Dual Conditions of Human Existence
Lee Seon-young (art critic)
Cho Eun-joung’s solo exhibition “Balance Point” negotiates the borders between the conscious and subconscious, reality and fantasy, reason and desire, the Self and the Other. In broad terms, balance connotes a middle ground between contrasting sides; the border is where balance is achieved. Using a characteristically muted palette, Cho’s paintings suggest unknown realms which resist classification, their mystery and serene stillness complementing their faintly faded achromatic tones. It is often said that dreams occur in black and white, and Cho’s work certainly seems enveloped in the somewhat surreal environments of dreamlike settings. The possibility of glimpsing someone else’s dream through the window of art is particularly intriguing in the context of Cho's paintings, which attempt to depict these invisible worlds. Representing the invisible through the visible, this condition takes on greater significance in the artist’s figurative work. However, there is no reason the invisible should be granted more importance than the visible, a perspective shared by René Magritte, painter of Ceci n'est pas une pipe (The Treachery of Images) and personal friend of Michele Foucault, with whom he corresponded extensively regarding the French philosopher’s Les Mots et les Choses (The Order of Things).
Island│ 2015 │ Oil on Canvas │ 28×35.5㎝
Absolutely Perfect Defense │ 2015 │ Oil on Canvas │ 25.4×20㎝
Doors and windows such as those belonging to antiquated buildings function as passages for either entering or exiting. Cho, an artist deeply engaged with concerns surrounding communication with the Other, uses such passages to investigate notions of communication across a range of scenarios. For instance, a floating house in Island (2015) lacks any door whatsoever, while a door in Absolutely Perfect Defense (2015) opens onto a solid wall, both serving as metaphors for the potential for dysfunction within these communicative passages. Other variations on this theme include a paper door attached to a wooden building (Paper Gate, 2014) and a shrunken door propped up against the corner of a room (Forced Space in the Corner, 2014). A paradox of the present is that state-of-the-art tools for communication are constantly being introduced and expanded to the point where it is now possible to live in a perpetual ‘online’ state without any break in connectivity. In contrast with this reality, Cho reflects humanity’s excessive call for communication by installing an unlikely set of interior blinds to the doorway of a stone building (Blind Door, 2016). Our obsession with communication begs the question of whether this has become communication for communication’s sake, just as there once was a time of art for art’s sake.
In this era of hyper-communication and so-called ‘real time self-disclosure’ (i.e. SMS, social media), in what ways might art achieve the same objectives? By virtue of its symbolic language, Cho’s work maintains a distance from the immediate and direct format of commercials, modern society's most generalized form of communication. Her paintings bear traces of remnants which cannot be reduced down to pure communication and therefore find expression through an alternative form of communication. Aesthetic communication is more subjective in nature and open to a wider range of interpretations, unlike signals or signs, and Cho utilizes polysemantic symbols in her work as a way of incorporating an extended reality which borders on the surreal. Surrealist symbolism proposes that “life is a coded message waiting to be deciphered” (André Breton). We know that the term symbol is derived from the Greek symballein, meaning an overlapping cohesion of the specific and physical, and the abstract and spiritual (Gilbert Durand,L'imagination symbolique). We as humans escape our individual specificity and open ourselves to universality through symbols. In this context, we may consider the image attached to a symbol as a broken half.
(Reference Artwork) Paper Gate │ 2014 │ Oil on Canvas │ 150×145.5㎝
(Reference Artwork) Forced Space in the Corner │ 2014 │ Oil on Canvas │ 80.3×116.8㎝
Blind Door │ 2016 │ Oil on Canvas │ 145.6×112㎝
The symbolism found in “Balance Point” strives to locate this broken half. Deeper communication can be achieved through symbolic thinking, even if at first the message may not be as clear as without using symbolic language. Cho’s work accordingly elicits both pleasant moments of recognition as well as contentious attitudes of questioning and doubt, particularly upon extended contemplation. There is, nevertheless, a certain message that the artist intends to express. Her work appeals to being read in the same way as an illustration in a book—perhaps implying that the opposite exists as well, that is, art which eschews any attempt to convey a message and is only concerned with the image being presented. In Cho’s work a door distinguishing here from there, or even connecting the two, serves as an apt instrument for discovering a balance point. Architecture can also serve as a reconfigurable stage upon which such instruments may be displayed in a familiar manner. Thus, the historical European architecture Cho experienced as an artist-in-residence in Italy is transformed into a venue where universal issues dating back to the ancient times continue to be negotiated, though these are not particularly new from a psychological standpoint.
