Kaleidoscopes of ‘Lumen Opaticum’ or Vibrant Painting in/of the Disaster: On Jaeyeol Han s Oeuvre
Yung Bin Kwak
What was the gist of Jaeyeol Han’s impressive solo exhibition in Seoul toward the end of 2021, filling up the entire building with his own works from the ground to the 3rd floor? The aftermath of the terrifying earthquake the artist bore witnessed to in person in Haiti where he served his military service (still considered as powerful as it was after 12 years)? Colors and matières whose vibrant quality was so palpable and fascinating, bordering on groping our very eyes? (Transhistorical?) Implications of Goethe’s Theory of Colours, which Han has repeatedly underlined? Or a feeling of relief (or unfamiliarity?) in the wake of seeing faces without eyes, noses, and mouths, finally forming full-fledged bodies, or rather, a ‘Gathering’ with other ‘faces-bodies’? One could come up with various plausible stories by selectively emphasizing and interpreting this or that, even enumerating everything. Nonetheless, none of it would resolve the following question: how come they make a gathering? How was it possible for them to constitute a ‘gathering’ called an exhibition ‘immanently’? That is, if not this exhibition was nothing but a retrospective in negative sense, where an artist’s past works are merely assembled in one place. By arranging otherwise heterogeneous elements and defining their relationships anew in more tightly-woven textures, this essay seeks to clarify Han’s artistic worldview as well as the contemporary implications of its logic of sensations as evinced in this exhibition.
1. A Collector Gathering Gatherings
Not that there is no easy way to approach it. In fact, the exhibition was discernible in terms of each floor. Under the rubric of ‘Passerby, Faceless,’ various paintings in lively colors unfolded inside the first floor, in sizes ranging from slightly bigger than our palm to 2 meters high. In contradistinction to the 1st floor where each frame/canvas contained only one face, the ‘Gathering’ series of the second floor showcased multiple faces in flesh with more spirited hues. Not surprisingly, it is quite tempting to summarize everything in terms of an opposition between ‘1st floor= individual vs. 2nd floor= crowds’ or even a transition from one to the other. After watching the third floor full of black and white croquis and sketches, this type of understanding becomes more pronounced. But is this really the case?
Let’s begin from <Gathering, A Man with a Bottle>(2021). Being the poster image of this exhibition, this painting is the first one to catch our eyes upon arriving on the second floor via elevator after surveying works on the 1st floor. Just as the three paintings (‘Schauen,’ ‘Flesh Off,’ ‘Difference and Repetition’) inside the 1st floor, overwhelming viewers with their massive size, arguably represent the ‘Passerby’ series, <Gathering, A Man with a Bottle > can be said to stand for the ‘Gathering’ series as well as this exhibition itself. As the subtitle suggests, a man with a bottle stands in the middle of the canvas, while two male figures look at him from the left background. That is, all of them seem to gather in accordance with the title. This is not true, however. For the artist ‘cut and pasted’ these figures from different photographs and movies. This manner- which he compared to ‘montage’ in cinematic sense in an interview he had with an Italian media after opening1)-is applicable not only among figures but also to an individual figure. The above-mentioned ‘man with a bottle’ himself is born of montage. In this sense, we cannot say they form a gathering, nor can we conclude that they are not gathered. If this work represents this exhibition, what is the implication of this antinomy?
At this point, we must not lose sight of the fact that half of the title of this exhibition is ‘gathering.’2) That is, <Gathering, Man with a Bottle> is a work of ‘gathering’ figures and entities, all of which result from ‘gathering’ on their own. It is instructive to recall how ‘Sammlung’ in German signifies not only ‘collection’ as an ‘act of gathering,’ but also a ‘gathering’ or a ‘collection’ as a result, say, in an art museum. In this overdetermined sense, Han is a ‘collector’ or a Sammler. What we need to take into consideration, howerver, is not so many layers or layering effect of this ‘gathering’ as ‘dispersion’ or ‘scatter’ as one of the fundamental conditions of possibility, calling for the very ‘gathering’ before any ‘gathering.’ In fact, according to Walter Benjmain, “[r]ight from the start (ursprünglich), the great collector is struck by the confusion (der Verworrenheit), by the scatter (der Zerstreutheit), in which the things of the world are found.”3) In other words, collecting or ‘gathering’ in its primordial sense presupposes a peculiar sense or experience of “confusion” and “scatter.” As one of those perceptional features inherent to collectors, Benjamin singles out the sense that “his collections [are] in constant flux (ständigem Fluten).” Coextensive with another manner of perception wherein “there would be nothing ”subsistent“(»Bestehendes«) for us...everything would strike us (alles stieße uns zu),” “this is the way thigns are for the great collector. They strike him.”4)
Perhaps one could pinpoint Haiti as the potential source where Han got the sense that “there would be nothing ”subsistent“(»Bestehendes«) for us...everything would strike us.” But not necessarily. As the artist’s evocation of Godard’s and Farocki’s ‘montage’ amply suggests, Han’s sense of gathering or collection is equally coextensive with other contemporary conditions. Recall, for instance, Claire Bishop’s observation in which she juxtaposed Carol Bove’s <La traversée difficile (The difficult crossing)>(2008), which at first glance appears to be a messy and utterly chaotic collection with arbitrary results of digital search engines5), or David Joselit’s description of what he calls “aggregator” à la ‘post-digital age,’ which “furnish[es] a platform where unlike things may occupy a common space,” and yet, due to its “disarming quality,” “seems always in danger of falling apart.”6)
Nonetheless, would it be right to consider the ‘Passerby’ series, which Han dubbed as “faces without faces” as part and parcel of contemporary paintings under the so-called ‘post-digital conditions’? Let’s recall what Marion Zilio calls “Facebook nation of the world” in her intriguing book Faceworld, subtitled ‘Face in the 21st century.’ According to Zilio, as “the portrait slides down to the face ([l]e glissement du portrait au visage),” it becomes a “non-face (non-visage).” As a matter of coincidence, she calls this “pure exteriority without interority ([p]ure extériorité sans intériorité)” “faces without face (visages sans visage).”7) On the other hand, Han’s distinctive command of brushstrokes, thick matière, and lively contrasting colors often lends itself to morphological comparison with German Neo-Expressionism à la George Baselitz. To be sure, this genealogy arguably reached its zenith with Francis Bacon by way of Abstract Expressionism (e.g. Wilem de Kooning), before reconnecting with another postwar tradition of Western painting toward ‘undoing face,’ as updated by Adrian Ghenie’s ‘Pie Studies’ series. Last but not least, Han’s works do not have essential things in common with Kim Byungkwan, Wonmi Seo, and Kyungjin Park, and Soonnam Lim, a group of talented Korean painters experimenting with their own twists within this international magnetic field.8) Where is Han located then? It is helpful to remind ourselves that summoning a traumatic experience, a global genealogy, or contemporary media conditions as the cause or contexts of artistic works at stake, remains thoroughly vulnerable to a risk of simplification where a relationship between an artwork and its external conditional is readily explained away in terms of one-way communication of the so-called ‘influence.’
At this precise juncture, an otherwise banal fact merits our attention, i.e, that, after coming back from Haiti, Han flew off to Ireland where nobody knew him; that he stayed there for one year while drawing croquis of passersby every day. Though habitually mentioned, this interlude is too often relegated as a nondescript episode of his formative period. Granted that staying abroad for a long period of time is not something new, let alone rare. Just imagine a Japanese novelist busy finishing up his upcoming novel while stuck in Iceland; a Brazilian student pursuing his degree in France; or an Australian scholar spending his sabbatical year in Slovenia. One could also add practices of ‘participant-observation,’ anthropologists’ well-known rites of passage whereby they study culture or conventions of a community in far-flung areas. What Han did in Ireland is distinct from all of these. Having left his home, he chose to stay where he had no connection whatsoever. And yet, without paying attention to its local history and customs, he merely drew faces that no one could recognize. This is an act of plunging oneself into a stream of unfamiliar, hardly recognizable faces. Or, better yet, this is akin to a rigorous attempt at self-control, as a way to let faces- otherwise prone to become familiar- flow, and thereby put himself back into that “constant flux.” In this sense, it was less a ‘wandering of a bohemian, free soul’ than a kind of ‘self-restraint.’ Through this temperance, he moved away from the habit of conscious recognition of faces as well as the sense of conventional ‘representation.’ Han’s own description of the period in question below, albeit rather long, is worth quoting in its entirety.
