Sculpting time in the space of the void

Text/ CHOE, Youngjeen (English / Chung-Ang University, South Korea)

I. Crossing the border between East and West
Throughout the history of visual arts, the rise of a new idea has always accompanied a challenge to redefine the methods that prevailed in the previous era. In painting, the separation between plastic representation and linguistic reference in the long tradition of Western art was ruptured by a group of artists in the early twentieth century including Rene Magritte, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky. As Michel Foucault argued in This Is Not a Pipe, these new artists attempted to abolish the sovereignty of the traditional principle. For example, Paul Klee raised a question of intersecting between verbal signs and visual representations “by showing the juxtaposition of shapes and the syntax of lines in an uncertain, reversible, floating space (simultaneously page and canvas, plane and volume, map and chronicle),” as shown in his painting Villa R. The serial image in Rene Magritte’s paintings also interrogated the long tradition of mimesis by interposing an inaccessible crevice or an “interstice” (in the Deleuzean sense) on the border between serialized images, as shown in La Lunette d’approche (The field glass).

The challenges that these painters attempted in reaction to the long tradition of mimesis spread out into a series of crucial issues for the concurrent and following artistic movements (such as cubism, futurism, the abstract expressionism, minimalism and the pop art) and for the post-structuralist discourses of the 1960s and 70s. And these new challenges also brought about new experiments by the East Asian artists, creating a series of intertextual encounters between Eastern and Western arts. The Korean painter Lee Ufan would be one typical example of this type of challenge in his way of delving into a tension between an object and its surrounding space of emptiness, as shown in Dialogue (2001). And the artistic challenge on an equal level can be found in Lee Kuang-Yu’s sculptures, promulgating the art as the practice of concepts and ideas. With the consideration of this modernist tendency of the Eastern and Western art as the background, this essay will explore Lee’s sculptural art by way of aesthetic and philosophical ideas of the Eastern and Western discourses.

II. The void as an inter-space of reality
Lee Kuang-Yu’s sculptures basically interrogate our habitual responses to the significance of the bodily image. In Lee’s sculptural art, the empirical human and animal bodies get disfigured and refigured in a deconstructive way that reinforces the indeterminacy of its meaning. The boundary of Lee’s figures cannot be enclosed into a mimetic order of a sign, mainly due to the space of the void which is constantly concurring with a mass of movement or stillness within the whole space of the sculpture. In other words, in Lee’s sculptures, a series of voids are functioning as a hinge to depart from all fixed significations by questioning and transgressing their limits. In that sense, the voids created in Lee’s sculptures can be understood as a semiotic space which is quintessentially “fluid and plural” rather than limited and fixed, and thereby the voids become open to the realm of undecidable excess over precise meaning. The flow of this semiotic signification subsequently undermines a rigid order of the symbolic, displacing the linearity of time and space in the sculpted figure.

Insofar as the space of the void stands as a hinge, it diverges from the visual affirmation of spatial representation. The figure of the sculpture is not bound to a particular spot of time and space. Rather, the figure consists of multi-layered traces of its past where a series of ephemeral movements are arranged in the form of perforate, wavering, winding plates.

Freed from the mass (or the weight) of empirical realism, these sculptures are unfolding various layers of movement. And each layer of movement sets up an incompossible space to each other (in the Deleuzean sense of the term), interrogating a fundamental condition of human existence. Lee’s sculptures prominently attempt to embody this fundamental condition of human existence through the images of Zen practice as we can see in the figures of Buddha/Bodhisattva in Transcendental Existence I & II (1990 & 2001), Empty Mountain III (2008), and Majesty (2016). The Zen practice essentially tends toward an ontological awakening, opening up new potentialities of de-composing and re-composing the empirical time and space in the sculpted image. Here, the space of the void operates as a hinge to create a time-event between incompatible and co-existing images. Sometimes, this void articulates the paradoxical tension between emptiness and fullness as hinted in Buddhist scriptures such as Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra, and thereby it sublimates a human body into an atemporal tranquility, as presented in a series of Empty Mountain and Transcendental Existence, and other sculptures such as Thinker (2014).

The void space also incorporates a phenomenological tension between the visible and the invisible as proposed in Shadow of Wind (2016). In this work, the void incorporates a space of wind which is invisible in itself but becomes visible by the wavering moment of a tie hung on the void from the neck of the human figure. And the linkage between the human figure and the invisible wind sets up the void as an inter-space of temporality where a moment of “being” (in the Heidegerrian sense of Sein) encounters its ontological awakening of the world.

