By KO Dong-yeon (Art History)
How has contemporary art portrayed nature? The notions of post-humanism or trans-humanism has been aggressively criticized and deconstructed human’s dominant status over nature conceived by classical humanism. Introspection by humans who have severely damaged nature leads to criticism of classical humanism. In this regard, I’d like to ask a question out of context. How much lower could humans possibly go? Or, how can humans desist of their anthropocentric attitude?
The question above is raised to review the way in which the artist duo Siyeon KIM and Seoun PARK, who have worked in a wide range of art genres from short experimental film to media art and photography, establish relationships between nature and human beings through their recently produced media installations. The artist duo’s installations and photographs on show at the Jeju Museum of Contemporary Art such as Reve (2021) and Their Own Ways (2021) could be pigeonholed as what is commonly called ecological art. And yet, their art show in Jeju has us seriously reconsider the correlation between nature and humans. In particular, they show how nature can be perceived in distortion or refraction to some of the younger generation familiar with virtual reality.
Works on show at this exhibition are the results made by shooting Marado, Jeju and its surroundings in photography and video while staying in the art studio for one year. These works focus primarily on signs of a human being that appear very dim in nature and the human point of view toward nature as an extension of Apartment (2019), one of their previous pieces that recorded human traces when staying at a specific site.
Their Own Ways is a detailed representation of an extremely difficult process of carrying and displaying a dead tree stump as an object in the museum. This documentary video deals with the process of carrying in the museum the stump the owner of a guesthouse located at 73, Mara-ri, Marado kept in consecutive order. This video documents the processes of bringing this dead stump into the museum space: the process of loading it on a boat to ship it from Marado to Jeju; the process as the truck arrives at the museum’s back entrance slowly describing a parabola; the process of sterilizing this stump outside the museum. What comes to my mind is that the ecological change of this deadwood will be stopped if we eradicate all insects from this dead stump.
The exhibition title Fascination of Emptiness: Correlation between Isolation and Solitude hints that for Siyeon KIM and Seoun PARK nature seems not ‘functional’ to help them heal and overcome their isolation. They present nature neither as an alternative system to resolve a problem humans face nor a medium. Their Own Ways rather follows a convention we humans have exploited and altered nature from our own point of view, quite naturally unmasking the antinomical situation where we might damage and spoil nature in order to display and protect it. Moreover, the virtual natural scenery no longer looks so strange to us. What is the relationship between nature and human beings? And how does a contemporary art museum bring nature into its space?
A drone’s point of view of the forest: Rêve
Siyeon KIM and Seoun PARK have worked, cutting across the boundaries between nonfiction documentary and media art as well as film and fine arts. They produced pieces on show at this exhibition as documentary film, media and video installation, photography, and photographic installation. Rêve (2021) on display on the first floor of the gallery recomposes sounds and images they gleaned from nature and then fills the entire scene by mapping them. Dotted formless images come up from the bottom like waves, gradually form a forest, and then are again fragmented. As a tree grows from a seed, trees grown from the bottom form an immense forest and then cover the entire scene. After that they are shattered into tiny dots and die away. Tiny dots forge an enormous forest and are again reduced into tiny pieces. This is suggestive of the cycles in an ecosystem.
Images and sounds in Rêve are complementable. Its scene is jam-packed with sounds after trees become dim gradually and images disappear as in Big Bang. As soon as tiny dots grow into a tree and fill the whole scene, visual information overpowers spectators in lieu of sounds. Any visual and aural snippets keep their balance, helping each other. A spectator eventually witnesses a gigantic, dynamic spectacle.
Art that fuses subject matter from media art with that from ecological art brings nature to its practice by representing forms of nature and guiding viewers to undergo changes in an ecosystem firsthand. Of course, humanity’s sensory organs play a huge role in this process. It is in the same context that 1960s hippies who desired to return to nature wanted to bring their senses to the most natural state. By the way, Rêve seems to employ all the ways of contemporary art to embrace nature through both process and result. It is in the sense that it aggressively utilizes forms of nature but intends to stimulate the viewer’s senses in pace with changes in nature. Even if the images of nature here are broken into pieces, the human subject’s perspective toward nature would not disappear to the end. Humanities scholars have recently proposed to not be oppressive or predominant over nature even if human subjectivity dies away in a positive sense. The state in which the subject loses its identity in Rêve is perhaps included in this case. The camera’s point of view, however, breaks rapidly away from a dense forest before trees in this forest are completely destroyed. The drone camera’s point of view ascends to heaven and looks down on the forest and trees. Its aerial view reminds spectators of the almighty observer’s existence.