Cho's works occupy a space between borders and within passages, points where the potential for a shift toward balance can be activated, yet stopping short of reaching equilibrium. Some works accent such transitional states; reddish flesh and seeds cascading out of a cut pumpkin in Stored Memory (2016), for instance, or ivy threatening to gobble up an entire house in Irregular Forest House (2016). As analyzed in abject aesthetic theory, such ambiguous matter sliding between here and there not only induces a reaction of disgust, but also a curious inability to look away. This tendency is perhaps best embodied by Wolfgang Kaiser’s ‘grotesque aesthetics,’ which are rooted in a “collision of unresolved conflicts.” Nevertheless, at least a modicum of familiarity with the subject is required in order to be able to perceive a collision as such, thus invoking the ‘uncanny’ experience of “unfamiliarity within familiarity” theorized by Sigmund Freud. The keyword balance itself is open to innumerable interpretations, comparing every group imaginable to the full extent, and Cho evokes this multiplicity in her works, which provoke yet propose no clear solutions. Balance in this exhibition is not a precondition but a goal, with the artist’s practice an instrument in achieving its objective.
Stored Memory│ 2016 │ Oil on Canvas │ 112×145.5㎝
Irregular Forest House│ 2016 │ Oil on Canvas │ 121×145.5㎝
Cho’s work undoubtedly presents some delightful aspects, regardless of whether it achieves such goals, among which include mysterious environments where temporal and spatial backgrounds are difficult to discern as well as moments of existence: “sunlight in the afternoon seemingly freezing every other object’s movements” (Giorgio de Chirico). Completely free of risk, viewers are able to derive pleasure from scenes in which the laws of nature and civilization are violated; taboos which had formerly kept humans safe and intact within society begin to unravel, and the energy this generates brings us a sense of satisfaction. But might it be better if this were captivating enough in itself while simultaneously playing another role? Perhaps developing a response to the transformation of everyday routines—in other words, a feeling of desperation towards reality—instead of being a mere ornament of the present? An artist contemplating issues of balance might find the human body and mind to be a suitable battlefield upon which to perform their struggle and Cho’s paintings present these struggles as incidents on a stage, with the artist herself playing the role as a producer. On stage, symbols are activated as representations of her alternate selves. The act of observing herself in this way enables Cho to probe the relationship between the Self and the Other, all of which presumably boils down to balance.
Things would likely be different if these conflicting forces existed in equilibrium, in the way that day and night naturally complement one another, but instead both sides struggle to lay claim to a larger share. In this zero sum game, a greater share of consciousness implies and necessitates a lesser share of subconsciousness, and vice versa. “Balance Point” does not dictate that opposite forces need be hostile to each another. Looking at things from an art historical standpoint, attempts to stimulate dialectical conversations with the Other by juxtaposing heterogeneous objects or symbols can be traced back to Surrealism. André Breton, a poet who suggested the theoretical framework for Surrealism, believed in “the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.” Reality to Breton was to attain a “mental vantage-point (point de l'esprit ) from which life and death, the real and the imaginary, past and future, communicable and incommunicable, high and low, will no longer be perceived as contradictions.” An ideal harmony was never realized, and Surrealism went out of fashion; this, however, still remains as an assignment.
Circus-The Unbearable Lightness of Being │ 2009 │ Oil on Canvas │ 117×63㎝
(Reference Artwork) The Flower │ 2009 │Oil on Canvas │145×112㎝
Cho’s attention to balance also recalls her earlier work. A precarious arrangement of vertically stacked objects differing in weight in Circus-The Unbearable Lightness of Being (2009) appears to completely eschew the laws of gravity, and seems to be almost certainly on the verge of collapsing. Similarly, a chick perched upon a slender cactus in The Flower (2009) suggests that balance is more than a term for ‘being advantageous,’ that it is also capable of impacting critical matters of life and death. These works heighten and intensify an atmosphere of suspense, a condition which can sometimes trigger catharsis. Arrangements of heterogeneous objects bearing symbolic significance are also explored in this exhibition, wherein encounters with enormous animals in Definition of Human (2015) and Repeated Dream (2015) provoke a sense of fear and permit a moment of contact with the subconscious. This reaction may be considered symbolic of animal nature, a concept which is neither positive nor negative. In reality, however, human-centered thinking is typically treated as troubled, thus relieving animal nature from its negativity.
