In Honor of Gina Sohn’s Exhibition “Layered Layered”

William Blake (1757-1827) conveys the following sentiments in the initial stanza of Auguries of Innocence.

 

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

 

In the mid-1940s, the Chinese aesthetic philosopher Zong Baihua (1897-1986) translated this poem into Chinese characters using the five-letter poem format. Since then, it has had a profound and emotional impact on numerous people in East Asia. "One flower, one world; one grain of sand, one heavenly kingdom. The ruler's control is boundless. A moment contains the eternal (一花一世界, 一沙一天國, 君掌盛無邊, 刹那含永劫). Thus, in truth, there is no distinction between East and West; in enlightenment, ancient and modern are not separable.

Gina Sohn (born 1965) is a prominent Korean land artist known for her work. She brings her land art to life in locations such as wind-blown beaches and mountain forests. She explores the mutually complementing relationship between the earth (Erde) and the world (Welt). For example, a blank piece of paper is unreadable until we write it with a pencil or pen. We need to write or draw something with a pencil or pen to read it. Similarly, when only light is replete, we are not able to appreciate the beauty of light. This is because the essence of light becomes apparent in the presence of darkness. To be specific, the interior of Le Corbusier's masterpiece "Notre-Dame du Haut" de Ronchamp, enveloped in darkness, provides a precise portrayal of the essence of light. The substantial sunbeams filtering through the tiny windows effortlessly merge with the shadows in the obscure internal space.

Through the contrary juxtaposition of the earth and the world, Gina Sohn accentuates their essences. The earth assumes the role of a nurturing mother embracing the world, whereas the world acts as a paternal force, shaking the earth. They fight each other. However, they engage not in discord but in love. Gina Sohn unveils the unseen wind by deploying a smokescreen. This way, she materializes the swift movement of the wind. Furthermore, she encapsulates the undulating waves and sea spumes on her canvas. But why? This is because water symbolizes the origin of existence, and wind serves as a metaphor for the dimensions of time and space. The great Persian poet Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) from the 12th century expresses a comparable perspective. He sings about:

 

With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,

And with my own hand labour'd it to grow:

And this was all the Harvest that I reap'd --

I came like Water and like Wind I go.

 

Gina Sohn symbolically conveys events emerging from the earth through the mediums of contemporary theater and dance. The term "symbol" originates from the ancient Greek word "sumballein," signifying "to evoke (join/throw) together." This suggests the invocation of numerous meanings, calling concealed significance.

In Gina Sohn's installation land art piece, "Unveiling Smoke," six performers release black smoke into the air. As light emerges from the darkness, we see the smoke's movement, guided by the direction of the wind. The patterns created in the air pose a question about the dimensions of time and space. In Buddhism, the concept of emptiness (空) is often equated with the Tao (道) in Taoism and the heavens (天) in Confucianism. In this context, emptiness doesn't imply void nihil (虛無) but rather signifies the source of all phenomena (萬象) and the fundamental principle behind all movements (萬動). Emptiness represents a state of complete vacancy, and we exist because of this emptiness. The fulfillment of form (形) corresponds to the diminishing of energy(氣). Contrariwise, emptiness signifies a repletion of energy. Gina Sohn's artistic representation of space signifies not only our origin but also a rich fullness replete with vitality. Hence, the artist refers to these experiences as “Layered layered (疊疊),” with the term “疊 (layered)” encompassing the notions of both repetition and folding (屈)”  In addition, the term “Layered layered (疊疊)” also conveys the ideas of “cheering up (振作),” “harboring feelings in the heart (懷),” and “brightening (明).” Ultimately, our perception encompasses only a fraction of the vastness of time and space. The dimensions of time and space are mysterious, appearing empty yet filled with enigmatic energy. This state goes beyond the confines of language.

Hence, to capture this mysterious state, Johann von Goethe poetically expresses in "Song of the Spirits over the Waters (Gesang der Geister über den Wassern)" with the lines: Spirit of man, Thou art like unto water! Fortune of man, Thou art like unto wind!