As a result, Rêve is an example of meddling and exploring through the subject of nature. As its French title Rêve (dream in English) indicates, this work actively reflects a subject’s emotional state and viewpoint. Although it is a mapping of an outgrowth after shooting nature, it would be proper to say that this work gives rise to a new cosmos. The artists aggressively or even fictionally recreate their surrounding nature according to their intention. In 2004, the pioneering theoretician of ecological art and ecological art education Meri-Heiga Mantere put emphasis on the importance of art education concerned with sensuous observation and communication, rather than conveying knowledge or messages in environmental education or ecological education.1) The ultimate objective of eco-digital art or digit-eco art that combines ecological art with digital art is to lead viewers to adapt themselves to their environment.
Rêve goes with the stream of eco-digital art in that it tries to reinforce the artist and viewer’s sensory experience. And yet, the artists in this work change forms and show of their presence as observers who are omniscient and omnipotent, keeping their proper distance from an object on the edge of a forest. They completely destroy snippets acquired from nature and perfectly recompose them using digital technology. The artists’ view overlooking a forest, rather than to be buried in nature, is the viewer’s point of view.
How can we bring a natural object into the museum? Mara 73
Nature in Siyeon KIM and Seoun PARK’s work is not merely a means to heal but also an object. That is, it is an object to reflect the creator’s viewpoint. In a sense, they see nature as an instrument to establish the relationship between nature and man. In this respect, Rêve is an imaginary scene reconstructed in the arena of unconsciousness like a dream.
Let’s go back to our original question. How did nature enter into the museum? Their Own Ways is a 36 minutes-long film which documents the process of moving a tree stump into the museum. All the same, the question raised by this work is not simple. It asks a variety of questions such as “What state should an artwork be in the museum?” and “Can we regard a piece of nature that is in the museum as a natural object?"
First, Their Own Ways does not address a natural object as a thing of worship but highlights the process of creating a precious object in the museum. Not only the artist as the observer or commentator but also the carrier and museum employee as the assistant assuming an important role in the process of arranging the art show appear in this work. Even the museum director watches with his affectionate eye the process of unloading the tree stump from the truck. This video kindly shows the system and situation in which a natural object is brought into the museum.
Second, an administrative process is required when they bring a natural object into the museum. Although this natural object is on display as a medium holding nature’s ‘pureness,’ this object has to meet the requirements set by the museum such as its physical dimensions. After the tree stump arrived at the museum, its lower part had to be cut in the museum yard. It was an extraordinary measure for this tree stump with its root to be brought into the museum. In addition to this, disinfectant had to be sprayed on it. This act of spraying disinfectant has a symbolic meaning. Is the stump sterilized by this disinfectant dead or alive? Is its state artificial or natural?
Third, Seoun PARK sprayed disinfectant and cut the stump while she repeatedly claimed, “The tree seems to live on as if alive.” The process after this natural object was brought into the museum is similar to the process of breathing new life into a living thing. The process of reviving an object is needed for a new life as an object in the museum. A piece is placed in front of Ascension, a video displayed as the background. The scene in which the tree stump is placed on the middle of a shelf to make Fatigue: Mara 73, Missing Pieces is suggestive of an operating room where a measurement is carried out to recover life. An illusion is generated when light touches the surface of the tree stump in Fatigue: Mara 73, Missing Pieces and when light wriggles on its surface. A dynamic effect is engendered when light falls across wood grain. Seen from a distance, we have a temporary illusion that this tree stump is alive.
The residues of nature like the readymades of Marcel Duchamp have long been in the art museum in term of art history. As is widely known, site-specific installations by the precursor of land art of the 1960s and 1970s Robert Smithson have disappeared or are in the process of disappearing. An example is Spiral Jetty, an earthwork sculpture built on the shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. This artwork has been losing its shape over the last 50 years as it is slowly erased by the waves, and the Dia Art Foundation had been documenting this process since the early 2000s. Before that, in 1975 Partially Buried Woodshed (1970), a rotten woodshed set on the Kent State University campus was permanently removed by mutual consent between the foundation and the university on account of a severely bad smell and problem of public security.2) That’s because this rotten woodshed aroused people’s antipathy. An attempt to use a natural object as an artwork itself is thought of as reckless. Works of contemporary art have brought into question the corporeality of art, the continuity of artistic work, and the boundary between artwork and natural object.
If the primary objective in ecological art is to conform to streams and changes in the ecosystem and to raise questions concerning art’s manner of existence, it is not easy to answer to the question Mara 73 raises. Taking note of the long journey of the rotten stump that is named, kept, and brought into the museum in Fatigue: Mara 73, Missing Pieces, the viewer comes to realize what process or dilemma contemporary art or a natural object undergoes to meet nature or to be in the museum. Thus, Their Own Ways is a showcase of the current situation of ecological art which has to embrace nature in a human’s way or according to the museum system. In addition, it enables viewers to elementally reflect on the relation between culture and nature rather than a natural object’s pureness or rawness.
