at Young Korean Artist 2008, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Gwacheon, Korea, 5 DEC, 2008 - 8 MAR, 2009
Am I choosing my life, or am I simply following a predetermined path? Coincidences overlap and turn into inevitability, and choices merge to become outcomes. I’m curious about the director of this life, where life is set on a stage. Does God truly exist? How far does human free will extend? One thing is certain: this thing called life will definitely come to an end.
What will I see as my final destination? Will I laugh or will I have to cry? Regrets may come rushing in. Strangely enough, countless people face their end not by looking at the faces of their family or loved ones, but by staring at a fluorescent light or the ceiling of a hospital room. In the moments we must go and bid farewell, how should we look at each other? With what expression and gaze should we face one another?
Here, there are a man and a woman with a very tragic fate. The woman lives her limited life expectancy, while the man, filled with anger and sorrow at this fact, meets an accident and becomes a mere living plant. Neither dead nor alive. This is a story about the woman who senses that the moment has come for her to leave, leaving behind her husband in such a state. In that moment, filled with anger, resignation, and ultimately comforting one another, the thin boundary between life and death intertwines. In this work, the woman leaves behind a single phrase.
“I thought there was plenty of time.”
-from the Artist note for Red Door by Jinjoon Lee
To Live is to Die
Choo-yeong Lee, Curator of National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
The gift given equally to all human beings by the divine is death. Death is an inevitable object that no human can avoid, and it was a subject of fear and awe. On the other hand, death was a presence of immense and fatal attraction that did not tolerate human resistance. Curiosity about the world beyond death and the desire for escapism from reality enabled voluntary death.
In art, death has been expressed as fear and calamity, authorship and emptiness, and sometimes as fatal fascination and temptation, and the image of salvation. The dual nature of death remains valid even in a scientific worldview that dominates the present world. Death is a crucial element that makes humans truly human. The realm of death makes it impossible to ignore the existence of the unseen divine. The moment the essence of death is revealed someday, humanity will lose the inevitable and fascinating entity along with the existence of the divine and fall into a sense of emptiness.
The fundamental attitude that permeates Jinjoon Lee's works is observation and contemplation. The meticulous interest and continuous observation of what lies beyond human and society go beyond superficial understanding and provide deep introspection and insight into truth and essence.
Red Door: A Study on How We Should Face and Look at Each Other in the Last Moments of Life discovers unexpected facts through the question, "What is the inevitable final scene that we encounter in the last moments of life?"
For the majority of modern individuals, excluding unexpected sudden deaths, most "deaths" occur in hospitals. The beginning and end of human life take place in the public facility called a hospital. The fluorescent light that one first experiences after being born becomes the light of life's final moments. The moment when the eyelids close and the eyes roll upwards becomes the last scene that humans behold. It is a somewhat surprising discovery considering the solemn attitude towards death or the absolute fear surrounding the end of life.
In his latest work, Red Door, tragic characters who encounter the last moments of life appear. It tells the story of a terminally ill woman and a man who becomes a plant-like being due to a sudden accident. The coincidental convergence of tragic circumstances that can hardly be found in reality is similar to the settings commonly woven in melodramas. Such typicality is an inevitable choice by the author to portray an unprepared extreme parting. The banality of the setting is offset by the restrained performances of the actors and the dramatic stage composition. The actors portray the tragic situation in an extremely refined and meticulously designed set.
A long fluorescent light is revealed on the dark ceiling. The images composed of black, white, and red symbolize life and death. Within the split screen divided into two channels, the man and woman's actions either overlap or separate at the boundary of the red door. The two individuals do not explain the tragic situation. They merely demonstrate refined actions that evoke despair and anger, resignation and comfort. Finally, the two individuals collapse like powerless trees. The fluorescent light from the dark ceiling emits a cold glow. In the last moment, the woman utters the only words, "I thought there was plenty of time."
The artist ingeniously utilizes the exhibition space to expand the stage within the screen beyond its boundaries. The man and woman have departed, leaving behind objects. The two red doors connect the images and the reality. The black piece that the man carried is a work created from processed extracted tree roots. The artist claims to have felt a strong attachment to life through the image and sound of tree roots resisting being uprooted while gripping the soil on a construction site. Through the process of burning and reworking the tree roots, the artist presents an impossible longing for irreversible human recovery.
The final moments of life come without warning. The intense daily routines momentarily make us forget the existence of death. Suddenly encountering a moment of parting feels desolate and bewildering. Even though it is an evident moment that we will eventually face, we try hard to forget it. Life and death are two sides of the same coin. Life is sustained with death as its guarantee, and the "free will" bestowed by the divine is unrelated to death. When we realize and acknowledge this, humans can embrace death with greater flexibility.
Life is a journey toward death. The director of this journey is the divine, and the end of that journey and the space beyond it belong to the divine realm. There is no need to fear the end. Just as we naturally sleep and wake up each day, we can face it in the same way. However, we can only pray to face the unknown world without suffering. Living is dying. It cannot be undone. Impossible “undo”.