I went out to the most crowded street every day as if to resist any sense of loneliness. I began staring at the passing faces like a habit, [and] gathering them by drawing them. Painting felt like too much interference of consciousness, so I decided well in advance to draw with little self-consciousness, as if I wrote my signature. Through croquis, I naturally moved away from representation. I transferred collected facial drawings to paintings. Faces have already lost their characteristic- being the front part of the head with eyes, nose, and mouth.9)
In this short passage from his notes, remarkable for his fine, exquisite distinction among various concepts and terms, he writes that he began “staring at the passing faces, [and] gathering them by drawing them.” Adding elsewhere that “documenting faces incessantly appearing and disappearing in the street is to conserve and take hold of something that departs as well as to replace [it] with painted existence,” he also mentions “faces he collected like an anthropologist studying specimen.” What is fascinating is the implication of the fact that the end product of this ‘gathering’ or ‘collecting’ through ‘self-restraint’ turned out to be ‘bundles of colors.’ The upshot of his “exploration into this face to see what is left after identities crumble and get deconstructed“ was not, say, anatomical frames or unchanging essence of humanity, much less different skin colors. Nor was it terror-stricken images reminiscent of the Haiti earthquake victims, far too routinely invoked with reference to Han’s paintings. What manifested before the eyes of the artist who “looked at human-beings wherein human-beings perished as well as faces wherein faces got wiped out,” even while “evoking dead bodies of group burial in Haiti,” was none other than vibrant bundles of colors, coated with thick textures. How can we make of this?
2. Survival of a Blind Witness to the Unwatchable
Walter Benjamin’s truncated yet suggestive fragment, entitled, ‘On Phantasy,’ (1921)- translated neither in English nor in Korean yet- is quite instrumental in recalibrating our sense of direction at this point. Noting how “in autumn, the connection between emerging and changing coloration with downfall [Untergang] is laid bare,” he takes the blue light or phosphorescence of rotting corpses as an example.10) According to Benjamin, “the deeper coloration [Die tiefere Färbung] accompanies “truly earthly downfall [den eigentlich irdischen Untergang].” To be sure, corpses’ decomposition process includes not only coloration but also deformation. This is why he adds that “Becoming [Werden] is expressed in con-figuration [Gestalt-ung]...while ”passing [Vergehen] in coloration.” By contrast, decoloration concerns what is “not earthly [nicht irdische], that is to say, non-eternal [nicht ewige] downfall” and Benjamin offers humans and Nature “turning pale [Erbleichen]” as examples.11) This astute observation offers a hint at how the counterintuitive opposition between the aftermath of disaster Han saw in person in Haiti, or phenomena of downfall or destruction and ‘vibrant colors’- including gray, as will be explicated below- of his paintings could operate in his oeuvre (albeit with temporal gaps).
Beyond the idiosyncratic irony (that vibrant colors unfold thanks to the occasion of an utter downfall called death), this fragment also helps us better grasp the leitmotif of ‘Bystander,’ which is the subtitle of this exhibition. Toward the end of the same writing, Benjamin writes: “He turns red- he wants to disappear/pass away [Er wird rot- er möchte vergehen].” The word ‘Vergehen’ at the end of this sentence, is the same verb as the one we saw in another sentence (“Becoming [Werden] is expressed in con-figuration [Gestalt-ung]...while ”passing [Vergehen] in coloration.” While the former sentence mainly concerns an irreversible state of affairs such as ‘death,’ what is at stake in the latter is an affect of shame. As we often say or hear phrases like ‘I am dying shame,’ shame is often bound up with death. Conversely, however, the fact that this idiom is part of our everyday communication means how hard it is for shame to end in real death.
What is shame by the way? Fourteen years after Benjamin penned the fragment, Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, in his early essay, entitled, ‘De l‘evasion,‘ answered this question in his own way. Keeping his distance from conventional emphasis on moral order or spiritual dimension, an otherwise proper approach to ‘philosophical reflections on shame,‘ Lévinas underscored how “shame is primarily connected to our body.”12) As he immediately adds, their relationship, far from detachable, is rather marked by radical inseparability. The entanglement between shame and body has something do to with the situation where one can hardly hide nor delete her or his ashamed body. (In this sense, Lévinas‘s evocation of ‘nudity‘ is in no way incompatible with being fully dressed) Unlike a lizard, a human being in dire straits cannot escape by having its tail cut off. Being riveted to oneself (être rivé à soi-même)” or to one‘s body, and as such unable to escape- this is the state of shame.13)
In his commentary on this essay, Giorgio Agamben recasts shame in terms of a “double movement, which is both subjectification and desubjectifcation.” As well-known Korean or English idioms (‘I’m so ashamed. I want to hide’, ‘I’m utterly embarrassed and ready to sink through the floor’) often illustrate, shame leads the subject to desire some sort of self-annihilation. As this yearning for erasure seldom gets realized, the subject becomes separated as a witness to his own being in ruins as a pile of rubble. This is the reason why “[i]n shame, the subject thus has no other content than its own desubjectification; it becomes witness to its own disorder: its own oblivion as a subject.”14)
In this sense, Han’s own recollection of his experience in Haiti below gains resonance.One must not, however, mistake the artist’s confession for ‘responsibility for victims’ or the ‘survivor guilt’ after disasters. Rather, what Han lays bare here is closer to what Deleuze and Guattari- invoking Primo Levi, arguably one of the most renowned concentration camp survivors- called ‘shame of being a man [la honte d'ètre un homme],”16) that is, “before the victims (devant les victimes).”17) By virtue of this peculiar affect, something happens. In a sense that the ‘desubjectfied subject’ as the one plucked out of his safe and stable status becomes his/her own “witness,” a complete annihilation of the subject remains unfulfilled- and something remains or survives. What survives the disappearance of the Others, or the subject’s subsequent (desire of) disappearance on account of his or her shame of (mere) watching traces of the former, or despite the sheer shame itself. This is perhaps what Maurice Blanchot wrote in L'Écriture du désastre, his relentless investigation into disaster in its cosmic and most fundamental sense and its immanent link to writing in general, which often becomes indistinguishable from disaster itself as follows:
Being lucky, I was largely far from disasters. I managed to keep a distance. I was privileged to hear stories on and off and see them from a farther distance on screen. Then one day I fell off from the surface of the disaster and lingered for a while. I could feel its temperature and smell it. As a bystander, spectator, and tourist, I was able to walk around.15)
[Writing] is to be in relation, through Words in their absence, with what one cannot remember—a witness to the unencountered, answerable not only for the void in the subject, but for the subject as a void, its dis- appearance in the imminence of a death which has already taken place, out of place, any place at all.18)
Or, better still, much more precisely: “The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact. [Le désastre ruine tout en laissant tout en l'état].”19) Perhaps this is the true face (without face) of what lies at the heart of ‘Bystanders’ series (before ‘Gathering’ series), which filled up the entire 1st floor, i.e., the strange state of affairs where “there is still a face on the face without a face”:
Features such as race, age, gender, and disability have disappeared. Like the portrait of Yoon Doo-seo20), there is still a face on the face without a face drawn up to the neck. There is emotion without expression, and there is a space where you can project yourself into- the place from which an Other's face is vacated.21)
As various commentators have constantly reminded us, shame too often survives death even after annihilation- not unlike the ending (without ending) of Kafka’s Trial in which it seemed, even after K’s death, “as if the shame was meant to outlive him [es war, als sollte die Scham ihn überleben].”22) To be sure, what caused faces in Han’s paintings (mal)function could be not so much the disaster called an earthquake per se as the nameless people he witnessed, or the pigs shamelessly copulating on the ground as the graveyard.23) In this sense, “faces without faces”- which he described as “a space where you can project yourself into- the place from which an Other's face is vacated”- is less an object easy to empathize or imagine with; rather, it bears resemblance to a place where victims who lost their eyes to look back at us and the world indiscernibly overlap with gazes of spectators and the artist- no longer a ‘bystander’ but- as a ‘blind witness.’ This entanglement of subjects and objects, or victims and bystanders resonates with what Alenka Zupančič, quoting Tomo Stanič, indicated, i.e., “the unwatchable” is not so much ‘morally’ obscene or physically invisible as “something that ought not (do so) melts into visibility.”24)
3. Kaleidoscopes of ‘Lumen Opaticum’
Thus far, we have explored how, in the wake of an earthquake whose aftermath he personally witnessed in Haiti, Han came to get at “faces without face,” especially on account of ‘shame.’ By voluntarily binding himself to the “constant flux (ständigem Fluten)” of passersby in Ireland, while drawing croquis rather than ‘faithful representations’, the artist (strove to) repeat(ed) his experience of witnessing this process of ‘destruction’ wherein the subject is left behind as the ‘witness’ to its own incomplete annihilation.
