Yun-Hee Toh

Yun-hee Toh’s casting nets wide, deep and remote

100 years of solitude
While gazing Toh’s works in silence, I was suddenly reminded of Gabriel Marquez’ well-known novel,『100 years of solitude』, quite out of the blue—not because of the novel’s contents, but because of the similarity in attitudes of authorship in both Marquez and Yun-hee Toh. Here authorship means their persistent obstinacy in retaining spiritual eyes to capture the reality beyond the phenomena while still immersed in solitary loneliness, whilst maintaining distance from the routine. Achieving this goal is time-consuming, and one may feel like it would take ages; even one hundred years may seem trivial when facing this task. This is particularly true because the reward for the effort is neither instant nor concrete, nor is it easily conceivable. The messages of such works that deal with the realm beyond the visual are often meant to be vague, and solitude is destined to turn abysmal due to its ambiguity. Nonetheless, Toh is determined and persistent to keep casting nets to those images, even though it seems that her aspirations may seem vain at first sight; perhaps because her world is haunted with those images. Toh tentatively defines the relationship between herself and the world as ‘provisional,’ yet, she is well aware of the fact that this net of provisional gazes caught landscapes which are not equivalent to the actual reality of objects. Those dredged up images fail, yet again, to be an accurate index of actual phenomena. This is why her fascinating canvases are the outcome of the fierce struggle toward salvation.         Her canvases are devoid of humans and any trace of civilization. It seems like the object, which comprises her landscape, is seemingly leaves or plant germs from nature, but in fact, they are not found in real life. All the while, the objects seem to aimlessly wander and float on the canvas without any origin or roots; their anchoring is only temporary. The landscapes that they make up are apparently aphonic to the deepest realm. Toh produced canvases that repudiate perspective depth and delves into images comprised of few objects that she created. She limits her world to those few objects perpetually, yet undergoes endless repetition of self-reproduction, portraying the forms of life in reiteration and amorphous time. Her works reach the core concept of Marquez’ 『100 years of solitude』 because of the span and depth of time implied by the images, alongside with the betokened weight of grave silence. Painting is a way of speaking without saying a word; similarly, solitude can be referred as to as “imagining freely, observing, reflecting, and out and about like a wanderer”, according to the artist. To her, each moment is a vain yet assiduous glimpse of life which trespasses and transcends 100 years as a whole.

The unbearable lightness of being
Toh Yunhee eminently adopted the term “Being” or “Floating” as her works’ titles, which signify the vanity of existence. Floating-weed (i.e., duckweed) is a plant that grows on the water’s surface; this is why it is called Bu-Pyeongcho in Korean, which means floating and horizontal to the surface. Their roots are spread underwater like stranded hair, and they frequently change habitats thanks to the wind. They become the metaphor of nihilism, futility and the fickleness of life. Toh’s works have embraced such plants that purposelessly wander along the canvas surface. However, in Toh’s works, their habitat is not an actual river or pond, but rather some place unknown and mysterious. They don’t truly exist anywhere and never root themselves in any firm ground; they become an abstract entity, (i.e., empty signifier) wandering across the canvas. Toh built multiple layers using pencils and a varnishing process, and the canvases show abstract space, which is neither a representation nor extension of the actual world. Yet such ‘unbearable lightness of being’ mostly dwells on the water, the origin of all ephemeral and transient beings. Those floating-weed plants and water are the media of Toh, which could lead toward actual substance beneath the phenomena and belongs to the ‘objective correlative’ caught in Toh’s own net. T. S. Eliot said, “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” Toh has observed and portrayed aimless and fruitless floating and fickle existence in line with the interminable flow of water alongside it. While her early works have concentrated on the former, her recent works show her emphasis on the latter.

