Specificity of Time Signs

Specificity of Time Signs

Ahn Sohyun (Independent Curator)

Fabrication of Signs

Intentionally or unintentionally, Lee Changhoon seeks to give indications of something in his work. In other words, he makes use of signs. Because no kind of art can enter the vacuum state of meaning (declaration to eliminate meaning also becomes meaning), all art is a sign. However, Lee does not allow signs to freely operate on their own but continuously fabricates them.

If a few coins are thrown into a moderate-sized space in the shape of the word “HOPE” into the water of a pond, then people naturally throw in coins while making their wishes. Hope (2015) In this case, the fact that the sign of “HOPE” means “hope” remains unchanged by virtue of the promise between the members of society who understand this language (English). This is because language is comprised of signs of a considerably strong social promise, and therefore it is impossible to change the meanings arbitrarily. However, meaning is added to this sign due to the act of people throwing in coins while making their wishes. To be precise, sign reaction 2 indicating the meaning “throw a coin and make a wish” if coins are placed in the space inside the public place – pond – is added onto sign reaction 1 where the linguistic sign of “HOPE” indicates the meaning “hope.” However, sign reaction does not end here. Fall 2015, people wonder about the intention of the person who installed the sign of the group memorial altar for the victims of the Sewol Ferry tragedy in the museum in the city of Ansan. Some recall particular tragic incidents, and others recall the overall despair of life. Regardless of the intention of the person who installed this sign, sign reaction 3 cannot be omitted from reality.

Accurately speaking, the meanings of layers of sign not only increase but continuously intermingle in Hope. This is because the physical part of the signifiers, that is, the strokes of the letters written on a certain background, of the linguistic sign of “HOPE” was utilized as a target space to throw in coins. On the other hand, the signified – “hope” – indicated by the linguistic sign of “HOPE” is overlapped with the signified “hope” contained in the act of making a wish while throwing coins, therefore becoming two layers. This is turn becomes three layers as it is overlapped with the signified “hope” that people can cherish in situations of extreme despair that can be verified in the particular venue known as Gyeonggi Museum of Art in Ansan. The process of the physical “seat” occupied by the linguistic sign becoming “space” then expanded as “place” clearly demonstrates the process and effect of Lee’s fabrication of signs (though this is not a rare situation).

Time Symbol: Abstract Sign

Another kind of symbol that Lee Changhoon often works with is the numbers on calendars. The artist uses customs or regulations, and inertia or conventionality embedded in the operation of signs, just like the linguistic sign of Hope, also in his works utilizing the calendar. Ordinary calendars contain numerical signs that indicate the date and days of the week established by strict legal provision. These are symbolic signs in accordance with social consensus. Moreover, calendars often contain different images for every month, and these images are marked by the conventionality that the term “calendar picture” already contains. Calendar – Hétérochronie (2015) is a calendar ten years from the present; that is, the time in which the work was created. Because the numbers in the calendar are mostly used for the purpose of confirming the current point in time or estimating the distance between a certain point in time to another, a calendar with a time period so far off in the future (10 years from now) gives a strange impression that the target to be indicated by the sign escaped too far away. Moreover, the surprisingly conventional and unchanging calendar pictures intensify this strange feeling. The gap between the numbers of the calendar – the most commonly used measure to sense the flow of time – and the unchanging images add a subtle peculiarity. Horizontal Reset (2015) highlights this gap more directly through the arrangement of numbers that changes every year in a calendar with fixed images.

What is the reason behind Lee’s fabrication of the signs of the calendar? Through the title “Hétérochronie,” the artist directly advocates that the work addresses the issue of time. However, the time that Lee deals with in his calendar work is extremely limited. Firstly, this work is not a question of the nature of time. As Henri Bergson perpetually emphasized, pure time, by nature, as a form of experience, that is, continuance, is not divided by fixed units. Rather, we divide it by segments such as years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds by utilizing the “equidistant” spatial ideal. Therefore, Lee’s conception of time, which fully retains these segments, is quite different from exploring the nature of time. Of course, the capability of art exploring the nature of time while maintaining these segments has been thoroughly proved through the work of On Kawara. However, there continues to be a large gap between the power of repetition and continuance throughout life to a point where the reverence reflected in the work of On Kawara is clouded and the temporality of the ten years that Lee is addressed with the calendar. To be precise, the peculiarity presented by the preview of a calendar of a decade from now does not result from experiencing future time but from deviating from the general use of a calendar, which is for the purpose of foreseeing the present, near-past, and near-future. The unfamiliarity experienced in Horizontal Reset also originates from the dislocation of conventional calendar pictures from the characteristics of the calendar as a sign indicating change; it does not represent contradictory time experience; that is, fundamental entanglement of time such as the recovery of lost time of Marcel Proust or as in the words of Hamlet, “the time is out of joint.” Therefore, this work is not a question of the nature of time but a story on “time signs,” characterized by the human designation of time. Then the subsequent question is, are there only symbols provided for by strict promise among people in time signs?