What still remains to be elucidated, however, is the status of the vibrant bundles of colors he thereby came down to. By way of mulling over Benjamin’s brief yet rich ruminations, we tried to broach potential shores of their relationships. Condensing our ocular experience of this exhibition, which overwhelmed us upon entering the first floor of the exhibition gallery, or, through the transparent windows, even from the outside, into the keywords of ‘death’ and ‘disaster’- wouldn’t it be another act of oblivion, if not deception? Disasters and vibrant colors? A colorful disaster? How can we reconcile this seemingly incompatible opposition and contradiction? In order to answer this question, we must face Goethe’s Theory of Colors, a book that the artist read more than multiple times over the past couple of years. This is to pinpoint and comprehend how concretely peculiar features of this singular book- which Goethe published after he turned 60- operated in this exhibition, and their implications.
As is well-known, Goethe’s conception of colors unfolds in three layers. Firstly, ‘physiological colors’ are coextensive with human body; secondly, ‘physical colors’; and lastly, ‘chemical colors,’ arguably the most objective one. While chemical colors comprise six colors (yellow, blue, red, orange, green, and purple), the most important ones are yellow and blue. They are the very colors of pants and jacket worn by Werther- the famous protagonist of The Sorrows of Young Werther [Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers] (1774), a best-selling novel Goethe published when he was only twenty three- until he died at the end of the novel. According to Germany’s poet laureate, yellow comes from light, blue darkness. Once we add green, red, orange and purple, we get his six primary colors. Worth noting here is that for him, ‘darkness’ is not the absence of ‘light.’ He did not consider ‘light’ and ‘darkness’ in terms of hierarchy nor did he cast them as ‘Good vs. Evil.’ To reiterate, Goethe does not talk about black and white, or black shadows, much less lack thereof; rather, he discusses colors in general with reference to yellow and blue as the bipolar framework. Goethe’s striking notion of colors arguably peaks at his idea that “Colour itself is a degree of darkness [Die Farbe selbst ist ein Schattiges (skieron).” This formulation, I argue, is the fundamental axiom around which Han’s vibrant colors, unmoored as they were by a disaster, are reorganized.25)
Let’s recall three massive paintings engulfing us as we entered the first floor of the gallery. As part of expanded versions of the ‘Passerby’ series, they are entitled, <Schauen>, <Flesh Off>, and <Difference and Repetition> respectively.
Despite some minor differences, these three works, when compared to other works on the 1st floor, are distinguished by their recognizable eyes and lips. With the exception of virtually black and white ‘Flesh off,’ the rest two paintings are notable for their use of lively colors and tactile matière.
Bundles of colors, ‘gathered’ or ‘collected’ in <Schauen> (meaning ‘look’ or ‘looking’ in German) in the image of a face, begin to show gray hues as the flesh as skin is taken off in <Flesh Off>. To be sure, these radiant palettes are restored in <Difference and Repetition. To be more specific, dynamic balance maintained among three primary colors (red, yellow, blue) in <Schauen> dissipates as yellow and blue, except for red, are minimized in <Difference and Repetition>. Should we be simply happy about the return of vibrant sense of colors then? What we can say for sure for now is that these vivid differences will be given much more structural modifications in the ‘Gathering’ series on the 2nd floor.
Take <The Red Sofa >. Hung on the adjacent wall right next to <Gathering, A Man with a Bottle> (on its left side, from the viewers’ perspective), which welcomed viewers tossed out of the elevator from the 1st floor, this work was standing back to back with <Blue Shadow >. Is there anything particularly notable here? Yes indeed. But I am not talking about the artist’s or curator’s ‘intention.’ In order to elaborate on this otherwise insignificant point and its implications, one must point to the fact that <The Red Sofa> is founded on an ‘opposition’ or, more precisely, a logic of ‘inversion’ or ‘reversal.’ At first glance, there is only one man standing at the center of this vertical canvas. On closer inspection, however, we can discover one more man. Standing next to the man in the middle, someone is standing on his head. Originally, I myself failed to see this man. One could approach this as a problem of (visual) unconsciousness. Still, it could equally amount to the problem of colors, i.e., that of ‘complementary colors.’ What about <Blue Shadow>? Hung at the back wall in the left room on the 2nd floor, this painting stood back to back with <The Red Sofa>. Standing right across <Blue Shadow> is <Pilgrims>. In a word, these three paintings are standing in a row, once we do away with a wall between <The Red Sofa> and <Blue Shadow>.
When it comes to the subject matter, <Pilgrims> has almost nothing in common with <Blue Shadow>. Putting the title of ‘Pilgrims’, tinged with Christian overtones, in bracket, let us calmly describe what is visible. Originally from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film <Andrei Reblev>(1966), the image of this painting seems to portray three people passing by from left to right against the backdrop of a field in autumn, presumably after harvest. On top of that, we could add load of hay in the background. In contrast to the image of pilgrims moving past the autumn field after harvest, composition of <Blue Shadow> is rather modest. In the middle of the canvas, split in half in Y shape, a female-looking figure (with a mask-like face) is standing, along with a man on the right side. Set against the dark blue backdrop in accordance with the title of ‘blue shadow,’ dominant color of these two figures is yellow. On closer examination, they too have blue colors. (The lady is wearing a dark blue skirt while the man is putting on a pair of bright blue shoes)
Then what do these two have in common? It is colors. To draw a conclusion in advance- albeit only in part-, these two paintings constitute the two major poles of the entire ‘Gathering’ series, by virtue of rendering yellow and blue, the two polar opposites in Goethean color theory, most explicit in the second floor.
To assure you, color impressions of both paintings do not overlap. In contrast to <Pilgrims> where yellow dominates, blue in <Blue Shadow> clearly sticks out. As we noted above, however, yellow no less stands out on account of the color of clothes both figures wear. In fact, beyond their outfits, yellow- as if exposed to some sunlight beaming down in diagonal direction at noon- is in command of the front portion of the canvas. As a result, the contrast between the ’blue shadow’ in the background and yellow in the foreground is thrown into sharp relief, without lacking any shadows. This type of contrast is nowhere to be found in <Pilgrims>. While the skirt worn by the (non-binary?) far-right figure is the most bluish, it pales in comparison to the lady’s dark blue skirt in <Blue Shadow> due to its composite nature with red, green and yellow. Though based in yellow, the center figure in the middle, if slightly to the left, does not offer bright impressions either as its color scheme constitutes a pyramid from bottom to top, with orange and blue colors. The far left figure, as if entering the frame right now, takes yellow as its foundation too. And yet, it is added green and orange that prevails.
During a conversation with the artist in the gallery, I repeatedly noted how, despite the ubiquity of yellow in <Pilgrims>, this work did not appear to me ‘bright’ at all and as such seemed special. Now I am more than convinced that such a strange impression is immanently correlated with the aforementioned ‘polarity of light and darkness/yellow and blue. Not unlike <Blue Shadow> where yellow got the upper hand over against the foregrounded blue, <Pilgrims>, as a painting paralleling complimentary colors, gravitates toward blue, or darkness rather than yellow or brightness. This is precisely the following remark by Goethe points to: “Chiaroscuro exhibits the substance as substance, inasmuch as light and shade inform us as to degrees of density.”26) Beyond mere ’symbols,’ Goethe insisted that yellow and blue came from light and darkness in reality, and as such they delimit the entire world of visibility as he defined it.
This point brings <The Red Sofa> back again. I wrote how this work stood “back to back” with <Blue Shadow>, sharing a wall between them. At the same time, I noted that the number of figures in the middle of <The Red Sofa> is not one but two and, more crucially, they are vertically “inverted” to each other. If we add the connection between <Pilgrims> and <Blue Shadow>, based on the polar relationship between yellow and blue to this, a much clearer picture emerges. The picture is related to the fact that they forge a relationship in terms of a series of ‘polarities’ and ‘reversal.’ The inverted mirror image of two men or one man in <The Red Sofa> stands “back to back” with <Blue Shadow>, a work in which the polarity between yellow and blue was most vividly embodied in the entire 2nd floor. Looking directly at <Blue Shadow>, <Pilgrims> constitutes the ‘polarity’ of the 2nd floor. Simultaneously, however, this work exhibits middle colors between yellow and blue, which is what it shares with <Blue Shadow>, and thereby prevents the dominant yellow from offering ‘bright’ impressions.