The most representative name for such animal nature would be ‘heterogeneous Other,’ a well-quoted term in postmodern theory. Cho’s work resists becoming overwhelmed by the Other and instead gently engages it face to face, at times even attempting to transcend this interaction entirely and shift the balance back in favor of the Self. In Playground (2015), a huge fish is seen passing through a pencil sharpener before transforming into a rock, a more or less astounding metamorphosis. As a contemporary artist, Cho treats the subconscious as something located somewhere deep within, a place where it connects to real objects as if some kind of machine consisting of a multitude of small parts which all operate as a single unit, akin to Felix Guattari’s L'inconscient machinique (The Machinic Unconscious). It is also possible that a fish's transition from its habitual fast-twitch movement to a solidified state devoid of inertia might offer a psychological solution in some regard. Water and plants, unlike animals, have been innately imbued with balance since the very beginning, a principle observed as water flows downward toward the horizontal plane, or trees root themselves in the earth while extending their balanced branches upward and outward toward the sky. Such balance is readily associated with images of death. Indeed, the end of pleasure itself could mean death—Freud himself long argued for the relation of the pleasure principle and death instinct.
Definition of Humans│ 2015 │ Oil on Canvas │ 35.5×28㎝
Repeated Dream │ 2015 │ Oil on Canvas │ 28×35.5㎝
Playground│ 2015 │ Oil on Canvas │ 28×35.5㎝
The competition inherent in reaching a balance enables an abandonment of individual freedom, a property often perceived in a negative light but which is activated in Coexistence (2015)—tall trees with their branches apparently interlinking and overlapping—and Extended Balance (2016)—smaller trees attempting to do the same in order to successfully endure fierce storms, thus finding a certain point of balance of their own. These landscapes suggest that dead and dying trees are in fact vital for living trees to be able to grow and thrive. Exploring natural balance further, Crack (2016) depicts a branchless tree covered with ivy, simultaneously presenting a loss of this balance while offering a possible vision of a different balance altogether. Cho’s monotone works often include black balloons which appear to be weighed down rather than fluttering in the breeze or blowing freely in the wind. A man depicted in Weight of Thought (2016) hangs in the air with a black balloon tied to his ankle, although it is impossible to determine whether he is falling out of the sky or being lifted up and away. Heavy objects also possess great amounts of energy (to be fair, lightness has a power of its own), as seen in Temporary Perfection (2016) and Morning in July (2015), where black balloons dislodge stone pillars from their foundations and lift a stone roof off the top of a building, respectively. In these instances, our heavy reality which is subject to the laws of gravity is turned on its head.
In this exhibition, Cho probes the balance between the weight of reality and the lightness of fantasy, the latter of which is often imagined to be a shimmering and airy vision. For an artist engrossed in fantasy, reality is considered a serious assignment, though never a pain. Psychoanalysis assesses this duality through a comparison of the so-called reality principle and pleasure principle. Summarizing Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theories by Jay Greenberg and Stephen Mitchell, reality is justified by means of complex human processes such as repression, self-deception, bad faith and capitulation. The reality principle comprehensively encompasses consciousness, attention, perception, judgment, behavior and thinking; it is derived from interactions between impulse and the real world rather than impulse alone. Psychoanalysis recognizes that reality and psychology are counterbalancing forces, noting that children become more interested in reality when they feel frustrated at being unable to satisfy their internal desires. When human needs are satisfied in an erotic way, it should be added, reality is almost completely ignored.
Coexistence │ 2015 │ Oil on Canvas │ 20×25.4㎝
Extended Balance │ 2016 │ Oil on Canvas │ 89.4×130.3㎝
Crack │ 2016 │ Oil on Canvas │ 145.5×97㎝
People with complaints may concern themselves with reality, but the wider public generally accepts reality as such. An artist who is surrounded by fantasy is only likely to take an interest in reality, therefore, through their individual dissatisfaction with reality. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, to imagine the most fantasy-driven people engaging with reality at all, evidenced by the artistic avant-garde frequently taking more radical positions than even politicians, to say nothing of the general public. Surely their disillusionment with participatory actions runs deep as well. As psychoanalysis posits, the reality principle presents itself through conflicts; it is a product of internalized authority and cultural traditions, manifested in both the ego and superego and characterized by harshness and coercion. Unlike this reality, seeking pleasure by satisfying individual desires is an essential motivation of human beings, Freud suggests. Pleasure is faithful to subconscious processes and reality, according to psychoanalysis, either permits desires to be realized for pleasure or delays pleasure through the reality principle. What is required, however, is still more than an adaptation to reality.