Reading the Earth (2009) would be another example of configuring an inter-space between two serialized images. It foregrounds a wide empty space inside a human face. Evoking a tone of poetic sensibility, this big face holding its half empty space portrays tranquility and peace in the cubist fashion. And in front of this big face lies a big hand whose arm is stretched to the background mountain. The face in the form of a close-up image combines a cubist style composition with the East Asian textuality of Zen practice. This tranquil image of the meditating subject goes in parallel with the mountainous nature that lies behind it. Here, the void within the face sets up an in-between space to turn the subject inside out.

III. The void, time, and thought
In Lee’s other sculptures, the void expresses the contraction of time in the form of fluid and diffusive movements. This role of the void is brilliantly presented in Clairaudient (2016), Clairvoyance (2016), and the bull-fighting series. For example, in Tactful Matador (2016), the physical tension that the bull evokes in reaction to the bullfighter gets intertwined in the winding and complex form of movement. Certainly, the bullfighter (a.k.a. matador) appears to be attacking the bull, and the movements from both sides must be very fierce and intense. In fact, the bull and the bullfighter are indistinguishable in the sculpture. All we can catch and read from the entangled lines would be the traces of actions that the bullfighter made on the bull. Viewed from the right side, we can see one barefooted leg is posed upside down above the bull’s head. From the opposite side, we see another leg firmly standing on the ground, which is heading a little bit forward, possibly for attacking the bull. These two juxtaposed actions cannot be considered as a linear representation of sensory-motor actions. Instead, the traces of non-chronological actions are inscribed and serialized within the sculpting space. And all the flapping lines and perforated metal plates, which constitute the whole figure, are likely to reveal the multi-layering effect of a palimpsest as if all the actions between the bull and the bullfighter were overlaid with each other. In this sense, the figure in the sculpture is likely to express a certain contraction of bullfighting time by juxtaposing the layers of the past into a concurrent image.

The variations of the void space are exemplified by a series of sculptures that Lee produced in 2016. (1) In Majesty, a perforated Buddha figure is sitting on the top of a bull figure which is contoured with winding and forking lines and a series of perforated metal plates and two horns surrounding the Buddha figure. (2) The sculpted image of Clairaudient basically promulgates “the movement of wind” which “implies the swirling energy and its movement of life” as Lee comments in the exhibition brochure of his Friendship Project. With a brisk tone of brush-touching effect, this dynamic flow of movements creates a series of void spaces among body organs, proliferating the fluidity of semiotic forces. (3) Clairvoyance, which consists of a binary pair with Clairaudient, crystallizes our empirical world into the space of void by displacing the rigid boundary of symbolic order. It is presented as another image of semiotic fluidity which renders physical objects into a playful image of thought. (4) The human figure in Hermit (2016) is standing stable on its two upright legs and with two arms holding a cane horizontally in the back. It shows the image of the hermit’s strolling down the path, but the body itself appears to be an aggregation of unidentifiable organs whose junctions inevitably retain the space of void in both its inside and outside. The body seems to reveal its secluded-ness as a hermit only by its head (which is masked by a combat helmet) and the feet (which are hidden under the soil).

IV. The void as an any-space-whatever
The displacement of linear time and space in Lee’s art can be understood as an attempt to arrange multiple facets of spatio-temporal movement in a simultaneously visual space. Through this act of displacement, the sculptural image is articulated as a non-totalizable space where a series of the voids are inscribed among scattered planes of time. Here, the void space disrupts a linear configuration of movements. At the same time, it also evokes the possibility of creating a force of thought in space. By this double role of effacing linearity and creating a new force of thought, the void becomes what Gilles Deleuze calls any-space-whatever (espaces quelconque). For Deleuze, any-space-whatever is “a space that is not yet situational. Sometimes it is an emptied space, sometimes a space whose parts are not yet linked in a given trajectory of movement.” Whether it is an emptied space or an unlinked space, any-space-whatever basically becomes a time-event which opens up between image and thought.

In Taichi (2013), for example, a series of disjoined movements of a human figure are juxtaposed in a single bodily space. Each movement is entangled, twisted, and paused as if it all happened simultaneously. But in fact, this entangled and twisted image of the sculpture seems to be the ones that captured and rearranged a series of fleeting movements at random. In this sense, the twisted and entangled image of this sculpture is presented as the time-event where the virtual past gets sculpted into the concurrent layers of space. And this sculpted space of time-event incorporates a new possibility of thought where different layers of time and space get intertwined in the very space of the void.