<The Procession>(2018) is a paradoxical case in point as it buttresses this reading. Placed as the first painting on the right wall, from the perspective of viewers standing in the middle of the left room on the 2nd floor, having <Pilgrims> before them, this work is the only black and white or grayscale painting on the 2nd floor. What does this have to do with our exposition? We must be reminded of Goethe’s no less peculiar conception of gray so as to answer it. According to Goethe, “grey, which, like apparent color, always appears somewhat darker than white, and somewhat lighter than black”27) As Francis Guerin aptly adds in her stimulating book on the exceptional position of gray and its implication in the modern history of painting, Goethe defined gray in terms of a combination of light and darkness.28) This stance is also connected to Goethe’s another core formula, i.e., “Colour itself is a degree of darkness [Die Farbe selbst ist ein Schattiges (skieron).” To be sure, this formulation resulted from Goethe’s fine-tuning of Kircher’s ingenious expression “lumen opaticum,” meaning ‘dark light.’29) Dismissing an age-old argument that ‘colors, when mixed together, become white’ as “an absurdity,” he declares that “[c]olors when mixed together retain their original darkness.”30) <The Procession>, a blackish painting, appears to be in diametric opposition to <Pilgrims> or <Blue Shadow>, paintings with different emphases on yellow and blue. In this fundamental sense, however, they are on the same plane of immanence. And this relationship perfectly resonates with the internal interconnection between the three main paintings of the ‘Passerby’ series, i.e., <Schauen>, <Flesh Off>, and <Difference and Repetition>.
What does this resonance mean? Or more fundamentally, what kind of implications does immanent resonance, which our painstaking analysis of Han Jae-yeol's overall work engenders with Goethe’s Theory of Colours, have? In his profound fragments on colors, born of his early reflections on Goethe’s Theory of Colours, Benjamin affirms that “all painting is inevitably and correlatively fantasy [Phantasie] and at the same time a fascimile [Abbild],”31) before stating that "[t]he light of Ideas fights the darkness of the creative ground, and in this fight, it produces the fantasy’s play of colors.” To which he hastens to add: “Fantasy’s phenomena may be described as dis-figuration of configuration [Entstaltung des Gestalteten]” and “that it plays a dissolving game of configurations” is “inherent to all fantasy.”32)
By “dis-figuring” conventional forms of “face” to their limits, they drive the traditional foundation of “portrait” into creative darkness, allowing us to read Han’s work which “produces the fantasy’s play of colors” much clearly- say, in the post-Baconian genealogy. Crucial here is that this fantastic disfiguration is distinct from the “destructive collapse of the empirical [zerstörerischen Verfall der Empirie].”33) We must not miss this point. As emphasized earlier, it distinguishes our work from lazy readings, which persistently try to reduce Han’s oeuvre to the epicenter of the disaster called Haiti.
At the same time, however, these differences must be appreciated by way of more fundamental implications of Goethe's theory of color. For Goethe's reflection on the world, redefined in terms of “colour itself [as] a degree of darkness” makes the conventional color compositions and worldview- based on the binary opposition of “darkness and brightness”- do the headstand. In this rigorous sense, Han’s works are ‘painting of the diaster’- not in the sense of a “painting that portrays disasters” but in the sense that the conventional foundation of painting itself is “in disaster.” Still, this does not contradict the vibrance of vivid colors his paintings embody. This is because such colors are new consequences born of the “fight” in which “the light of Ideas fights the darkness of the creative foundation,” that is, the “fantasy’s play of colors.”
4. From Faces without Faces to Masks
Without necessarily ‘reducing’ other works I haven’t commented on due to time and space limitations to those I already elaborated on, this reading opens up an alternative route to access them as part of variations in a larger sense. At stake is the issue of ‘crowds’ or ‘multiplicity.’ To be brief, I contend that there is no substantial difference between works such as <Gathering, A Man>(2018) where only one figure appears and ones like <Ritual>(2018) in which presumably a couple of hundred figures are mobilized, as long as they partake of Han’s oeuvre. The same holds for paintings such as <JGP>(2018), <A Family>, or <Peak>(2018) where numerous figures between one and many show up. Again, I am not saying difference in numbers hardly matters.
The point I am trying to get across now, to be sure, was already implicit in the paradox I alluded to earlier regarding <Gathering. A Man with a Bottle>(2021). Namely, in a fundamental sense that figures in the picture as well as the ‘man with a bottle’ equally result from montage, it is wrong not only to declare that figures in this picture constitute a gathering but no less so to conclude that they fall short of a gathering; a conundrum where ‘one’ is not necessarily in the singular or without a gathering, or, inversely, where ‘many’ are not in the plural nor amount to a gathering. This irony precisely resonates with what Han noted in his ‘participant-observation’ of the nation-wide demonstrations in 2016, calling for impeachment of the then President Park Geun-hye.
When people gathered, people got wiped out. The gathered crowd spoke as a certain voice. Its voice turned into an image again. Two, five, ten, hundred, and million- all had different shapes, smells, sounds, and touches.
Still worth adding is the fact that the artist approaches this indistinguishability of the singular from the plural from the perspective of Goethean theory of colors, i..e, wherein colors are distributed in terms of physiology, physics or, if you will, chemistry. Along with his experience of the unprecedented historic event, the probing subtlety of such overdetermined distinctions attests to the need to stop expounding on Han‘s oeuvre by reducing them back to his traumatic experience in Haiti in 2010.
I am not saying that there is no difference between the ‘Passerby’ series and the ‘Gathering’ series. Rather, the crucial difference worth highlighting can be summarized in terms of a transition ‘from “faces without faces” to masks.” This peculiar feature of the ’face as a mask’ is rendered visible most explicitly in the central figure of <Gathering, A Man with a Bottle> and in the lady of<Gathering, Blue Shadow>. Still, one could safely submit that the entire <Gathering> series is traversed by this distinctive facet. Echoing with an observation by Hans Belting in his recent book, which Han avidly perused,34) this distinction serves to constitute Han’s own update to the renowned German art historian’s ruminations, while corresponding to the indistinguishability of ’an individual from a crowd,’ or ‘the singular from the plural.’ Not only does it resonate with Jacques Aumont’s diagnosis (“Face is no longer the window of the soul but a poster, a slogan, a tag, or a badge”)35), but it is also coextensive with the fact that the majority of face images in Lim Soon-nam’s ‘A Certain Face’ series, is based on a series of ‘selfies’ circulating online.36)
Still, despite these commonalities, Han’s oeuvre firmly secures its own territory thanks to the peculiar features we have explored. It constitutes a genuine response to the question of how to emulate or overhaul the historical genealogy of painting- a trajectory paradoxically and characteristically redefined through crises, in which the traditional order of representation is still idling both in terms of configuration and color. Further, it sends us helplessly back to the quandary of how to change Humanity’s history whose course toward what Hegel called “evil infinity (schlechte Unendlichkeit)” never ceases to overcome its own limitations with more terrifying disasters. Hence our unabated expectations towards his future works, which rearrange the painting in disaster in vivid colors- after disaster.
1) Han evokes Jean-Luc Godard, Sergei Eisenstein, and Harun Farocki. “I place images side by side the way directors like Goddard, Eisenstein, and Harun Farocki would, as a montage.” ‘In Conversation with Han Jaeyeol: On Art Born from Disasters, the Psychology of Face-less Portraits, and the Importance of Color,’ Art Nomade Milan 2021.11.19. https://artnomademilan.it/han-jaeyeol/?lang=en
2) I will discuss ‘Bystanders’, the other half of the title later in the essay.
3) Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften V, hrsg. Rolf Tiedemann und Hermann Schweppenhauser (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972), 279 (H4a,1); Walter Benjmain, The Arcades Project, p. 211.
4) Ibid, p.272; The Arcades Project, p. 205.
5) Claire Bishop, ‘Digital Divide: Contemporary Art and New Media.’ Artforum Vol. 51, No.1 (Sep.2012)
6) David Joselit, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, and David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2016, pp. 57-58. Reducing various ways in which ‘montage and ‘archive’ collect and operate its constitutent elements to something extremely ‘homogeneous,’ Joselit endeavors to differentiate them from his idea of ‘aggregator.’ Considering heterogeneity of montage Godard, and particularly Farocki fine-tuned in his works, however, his account hardly counts as persuasive. For a reading that contrasts Godard and Farocki, see the following. Georges Didi-Huberman, Remontages du temps subi: L'Oeil de l'histoire 2, Paris: Editions de Minuit, 2010. Esp. pp. 173-180.