Cracks in pure nature: House and Aura Room
While Siyeon KIM and Seoun PARK’s eco-digital art uses and observes nature, it does not deny any anthropocentric ideas. It is perhaps impossible for the state of ‘pure nature’ in which human hands and viewpoints are excluded. Like the last scene of Drive (2021), a video that touches on an observer’s emotional state couched in a monologue, they documented the environment of Marado, wandering from place to place. The two spheres of observer and other as well as nature and man are distinct yet closely associated with each other. A car running on a sloping road cannot help crossing the centerline.
On display at this exhibition are also photographs along with videos and installations. As suggested in Rêve, nature is considered to be refracted either by human consciousness or unconsciousness. Landscape photographs that looks gorgeous at first glance bring about an outgrowth when human desire breaks down the boundary between implied reality and fiction.
Marado, an island that is the setting of House and Alone has two completely different equivocal meanings. This island is crowded with travelers in a time zone where outsiders flock together. In the evening, however, Marado is shrouded in stillness and quietude. The artists address facilities like a pavilion patronized primarily by tourists. A pavilion observed from afar appears in a dim background as if a voyeur looks at the object. The contour line on the edge of a photographic scene suggests the viewpoint of an observer who looks into the camera lens. It is an effect brought about by exposure and compositeness. Some melancholic impressions such as isolation, quietude, and loneliness emphasized by the exhibit title are intensified by this natural scenery. In contrast, definitions intrinsic to documentary photography like ‘pureness,’ ‘rawness,’ and ‘reality’ die away.
The dark backdrop and dramatic lighting in House and Alone invite viewers to time travel. The specific time zone of ‘night’ as well as a sense of proper distance arouse nostalgia as a pathological state in which we adore something unapproachable. In addition, exaggerated lighting brings about an illusion that a new light emerges behind the dark in some moment. As in Sen and Chihiro’s Spiriting Away, a Japanese animated fantasy film, artificial light about a house is a symbol of pure nature which makes Marado a bizarre image, having viewers picture a polar opposite image in dark, silent nature.
Natural sceneries have long been adopted for fine art to reflect the viewer’s mental images. This is the way that human beings have long consumed nature. There is another point that assures us that ‘how to see nature’ may be one of the goals artists pursue ultimately. Aura Room (2021) is an installation using light, but the movement and refraction of light identified by viewers with their own eyes are just grasped, excluding obstacles set by the artists. The light observed through an aperture is nothing but what’s left behind after blocking our view in some degree. If nature we are looking at is part of the whole nature, Aura Room has us ponder over the way that we see nature or the way that we are forced to see nature. Is nature we see now just a mirage or an illusion? What does feeling nature mean?
Nature in the digital era: Conditions of nature art (ecological art) in our times
Since the industrial revolution, the relationship between man and nature has kept being reversed. Now, there is a sense of crisis that we can never recover nature if we humans do not give up our own anthropocentric ideas with which classical humanism has been obsessed. In the domain of art, however, nature is both a critical source of our imagination and a significant object of love and hatred. The relationship between man and nature in art is far more complicated, irrespective of the ecology movement as a social crusade. As the movement of light in Aura Room is observed through an aperture, human actions have aesthetically defined and deformed nature. And contemporary artists have attained diverse aesthetic accomplishments through this.
It would be difficult and unnecessary to distinguish fact from fiction and pure nature from deformed nature in an age in which a variety of visual products can be transformed more easily; an age in which a stream of light can be concealed or revealed artificially; and an age in which the boundary between documentary photography and art photography becomes obscured. Either non-nature or pseudo-nature enables us to newly realize the way humans have perceived or seen nature. The omniscient and omnipotent view in Rêve and the aperture in Aura Room hark back to the fact that the ways in which humans experience nature and its result must eventually be anthropocentric. Likewise, an artificial scene of Marado is the result of manifesting our desires like tourism. A beautiful yet uncanny scene in House is between light and dark, embracing a dangerous thing that exists beyond the edge of this desire.
If the relationship between man and nature should be differently established in contemporary art from other disciplines, it is to reconfirm the fact that nature we perceive is after all a reflection of our sensuous, emotional state. Siyeon KIM and Seoun PARK remind us again that nature is not an entity for humans to mend or recover but a means to unmask the condition and limitations of our perception. In Drive the wheels of a car narrowly crossing the centerline eloquently display the relationship between man and nature that inevitably invade each other’s territory. An overarching justification and condition for bringing nature into the museum is to shed new light on the relationships between a natural object and culture or art before we attack old humanism.
1) Meri-Helga Mantere, “Coming Back to the Senses: An Artistic Approach to Environmental Education” (2004): www.naturearteducation.org (Connects on May 20, 2021)
2) After its removal, the university left behind various records on Robert Smithson’s site-specific sculpture and uses it as an alternative measure to appreciate a natural object. Since the 1970s, documentaries on natural objects outside the museum have been a significant way to experience land art.
“Kent State Celebrates 50 Years of Early Robert Smithson’s Land Art Located on Campus,” https://www.kent-state-celebrate-50-years-early-smithson-land-art-located-campus (Connects on May 20, 2021)