The Face of Otherness Shining in the Darkness


Lee Sun-young (Art Critic)

Korean (with images)


Two eyes apper in a dark, dense forest; they have no pupils, yet still stare ahead. The eyes may show the fear of a wild animal frightened by a sudden light, and the aggression aroused by that fear. The shaggy, hairy form looks like an animal, though it has no features except the hair and the fearful eyes. The hair, every strand of which looks alive, not only protects but reveals fear on the surface. Staring directly ahead and standing erect, the viewer may be reminded of a human being, or more likely the animal aspect of a human. The ambiguous, mysterious figure, which is not entirely human nor animal, is camouflaged with a similar texture and color to the forest it resides in, rough like an unrefined wad of cotton. It is only distinguished from the background by the surprised eyes, the distinguishing feature  that shows it's alive. The doll-like figure is quaintly expressionless, but regardless, clearly seems to be confronting an astonishing incident.


The incident itself is not revealed, but the appearance of the figure implies the incident. The incident reduces the figure to a childlike or animal state, and scaring it into the cover of the wild. Im Ji-hyun's “Blind Spot Forest” is painted on a rectangular canvas­­–sagak in Korean–on a white cube. Sagak also has the meaning of ‘blind spot’. Supposing the blind spot is a certain region that isn't screened by the net of civilization, the blind spot can be either positive or negative depending on how you interpret civilization. However, civilization is corrupt, and it can't be returned to its original condition; this figure is an example of a primitive, wild, alienated otherness banished from civilization to the borders. Im's recent works are all black.The artist's “Black Forest” series was a metaphor for a dark world, and “Blind Spot Forest” has a similarly dark and gloomy atmosphere, probably darker here, as the darkness of the present era meets the darkness of individuals.


“Blind Spot Forest” (2015), also the subtitle of the exhibition, shows a frightened figure on the edge of clearing in the middle of a forest. There is no soft foliage here, and it looks like a limitless expanse, or possibly a hole that the creature can escape into. Given the crisscross pattern of the trees, it is also suggestive of a bird’s nest. Given that, it should be cozy, but it is only hollow. It is reminiscent of Freud's assertion that the feeling of the uncanny, which has become a key concept in modern art, comes about in the most familiar of places, like home. The hole, or the empty ground, calls to mind imminent danger or an ever-present void. In another work “Black Forest” (2015), a forest is placed like a single chunk, with the eyes of two figures glowing in the distance. One figure stares into the air while the other looks at the viewer. The two are within the same boundary, but they are contained in their respective fears as if they do not know the other exists. A common danger will be the only thing that makes a community out of individuals that are dispersed like atoms.


“Black Forest” (2015), is sparse, like a forest just planted on Arbor Day. The environment unfavorable for hiding implies the danger they may face if spotted. Small, tense leaves sticking up from weak branches deliver an understanding of the mental and physical status of the figures behind the scene like seismographs. The figure hidden in the woods reveals itself in “Absurd” (2015). Fine, swirling lines are a gestalt to express emotions that can vary depending on the viewer. Every single hair produces  an expression with the same degree and complexity of facial features. The hairs seem ever-changing because of the repetition of the same unit which makes it seem like they are moving. It is a hallucination in a static drawing. It is also the principle of animation. “Trying to See” (2015) reveals the entire body.


The figure is distressed because it cannot hide. The fact that the figure is nakedly placed in a field of obvious visibility means that it is unarmed. The figure appears to be bound or tied up since it does not have any visible limbs, and its asexuality brings up ideas of castration. The hairy man stares at the other who's staring at it. Another work, "Absurd," implies scenes of incidents that we should never forget, realistic situations too miserable to bear, but at the same time we must not close our eyes and ignore them. The image of hair, which makes the figure’s silhouette both smooth and rough, is natural in Im's works since they are mostly composed of drawings. The image of hair is monotonous, but it is a way to present an infinite spectrum of contrast and texture, and it is a material with which to express compulsion and a fear of our contemporaries. In Im's previous oil painting, "Songes, Mesonges" (2007), for example, hair that covers the entire head of the figure in it is suffocating. Only humans grow their hair so long.


Hair grows from the body and covers the body, and it will disappear into the holes it grew out of. The deep abyss in the middle of "Arachne" (2008) causes fear. But the abyss, the forbidden place, radiates charm. In the imagination of mankind, long hair and rolling water was a charm that leads to death. Every line stretches in random directions regardless of intent or purpose and creates an autonomous substance. Im experiments in "Tra-la-la" (2009) with how many different features can be enfolded within and unfolded from within the monotonous hair, or lines. In "Swim" (2015), the person swimming in the abyss proceeds toward the center of the subconscious, and the psychological situation unfolds on the stage. Im's works are a stage for psychodrama. In "Play" (2015), a frame, or a rectangle like a stage, is packed with ghost-like figures. The mysterious figures freely move only within the rectangular frame. They appear to be engaged in asexual reproduction or collapsing like bowling pins. Or, they might be an afterimage of an object. In the "Theater" (2010), figures like ghosts are lying down in the corner or on the floor of a rectangular stage and are surrounded by radial creatures. Lights for the dark stage seem to have turned into living monsters.


