“A person’s desire attempts to cut across all times and places. A person is ‘innately’ born as a nomad and exists in a space to map out and cross through. A person is an existence in space rather than an existence in time, and their consciousness is predominantly affected by space rather than time. People living in the same era differ in ways of thinking and episteme (cognition) depending on where they live, and what kind of social structure or environment they live in. For this reason, all history, including art history, is also a record of space rather than time.”
Yang Hwa Seon started to draw maps in the early 2000s when she left Jeju Island and went to Seoul to attend art school. When I say drawing maps, I do not mean applying accurate measurements or scale to convey information. It is more appropriate to say that maps for practical use are produced, rather than drawn. When I say that Yang draws maps, I am referring literally to a map as a drawing. Let’s call it a ‘map drawing’ or ‘drawing maps’ hereafter in this text. Even though they are symbolic maps representing personal emotions rather than having a practical function, these map drawings still function as a psychological guide to the artist. They are map drawings that may reach out more effectively to someone’s heart than an actual map.
Jeju, an island that holds a special place for Yang as her hometown, is not connected by train or road to Seoul, and can only be reached by airplane. Land and sea are seen from a plane that Yang has frequently taken since she was young, before cheap airlines had enabled planes to be considered public transportation by most of the world. The landscape, viewed from the sky as a bird, was warm to the artist. It was a way to her family, a way to her friends, a way to rest in her familiar room where she spent many years. This feeling is not unique to the artist. The various thoughts inside a plane are equal in number to the passengers. There is no place like a plane to lose yourself in your thoughts, in the moments waiting for takeoff or landing after turning off your electrical equipment, or while thinking about the bulky body of the plane floating in the sky. Numberless emotions gather and collide in the narrow, closed space: the pressure of workers on business trips, excitement of travelers, and comfort of those on their way home. Planes, and the various feelings they deliver, inspired Yang to draw the familiar roads and houses of Jeju she saw while coming and going from her studio, house, and hometown. She creates a scene by putting together pieces of house drawings that can be easily drawn anywhere. Fragmented houses and roads are put together to create an ideal map, most favorable to the artist and unrealistic at the same time. In that way, Yang makes a utopia of her own, with a pencil; a peaceful and ideal land that does not exist in reality. If you were able to walk through that ideal place, it would be full of familiar and favorite buildings and roads. If you were to find that kind of place in this earth, the place would be a Shangri-La, and Yang’s Shangri-La must have been on Jeju Island.
A Safe Utopia, Beyond Jeju and London
From 2008 to 2016, Yang considered London her main residence, and flying and traveling became a way of life for her for a long time. The experience of living in a foreign land made flying a familiar transportation to her. Uniquely, her vision existed in the sky, and most of her works from the early 2000s contain that vision. In London, where land prices are high, she had to move her studio and home frequently. Her viewpoint shifted from high up in the sky down to a low garden. Her feelings settled in a small, quiet garden with a swimming pool. Her Shangri-La headed deeper inside. Living a life that took her farther and farther away from home, she read books alone, drew, took walks and swam. Exercising in a pool was lonely. It was totally different from sea-bathing at Jeju’s many beaches, where she could laugh merrily and enjoy being with friends or family. The process of receiving a locker space, changing into a bathing suit, putting her head into the water and moving her hands and legs all became part of being left all alone. The quietness inside the water, and the buzzing noise outside all heightened her sequestration. Living in a big city like London, where it is easier to feel lonely due to the confusion felt in the crowd, swimming taught the techniques of solitude that sink inside the artist. And that solitude became a utopia to her – the bright side of loneliness. Time in the water provided the only real relaxation within the exhaustion of big city life. The swimming pool that appears in her works was the third ideal place that she discovered after than her hometown and Korea. It is the safest, the most comfortable, and the most enjoyable, but truthfully it is a utopia, a place that does not exist.
