Works of Art and the Ideal, Virtual, Real

An Artist Review on Lee Chang-Hoon

Hyunjin Shin (Ph. D. Art Criticism and Theory)

Could Descartes, who enlightened us that humans exist because they think, ever have imagined that humans of a later age would spend such a long time in the world of thought, i.e., the virtual world? Our lives, which frequent the virtual time-space shown by LCD monitors all day long, at home and in the subway, are without a doubt moving closer and closer to the virtual world. Even in this moment as I try to glimpse Lee Chang-Hoon’s world of art, I choose to go into the artist’s website, a virtual world. I thus begin this travelogue strongly believing that looking at the documentations on it is the same as real aesthetic experience.

Where is the ideal?

The first work I went to, Brilliantly scattered again into space (to the earth) , is a piece consisting of beads taken off a bracelet and arranged on the floor in a triangle. The word “beads” is said to have come from “bidden” or “bade,” meaning prayer. Like the Catholic sister’s rosary, the Buddhist priest’s prayer beads, and the popular custom a few years back of wearing a pink bead bracelet if you wanted to meet a lover, the artist’s idea of substituting beads for the ideal seems appropriate. Thus the artist has said that those who take a bead from the gallery are taking one ideal home. This reminds me of Untitled by Gonzalez-Torres. In this work Gonzalez-Torres stacked a pile of candies in the exhibition space and had spectators take them, wishing that they would thereby be able to take with them the sweetness that had been the virtue of his deceased lover. I am not saying that the logical structure of Gonzalez-Torres and the structure of the work by Lee exactly correspond to each other. This is particularly so in terms of the sense of distance. To anyone who has experienced love at one point, the sweetness of an ideal lover would already be as close as the inside of that person’s head. Meanwhile, the ideal is in the world of metaphysics, as far as the other side of the River Lethe. In this work also, in order for the ideal in the metaphysical world to exist in the real world, it had to be prayed for, over and over, until it finally came rolling down in the form of beads. So the probability of anyone’s interpreting the beads as a crystallization of the ideal, just because they are placed in the shape of a triangle, seems as farfetched as the distance between the virtual world inside the head and the metaphysical world. Must the distance be close? I think so. Considering the discord between the work’s ideal and individual spectators’ aesthetic experience, or between the ideal and the real, as a failure of truth, is a symptom of the so-called postmodern society. This is even more evident when we think about the coherence of Lee Chang-Hoon’s world of art, which we will discuss hereafter.

As time passes

The original title of the second work I opened was Red Time_12 Flags posted sequentially every month (2016.09~ ). The artist intended to raise a succession of plain red flags in a broad field near Dumulmeori, Yangpyeong, one each month, to compare their degrees of discoloration according to time. However, the work apparently ended incomplete, and thus gained the new title “Unfinished Project.” The reason behind this was the filing of many official complaints due to the significance associated with red flags. What kind of complaints were they? I did not want to think local residents had associated the flags with pro-North Korean leftist pinkos just because the flags were red. I went to the virtual world of the Internet to search for Dumulmeori in Yangpyeong. I discovered the news that the local residents had struck an agreement with the government to make an ecological park following the struggle against former president MB’s Four Rivers project, but that the government was refusing to take responsibility for managing the park. The “compromised ideal” they had achieved together seemed to be ending in the atmosphere of the government’s betrayal. So I decided to hope that the residents who filed complaints did so because the flags reminded them of the color red symbolizing the conservative ruling party at the time and its fading promises. Was artist Lee Chang-Hoon, who had dealt with ideals in his previous works also, trying to deal with ideals in this work as well? Did he intend to connect the discord between the ideal and the real to the factor of time? Probably he did. If his ideal is something eternal, there is no reason to focus on the difference caused by passing time. In that case, I could not help thinking how fortunate it was that this work ended in incompletion. For some time, I have been reading a book called From Being to Doing: The Origins of the Biology of Cognition. In this book of interviews, I remember the part where the author asks cognitive biologist Humberto Maturana if his research is “empirical epistemology.” Epistemology has been involved with fixing permanent ideals and truths. To add the word empirical to such epistemology is to ask if the work of Maturana incorporates the working of the empirical world in his theory, unlike the work of Plato. Oho! As I read more, I discovered the thesis that “perceptional activity produces the world.” This was puzzling. As I read some more, the book said humans with incomplete bodies, such as the blind spot in the eye, have no way to determine the external world accurately except by compensating through thought. If we follow this mechanism of perception, we meet Maturana’s conclusion that humans are not beings who prioritize apriori truths and try to live accordingly, but beings who perceive the empirical world and decide on truth or non-truth posteriorly through thought, and that it is these decisions that construct the world. Ultimately the truth is not caused by some authority somewhere up high in a metaphysical world giving norms or codes of conduct to humans, but by the consequence of thinking activity itself within humans’ heads. In other words, Maturana’s logic is based on a worldview according to which activity in the virtual world converges with the ideal. I was thrilled by the thought that perhaps the ideals produced by Lee Chang-Hoon’s art and philosophy were also not in an eternal space of “idea,” but positioned in a time that could be discolored. Moreover, in this project the artist reflected the process of empirical cognition onto the form of the ideal, similar to Maturana’s logic. In other words, in its first stage his work was presented as the red flag embodying the metaphysical idea. Then it went through the cognitive activities of the residents of Dumulmeori living in the real world, after which the residents’ thoughts (though specifically unknown) produced a real world without red flags through a mechanism called civil complaint. Could there be a more meaningful situation for an artist who wants to express the Red Time, becoming discolored with the lapse of time? After all, his work was about the process in which the obscure idea called “red” was capturing the time of the virtual world, as residents engaged in cognitive activity. If the work had not ended in incompletion, there is a much higher possibility that the traces of time experienced in the empirical world by the work of art would not have been discussed at all.