When disillusionment with reality arises, it can be remediated through changes in oneself or one’s reality, with a third option being to search for an alternate reality. In cases where an external reality is allotted greater emphasis, the only way forward is by adapting to the present situation. Accomplishing this, however, requires submitting one’s experiential wisdom to the forces of reality or employing similar strategies, such as those suggested by behavioral learning theory. Cho accomplishes this by way of institutional critique, satirizing the authority of art museums (Museum, 2014) and even knowledge itself (Library in the Air, 2014). The worlds of art and academia, seemingly distant from reality, in fact also operate according to this same hackneyed political order. Works such as these elicit the pleasure principle as a means for the artist to withstand the ordeal of reality. “Balance Point” complies with Freud’s psychoanalytic hypothesis that “art reconciles the reality principle with the pleasure principle,” and attempts to strike and maintain a balance with external reality by mediating internal levels of desire. The same is the case for the relationship between the individual and society. Recognizing that consciousness and subconsciousness are engaged in a perpetual, dynamic struggle for dominance in an individual’s psyche, an individual in search of this balance point can ultimately be said to belong to society itself.
Weight of Thought │ 2016 │ Oil on Canvas │ 97×145.5㎝
Temporary Perfection │ 2016 │ Oil on Canvas │ 97×145.5㎝
Morning in July│ 2015 │ Oil on Canvas │ 28×35.5㎝
Broadly speaking, psychoanalysis can be divided into two major viewpoints, depending on whether desires of the Self or relations with the Other serve as the focus of inquiry. This exhibition traces the artist’s shift of focus toward relations with the Other, turning away from the influence of individual desires expressed in her earlier work. If this were only an issue for a single individual then using painting as a tool for engagement with the Other would be unnecessary. According to Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theories, Freud’s separation of id from ego is expedient for distinguishing primitive, anti-social and uncontrollable impulses from the knowledge and competence demanded by the external world. The Freudian drive theory places its emphasis on human drives and their regulation as well as the components of energy and how it functions. However, researchers in relational models argue that human mentality originates from the need to build relationships with others rather than endeavoring to regulate the intensity of their drives. Society serves as a venue where the drives of all individuals are able to interact. In other words, we must emphasize interpersonal relations as well as the motivations for individual thoughts and behaviors. What matters most is not the conscious or subconscious themselves, but rather relations among individuals.
“Balance Point” looks squarely at the human duality of the individual and the social. Classic psychoanalysis certainly does not overlook this matter; in Civilization and its Discontents, for example, Freud states that society facilitates the abandonment of an individual’s innate and intuitive inclinations. He reiterates this point in Group Psychology and the Analysis of Ego: “The individual’s mental existence has something to do with others at all times as a model, object, helper, and antagonist. Therefore individual psychology, since the very beginning, has been social one within a larger context.” Among scholars who focus their inquiry on relations rather than drives, it is believed that human satisfaction and individual goals can only be realized within a community. Even before the advent of psychoanalysis it was argued that humanity’s essence lies in the embodiment of the individual’s network of social relations. From this perspective, life is complete when the Self builds an active relationship with the Other and participates in society.
(Reference Artwork) Museum │ 2014 │ Oil on Canvas │ 80.3×162㎝
(Reference Artwork) Library in the Air │ 2014 │ Oil on Canvas │ 130×162㎝
Cho’s pursuit of the balance point transcends the individual plane and aims to achieve this objective together with the Other. A house, when considered a symbol of the self, needs doors to open toward the Other; doors of all types function as conduits for locating the balance point. Even if the coming and going through these doors is sporadic, communication with the Other is nonetheless settled in the core of the Self. Humans aren’t born bereft of relationships with the Other; from the beginning of time, we hardly would have been able to survive without it. In Cho’s paintings of trees and forests, the individual takes form as both an independent existence and a member of a community, where the Other encompasses animals, plants, nature, the subconscious, and the wholeness of humanity. The catalyst for “Balance Point” stems from the artist’s doubt as to whether art itself has become transformed into the Other, powerless to function as a resisting force against the dominant order within society, and therefore submitting itself to a lowered and subordinate role.