The discourse on the confrontation between the earth and the world originated with Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) in his work "The Origin of the Work of Art (Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes).” This concept has relevance in the interpretation of Gina Sohn's artworks. In her piece "Wind, water and roof tiles" (2021), Gina Sohn introduces a structure resembling a house by arranging roof tiles on the beach. As the sea carries sand into contact with the roof tiles, the house's structure, as indicated by the roof tiles, slowly sinks into the seawater. The wind rushes through the open gaps, and the seawater feels liberated, embracing the swift wind and touching the earth and the roof tiles. Despite being immersed in water, the tiles persist without disappearing. They undergo a transformation into significance. The statement “the world opens” is equivalent to saying “the earth closes.” Conversely, over time, the earth wears down the world. Utilizing tools, the world then closes the earth again. In Chinese characters, the symbol “仇” holds a dual meaning of both “enemy” and “companion (侶)” simultaneously. In essence, my spouse embodies roles as both my companion and my foe. Light is the enemy of darkness, yet paradoxically its partner. Fire seeks to escape, while firewood desires to draw it closer. However, when the firewood is consumed, the life of the fire ceases. In this way, both entities are united in the form of opposition and companionship. Gina Sohn dramatizes how our world (civilization) and nature progress. The I Ching (易經) elucidates that all earthly events finish by going through six stages. Each event possesses an inherent essence of grain (texture). The connections between individuals and the progression of nature undergo distinct phases. Each thing and occurrence encapsulates this unique grain, often referred to as “reason” or “principle (理),” and sometimes as “way (道).” In her work "Drawing in the Air Smoke," the selection of six performers is not a coincidence.

At the Zaha Museum this year, Gina Sohn presented a remarkable example of land art utilizing fabric in her installation performance, "The Color of Summer." Similar to her other creations, this piece symbolically conveys the intricate connection between the earth and the world. By vibrantly juxtaposing the vitality and significance of the earth with the abundant artistic representations symbolizing the world, she emphasized the incessant collisions between the land and the world. However, the significance of a collision extends beyond mere confrontation. Within this clash, the highest form of reconciliation is expressed. It is important to reiterate the significance of the Chinese character “仇,” signifying both an enemy and a companion. An enemy can also be a companion. Our existence unfolds through the resistance of the earth and the emptiness of time and space. Yet, Gina Sohn has yet another surprise in store for us.

It refers to Gina Sohn's proficiency as an artist. Her artworks aim to persist, embodying the perpetual interplay of opposition and harmony between the land-art gallery relationship. Essentially, this reflects the dynamic experience of nature's vitality juxtaposed with the historical precedents accumulated in art history. The term “opposition (拮抗)” denotes the artist's continuous struggle to surpass established painting conventions.

In this context, the expression “harmony” is used to convey that the artist engages in a contemplation, fervently and directly, on the contemporary aspects of art. This involves the current state where the aesthetic experiences derived from nature diverge from those acquired within the art gallery, eventually drifting apart. We recall the vitality emanating from the non-representational painting encapsulated in the artwork titled “Reflection of Snow by Moon: Nr. 1008.” In this striking perspective, the artist is seen crafting a painterly painting solely through her own energy, devoid of reference to a particular subject. The artist's brushwork full of vivacity beckons us to sense the quietude enhanced by moonlight over the snow-covered world. The vigor of the brushstrokes converges into stillness, and conversely, tranquility emanates vitality in every direction. The fresh artworks showcased in the exhibition “Layered layered 疊疊” at Gallery X2 hold a wealth of novel significance. Within the black series, the materiality on the surface seamlessly combines earthly modesty and celestial nobility, devoid of any sense of separate drifting. The artist appears to have unveiled a realm of boundlessness that addresses the essence of time and space eluding our senses. In reaction to this, we instinctively sense that the artist has dedicated her utmost effort to convey the essence of the painting itself. While the painting solidified by the robustness of its materiality, at times, it leads us to the resonance of sound, influenced by the oscillating movement of waves. Hence, we come to believe that the guiding force of Gina Sohn's artistic world shares similarities with what the renowned 19th-century British poet Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) expresses in "Dover Beach."

 

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

 

The poet continues his verse in the subsequent lines: "Ah, love, let us be true to one another!"  In the end, the reverence for the sublime in nature and the inherent harmony within it, combined with the respect for divine order, is dramatically portrayed through the affirmed love between one soul and another. Gina Sohn's artworks accurately articulate a storyline about the earth (the universe) and the world (civilization). However, her ultimate goal is to communicate the importance of signals among people as well as the connection between the celestial and human realms, specifically focusing on themes of trust and love. These symbols are recurrent throughout all of the artist's creations. In essence, Gina Sohn's paintings can be encapsulated in a single phrase: "疏而不簡, 簡而不少,” which translates to "loose yet not simple, simple yet not small.” This concisely captures the essence of East Asian painting.

 

 

Lee Jinmyung/ Art critic, Doctor of Philosophy



1) Roger Scruton, A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), p. 132. Requoted from this book.  


2) Ibid. p. 132.

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