Waterfall_Structure of Survival
AHN Sohyun (Curator, Nam June Paik Art Center)
When abandoned or deserted objects on the streets catch Yongju Kwon’s eyes, he records them in the form of photographs or drawings. He then collects similar-looking objects that he stacks, binds, and puts together, following his own intuitive direction, to create a structure, his work of art. Old furniture, carelessly draped tent covers, and plant-pots that are loosely piled but stand fast in the jumble are his materials of choice. In addition, this exhibition features a vast amount of water constantly being poured onto the structure. Kwon, who opens his third solo exhibition, has presented a consistent pattern in his works—a working process of observation, collection, and assemblage. In most cases, he uses real objects, but sometimes he applies the same process to video or sound clips that he examines, gathers, and puts together (a process known as editing or montage).
Even such a consistent working method raises two perplexing questions: Why did the artist feel attracted to a specific object? Does he have any clear methodology in creating the structures? Kwon does not establish any particular criterion in selecting objects for his collection. Nor does he put the objects together to reproduce his initial observation.
When he finds objects whose implications seem rather obvious in his structure, such as, for example, old signboards that recall the disappearing scenery of old towns and mother-of-pearl furniture, now a rarity, Kwon removes them. Therefore, only one aspect is measurable (to an approximate degree, at least) as to this imponderable hodgepodge: the weight of the water that it can endure, of which one can make an estimate by looking at the stream of water pouring onto the structure.
There is one word, however, that we can associate with the total ambiguity of this work. It is affection, or affectus, as modern Spinozists would enthusiastically put it. An unexpected object that you come across can alternately make you feel delighted or feel saddened. The object takes you into a new emotional state even before you know it. Though the cause of the effect could be retrospectively subjected to conjecture, affection itself does not involve the recognition of the cause. Therefore, according to Spinoza, affection is an inferior way of thinking, as compared to a clear and distinct idea. The cause of affection is often unknowable, and it lacks any clear criterion.
However, on the other hand, affection is tangible and lively. Modern philosophers pay close attention to the endless changes and differences that this inevitably entails. But the primary reason we are intrigued by Spinoza’s notion of affection is because of its direct connection to political and ethical problems. Spinoza referred to affection that increases the power, or capacity, of one who feels it as joy, and one that decreases his or her power as sadness. The core of Spinoza’s ethics and politics is to change people through affection that increases their power.
Kwon’s works delicately embody Spinoza’s idea of affection to a point of stunning vividness. Of course, the artist did not create his works based on his reading of Spinoza’s Ethics. And if he had ever read the book, the reading would have done more harm than good to his work, which is far from being conceptual. Here, I dare associate a work of art with philosophical concepts—one of the riskiest practices of critics—on the pretext that the artist desired to establish a milestone in his career. Doing so often results in reducing the work to the abstract, and, after all, in most cases it is ill fitting. However, there are also a few rare occasions when the existing notions help reveal extremely delicate points of the work, and when the work precisely involves a concealed reality that can only be redeemed by a specific concept, the concept acts as a catalyst, bringing the meaning of the work to life.
The abandoned objects’ appeal to Kwon could be attributed to the actions their previous owners performed in an attempt to increase their power to survive. A case in point would be using a broken piece of furniture to serve a different purpose, repairing it by patching it with radically different materials, and then planting food crops in otherwise unused spaces for times of need. While the artist calls this beauty, Spinoza would certainly refer to it as joy. Kwon’s work does not clearly raise ideas of poverty or class. Instead, it shows a subtle increase of power in the remote corners of indigent lives. The delicate powers build up to form a perilous and imperfect structure that unyieldingly endures the thundering stream of water pouring onto it. Surprisingly, Kwon attached the subtitle Structure of Survival to the title of his work Waterfall, without ever knowing that Spinoza called affections vis existendi, or power of existence.
Moreover, Kwon’s work affords us a brief glimpse into new politics—though cautiously and delicately—in a radical way comparable to Spinoza’s anti-Cartesian philosophy. Among those who have unwittingly contributed to his work, no one belongs to the conventional system of exchange. The urban scavengers who eke out a living by collecting garbage are not legitimately compensated for their work. Rather, they take on the role of decomposers in the city’s ecosystem, under the “merciful” negligence of the authorities, who, in theory, are supposed to do the job (one that is paid for by taxpayers). Nevertheless, this toil embodies their efforts to survive and thereby translates into joy, something to which Waterfall pays homage. The artist states that he decided to create “artificial structures that look natural” in contrast to “landforms that seem unnatural,” when he saw decorative manmade waterfalls in the city. Bearing that comment in mind, let us not shy away from sharing a bit of the joy and the power of survival embodied in the work.
Although the water may not be as clean as one might hope, why not splash your face with the water a little bit? It might just further increase the joy this piece of art can give you.