Sampling the Landscape
Jang Suk-Joon paints landscapes with digital media. She uses currently available media technology, be it the iPhone, still or video camera, or even computer generated compilations to sample images of places and surroundings with which she then forms visual assemblages of the environment. She doesn’t make landscapes in the traditional sense, like landscape paintings or photos that are mere representations, but rather uses media to create portrayals rather than portraits of landscapes. The difference here is that Jang’s landscapes are not presentations of what we might see but representations of what might be sensed.
To slightly retract what was referred to as ‘the traditional sense’ earlier on, Jang actually creates traditional landscapes without the use of the idea of ‘the traditional’. Landscape painters have always sampled what they had seen and, through interpretation and composition, have presented personal visions with varying degrees of expressiveness, depending on their individual style, method and technique. By using the traditional premise, sampling and reinterpretation as a basis of her work, Jang taps into the traditional ‘recognition system’ for landscape painting. We are able to visually interpret the media landscapes using familiar recognition processes that have accumulated in our visual repertoire, drawing from the history of panting as we know it. However, we cannot ignore the importance of media as a choice for expression, because it opens, as well as restricts, our visual analysis of the works. The use of technical media as her palette puts Jang in the category of artists who take more of an ‘objective’ attitude toward their subject, one that is linked to the fact that most viewers tend to give more credence to the technical media form as being supposedly closer to reality than the ostensibly more expressive painting. Yet Jang only manipulates the media structurally, leaving the images close to the original samplings she has taken. In any case, the use of the media gives the images something like an appearance of objectivity. This can become an advantage or a disadvantage for the artist, depending on the goals of the desired outcome of the work. In media work, how the recognition system is set up determines how we interpret the work, and becomes essential in whether the premise becomes unique to the artist.
In the piece Stairs (2004), Jang created an assemblage using photo images she had taken of stairs in multi-dwelling houses in a particular area of Seoul. She effectively combined the images in a way that makes sense visually. The images (stairs) are montaged to become interlocked and they have a structural logic to them. Yet upon closer look no such structure would or could exist. The structure would not make sense because the images are just a jumble of stairs without any specific purpose. It only makes visual sense in two dimensional terms. The piece portrays aspects of the ‘landscape’ objectively. There are colours of the ‘landscape’ that are direct samplings of the materials used in the structure. There are the structures themselves that mark a visual and physical presence in the environment. And, although the area is an assemblage of multi-family houses, the combination of the inter-locked stairs succeeds in creating a visual sense of the ‘landscape’, which in reality is an inter-locking repetition of similar structures. This process of taking objective samplings from an environment and then recreating an image that presents an overall sense of a specific place creates an expressive equilibrium between objectivity and personal interpretation; it also invites contemplation about the existence of such a ‘landscape’.
Traditional Asian painting also invited such ‘landscape’ contemplations – a point that will be discussed later – but in pursuing these kinds of sensibilities in her work, Jang puts herself in the company of artists who purposefully try to create a balance between form and expression.
A simple comparison can be made by setting Cham Soutine’s landscapes and those of Paul Cezanne. Clearly we would consider Soutine’s work more of an expressive landscape than that of Cezanne, because it seemingly contains much more emotion, while the manipulation of the medium itself is so ‘expressive’. Cezanne wanted to show a structure in his work, a kind of structure he found in nature – which seemed repetitive, ordered, balanced, and objective. However, in painting all works are expressive due to the nature of the material and personal technique needed to create the pieces. Conceptually, Cezanne might have been more comfortable with technical media, because it was his intention to be true to nature rather than only to his expressive tendencies. If Cezanne had lived today, what kind of landscapes would he have created? Soutine used landscape or paint as a medium for his expressive needs, whereas Cezanne wanted to create the expression that was already inherent in the natural landscape he wanted to paint. Cezanne’s work thus creates a balance between restrained structure and personal expression that is not unlike Jang’s assemblage compositions. To explore the degree of this ‘expressive landscape’ in Jang’s work, we should discuss the concept of the landscape in a more traditional sense.
Landscape as a Concept
Asian art has always been concerned with spirituality as part of its aesthetic expression. In terms of expressive sensibility, the more successful ‘spiritual’ art seems to contain a balance between restraint and personal expression. This is evident in the long history of traditional Asian painting, especially in landscape painting. The concept of ‘spiritual expressions’ has been part of the discourse in Asian painting since its early days. In this sense, the conceptual has been inherent in Asian art. Indeed, Asian art has pursued this concept through attempting to achieve an equilibrium between representation and abstraction, realism and imagination. The desire to have the landscape viewed as both a visual and intellectual contemplation has been an integral part of Asian painting.
Jang Suk-Joon’s art has a similar concern for both visual and intellectual interpretation, just like Cezanne’s ideas of what nature is affected his approach to painting and opened his work to intellectual contemplation. If one stands in front of her work Screen Saver, the visual content is very obvious. One is saturated with what look like bits of a whole, just as the work itself is made up of bits. The visual experience is then followed by a reading of both the composition and structure of the ‘bits’, of what those ‘bits’ may represent, and whether they have a meaning individually or are part of a compositional support system. There is a continuous movement of samples and images of places and things, which create a sense of a place that has disintegrated to express a sense of the whole without representing anything in particular. It is not that different from Asian paintings that build a ‘whole’ with small ‘bits’ of brushstrokes, using the balance between what is represented and what is sensed to create a desire for ‘spiritual’ interpretation.