<a safe zone – nowhere 201511> incorporates all of the characteristics of Yang’s works: the texture of water expressed in the simple composition of a swimming pool; the indoor plants that seem simultaneously fake and natural; the overlapping mountains in the distance, and the natural colors working to convey the familiarity of the artificial as well. The work speaks to both an urbanized vision and a naturalistic one. These ambivalent factors coexist safely within one frame to give comfort to the viewer. To understand this, consider a scene where a person is sitting, perhaps on an armchair in the living room, staring at plants, or lying on a sunbed and nonchalantly watching the swaying of the water, or looking at a distant mountain range through a window. All those scenes are relaxing, comfortable and quiet. Since three to four such views are in one of Yang’s pieces, the feeling of relaxation doubles. If constant attempts to break deep-seated societal prejudices developed contemporary art, the exhaustion from those efforts are arguably producing counter-prejudices. In this complicated field of contemporary art, full of difficult concepts and installations, Yang provides a simple frame where you can feel the relaxation of the familiar for a while. The utopia inside the square frames presented by Yang becomes a rest-stop from the complexities of contemporary art. Even though the artist is not experimenting with new challenges, she shows that new frames are possible, and that novelty quickly becomes something familiar. Maybe the ultimate direction of Yang’s work is to present a utopian way of thinking to people tired of obsessing over new things. Of course, the artist does not want to talk about such grand ideas. She lives freely in her work, always comfortable and safe.
Things That I Did Not Know That I Loved
I once visited the artist’s small studio after one of her numerous house moves due to London’s gentrification. Various stories of this and that came out endlessly. Many valuable goods had stayed with the artist all that time, even though some were damaged here and there during the frequent moves, and some had been lost. The artist was embarrassed by her works that she took out. These, she explained with her unique, awkward smile, were made when she was “wandering around” here and there. The works that she drew when she was roaming around are consistently adorable and persistent. Their lovely appearance belies the great time and labor integrated into them. Tiny Playmobils fill a 162 x 130 cm canvas, as well as hundreds of postcards. As she drew vast numbers of the figures, she came to make wallpaper from the pattern of their shape. Her academic adviser worried that she might infringe the copyright of the Playmobil brand, and she met with lawyers on the subject. Yang also taxidermized the small houses drawn on the aforementioned map into a acrylic medium, and created another version of a map. In the medium cut in round shapes, the houses are heaped up and gathered inside a zippered bag (ah, so humbly.) She keeps changing the colors of the 140 x 100 cm swimming pool painting that she has been working on for months because she is still “wandering”. The artist says that she is in a state of wandering, but to me all the works seem like an organized whole. The times that she has spent constantly doodling are all connected by one line – the neighborhood houses, small roads blooming with wild flowers, cute toys collected in secret, the secret drawer piled with those toys, the emotion of taking each of the things to look into them and recreate them as drawings, the solitude felt in the swimming pool. The things that we pass by in our frantic lives, without knowing that we like or love them, are the things that the artist has lovingly made sufficient time to record. That affection can be read between the lines, and the warmth of the works make you want to keep on admiring them. Those who become close to the artist might be shown even more interesting works, taken from a deeper drawer. The warm stories spilling out little by little seem like they will continue endlessly. Personal valuables that fell into arrears because of social values have met an owner in Yang, who can acknowledge their existence and grant each of them a space and a power.
The Way to Conquer Machines
My relationship with the artist started in our early teens, also through an art connection. We went to the same art academy in our neighborhood when we were in elementary school. Afterwards we met again at our high school art class, and again in Seoul, attending the same university and studying the same major. After finishing undergraduate school, I went to New York and Yang went to London. Now she draws and I write, with art mediating between us. She has continued drawing, which I gave up instantly. Brewing coffee (as a barista at the Tate Modern Gallery), attending school (as a medical student), moving (both her studio and her residence countless times), and traveling (taking advantaging of living in Europe), does not keep her from drawing every moment she can. Not giving up, in other words, is not giving in to all the external societal pressure which may block the artist from drawing. Having given up drawing, myself, I find this trait the most virtuous of all the artists in this world; to quote poet Minjung Kim, the power of continuing “beautiful and useless” efforts even if the world does not acknowledge them. Putting all of your energy into the art of uselessness that neither translates instantly into money, nor achieves great appreciation, is artistry and the true character of being an artist. I consider this one of humanity’s brightest abilities, and one that, in the end, I believe will save us. How? Neuroscientist Daesik Kim said, “Eventually, to conquer machines, we have to live life like human beings. In other words, we cannot survive if what we do is like machines.” It is a way to live with differentiated humanity. How about that? I look for that amongst the numerous artists in this world, and I find an answer when standing in front of Yang’s works. It only remains to be seen whether other visitors will agree.
In the mysterious communication system of humans whereby the more you talk, the less you understand, Yang’s work talks less and seems to touch more.
I hope that the safe zone, which does not exist in this world but can be found in Yang’s works, can act as a safe zone to other visitors as well. Find comfort in that place.