The stage for psychodrama is full of uncanniness, and the images of the books support that stage. Im regards the book as an abundant, perfect shape. It is no ghostly abstraction, but has actual substance. Books, as a sculpture or object, are a means of expressing diverse tones of achromatic colors in three-dimensional space. In Im's previous work, "Unfinished Text" (2014), pages with diverse contrast and texture are connected. The books are piled up in order of contrast in the same way as a line drawing or painting. When the drawing and the book are together, the book becomes a rectangular support, or a stage. This work has a cartoonish quality which she attributes to long ignored childhood sensibilities; her background in engraving and visual design (her major in at university in Korea) and  sculpture and painting, which she studied in France, also shows its influence. The hairy figure speaking to the audience is like a cartoon rendition of a traditional Korean bachelor’s ghost or a snowman.


The world of cartoons in childhood before learning art can be a mother tongue to some people. Memories of cartooning fade away when they grow up and resurface from the subconscious only in special situations. Dreams, for example, are similar to master artisan's work based on suppressed ideas. This suppression does not correspond to the kidult generation, whose popular culture is mostly childish. The character in the piece, which needs to be unconditionally protected and loved, emphasizes the paradoxical situation in which it isn't. The Sewol ferry accident that drowned hundreds of teenagers was such a situation, and another more recently, the images of a dead Syrian boy washed up on a beach aroused the world's attention to war and violence more than any other horrible scene. The hair-like lines covering the entire figure express many different emotions from horror to swirling fury. Hair often disappears in civilization because it directly expresses desires including fear. For example, men cut their hair short or shave their faces, and women do not show their armpit or leg hair. Further back in time, people would cover the hair on their heads.


Hair represents desires that should be restrained, and sometimes means death, or joy that extends to death. The figure in Im's work is placed in different dramatic situations, reminding us of subconscious ideas and taboos related to hair and criticizing modern civilization. The two eyes equally draw attention. It is often said that eyes are a window to the soul. Eyes take up a large portion of the face, and sight is considered the most important among the five senses. In Le Roman du Visage, Nicole Avril said the French language takes sight to be the most important attribute related to the face. According to Avril, the word "visage" originated from a Latin word that means "to see." For a human who cannot see their own face, seeing means mutuality. The face is what I see when I look at others and what others see when they look at me. She states that the face is what we want to honorably reveal to others and at the same time a secret that we want to hide. It is what I am showing to the world and my mask at the same time. It is my flag and my pain.


The hollow but wide-open eyes imply the object at which it is fearfully staring. The face does not have a humane aspect, which may be the reason for the repeating and worsening of violence. The dynamics of staring, which is obvious in Im's works, means authority. As Nicole Avril asserts, the person who is able to see into the face of others is in an authoritative position. Like a staring contest, the audience stares at the figure and the figure does the same to the audience. The cute, hairy figure in Im's works, which stirs up our protective instincts, shows fear and aggression, and also shows that attack is the best defense. In this extreme generation where everyone is considered a competitor, aggressive eyes are an advantage. In his book Bodywatching, Sociobiologist Desmond Morris discussed many different ways of accentuating human eyes, from using dark eyeliner to wearing sunglasses. The white hairless circles in Im’s work are the hollow look that fills up the eyes, paradoxically emphasizing the eyes.


The eyes, like a deer in the headlights, reflect the aggressive light they receive from the opponent. Francette Pacteau says in The Symptom of Beauty that the figure looking but also focused on ‘the other’ is living as if it were controlled by the look itself. The hollow look of the ghost-like figure does not reflect the incident, and a reproduction of the incident is impossible. Like an object of fear, it is a "hallucination of nothing and a metaphor that is the anaphora of nothing" (Julia Kristeva). Nothingness, the ambiguity of the object and not being able to represent causes anxiety. Rosemary Jackson explains in her book Fantasy that there is no adequate representation of otherness, because otherness does not have a place in our lives. Otherness is fantastic. Fantasy replaces existence with absence and then brings in the field of non-signification, which is death. The uncanny expresses drives which have to be repressed for the sake of cultural continuity.


The object of fear can have no adequate representation and is, therefore, all the more threatening. It is something without a name, without a form. Because it is unnamable, it is not easily exorcized. The nameless and unnamable thing without shape and form is fear. As expressed in "Play," Im responds to anxiety, an invisible fear, with not only hollow eyes but also division, or multiple selves. In his book Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, Freud said anxiety has a quality of indefiniteness and lacks an object. Anxiety is a response to a danger. The repeating lines in Im's works execute a psychological mechanism that replays trauma to prevent further damages. The situation in which a ghost is facing many other ghosts is a modern version of "the war of all against all" (Thomas Hobbes). The ghost-like figures signify widespread, indefinite anxiety that lacks objects, and also suggests figures that have a sense of crisis and helplessness in such an environment.




Translated by Bongmoon Kim

Edited by J.P. Zukauskas