Desire and Subjectivity. Appropriation of the Past and Making the Present
Presentation at Sangmyung University, Faculty of Arts, 5th April, 2008
A transcript of the presentation.
Today I will talk about 3 subjects that have been constant source of inspiration for many years in my work.
1. Desire and self-definition, and the process of constituting individual identity.
2. The problems of perception, representation, and some aspects of the divided self.
3. Displacement of the past: Family photographs, changing records of the past, de-construction and re-constructing personal present.
1. Desire and self-definition, and the process of constituting identity in a some of my works.
I was seventeen when I first heard Plato’s story about the androgyne and somehow had the feeling that "I already know this". At that time, like all people at 17, I was in search of my own way of living and thinking, of connecting to others, to my family, to my friends and to my lovers. In other words, I was in search of my identity – it was a quest for self-definition. Some years later, in 1990, I made this sculpture titled Feast. In Plato’s story Symposium (Feast), some men, good friends gather to eat and drink together and discuss love and desire. Socrat and Agathon, who had been lovers, were also part of the company. The highly theoretical thoughts expressed in the dialogue, had a very personal and subjective basis. This aspect of the Platonian dialogues was a very important element in forming my working method. Love, of course, was not limited to its romantic or narcistic meaning. It functioned as the creative power of the world. The modern notion of sexuality did not exist in those days. Then Aristophanes told the story about the androgyne. At the beginning of time there were three sexes: men, women and androgyns. Humans were so powerful that gods were becoming afraid of them. To eliminate the threat, Zeus cut each human in two. The women cut in two became the lesbian lovers, the men cut in two become male lovers, while the androgyns cut in two became men and women who love each other. Since that moment the desire has existed in people’s soul to find their other halves.
I found it a beautiful tale then, and it also became a basis for me from which I could derive my own new ideas, and it also served as the ground for the definition of my own working method, my artistic practice. Later, I realized that Aristophanes’ story was part and parcel of the conceptual framework for theorist, such as Lacan, who made investigations into the problem of identity.
This work was born from the experience that I found it very difficult to identify myself with the existing, pre-defined categories as a woman, a member of my family, a member of a nation, an artist etc. What I felt in these relations was empathy and solidarity but not identity. What I was searching for was an individual identity, a “singular subjectivity”, as Kaja Silverman described this notion, which was based upon my own personal desires.
I was in search of experiencing the world with an undivided mind that also united both male and female sensitivities. I thought that any kind of fixed identity would limit my possibilities, consequently, I described my position as a shifting identity. It followed from this concept that I never wanted to catch any universal truth in my works. My intention was to understand things, and my works were genuinely subjective. When the anonymous “we” or “one” is used instead of the “I”, it kills the dialogue, the communication, says Mieke Bal in one of her essays. However, this type of subjectivity does not mean self-centeredness but a position from which the individual sees things. My attention radiates towards the world and the others. My work entitled the Feast, ironically, or rather painfully, imitates the classical renaissance style in its visual display, and by doing so, it also conveys my discontent with preordained languages.
2. The problems of perception, representation, and more aspects of the divided self in my works.
The next piece is also a relatively early work, from 1992. It is titled Aphrodite Urania, which means “Heavenly Love”. The title comes from ancient Greek philosophy, and is mentioned in Plato's Symposion. This piece was, again, born from my discontent with preordained languages, from the realization that we are hardly able to express even our most intimate feelings and desires in any other way than through predetermined forms of acts, language and metacommunication. The shape of this work is a classical European renaissance male figure. It stands in the position of the so called "contrapposto , " like Michelango's David, which became the icon of perfection in European art. However, I made this perfect shape out of pieces broken waste wood, and this work represents the conflict between subjectivity and a preordained and strictly predefined role of the traditional modes of expression. It was the first time that I used the love scene, a depiction of sexual intercourse as a visual metaphor, or rather metonymy of the human subjectivity. Because I think sexual desire is inseparable from the other desires that constitute our subjectivity. Therefore, it is not a limitation but rather an extension, a metonymic reference to our subjectivity in its totality, and to the language of our desires. Since then I have used the depiction of sexual intercourse in some of my works as a metonymic reference.
I gave the title Hands and Soles to the next group of works. They spring from the experience of the fragmented nature of most of our connections with the world. The fragments of the body or the scenes replace the whole and emphasize the lack. They refer to the experience that only a limited part of our self can take part in many of our very important relations, the perception of the other, which leads to a feeling of being mutilated. The scenes, two men in sensual love with each other refer to the desire, as described by Plato, that comes from the lack, the void, the split with the other half of the self.
Another aspect of using these images of two men making love to each other is that the ancient description of male love, 'heavenly love' is a manifestation of 'Western Eros' under the veil of homosexuality, as Julia Kristeva says in one of her essays. We might add that it is also a representation of the ideal of love in modern times: the sensual, emotional and intellectual attraction of two free and independent persons who are bound to each other only by their emotions and not because of the power, social status or wealth, or defencelessness. In Plato's Athens, and in many places in the world even nowadays, the love between a man and a woman can in no way fulfill this ideal.
I also made some paintings during the period while I was working on these sculptures. The problem of language is also central to these paintings as abstract, geometric forms mingle with what is termed as 'realistic' representation. The essence of these works is the inability of either to give a complete depiction of the world. Both of these conventional methods of representation appear in an ironical and stylized manner in their visual displays.
