be expressed through intimate awareness of daily life." This statement suggests Yuh understands his life in both individual and universal dimensions, and his awareness of quotidian life is not inclined to the fragmentariness and negativity of any theatre of the absurd.

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Yuh has built the territory of his art, expanding intermingled, rather confused aspects of human life that were reserved in an abyss of his unconsciousness from a private arena to a universal sphere, be it joy or sorrow in life, absurd or comic. His 2013 solo exhibition, Chaos, was a significant milestone in his 30 year career. The most salient feature of his works on display at this exhibition is their enormity, compared to his previous pieces. His gargantuan works, such as Athens Fall, are more than four metres high, and arouse a religious sublimity through their architectural monumentality. It is perhaps meaningless to discuss his work in the dimension of 'beauty'. All our languages and feelings are overwhelmed by his work's sublime, solemn scale, more than any other totem. Heidegger's definition of the artist as medium is in no way an exaggeration in discussing Yuh's work. Sunkoo Yuh is an archeologist who contemplates space vanishing into our consciousness, that is, the enormous horizon of the unconsciousness, a medium possessed by a spirit floating over space. His works are nothing but by-products he creates as an archeologist-cum-medium.

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Article by Bang Chang Hyun

Endnotes

(1.) You, Kyung Hee, "Psychoanalytical Study of Aesthetics from the Concept of 'Uncanny'", Yonsei University. PhD Thesis, p 118.

(2.) Ibid.

(3.) http://www.sanghyunlee.com/works/ nine_clouds_dream_critic_kr.php.

(4.) Park, Hyun Soo, The Rhetoric Modernism and Postmodernism, A Study on the Literature of Yi Sang, Somyung Press, 2003, p 95.

(5.) Ronald Schleifer, Rhetoric and Death-The Language of Modernism and Postmodernism Discourse Theory, Illinois University Press, 1990, p 9.

Born in Korea, Bang Chang-Hyun is currently working as a ceramics critic and potter. He studied English literature and ceramics at Kyunghee University and earned a master's degree in ceramics from the State University of New York, New Paltz. He earned his Phd in art criticism at Kyunghee University. He has written about 30 critical essays that were published and warmly received in Korea's monthly ceramic magazine, Monthly Ceramic Art. His works have been featured in Ceramics: Art and Perception, Ceramics Now, New Ceramics, American Art Collector, Monthly Ceramic Art, Lark Book's 500 Ceramic Sculptures. Bang has exhibited nationally and internationally in more than 100 group and solo exhibitions since 2006 and is currently adjunct professor at KyungHee University.
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Author:Hyun, Bang Chang
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:9SOUT
Date:Mar 1, 2015
Words:1501
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