Jang’s work departs from both Cezanne and the traditional Asian painting in how we systematically recognize and interpret the artist’s expressive involvement. If Cezanne’s conceptual vision of nature was a method of ‘systemizing’ his painting process, the Asian traditional approach to technical refinement through repetition set up a system of recognition and interpretation that made both similar in its outcome. Both approaches had a sense of restricted personal expressiveness, yet due to the nature of the material in Cezanne and the unavoidability of personal markings in Asian painting, neither could escape the personal expressions that are inherent in the works, or, for that matter, in all works of art that hold the markings of the artist’s hand. Jang’s use of the technical media and her lack of manipulation of the visual samples make her work one step removed from personal expression. Instead, the work becomes more reliant on the system she sets up for handling the media process itself.
The Western Point
Although conceptually Jang’s work may be trying to strive for similar sensibilities that the traditional Asian painting pursued, the discussion of her work in formal terms becomes more appropriate in a discourse with Western art and the development of modern art in general. A modern tendency in Western art started to emerge sometime during the early stages of the Renaissance, when choices were being made by individuals rather than God, or at least the human was involved in the interpretation of God’s decisions. Vision shifted from a divine view to a human perspective, it was ‘discovered’ that objects appeared smaller at a distance. With the advent of the invention of canvas and after art became more of an artist’s creation rather than ‘God’s’, interpretation came forth to describe this newly found ability to have free choice and make personal decisions. When canvas allowed artists the choice of size and shape, they created an artificial conformity called the golden mean. This intellectually created conformity started a recognition system that still influences artists and art’s interpretations today.
Given that that vertical works are typically portraits and horizontal works landscapes, vertical works can be said to be more related to human beings while horizontal works are more related to nature. The conceptual link is initiated by the intellectual conformities created to formalize the confluence of choices and in turn to justify those choices. The direction which Western modernity has set for art over the last five hundred years is to celebrate individual choice and personal expression. What was inherent in all art and what was and will be integral to all art of the future, as long as humans produce it, becomes therefore of lesser importance. The decision of the artist is primary while the art object itself becomes secondary. If the art of ‘contemplation’, or ‘spiritual’ art, is created by balancing the physical and the ephemeral, objectivity and subjectivity, logic and emotion, modernity has sent art towards imbalance, favouring personal expression disguised as conceptual choice. This view, interlocked with the modern idea of progress, has prejudiced our understanding to favour the ‘new’, where the validity of newness is assessed by comparing it with the immediate past. This is evident in the obsession in modern art to differentiate every new direction in art from the past trends, and to deride art works that appear to have too many visual or conceptual similarities to works that had already been produced in the past, even if it is an immediate past.
In 1991, Gerhard Richter painted four small landscapes titled Bühler Höhe I-V. They are images of a green German landscape with grassy fields and groups of trees in misty air, possibly in late fall. The pictures are sequentially more abstracted, with brush strokes becoming more and more expressive. The first picture is fairly descriptive and could be categorized as a romantic landscape, and it is well executed. The last of the series is a much more personal expression, where any scenery would have sufficed. Each painting is quite competent artistically, but that is not the point. Richter uses these works to illustrate his concept, which is that art objects are mere illustrations of ideas. Some would argue that they are metaphors of, or symbols for, concepts. The problem here is that the paintings by themselves would not have been ‘unique’. One has to look at the paintings and then relate them to the concept separately. None one stand on their own, yet they are not integrally related. The importance of the artist’s choice has dictated that the art object is separated from the concept. The art object on its own does not hold the balance that allows us to contemplate the work as it is. Modernism has rendered the art object an exhausted craft. It can still be used to illustrate ideas, which are seen as a better representation of artistic creativity, but it cannot create anything ‘new’ on its own.
Some tend to think of postmodernism, which has been prominent in art history for over half a century, as a crowning of modernism rather than a new direction. It celebrates individual expression that began in modernism. The idea of progress was integral to modernism while the questioning of progress was the seedbed of postmodern thought, yet both were focused on individual expression. One can argue that minimalism, and postmodernism as a reaction to it, are the opposite extremes visually, but if we look at the conceptual development not only in the visual sense, but also as part of a greater ‘recognition system’, we can understand how postmodernism can be a fluid transition from modernism, rather than its overcoming. In a sense, it is a continuation of the belief in the ‘progress’ of human individuality. With the uncertainty about the future of our environment and the depletion of the oil resources, society may be feeling more vulnerable at present, and thus question the values and the abilities of individual choice. This may have fuelled postmodern thought and given impetus to a new direction in art, but it will not have originated a new paradigm of looking at art. We may be searching for a ‘recognition system’ that sets a different condition for determining values, perhaps different values, itself. We may be even looking at past values.