7) Marion Zilio, Faceworld: Le visage au XXI siècle, Paris: PUF, 2018, p. 10.
8) To be sure, one must be reminded of Deleuze’s subtle yet decisive distinction: “As a portraitist. Bacon is a painter of heads, not faces (Portraitiste, Bacon est peintre de tétes et non de visages)” Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: logique de la sensation. Paris: Seuil, 1981/2002, p. 27; Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith, New York: Continuum, 2003, p. 20. As to the scintillating magnetic field these three come to forge, see the following essays I wrote for Wonmi Seo and Kyungji Park respectively. Yung Bin Kwak, 「(De)Facing <Facing > 」, 『Facing 』 (Boan Inn 1942, 2017.11.24.-12.3), 2018 exhibition catalogue; Yung Bin Kwak, 「Site of Aesthetic Breakthrough and Inundation: Kyungjin Park, <Site > Review Essay」, 『Monthly Art』, Jan. 2019.
9) Emphasis is mine.
10) ‘Zur Phantasie’, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. VI, pp. 121-122. All quotations below come from this fragment.
11) Far from contradicting his account of rotting corpses’ phosphorescence being a “truly earthly downfall,” this observation serves to distinguish what is “truly earthly” from what is “not earthly” among humans and in Nature.
12) “[L]a honte se rapporte en premier lieu à notre corps.” Emmanuel Levinas, De l'évasion, Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1982, p.112; Emmanuel Levinas, On Escape, trans. Bettina Bergo, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003, p. 64.
13) De l'évasion, p.113. On Escape, p. 64.
14) Giorgio Agamben, The Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, New York: Zone Books, 1999, p. 106. Toward the latter half of this sentence in Korean translation, to be sure, one reads “it becomes witness to its own perfect disorder” in Korean. This reference to “perfect” is nowhere to be found in the original Italian, not to mention in French or English translations. This is obvious since, as Levinas consistently reminds us, annhiliation of subject(ivity) is impossible. “Nella vergogna, il soggetto non ha, cioè, altro contenuto che la propria desoggettivazione, diventa testimone del proprio dissesto, del proprio perdersi come soggetto. Questo doppio movimento, insieme di soggettivazione e di desoggettivazione, è la vergogna.” Giorgio Agamben, Quel che resta di Auschwitz: L'archivio e il testimone, Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 1998, p. 126; “Dans la honte, le sujet a donc pour seul contenu sa propre désubjectivation: témoin de sa propre débâcle, de sa propre perte comme sujet. Ce double mouvement – de subjectivation et désubjectivation en même temps –, telle est la honte...” Giorgio Agamben, Ce qui reste d’Auschwitz. L’archive et le témoin, [Homo sacer III]. Paris, Seuil., p.114.
15) Jaeyeol Han, ‘Working Notes,’ 2021, p.2.
16) Gilles Deleuze et Felix Guattari, Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 1991, p.103. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What is Philosophy? trans. Hugh Tomlinso and Graham Burchell, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, p.108.
17) Ibid., p.102. What is Philosophy? p.107.
18) “Ecrire, certes, c'est [...] par les mols én leur absence, être en rapport avec ce dont on ne peut !é souvenir, témoin du non-éprouvé, répondant non seulement au vide dans le sujet, mais au sujet comme vide, sa disparition dans l'imminence d'une mort qui a céj â eu lieu hors de tout lieu.” L'Écriture du désastre, p.186.The Writing of the Disaster, p. 121.
19) Maurice Blanchot, L'Écriture du désastre, Paris: Gallimard, 1980, p.9; Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986, p.1.
20) A painter and scholar of the Joseon Dynasty, Yun Du-seo (1668– 1715) is well-known for his self-portrait, which is Korea’s National Treasure No. 240. His bold manner of drawing his own face without the entire body was deemed unconventional and virtually unprecedented during the 17th and 18th centuries.
21) ‘Working Notes,’ p. 3.
22) Maurice Blanchot, L'Écriture du désastre, p.89. Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock, p.53. Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, p. 104.
23) On the first page of his working notes, the artist juxtaposed two images he selected among the vast pool of photographs on the disaster available online. The first one is a pile of more than hundred human corpses, seemingly in the process of mass burial. The second one is a close-up of two pigs, busy copulating on the same land. Nonetheless, it is utterly unclear whether the effect of this juxtaposition results in moral condemnation of pigs ‘unabashedly indulging in carnal pleasures,’ or projection of the artist’s and our shame onto reproductive behaviors of animals, based on amoral impulses. This ambiguity is reminiscent of what Deleuze and Guattari underscored, with Kafka’s stories about animals in mind, that “there is no way to escape the ignoble but to play the part of the animal,” or “thought itself is sometimes closer to an animal that dies than to a living, even democratic, human being.” Gilles Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, p.108. “Nous ne sommes pas responsables des victimes, mais devant les victimes. Et il n'y a pas d'autre moyen que de faire l'animal (grogner, fouir, ricaner, se convulser) pour échapper ã l'ignoble: la pensée même est parfois plus proche dion animal qui meurt que d'un homme vivant, même démocrate.” Gilles Deleuze et Felix Guattari, Qu’est-ce que la philosophie?, p. 103.
24) Alenka Zupančič, ‘Melting into Visibility,’ in Unwatchable, eds. by Nicolas Baer, Maggie Hennefeld, Laura Horak, Gunnar Iversen, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2019, p.49.
25) What is striking is that Goethe’s central tenet of ‘polarity of light and darkness’ seems to resonate with recent findings of scientific experiments in the 21st century. As Olaf L.Müller, an eminent philosopher of science based at the Humboldt University in Berlin, has emphasized in his articles and voluminous book of research, Goethe’s observations are beginning to be corroborated by some, if not all, scientific, empirical measurements. (See for example, Johannes Grebe-Ellis & Oliver Passon, “Goethe’s Farbenlehre from the Perspective of Modern Physics,“ Dialogue vol. 1 (Sep. 2020), pp. 50-59; Olaf L. Müller, ‘Goethe's Polairty of Light and Darkness,’ Journal for General Philosophy of Science/ Zeitschrift für Allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie 49(4), 2018, pp. 581-598; Olaf L. Müller, Mehr Licht: Goethe mit Newton im Streit um die Farben, S. Fischer, Frankfurt a.M. 2015) Olaf’s massive book (544 pages), roughly translated as More Light: Goethe Debating with Newton on Colors, takes Goethe’s last words as its title. If Goethe’s argument, having been marginalized as subjective speculations advanced not by a scientist but by an artist, challenges us to think the world we thought we knew anew, one could argue that Han’s paintings do the same with images.
26) Goethe, Theory of Colours, no. 852, p. 331.
27) Theory of Colours, no. 556, p.225.
28) Frances Guerin, The Truth is Always Grey: A History of Modernist Painting, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018, p. 26.
29) “Die Farbe selbst ist ein Schattiges (skieron); deswegen Kircher vollkommen recht hat, sie Lumen opacatum zu nennen.” “Colour itself is a degree of darkness; hence Kircher is perfectly right in calling it lumen opaticum.” Geothe, Theory of Colours, no. 69, p. 31.
30) Theory of Colours, no. 558, 559, p.225.
31) Walter Benjamin, ‘Zur Malerei’, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. VI, pp. 113.
32) Walter Benjamin, ‘Phantasie’, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. VI, pp. 114.
33) ibid., p. 115.
34) “When we see the ”real image“ we never see the true face, but always a proxy for it- or, if you will, a mask.” Hans Belting, Face and Mask: A Double History. Thomas S. Hansen and Abby J. Hansen, trans. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2017, 246.
35) Jacques Aumont, Du visage au cinema, Paris: Editions de l’Etoile, 1992, p.186.
36) cf. Yung Bin Kwak, ‘Seesawing Between Anemic and Sanguine Faces: On Lim Soonam s Paintings (2021).