Slanting Space was the title of this exhibition in Gallery 56 (in 1997). My aim was to create a complex spatial construction that modelled the shifting, alterable and unstable nature of our perception, views, beliefs, judgements and most of all the unstable nature of our identity. I used bodily destabilization for intellectual deconstruction. I built a new, slanted floor in the gallery to contrast with the familiar system of vertical-horizontal coordinates determined by gravitation, thus forcing the viewers entering the space to walk on a floor in just two directions. The new floor at its highest rare corner was about 1.2 m higher than at the front. Beyond its conceptual meaning the slanting floor was also meant to affect the viewers’ sense of equilibrium thereby forcing them to confront my installation on a more sensory/sensual level. At the same time, I hung the exhibited objects from the ceiling, placing them in the original, familiar space determined by gravitation. However, as the chopping-boards were in constant motion, swinging and spinning gently, blown by the slightest movement of the air, depending on how light fell on them, they alternated in revealing and concealing the scenes carved on them. The eleven chopping-boards hanging from the ceiling had scenes of sexual intercourse I had carved on them. I painted similar images on some glass dishes placed on the floor. Here I also used the depiction of sexual intercourse as a metonymic reference to human subjectivity.
3. Displacement of the past: changing records of the past, de-construction and re-constructing personal present.
My Skins is the title of the next group of works. These works are made of thin leather and the images etched in skin refer to the process in which memories are imprinted in the self. This series of works was the appropriation of my family past, and it has been part of an ongoing experiment with memory and post-memory work, displacement and recollection. I was investigating for how my family, my grandfather, and through them, I have built up my individual history and my personal present.
The first piece is a 3.5 m x 2 m leather curtain. When my grandfather died, I inherited an amount of 2500 pieces of glass negatives, sheet-film negatives, roll-film negatives and some rolls of Leica negatives – he was an enthusiast amateur photographer. I also inherited from his immense set of tools. I made resin copies of each of his tools, and, for years, I made video records of myself working and 'as if I' was working with the tools. I also made resin copies of some objects from his photographs, like a ball or skirt or an apple or binoculars. I pressed them into the leather curtain. Subsequently, I drew images, family scenes from his photographs and stills from my videos on the surface of the leather curtain.
As I have already said, in these leather wall carpets my aim was to grasp the process of constructing my identity through the family narrative. My intention was also to explore the nature of the context of family relationships in which I am defined not by what I am like but by the fact that I am the subject that appears in these relationships. I wanted to capture the original safety that is naturally given by the fact that I was born in a family and this safety does not depend on what I am like or what I become. As a result of this attempt, in this series I and my elder brother appear only through the initials of our names in the scenes originally photographed by my grandfather.
For me, the thin leather that I use has the same sensitive character and fragility as human skin, my own skin, in which the imprint of history is embossed.
The Time Leap series consists of light boxes (the Winter Series and the Summer Series) and video stills. The light boxes are based on old film-negatives photographed by my grandfather in my childhood between my age of 8 months till 4 years. This work is the documentation of the efforts of the displacement of the memory leading to rewriting our past in order to change our present. As I mentioned my grandfather had a collection of some 2,500 glass-negatives and film-negatives. He made a special case for their negatives fit into their size. He kept a diary on them containing the date, the place and the important technical information of the exposures. For me, from my early childhood, this collection of negatives represented the inarticulated past, the documentation of unquestionnable truth before interpretation or narrative reorganization – which, of course, was a false view on my part because the act of taking a photograph itself is an interpretation. But after all, for me the manipulation of these negatives meant changing the past itself, an illusion that I could rewrite history, not only on the level of interpretation (reflection) but also on the primary level of an inarticulate mass of events. Thechnically, it meant that I made a copy of these negatives in their original size, 6cm by 9cm. Then I took colour shots of myself, took my figures from the colour negatives and put these figures 'back' into the original black and white negatives, so I show up on each of these negatives twice, in two different ages (again, the divided self, but in a different sense). I built an installation for each of these film negatives by placing a mirror behind each negative at 45 degree angle, which provides sufficient light for making the scene on the negative visible.
The second group of works in the Time Leap series are digital prints of video stills depicting a lonely figure (myself) in a solitary state of sexual desire, situated in positions of love acts, however, without an object of this desire appearing in the images. This is, again, an intervention in the past – or rather, an intervention of the past in the present. The still images are taken from video recordings I have taken recently, while the purple silk figures sewn on the framed images blown up to 117 cm by 100 cm are from the same series of family photos as the ones that are the basis of the light boxes.
While the light boxes rewrite the past by placing my present self in those images, in this series the opposite process takes place: figures from family history appear in my present, observing my state indifferently, or turning away, participating actively only in the situations of their own present. Nevertheless, by appearing here and now, acting involuntarily in the present, they affect my most intimate personal matters, the construction of my individual perception of the world through desire in the Platonic sense in the present. The question here is to what extent our current, synchronic perception of the world is determined diachronically, by our historical setting – and also whether an unreflected, independent, fully synchronic perception of the world (or in other words, an interaction with the entities constituting the world outside the corporeal, time-bound limits of the self) is possible.