Yun-Hee Toh

Yun-Hee Toh
Flowing Time and Opening Space

Yun-Hee Toh’s art comprises numerous sheets of pencil-drawn forms layered atop one another like screens, so that their halo-like traces permeate each other. Graphite, a material created from organic remains excavated from deep in the earth, is transformed into a medium that provides new painterly possibilities in her work. Like the process of fossilization, Toh’s layering technique stores the passage of time. After contemplating the notion of fossils, she begins to actively use her pencil to create her screens. Her process is similar to applying several coats of transparent varnish to create an ever-opening series of windows. In some measure, her unique methods replicate the function of a touch screen which allows the user to continually open a series of windows. But Toh’s surfaces are not operated through a complex series of codes; instead, they retain the traces of previous touches and keep track of the earlier changes that have been made. In the context of the Korean art world, where a romanticized image of the artist still predominates, there are too few contemplative artists producing works that reflect deeply upon the relationship between their art and life. Toh’s work is quite distinct from both the conceptual art made by lazy hands and the “luxury goods” crafted solely from manual labor. In her notes from 2008, Toh wrote that, “slowing down and thinking deeply about the hidden things that are scattered about is one form of freedom for me.” Moreover, she added that, “My work is based on dispelling the interior of darkness, discovering the beauty of inner surfaces and rendering them visible to the eye.” Rather than simply using the physical properties of day and night to suggest the flow of time in her work, Toh teaches us to see this process in a different light. Time, as portrayed in her drawings, expresses the movement of thought. She shows time as a sensation of mental movement, rather than physical movement, as perhaps represented by the process of drawing. The time of thought is generally at dusk or just before nightfall, when the slowly developing darkness allows the artist to see a different kind of night. All boundaries, including that between the physical and the mental, are eventually devoured by the darkness, which has an endless surface and a bottomless depth. Many of Toh’s works observe this moment when night and day are nearly indistinguishable; night is within day, and day within night. These reflections on night, the night within night, and the encroachment of space and time upon that night eventually force Toh to question the notion of visibility and its limits. She once wrote, “I close my eyes in order to see more clearly,” and she chose to title her 2008 show Gazing without Eyes. Rather than constituting a single, unified vision, the surfaces of Toh’s multi-layered works become sites of difference. Through Modernist dogma, the painting surface has been subsumed into an overarching abstract concept. In contrast, in her works, Toh calls upon nature as a heterogeneous other. Although her multilayered surfaces have a certain perceptual aspect, they lack enough visual depth to draw the eye completely in, and the ethereal space and repeating veils continually dissolve such elements of certainty. In contrast to typical spaces constructed using perspective, the lines in Toh’s work do not exist either explicitly or allusively, nor are they homogeneous. There is no fixed, unitary point of view in her works, and the irregular and fitful movements reject both a clear objective and subject matter. Even when they do exist, her objectives and subject matter are casually tossed aside as part of the drawing process as she creates each successive veil. This opacity and obscurity may or may not be a deliberate means for causing bewilderment, but either way, it works as an intriguing and enjoyable riddle, as well as a contrast to the agnostic “non-response” solicited by many works of art. Her drawings never aim towards a fixed ideal point, but rather demonstrate that their ongoing mutual interaction with the environment requires an endlessly moving body. In other words, an unstable body has been inserted before our conceptualized and silent gaze. This uncertain aspect, which cannot be described by specific qualities, often appears in Toh’s work as a means of expressing both experience and the world. Her method of creating countless layers moves beyond boundaries to hint at the sublime possibilities that may exist beyond the notion of complete beauty. Her works force us to look at the mid-layer surface. Even though her surfaces can be read as boundaries with clear and finite forms, her overall works function like cells, in that they incessantly respond to the emergence of an exterior boundary by adapting their interior energy in order to move beyond that boundary. This practice might ultimately represent the first steps into the territory of the sublime or pure aesthetics. Indeed, Toh’s works, like those natural forms which present us with flowing time and opening space, are not simply aesthetic representations, but presentations of the sublime.

Lee Sun Young, Art Critic
Translated by Moon Iris, 2010