The Gathering, Bystanders11.11 - 12.16.2021 / Gallery BK
동의대 영화·트랜스미디어 연구소 전임연구원
동의대 영화·트랜스미디어 연구소 전임연구원
한재열은 작가 생활의 출발점으로 2010년 대지진이 휩쓸고 간 아이티에서의 파병 생활을 꼽곤 한다. 한재열의 그림은 재난의 자리에서 시작된 셈이다. 자연재해와 인재 중에서도 지진은 유별난 재해다. 지진은 사람의 목숨을 앗아갈 뿐 아니라 우리가 몸을 기대고 있는 바닥, 존재의 거처를 가르고 무너뜨리는 재난이기 때문이다. 살아남은 이들은 무너진 바탕과 다름없는 대지에 다시 집을 지어야 한다. 무너진 바탕에서 시작된 그림은 무엇을 재현할 수 있을까? 아이티 파병에서 돌아온 후 아일랜드로 떠난 한재열은 매일 거리에 나가 길을 지나는 사람들을 크로키 했다고 한다. 이후 한재열은 십여 년간 『Passersby』 연작을 이어나간다. 네 번의 개인전을 통해 발표될 『Passersby』 연작의 캔버스는 얼핏 보아 재난으로 부서진 형상을 직설적으로 표현하는 것 같다. 그곳에는 한 사람을 알아볼 수 있는 외양의 차이, 즉 눈, 코, 입이나 사회적 기호, 즉 인종, 성별이나 계급을 추측할 수 있는 기호를 제거한 얼굴 아닌 얼굴이 있다. 이 형상은 질료적 원상태를 끊임없이 환기하는 색채 덩어리, 얼굴의 자리, 자국에 가까워 보인다. 하지만 바꾸어 말하자면 인간과 비인간을 가로지르는 이 초상 아닌 초상‘들’은 십여 년 동안 한재열의 캔버스에서 사라지는 대신 계속 계열을 만들며 ‘출현’한 셈이다. 출현한 침묵, 가령 굳게 다문 입이 일종의 외침을 재현하듯, 사라짐의 출현은 사라지지 않고 남아있는 존재를 우리에게 각인시킨다. 한재열의 후속 작업이 『Bystanders』 로 명명한 군상 시리즈인 것은 우연이 아닐 것이다.
인간성이란 무엇인가라는 질문을 던진 인류의 재난이었던 2차 세계대전의 폐허에서 인간과 정치의 본질이 무엇인지 끊임없이 질문했던 한나 아렌트(Hannah Arendt)는 정치적 차원을 사유하기 위해서는 먼저 복수의 인간들을 사유해야 한다고 주장했었다. 단수의 인간이 인간 일반, 인간의 총체성을 떠올리게 하는 용어라면 다수성으로서의 인간들이라는 용어는 조정 가능성(modulable)을 내포하고 있기 때문이다. 다른 한편 문서고에서 역사 속 이름 없는 이들에 대한 기록물을 살펴온 역사학자 아를레트 파르주(Arlette Farge)는 육체적 양상을 기술한 문서를 역사 기록에 적극적으로 반영해야 한다고 주장한다. 인간이 아닌 인간들, 영혼의 존재가 아닌 육체의 존재들을 통해 정치와 역사의 차원을 복기할 수 있다는 생각을 괴테의 <색채론>에 대한 애정을 표현해 온 한재열의 작업, 초상들의 얼굴(『Passersby』), 얼굴들의 초상(『Bystanders』)에 적용해볼 수 있지 않을까? 가시성의 세계를 조각내는 동시에 뒤섞으면서 한재열의 색채-터치는 일종의 모듈처럼 작동한다. 기계적이고 자동적인 반복을 위한 모듈이 아니라 확정된 이름과 윤곽의 바깥에서 이질성과 복잡성의 감각적인 지대를 조율하는 색채-이미지의 모듈.
특히 역사적 재난과 주변인의 기록 이미지를 조각조각 참조하고 변형, 재배열한 연작에 이르면 이질성의 감각적 세계에 깃든 정치성과 역사성이 매섭게 관람객을 응시한다. 나 의 검은 그림자가 그렇다. 군중의 형상을 받치고 있는 검은 그림자는 우리에게 먼저 캔버스 속 인물들이 겪고 있는 재난, 겪게 될 재난을 상상하도록 할 것이다. 다음 순간 우리는 우리의 얼굴을 캔버스 속 인물의 얼굴 아닌 얼굴에 포갠다. 우리 앞에서 인물의 재난을 환기하던 검은 그림자는 순간 우리 내면의 그림자가 되고 우리는 인물의 재난을 인류의 재난으로 경험한다. 우리 앞에 모습을 드러냈던 얼굴은 우리의 얼굴이 되었다가 마침내 우리를 바라보는 우리 내면의 얼굴이 된다. 한재열의 캔버스에서 이미지의 전율이 출현하는 순간은 바로 이 순간이다.
The Gathering, Bystanders11.11 - 16.12.2021 / Gallery BK
Image Culture Critic and Senior Researcher
at Cinema & Transmedia Institute
Image Culture Critic and Senior Researcher
at Cinema & Transmedia Institute
When asked about the starting point of his artist career, Jaeyeol Han refers to his service in Haiti as a part of the military response following the 2010 earthquake. To put it short, his art began at the site of a disaster. Of the numerous natural and man-made disasters, earthquake is peculiar in that not only does it cost human lives, it also splits and pulverizes the ground we stand on, the very shelter of our existences. It turns the earth into a collapsed background, upon which the survivors must build new houses. When a painting practice initiates from such a collapsed background, what exactly could it represent? After being discharged from his military service in Haiti, Han emigrated to Ireland, went out to its streets every day, and sketched the faces of the passersby. The ensuing Passersby series became a part of his practice for more than ten years. At first glance, the series, having been presented at four separate solo exhibitions (including this occasion), seem to be the unfiltered representations of figures torn apart by a disaster. His faces are robbed of features that make a person unique and distinguishable, such as eyes, nose, mouth, and social signs that imply the person’s race, sex, or social class. Blobs of colors constantly reminding viewers of their material origin. It would be possible to call the images “faces without faces,” the site where a face used to be, or the traces of a face. However, these “portraits without portraits” — both human and non-human at the same time — instead of disappearing from Han’s canvases, have kept appearing in his works, constantly creating series in the meanwhile. Just as how one could represent a shout via an image of silence — for instance, that of a closed mouth — the disappearance appearing here imprints viewers with beings that remain and do not disappear. It was no coincidence that his next series, Bystanders, would feature groups of people.
World War II was such a disaster for mankind that it put forth the question of what humanity is. Among its ashes, Hannah Arendt constantly probed into what the true nature of humans and politics are. To contemplate the realm of politics, she declared that one must first consider the men because the men are what involves modulability; meanwhile, the man is a word that recalls human in general or its overall characteristics. On the other hand, Arlette Farge, a historian who dives into numerous archives to study records made on nameless persons, has asserted that history must actively utilize the documentations made on bodily circumstances. Men without men, or the idea that the realms of politics and history could be revisited via bodily existences instead of the psychological — apply this idea to Han’s oeuvre, the faces in portraits (the Passersby series) and the portraits in faces (theBystanders series) strongly influenced by his love for Goethe’s Theory of Colors. As Han tears the visible world apart and shuffles the pieces simultaneously, his color-marks behave as modules, but not like the ones made for mechanic, automated repetitions. Instead, his ones are color-image modules that regulate the sensory region of disparateness and complexness beyond the boundaries of defined names and contours.
In particular, when we arrive at the Gathering series where Han takes sources from the image archives of disasters and modifies and rearranges the pieces, the politicalness and historicalness ingrained in the sensual realm of disparateness menacingly glare at the viewers. The black shadows in The Gathering, a Man with a Bottle, and The Gathering, Bystanders are such instances. First, the black shadows in Han’s images, serving as the pedestal to the groups of men, urge us to imagine the disasters the characters are suffering (or will be suffering). And in the next moment, we come to merge our faces with the “faces without faces” in his paintings. The black shadows that reminded us of calamities suddenly become shadows within our psyche, and we experience the character’s disaster as mankind’s disaster. The faces summoned in front of us turn into our faces, and at last, become the face within our psyche that stares us back. And in this exact moment, the thrill of the image conjures itself on Han’s canvases.
Translated by Jaehee Han, https://steppingstones.info
IN CONVERSATION WITH HAN JAEYEOL : ON ART BORN FROM DISASTERS, THE PSYCHOLOGY OF FACE-LESS PORTRAITS, AND THE IMPORTANCE OF COLOR
Art Nomade Milan
A talk on “The Gathering; Bystanders” exhibition at Gallery BK, Seoul
“When I fall into the abyss, I go straight into it,
head down and heels up,
and I’m even pleased that I’m falling,
and for me I find it beautiful.
And so in that very shame I suddenly begin a hymn.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Brothers Karamazov
“When I fall into the abyss, I go straight into it,
head down and heels up,
and I’m even pleased that I’m falling,
and for me I find it beautiful.