Through the research titled Interview: A Study on How to Interview 17 Artists for 10 Minutes, the artist poses another question about irreversible time. Seventeen participating artists in the exhibition posed their own questions and participated in a non-cut interview lasting for 10 minutes. Many artists were unsatisfied with their 10-minute interviews. But regrets are futile. Jinjoon Lee says, "That's what life is." The simultaneous interviews of the 17 artists can only be heard by the divine. The 10 minutes given to the artists are equivalent to the lifetime granted by the divine to humans. You have been given an interview time. Ask yourself questions and answer them. Time does not stop. In the complete video that encompasses the entire moments, including the ones you regretted and wished were not captured, we are all in the midst of an interview. In front of a camcorder set up by an absolute being…
The Encounter with Fate in Red Door
Yong-sung Baek (Art Philosophy, Critic)
Fate and Anxiety
“A religion without practice is no longer a religion." This applies equally to their lives and their destinies. It also holds true for art. Art without practice is already an institution, a self-repeating cycle captured within a hierarchical system of 'aesthetic division' like that expressed by Rancière. However, the practitioner bears a precarious fate, in a dual sense. On one side of the tightrope, there resides the comfortable temptation of conformity to such institutions, while on the other side, there lies a descent into a deep chaos, no longer art but a raging fever. Perhaps the fate of the avant-garde, the practitioner in art, is just as harsh. Yet, having tasted the joy of dance on that tightrope, they refuse to lean towards either side. No. How many practitioners have descended from or fallen off that tightrope?
The artwork Red Door is an attempt at this tightrope act. It is also an avant-garde endeavor concerning the 'encounter' between a woman who is alive but dying and a man who is alive but already a ghost. Here, avant-garde refers to a spirit that explores limits or boundaries while engaging with endlessly unfamiliar diversities. This work is not a common story about dying individuals, nor is it a narrative solely about death. Those seeking some familiar, emotionally moving narrative or familiar 'beauty' in this work will be disheartened. Instead, it can be said that there is something discomforting that surpasses sadness within it.
The woman is a patient with an incurable disease, and the man is a plant-human. Perhaps the man doesn't have to be a plant-human, and the woman doesn't have to have an incurable disease. They don't even have to be a married couple. They could simply be anonymous pronouns called "people." Aren't we already living existence of both being alive and dying? Maybe we are living as ghosts. We constantly encounter each other (family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, authorities, institutions) and greet each other, talk, and ask about well-being. But truly facing each other is not easy.
Therefore, the dual-channel approach from the beginning forms the mode of discomfort. The left represents the woman's space, and the right represents the man's space. Each space is literally "each." They are monads. It is not easy for them to face each other. It is not easy for the audience to face that artwork. Moreover, facing a decisive moment (death) is not easy, and it is not an easy task for the audience to confront and contemplate it. Death has long been removed from modern society. Death has been reduced to a function that should be socially handled, and existentially, it is merely a fear that exists alone on the other side. However, death is not just an unknown other. The dying other in front of me, the dying other I am looking at is present now and here.
Therefore, it is not about turning away from that abyss while dying, but rather how we can face each other is what matters. We cannot desire the heroic death of ancient tragedies here, nor can we desire the heroic death of modern tragedies. Instead, there is a baroque and melancholic allegory. "With decline and only decline, historical events are condensed and enter the theater. This overarching concept of 'falling objects' represents an extreme opposition to the idealized concept of nature that the early Renaissance grasped... People once tried to define the essence of artistic formation through this illusion, but literature, which skillfully unfolds the technique of illusion, fundamentally expelled this illusion from the artwork before the Baroque era." (Walter Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauspiel) In this way, "Red Doors" seems to reject any idealization by using the era of decline as a distant background. There lies a certain discomfort, as Freud called it "the uncanny (Das Unheimliche)," embedded within it.
The Encounter of Monads
Therefore, the problem lies in how we can face the abyss of the monads on the left and right. In other words, it is fundamentally about how we can experience true "encounters" amidst the countless "encounters" of monads. The author raises this question: facing death. It is facing life. It is exploring the possibility of encountering one another. Originally, the word "religion" (re-ligion) in the Western context means to reconnect. Perhaps this reconnection is the essence of true encounter, and thus, the world of "being together." However, no religion or institution in society is truly close to such encounters. Instead, it can be seen that they tear apart and strip away this original encounter, connecting it into the form of organized communities. In the name of the nation, in the name of chosen people. In the name of the organization. Within such a structure, human life becomes a "destiny." A destiny of committing sins without guilt. A destiny of being judged without guilt. Joseph K in Kafka's work is an example. There are structures of those who judge and pass judgment everywhere. Within them, humans suffer under the name of "destiny," and they draw the trajectory of life with the quote, "Even if he dies, shame will survive." The outcry that erupts in Red Door is therefore an outcry that goes beyond the "destiny of destiny." Fragmented memory images pass by here and there. Utility poles, dilapidated streets, a low-hanging sky. Urgent footsteps running somewhere. Images of fateful lives have this allegorical tinge of melancholy. No, it is an allegorical melancholy that only appears to the author who gazes into a predetermined life of destiny. The fluorescent light flickers dimly from the beginning, as if every human life has been determined by that faint glimmer, sensing imminent death. However, this attempt to transcend destiny is also a primal stage that will be cruelly experimented with in the study of death.