Time Indices: Specific Time

A different kind of time sign also appears in Lee Changhoon’s calendar work. In the work 2015 Burned on 2014 (2015), Lee burned a cigarette every day from January 1 to December 31, 2014 and used the ashes on paper to make a 2015 calendar. This work is similar to other calendar works in that it relies on the numbers of the calendar, but the cigarette remains of each day are a sign including neither a certain social custom nor consensus. They are physical traces remaining in the space, and they are a sign referred to as index. Earlier on, the artist had created confusion of indices by placing traffic signs with the names of places and arrows in the wrong places (Lost One’s Way – Sweet Story, 2011); this was related not only to linguistic signs but also indices indicating intuitive directions. Whether numbers or cigarette ashes, they are no different in that they indicate each day. However, these indices present a completely different time from the dates on the calendar; this has to do with the fact that the indices show the time that the person who has produced the sign has “passed by” (whether in reality or not), that is, experienced time. From this, we can clearly understand the difference between symbolic signs and index signs that we find in semiotics. Dates on the calendar indicate ideological and abstract time. This kind of time is a certain temporal size or length that is understood ideologically, not a time that someone has actually experienced. On the other hand, the weight of time that the artist actually experienced draws closer in the cigarette ash calendar (this weight is what determines the life of On Kawara’s work). Time that someone has experienced, even if this time has not provoked a particular incident, it is different from the time that is “represented” by the numbers on the calendar. If this were the length of a space, writing one year on the calendar as “1 km,” the cigarette ash accumulated over the period of a year takes on the same specificity and weight as observing a drawn line that is a kilometer long. This represents physical indices and the weight of life’s immediacy that cannot be replaced by abstract numbers. The dates marked on the walls of prison are different in terms of weight from the numbers on the calendars of ordinary households because the weight of life that the signs of time pull is that much different.

Lee Changhoon, to some extent, seems to have been aware of the weight of such materiality generated by the index signs of time. Predictable Uncertainty (2015) features a blackboard that has been place like a table, repeatedly writing and erasing various thoughts. This is a work recording the cup and ring marks and scratches directly revealed on the blackboard, in the form of a photograph. Laying the blackboard flat on a table is not an enormously creative act, but with careful consideration, it can be realized that this minor spatial change results in a diverse range of the types of signs accommodated by the blackboard. If a blackboard is hung on the wall, then the premises are formed that the blackboard will accommodate mostly signs that are conscious of someone, and that these signs embody messages to show someone (including the artist). On the other hand, the blackboard used as a table is appropriate for accommodating – in addition to intentional signs – unintentional traces left behind due to gravitational action and stains resulting from physical contact; that is, indices. Perhaps this is why Lee repeatedly erases, rewrites, and then again erases letters, which are intentional symbolic signs, and gradually creates the background into a space where only indices remain. These indices are based on extremely direct and simple causality, but this is the precise reason behind them bringing about more abundant and complex emotions than abstract meaning indicated by symbols. Those signs take on a relationship that is closer to the body of the person creating the signs, and they are much more specific than symbols, which usually rely on ideas and concepts.

Although it is not displayed in this exhibition, Lee has created a work that erased the traces in such a space and instead recorded just the process. The works Painting or Erasing (2014), a video recording the process of the artist painting the walls of the exhibition hall with a white color for seven days, and A Different Landscape – Heterotopia (2014), a video recording the process of scooping up water from the pond of a museum, offloading the water into the sea, scooping up seawater, and filling the pond with seawater, do not leave behind distinguishable traces within the space, but leave a different kind of sign, namely, video. Here, the videos of Lee Changhoon, to some extent, are the most “indexical” compared to the other above-mentioned time signs. This is because videos do not indicate something else like linguistic signs but is the process itself, as if ready-made is placed inside the exhibition hall. Rosalind Krauss’s quoting of Marcel Duchamp in “Notes on Index”) Part 1) clearly summarizes the indexicality that these works take on. “The important thing is just this matter of timing, this snapshot effect, like a speech delivered on no matter what occasion but at such and such an hour.)”1>

Lee Changhoon has diversified the range of his work from time characterized by abstract concepts to specific time embodying weight, and time as a process itself, though without traces. The artist seems to be in the level of experimenting with all time signs, and he seems to verify his artistic power in all these signs. However, as mentioned above, the weight of each time sign is different, and the less conventional and abstract the sign, the greater the weight that the people feel. In this light, index signs, Lee’s most recent focus, are more attractive as they embody specificity and immediacy of life. Visitors are certainly more attracted to “what people generally repeat” rather than what “the artist actually repeated.” This has probably already been proved by Duchamp’s ready-made and On Kawara’s dates. To work the concept of time most specifically – this is probably one of the answers that Lee’s experiment with time signs has proved.

1> Rosalind E. Krauss, “Notes on Index” (Part I) (1976), in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, MIT Press, 1985, p. 206.