Unknown Signal
Toh’s last solo exhibition at Mongin, 《Gaze without eyes》 was at the end of 2008, and this year’s exhibition title is《Unknown Signal》. The works shown in this latest exhibition reflect Toh’s consistent interest and scrutiny toward existence, yet certain changes should be noticed. While her previous works were more inclined to maintaining distance and quietly observing objects or landscapes, her recent works show how Toh proactively engages herself and interprets her own ideas about objects or landscapes. For example, in her work, ‹Dawn is the ridge of night› (2007) or ‹Liquefied anxieties›, which were shown in previous exhibition, 《Gaze without eyes》, portrayed the subtle wandering and profluent river-flows with large scale horizontal canvases. On the other hand, in this latest exhibition, Toh inclusively delves into the subject of time, memory and many facets of life with the subject matter of water, rays of sunshine, ice, honey and dust. In particular, the work, ‹Unknown Signal›, which became the title of the exhibition, is the highlight of the exhibition, combining various media such as photographs, computers and lighting. The major source of this work is photographs of Angkor Wat that she took on a boat few years ago. The photographs show impressive images of wind, rays of sunshine and rivers. The slow sparkling of the sun is reflected in the wind-blown, palpitating water. These sways of glittering sun seem like undecipherable codes. Toh broke down pixels of photographs to filter and choose images based on her memory; then, she erased the colors and images of the river. After that, she produced nine river images after repeated re-touching. Toh printed out these images on specially designed and produced Hanji, then installed the whole set in the gallery space. The lighting for the installation work was carefully designed to highlight the messages. The audience can see traces of subtle and luminously gleaming lights when the lighting is weak, which exposes the bare skin of the river. Contrary to her previous works that aimed at silence and stillness, the slowly fading light causes a metamorphosis of works, unveiling entirely different phases and images of the river. This steers the viewers to better perceive the core objects and substances. I’m not so sure whether we could ‘perceive the presence as if on the other side of eternity,’ but the glowing waves of the river, glittering of the sun (like a jewel) surely lead us to the speculations toward eternity, whilst the undecipherable signs pass through the circuit of memory of each and every individual viewer, inviting various interpretations. Here, what is important is that Toh intentionally distorted the photographs of the river, as if the images are from her old memory, and the distortion is seen as a proposition of ‘anti-photography’; this again confirms Toh’s notion of gazing beneath the visual phenomena. However, while her previous work, ‹Liquefied Anxieties›, is based on the photographs of the river, the ‹Unknown Signal› ‘retouched’ the image, and the vertical ‹Unreadable Sentence› is a carefree painting of the river, yet seems like some inscription of it. Those three different images of the river are end-products of the artist’s persistent attempts to aim to reach the substance of the river. On the first floor, ‹Darkness Blanche› shows how darkness and light interact with each other. With the work, ‹Sun light shed darkness to some-time› (2009), the artist learned and perceived that darkness is the condensed form of light, and she perceived and captured the particles of darkness glowing with white lights.          While the ‹Unknown Signal› is the choir of wind, water, sunlight and time, this exhibition’s highlight would be drawings, which record the trajectory of rays of sunshine collected over a period of time. These drawings show the portraiture of sunlight collected over eight years. These drawings are made on a piece of golden/silver thin paper leaf that the artist had used in her childhood for her art classes. Those golden and silver paper layers were bathed in the sun on her house rooftop for eight years; then, she made drawings using ink stick and pencil. The papers faded and became yellowish as if harnessed in ‘100 years of solitude,’ and, in themselves, have become a work or art. Those old times stored in that work have become the background of the images that are the backbone of her ideas, sketches and all other works. They look like dwarf shrubs, bushes, vines or leaves or even human veins, sprawling and swaying, resonating subtle, ambiguous, sensitive clues toward the unimaginable or intangible phenomena. They are all very heart-warming and familiar for some reason. These are manifestations toward the thirst toward salvation and desire to find poetry in every day phenomena. And all those little clues are intertwined to become a grand, yet harmonious, landscape that embraces a long-forgotten time and an evanescent, ephemeral and simple life. Last, at the far bottom layer of her canvas, there exist layers of ice, honey and dust. The work, ‹Ice Alive›, is connected with four canvases, and the sheer scale of the work with its thin, fine yet strong lines sprawl, spread and fill up the whole canvas. The ice refuses to be melted away, rather choosing to be broken down into pieces.        The determination of the ice stems out explosive sounds, and according to the artist, this work conveys ice-like coldness, which was risen from the merciless gaze toward oneself, which in turn produced a canvas that does not spare any blank spaces. ‹Honey and Dust> delves into the ambiguity of life, which embraces both joy and sorrow, shown as the dust reflected when meeting rays of the sun. The movements and motions of dust floating in the air remind us of the floating-weed. Also, the ‹Shadow of Dust› blooms with an enchanting scent. Considering that her recent works show Toh’s latest inclinations toward inner landscape rather than a landscape of objects, the exhibition space is a platform that opens up the inner self of the artist. But in line with Toh’s usual inclinations, they were only expressed in indications.

The old future of painting
By the end of the 20th century, we witnessed the surge of new media in contemporary art, and many were not reluctant to declare the end of painting. Also, many repeatedly discussed the limits of painting whenever the future of painting seemed gloom and hopeless. Regardless of the reliability, appropriateness or accuracy of such hastened speculations, it is still hard to be hopeful and aspiring for the future of painting while digital images are produced, spread and consumed virtually every second. Toh produced and showed ‘slow’ images even in the explosive surges of the digital image era. She carefully chose few images then immersed them in time and memory. As stated above, her landscapes are abstract images including seemingly obvious substances. Her landscapes are never like any world that we can see with our physical eyes, and in this sense, they belong to the realm of ‘subjective correlative.’ However, as her past and recent works show, what we cherish as images of objects are images stored in the mind or memory rather than being an ephemeral and disposable thing. In this regard, those various images shown in ‹Unknown Signal› resemble the ‘true’ river of our mind. For Toh, her creative process is the reconciliation with life, and the action of painting is the sole willingness that could counteract the feeling of helplessness of humans. Furthermore, Toh regards the work process, which requires intensive concentration and demanding labor, as a self-purification process. In this sense, Toh is a true painter; she is not just any painter, but is an extraordinary painter. Toh’s works boast a high degree of completion, and she believes in the future of painting as some ‘old future.’ Wittgenstein had said, “The subject does not belong to the world, but it is a limit of the world.” This applies to Toh as well. The painting must be the limit of the world to her, not something that belongs to the world. Toh’s essay collection, 『Gaze Without Eyes』, ends with the last sentence, “Empty canvas stands before me,” and I have no doubt that this canvas is the stage of her that foretells yet another 100 years of solitude.

Kang Tae-hee, Professor, Korea National University of Arts
2011