Encounter with Tea
Once again, we must return to our respective monads. The woman is preparing for the consciousness of death. It is her own death and yet a ritual of separation from the man. Another ceremony reminiscent of Bill Viola's enigmatic work, "Observance." The man twists, resists, and wanders within the indistinguishable snowflakes falling white. Monads have no windows. The red doors do not open. Communication between them is not easy. It is not easy for lovers or couples to be so nakedly and conclusively divided. The "door" never opens. Monads have no windows. The man approaches the woman without going through the "door." And their final ceremony takes place. The time has come to depart. Tea signifies the "encounter" or "meeting" between them. In Japanese tea ceremony, it is said to be a unique opportunity for human encounters that does not happen in the same way for everyone. So, a cup of tea in the artwork represents both an ending and a unique moment that can happen in a similar way to anyone. Monads have no windows. It is the sacred proposition of each other's dying present, not each other's death, that binds them. To borrow Blanchot's words, "It is not my relationship with my finite self, my relationship of consciousness that I am heading toward death and existing for death. It is my current presence before the other that definitively distances me as I die. It is binding myself to the one who decisively moves away as I die, taking on the sole death that relates to the other's death. Accordingly, I place myself outside of myself. Amidst the impossibility of community, there lies the only separation that makes me open to some community." (The Unavowable Community) Yes, monads have no windows. However, monads are closed yet open.
Binding oneself to the man who is "decisively moving away" is a trembling, fearful, and sorrowful act. However, the decisive and fateful moment is also a moment of true encounter. The teacup starts to tremble, and as it trembles, the woman's hand begins to shake. As the woman's hand trembles, everything focuses on the left channel, and the screen of the left channel begins to tremble white. It is a moment when discomfort is resolved, and everything condenses, being drawn into the trembling within oneself. There is a strange resonance. As the entire screen starts to tremble, a fatal sadness overwhelms. The white light that was in the background now appears in the foreground. A flash. With the eruption of the outcry, the trembling face of the woman, which is the trembling itself, abruptly moves away in a close-up. It collapses. The solemn and low-toned tragic music is absent, and only sounds like rain accompany mourning. Hasty harmony, a cruel restraint regarding beautiful illusions. However, monads coexist and resonate.
The Red Thing
What is that vivid and chillingly red thing? What is a door that does not open? Is it the never-arriving 'sublime,' or does it symbolize the disconnection of the modern world? If so, it would be too cliché. The door that does not open undoubtedly represents disconnection and alienation, but it is also a certain redness. Video colorism firmly bestows the presence of color itself upon us, approaching us with a sense of sacredness. Therefore, we should follow the emotions conveyed by color and coloring, rather than reading symbols. A certain redness. It is a door that seduces us with the most powerful light and color. There is something that might be called desire. It is as if without it, all life would sink into the abyss of dim fate.
The red thing stands on its own. It is as if it calls out the name of the one who is dying, while watching over everything. However, it remains silent. It is not merely a simple play of meanings. It is not a form of communication aimed at conveying a message. Instead, it emphatically declares, "I am silent." If that is silence, has silence ever been endowed with such a strong sensation?
Therefore, the red light contrasts with white words. The contrast with the phrase "I thought there was plenty of time." Words speak, while light remains silent. But what is spoken—the world of white light—is also surrounded by absence. It is the realization that there is a lack despite thinking there was plenty of time. What is that lack, that absence, a time for? It is not the life that has passed. It is something yet to be achieved. It is the something that life has been silent about but must rise. It is the powerful presence of time that strongly persists within the feeling of having lost it, yet not yet recovered it. Therefore, there is a resonance between a certain kind of words and the redness. The redness, as a red something, gazes upon the pains of existence that are white or dim lights and embraces "fates" while sealing all lost time and all time to be recovered within itself, while displaying red silence outwardly. If seeing means reading, then we must treat this redness as a hieroglyph, as one symbol that we must decipher.
The last two parallel fluorescent lights may also be echoing this, perhaps paradoxically questioning the nobility of life. Faint possibilities of facing each other and resonating within an irreconcilable parallel. It could be the faintness of dawn. In that case, we may be able to express it as a mourning statement like the following:
"Not death nor life, but a faint glimmer of meaning, white light." (From a eulogy for Nancy's Blanchot)
National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art