And so in that very shame I suddenly begin a hymn.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Brothers Karamazov
On Han Jaeyeol’s work
There’s something I will never get tired of stressing, which is: you fall in love with the art you resonate with. Han Jaeyeol’s art represents another confirmation of my belief in this incredible connection that exists between art and spectator, but even more between art and artist. History of art teaches us repeatedly how art is intrinsic with a process of catharsis, of forgiveness, of liberation, leading almost to an experience that some may call thaumaturgic (from θαυματουργία, which literally in ancient Greek means “working miracles”).
Han Jaeyeol starts his artistic journey in reaction to tragedy: in 2010 he works in the response to the disastrous earthquake in Haiti as part of his military service. From this defining moment of his life, the artist takes an interest not only in people, but also in what is behind and beyond people’s appearance: beyond the face, gender, race, and color, in the quest for an insightful gaze on humanity in its deepest meaning. Liberated from their physical features, the abstract expressionist faces of Han Jaeyeol tell a story of emotions and psychology, with a study on color that derives both from Goethe’s infamous theory and from the artist’s abilities in creating his own pigments. This study on portrait is presented in the full “Passersby” series, whose name alludes to his passion for people-sketching born during this time in Ireland.
The evolution of his research resides then on the second series presented at the gallery, which is The Gatherings, where the portraits assume a body and a contextualisation in the re-interpretation and re-imagination of sites of disasters: the political meets the personal, embodied in large-scale paintings that sparkle through their vibrant choice of color. It’s a powerful, impactful, and intimate dialogue at the same time: whereas the Passersby series invites the viewer to look closer and closer, within their own macrocosms of human’s unique existentiality explored through thick textural brushes, The Gathering series is an élance from the painting to the viewer, violent in claiming its own space and attention through the vibrant pigmentation of his colors.
Han Jaeyeol’ exhibition reminds me of the concept of Nostos (νόστος) of the Odyssey: a constant journey on the search of himself through others, on a consequent cycle of events, people, cities, travels, and inspirations that enrich each stroke of oil painting on the canvas. It’s a capture of the ephemeral and the impermanent, a search for something that is beyond everything that the artist encounters.
I had the pleasure of discussing all of this with the artist himself, through an in-depth conversation at Gallery BK, surrounded by the exhibition. It was a very interesting and enriching journey, and it clearly highlighted how much thoughts and research there is behind the artist’ work, as well as a deep curiosity and sensibility for the world he lives in and for the disciplines that try to make sense of it and – ultimately – us, humans.
In Conversation with Han Jaeyeol
VB: Reading the curatorial text of your exhibition at Gallery BK, I learn that your art started in a very peculiar part of your life, which is related to your military service in 2010 in Haiti, in response to the disastrous heart quake. I would love to elaborate on that and how you link the discovery of art practice in relation to such an impactful experience. A long time ago, Aristotle taught us that art can be cathartic, modernists also thought us that is not necessarily a pursuit of beauty, yet others show how beauty can emerge from ruins (physical or metaphoric). What is, then, art for you?
JH: When I was in Haiti, it was just after the huge earthquake had taken place. There were only ruins and people left after a crisis I couldn’t have imagined having experienced or foreseen in my own life. All I could do was look in, from the outside. People are often defined by what is apparent and what we see. But, when you close your eyes, it is not what is shown or apparent that defines who we feel that we are. It is not the color of our skin, nor the muscles that we are built from. We are not what we appear to be, nor what we are made of, but what we think and feel that we are. There began my interest in people.
VB: I am particularly fascinated by your textural work on canvas, the layering that emerges from the brushes, this sort of textural expressionism which becomes powerful in the way the materiality of it reaches out to the viewer. I believe that the technique one chooses is an intrinsic part of the story they want to tell. How did you mature your style? How does it relate to the universe of your stories?
JH: For the Passersby series on the ground floor, I collect symbols as an anthropologist would do – focusing on the face, the head, the body… Then, I remove all their social features through which one may become recognizable. For example, ethnicity, gender, and age are all put aside. What I focus on is the material aspect, the collision of formative elements that confront each other to paradoxically emphasize their presence in their antagonistic characteristics – the curves and the straight linear strokes, the wide and the narrow, the dynamic collision between the fast and the slow, the flat and the thick… And in this process, the abstract and expressive texture naturally reveals itself. The drawings I made to prepare for my paintings also had a lot of influence over my style. In addition to that, I started to make my own pigment bars, which deepened my understanding of materials, and this led to an expansive evolution of my overall expressive style.
VB: In your exhibition at Gallery BK you present two series of your paintings, The Gathering and Passersby. I would love to start with exploring what we can see at the first floor of the gallery, which is the Passersby series. Could you tell me how it connects to your experience in Ireland and Europe and to people-sketching? But also, to the concept of “faces without face”, which is so peculiar in your practice and – from my own sensitivity – opens the door to a macro-cosmos of unveiled feelings and human psychology, which we have access thanks to the absence of the face’s physical features (and personas, perhaps)?
JH: There is a word in Spanish, “imago”, which refers to the molted skin of a larva. This word is also the etymology of the word “image”. During ancient Roman times, imago was the tradition of molding a dead person’s face with wax to reproduce a mask to remember him/her by. Through this procedure, the wax mask hung on the wall of the family of the dead person would represent his/her relationship with the family, thus a symbol of the person to replace his/her existence. The mask would become the face, replacing it, and thus the identity of the dead person. I take inspiration from this in my painting- process.
I don’t have any special or personal ties to Ireland, but my time there was meaningful in what I could experiment as an artist, as I was experimenting to see if I could live as a painter. And so, the Passersby series was born during that time, where I was also distant from family and friends, I was completely alone there, and painting/sketching became my comfort.
Every day, we pass by many unknown people, and we hardly remember any of them properly. But they are each one of them, protagonists at the center of their own lives. I started to document them with my eyes, the countless unknown people passing by. I looked at one person for about 30 seconds and made a quick sketch based on what I had seen. Then, back at the studio, based on what I could remember and what I had sketched, I painted portraits of the people I had seen during the day. In the process, it was interesting for me to see how by not remembering every single detail, I could paradoxically focus on the strong characteristics of the faces and bring out the impression I had taken a glimpse of, beyond the actual apparent features.
VB: The second series that is presented in the Gallery space is The Gathering: in the text it is explained that you take sources from the image archives of disasters, and you modify them, rearranging them. Could you tell us about the reasoning behind the birth of this series?
JH: The second floor shows The Gathering series, which is basically a witness to the age of overflowing images that we live in. It is an attempt to see images, not only as they are, but to see beyond them. To see past what is apparent. As I gradually turned from painting portraits of individuals to depicting people or even groups of people, I started to explore different ways to experiment how I could vary my method of expression within the boundaries of “painterly painting”. One such experiment would be making my own paint and pigments and exploring different types of material. Another would be to assemble and juxtapose random images in the fashion of a “montage” so that the narrative of each image can collide with that of another and create new narratives. As I did for the “Passersby” series, I, as a person living in the 21st century and as a witness to my own historical timeline, drew inspiration from historical footage but tried to conceal as much as possible the exact source of my inspiration. It is through this ambiguity that viewers can take the space they need to imagine their own narratives and let the images converse with one another. I place images side by side the way directors like Goddard, Eisenstein, and Harun Farocki would, as a montage.
VB: I feel like there are a lot of layers that take part into this series: there is, for instance, a political and historical realm, yet there is also the vibrancy and sensuality – almost aggressive in taking their place in the space – of these bright colors. Could you tell us more about the choice of colors and how it relates to what you want to convey through the series?
JH: I was very much influenced by Goethe’s theory of colors. Of course, it is nothing near scientific today and it’s a quite personal and intuitive analysis of colors, but this really helped with my painterly imagination. So, with Goethe in mind, I based my work on the three basic colors, red, yellow and blue, and made variations based on these. At the same time, I was always thinking about the collision of textural elements that paradoxically emphasized their presence on the canvas. My idea of colors is ultimately linked to balancing out the brightness of each color, rather than focusing on the hues.
VB: Is there anything else you would like to add related to the two series presented which we haven’t touched yet?
JH: I worked on the Passersby series for over 10 years, and this exhibition is, in a way, the closing of the series. With the exhibition at Gallery BK, I began my new series, The Gathering. What I found most interesting during this experience was that at one point, each face of the Passersby series started to demand a body, a more global/holistic narrative. It’s interesting how there is such a duality in which on one side the artist commands with the technique of his brush, but one the other side it’s often the paintings that demand the artist to evolve in style [which could lead to the reflection that Lacan does about the painting/portrait gaze and how it has agency in the relationship with the spectator, ndr.]