The Asian Point
To view the art work from the point of view of a ‘recognition system’, the meaning of each choice or decision becomes less important. There can be several interpretations of what a ‘recognition system’ in art may be, but one of them will lie in the systematic premise that is set up by the artist that determines the process and the working conditions for the work being made. Cezanne’s premise made his working process emulate nature, while Asian painting uses the brush technique as its defining process. Both integrate the art object with the concept. In modernism many Asian (and Western) artists have tried to establish a continuity with traditional spiritualism in Asian art. The efforts have tended to be illustrations and renderings of ideas or concepts. The work contains symbols, images and literal hints that allude to the concept behind the work, and then the visual interest is retained by practising known techniques of creating visual complexity. Yet such works have only succeeded in creating visual presentations of the idea and not becoming part of the idea. After all, art objects, even with all the surrounding conceptual aids for comprehension, will have to stand on their own, and hence become objects of contemplation. In a millennium when interpretations and intent have become so varied, the artistic substance is still appreciated in terms of art objects’ own meaning.
In 1935, René Magritte painted a small piece titled Palace of Curtains. It is not one of his more famous pieces and is only about 30x46cm in size. In the painting there are two identical and irregular shaped hexagonal frames, like mirror frames, which stand on wooden flooring leaning back against an interior wall. One frame is painted sky blue and the other blank white, and in the white frame there is a word painted in French, ‘ciel’ (sky). The work is arguably more successful than many of Magritte’s better-known pieces, because it invites in-depth contemplation. We look at the clear blue colour and relate it to all our experiences of that kind of sky. How the scene is painted, i.e. with care but without any of the expressive flare, is in itself conducive to thoughtfulness and visual depth. It is also quite simple in its process and content. It does not offer or require any intellectual analyses or difficult philosophical enquiries, just a contemplation bordering on the spiritual. It is a painting that is very close in its goal to the traditional Asian paintings of the past.
Jang Suk-Joon’s Landscapes
There is a resurgence of landscape painting among the younger artists in Korea today. Most are paintings on canvas with oil or acrylic colours. One could be cynical and attribute this phenomenon to commercial reasons, but I believe the trend goes beyond that. The works are varied in their technique and subject matter, ranging from cityscapes to natural landscapes with or without human figures. They tend to be sincere, in the sense that they are landscapes chosen to represent what the artist wished to see, and the technique reinforces that vision of the place represented. Jang Suk-Joon’s works share the visions of the new landscape artists, but they are also characterised by a deeper concern for the recognition process. She sets out strict conditions for how the work will be produced, defining the boundaries of the artist’s direct involvement in the process. If Cezanne restricted his expressive tendencies to how he thought nature worked, Jang restricts her personal manipulation of the process to set the premise for her ‘system of recognition’, which allows for visuals to be seen as more objective. The scenes appear to look like how anyone would perceive them given the similar conditions and circumstances.
In a piece called Garibong 5 Second Road Report produced in 2010, she had attached a camera to a toy robot with sensors for self-navigation and allowed it to roam a neighbourhood called Mool Lae Dong in Seoul. The robot roamed the area by itself, recording from its close to the ground perspective and changing directions as it encountered obstacles along the way. The neighbourhood was an extreme mix of new developments, old iron work factories, tenements, and young artist studios. The texture of the landscape was a hodgepodge mixture of a city landscape that could exist in any large city but put together in one area, next to and on top of each other. The work was presented via three channels, side by side, in human scale. Unlike with her assemblage works, the viewer immediately recognized the visuals for what they were. Although he or she became physically involved because of the size, like with the assemblage works, the viewer was also one step removed because of the camera level. Jang had achieved a similar effect of being detached and avoided becoming overly involved with the representation itself. The difference was in the balance between detachment and involvement. Whereas the assemblage works sensualize the visuals so that the landscape is seen as visually stimulating, this piece is more dry and deadpan. It is what it is. It is simple in its process and content, and it also invites contemplation.
Jang’s landscapes control the premise of her involvement that defines her ‘recognition system’ for her work, and in doing so she places the viewer in a specific place to observe her pieces. Such positioning becomes the source for thought and contemplation. The viewer has to think about where he or she is and how he or she will look at the scene. And that is where the meaning emerges, where we see ourselves and how we see the world from where we are. It is not that different from the goals of the Asian artistic tradition, but it is enacted with a totally different medium. Perhaps we are heading, to borrow a popular term, back to the future.
The essay was originally published in the catalogue for the 2014 Kuandu Biennale: Recognition System. Images c/o: Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts, Taipei National University of the Arts.
Jang Suk Joon (b. 1981) is a Korean artist who works between a variety of digital media digital interfaces, photography and site-specific installation. She graduated from Korea National University of the Arts in 2005 with her first degree and from a Master’s of Fine Art degree in 2011. She was recently selected by the Art Council of Korea for The Nomadic Arts Residency Program to work between the Australian Aboriginal Art Centre (Deart) and Korea (DocumentA).
Sul Won-Gi (b. 1951) was born in Seoul, Korea. He moved to the United States when he was 10 years old. He graduated from Beloit College, Wisconsin, in 1974 and then completed an MFA in painting at Pratt Institute in New York in 1981. He is currently a professor of painting at the National University of Arts in Seoul.