There is a lot of time

The next work I saw, The line cutting a Circle, was a series of photographs inspired by a calendar left behind by a local resident at the time when the old Institute of Health complex in Eunpyeonggu was moving out, and the new Innovation Park was being established. The calendar of course showed dates of the past. It seems that the artist discovered a time in a dimension cut off from the society outside. Since it was an encounter of the time-space cut off after being used as a standard for people working there, with the artist’s time, I could imagine the philosophy of time between the ideal and the real worlds would be dealt with more profoundly here. The grounds for my interpretation that this work is about time, lie not only in its subject matter, the calendar, but also in my recall of the artist’s previous work Reset Machine. In explaining that work, which took off from the presumption that time can be reset, the artist named the time produced from repetitive actions of the everyday, “flow of time circulating in a circle.” The way Lee deals with time-space is quite peculiar. To him time is physically a closed circle, and includes space to be sliced off diagonally. Socially it includes another dimension of time that does not coincide with the standardized time we have agreed upon. In addition, Lee defines that there is a vacuum crack between the time marked by the calendar and the time of its photographing. That is the mass of non-visual time to be felt by spectators in the dimension of the senses. To talk of the mass of time, dimension of senses, and slicing time… The explanation is too abstract to conclude that the work is based on social issues such as redevelopment or government policy, like others’ works. At the same time, we sense the language of science. Is it quantum mechanics? I imagined a quantum mechanics view of time-space and even his worldview from his concept of multiple independent times as they were reset and sliced. Perhaps the artist’s philosophy considers the time-space of quantum mechanics—a multiverse. Quantum mechanics began from the fact that light has the properties of a wave and a particle at the same time. Moreover, it is undecided when light or an atom will act like a particle or like a wave. What we can know is only the probability of its being a wave or a particle. The particle/wave, however, becomes a particle in the moment it is observed, and only then is it fixed in a specific time-space. Super-String Theory, which is a development of this theory, made the proposition that a different future, or universe, would be created according to every possibility of the probability, and consequently the number of universes in the world would increase in exponential progression. I interpreted the calendar work of The line cutting a Circle as the artist’s attempt to have spectators feel the time-space in the different dimension he had experienced while observing the calendar. To Lee, time is multiplex. He goes even further, urging us to journey to the multiplex time-spaces. His time-space travel machine is the calendar. Journeys were made, once via Calendar-Heterochronia, and once via Horizontal Reset. Calendar was a proposal to use the 2026 calendar in 2016, and in Horizontal Reset, the artist’s essay—contrasting linear views on time with circular views on time—accompanied the journey.

Ideal as probability

From now we must discuss how the discord between ideal and real, views on time that include thought activity in the virtual world as well as in life, and the multiplex worldview influence the artist’s art in the real world. To Lee, time-space is multiplex. But that does not mean the time-space to which he leads us is a fantasy world populated by aliens resembling octopuses. Nor is he trying to say “Believe in Tao!” like the people who link quantum physics to the New Age. Art is different from religion, and to compare the two in their sense of distance from the empirical world, religion is closer to the metaphysical world. Lee’s multiplex world is closer to the multiverse in the quantum theory. In short, I suppose it could be fit into the keyword “probability.” The interesting part of quantum mechanics is this probability. The significance for humans of the possibility that multiple time-spaces coexist, is that our cosmos and future are not decided, and the universe we experience now is just a coincidental place we ended up among the infinite number of universes produced by probability. On the other hand, the probability of the quantum theory is something that can be calculated accurately, such as the probability of its being a particle or a wave. But it is still probability despite the possibility of its being calculated. Therefore this is different from Descartes’ subject-centered philosophy, according to which a value judgment can differ depending on free-will, subjective viewpoints. Hence, Lee’s art is placed within the bounds of the past we could have travelled in and the “predictable uncertainties” of a future we look back at. Lee’s work Predictable Uncertainties is a book compiled of pages with traces of thoughts and activities left on a blackboard that was used for one year as a table top. We know what marks could possibly have been left on the desk by probability. Probability is the calculation of predictable multiple results concerning what is going to happen, and is quite different from deciding the answer.
If my assumptions about Lee Chang-Hoon’s philosophy are correct, appreciating and critiquing his art works will be no different from probability. Time-space of aesthetic experience is also only predictable through probability. That is, we cannot know for sure if the local residents interpreted the red flags in Red Time as communist symbols or as the symbolic color of the conservative ruling party then. Perhaps the artist knows. Only because the reality was set. But what is important is that before the experience of a work was completed, room for interpretation only existed as probability—either communist or conservative party—and the artist was not to decide in advance. In the network of significance held by humans today, which meaning the spectator would choose and interpret by only exists as probability. But because of such uncertainty, the ideal—the red flag in the metaphysical world—could absorb resident-spectators’ virtual activity in the process of aesthetic experience. And at least the work created two interpretations despite the abstractness of the red flag. In his artist’s notes, Lee stated, “I do not want my work to remain in the ideal world by only showing the matters of pure time. I expect that the work will traverse our lives to reflect the real, and will be extended and interpreted in diverse directions.” When art is probability, how is it possible for it not to distance itself from reality, as much as from the ideal world? This probably depends on what spectators (including critics) willingly give time to think about and to make an interpretation of their own (instead of understanding an intention the artist prescribed). In addition, I dare to propose that the artist set up a relationship between artwork and spectators that demands their cognitive activity. If humans think and therefore exist, then thought activity should rightfully be converged with the ideal, which has guaranteed failure so far.