VB: You currently live and work in Berlin, which is such a peculiar city, both from the historical and cultural side. As an art historian, I can’t help connecting your series “The Gathering” with the work of German expressionism but correct me if I’m wrong. Has living in Berlin shaped your practice? How are you negotiating your experience there?
JH: You are right to point out the influence of German expressionism in my style, but then again, I must admit I was influenced by pretty much every artist in the long lineage of history of art that I had the chance to come across. I believe each artist endeavours to give an answer to the question of what art is, on a canvas. And these answers, accumulated in the course of time, make up the History of Art as we know it today. During this evolution in time, materials change, techniques are improved, information and data can change, and technology evolves one way or another. I think my paintings are also influenced by all these evolving factors and still changing and evolving in time. And definitely, I chose to live in Berlin because I think it’s a city where one can find the right balance between the commercial art scene and the experimental attempts in art, and the range/scope of cultural benefits is considerably larger compared to any other place I’ve been to.
Gesichter ohne Namen
Editor in Chief
Art in Culture
<Passersby, Difference and Repetition> / Öl auf Leinwand, 259.1×193.9cm, 2015
<Passersby, Unmask> / Öl auf Leinwand, 90.9×72.7cm, 2016
Der Fotograf Suntag Noh sieht das Gesicht als standardisierendes Kriterium, eine Person als Individuum zu identifizieren: „… der einzige Körperteil, der als Äquivalent zum Namen einer Person gesehen werden kann, ist das Gesicht.“ Das Gesicht ist nicht nur die Vergegenwärtigung der einzigartigen Identität einer Person, sondern auch ein untrüglicher Beweis dafür, dass diese Person existiert hat. Auch wenn die Personen, die in einer Ausstellung fotografisch dargestellt sind, gänzlich unbekannt sind, genügt die Existenz einer porträtierenden Fotografie als Beweis, dass diese Personen zu einer gegebenen Zeit gelebt haben. Das menschliche Gesicht ist das einzige Studienobjekt des Künstlers Jaeyeol Han. Doch anstatt realistische Ebenbilder zu erzeugen, bildet er Personen in namenloser Anonymität ab. Jaeyeol malt Gesichter, deren Namen getilgt wurden.
〈Passersby, Outrageous〉 / Oil Stick auf Leinen, 25×35cm, 2013
Jaeyeol beobachtet Gruppen von Menschen und skizziert die charakteristischen Besonderheiten interessanter Gesichter innerhalb weniger Minuten. Diese Skizzen dienen später als Basis für die Werke, die in seinem Studio entstehen. Ohne das Wissen, dass sie beobachtet werden, geben einige Passanten für einen Augenblick tiefe Einsicht in ihre Gefühle und Stimmungen. Genau diese gefühlsmäßigen Momentaufnahmen werden zu unverwechselbaren Gesichtsausdrücken, die wiederum später als Leitmotiv in Jaeyeols Werk wiederbelebt werden. Jaeyeol beschreibt es so: „Ich eröffne die Möglichkeit, den Gesichtern Leben einzuhauchen, die allzu leicht übergangen oder ignoriert werden können. Ich versuche eine neue Perspektive in unserem modernen Zeitalter zu schaffen, in dem sich Menschen oft passiv begegnen – über Telefon oder Facebook –, anstatt sich in der realen Welt zu treffen, von Angesicht zu Angesicht.
2010, als Jaeyeol seine Reihe “Passersby” in Irland begann, arbeitete er mit Leinwänden in A4-Größe (8,27 x 11,69 inches). Einerseits konnte er so mehr Werke fertigstellen,andererseits waren die porträtierten Gesichter fast in Lebensgröße, was den Eindruck einer „Personengruppe“ entstehen ließ, wenn die Werke gemeinsamausgestellt wurden. Später wurden seine Bilder größer als zwei Meter. Jaeyeol arbeitet mit Oil Sticks, die als Verlängerung der Bewegung von Schulter zu Arm und letztendlich zur Leinwand fungieren. Je größer die Leinwand, desto dynamischer sind die Körperbewegungen des Künstlers. Der Fokus liegt hierbei auf der Erforschung der fundamentalen, der Malerei innewohnenden Möglichkeiten. Zu diesem Zweck malt Jaeyeol die Gesichter in der Reihenfolge Knochen, Muskeln, Körperfett und Haut, um so die somatischeStruktur seiner Vorlage ausdrücken zu können.
〈Passersby, In silence〉/ Öl auf Leinwand, 190×130cm, 2013
Er sieht seine Arbeit als “beides, Malerei und Bildhauerei zur gleichen Zeit“. Das Impasto ist charakteristisch für seinen Stil. Das daraus resultierende Gefühl von Tiefe in Kombination mit hellen, ausdrucksstarken Grundfarben erzeugt Authentizität. Die charakteristischen Merkmale seiner Vorlage, die sie umgebende Atmosphäre und der Lichteinfall dienen als Ausgangspunkt für die Werke. Jaeyeols Farbauswahl ist eine Symbiose aus einer Anlehnung an Goethes Farbtheorie und seinem eigenen Instinkt. Er sieht die Reihe „Passersby“ als Prolog einer Geschichte, die ihn sein ganzes Leben begleiten wird. Jede Person, die er in einem seiner Werke eingefangen hat, spielt eine ganz bestimmte Rolle innerhalb dieser Geschichte. Welche Rolle ein bestimmtes Porträt hierbei spielt, bleibt dem Betrachter selbst überlassen. Ob Fahndungsfoto, Fotografie oder gemaltes Porträt, wir sind ständig mit einer überwältigenden Anzahl an Gesichtern konfrontiert, denen wir jedoch kaum Beachtung schenken oder uns gar weigern, uns an sie zu erinnern. Jaeyeols Arbeit gibt uns die Möglichkeit, die Rolle des menschlichen Gesichts in unserer modernen Gesellschaft zu überdenken, etwas das trotz seiner unentbehrlichen Wichtigkeit oft in die Sphäre der Peripherie verbannt wird.
This face is an icon
얼굴은 상징이다. 인종 없음, 성별 없음, 연령 없음, 종교 없음, 국적 없음의 상징이다. 가능한 모든 사회적 특징을 지워버린, 그런데도 우리를 앞을 그저 스쳐 지나가는 무수하고 익숙한 신체의 상징이다. 매일 떠오르고 사라지는 이미지의 상징이며, 초상화의 고전적 태도를 과거로부터 다시 빌려와 살아있는 인간이 살아있는 인간을 바라보고 흔적을 기록한 인류학적 수집물이다. 이를 위해, 나는 회화적 회화의 매체적 실험의 일환으로 조형적 요소의 끊임없는 충돌을 집약해서 피사체에 가두고 촉각을 자극하는 원초적 표현을 충동적으로 사용해왔다.
재난의 주변을 맴도는 자로서의 2010년의 아이티에서의 나의 경험이 가라앉은 자와 구조된 자의 이미지에 관한 관심을 촉발했다. 재난은 언제나 시간에 대한 경험이고 순간이 아니라 지속하는 것이었다. 관심은 자연스럽게 일상으로 장소를 옮겼다. 어떠한 이야기에서 중요한 것 중의 하나는 그 이야기를 듣는 사람이고 이야기를 주의 깊게 들을 때 전달할 힘을 갖게 된다. 어딘가에 머물며, 주변을 응시하면서 획득하는 경험이 나의 미술적 발전을 이끌어 왔다. 궁극적으로, 이미지의 본질을 향한 탐구 과정을 통해 상실의 이미지에 잔존하는 것이 무엇인지 시각언어로 뱉는 실험들은 질문한다.
This face is an icon, one that represents no specific race, sex, age, religion, or nationality. It symbolizes the countless, familiar bodies that have erased all possible social distinctions, yet still pass by us. This icon represents the images that arise and disappear every day, and it serves as an anthropological collection that borrows the classical attitude of portraits from the past and records the traces of living humans observing other living humans. As part of the media experiment of painterly painting, I have been impulsively using primitive expression to integrate constant collisions of formative elements, and contain them in subjects that stimulate the tactile sense.
My experience in Haiti as a bystander during the disaster of 2010 sparked my interest in the image of the drowned and saved. Disasters have always been an experience of time, not just a moment, but a lasting one. The attention naturally spreads to everyday life and shifts to different places. One of the most significant elements in a story is the person who listens to it and has the power to deliver it when listened to carefully. The experience detected by observing the surroundings where I reside has driven my artistic development. Ultimately, experiments based on visual language question what remains in the image of survival through an exploratory process towards the essence of the image.
Jaeyeol Han, 2021