Yook Taejin and The Art of Meditation

    In September 1998, I interviewed media artist Yook Taejin (1961-2008) at his studio in Daejeon for an article in a magazine (now defunct) called Persimmon. He was kind and wonderfully generous with his time. I liked Mr. Yook’s work because it combined images, light, and movement with a sense of craftsmanship. When I returned to Korea in September 2008, I planned to contact him, but was deeply saddened to learn that he died of liver cancer in early August that year. In 2010, the Deajon Museum of Art asked my permission to reprint the article in the catalog for a retrospective exhibition on his work they were planning. I was honored.

    In the last ten years, a number of Korean artists have won international recognition. Foremost among them are installation artists Lee Bul, Cho Duck-Hyun, Kim Sooja, and Kang Ik-joon, whose works have been presented at major exhibitions and galleries in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Their colleague Yook Taejin has rarely exhibited his work abroad. Nonetheless, he has received considerable attention in Korea for his spare and mysterious installations that present moving images projected onto gallery walls. Yook has successfully evolved beyond the ideas of “Koreanness” and “globalism” that have preoccupied most Korean artists for most of the twentieth century. Instead, his work creates an atmosphere that helps viewers contemplate the universal questions in life.

    Thirty-eight-year-old Yook Taejin is quiet, almost Zen-like, and measures his words carefully. Although his works are frequently exhibited at leading galleries in Seoul, Yook chooses to live and work in Daejeon, a regional center of one million people, 160 kilometers from the capital, where his family moved when he was a young boy. Though Yook was a gracious host when I interviewed him in his studio, located in an old area on the edge of the downtown, he values his solitude. “I like to be alone because it clears my mind. I suppose I’m used to it, too, because I spent a lot of time alone when I was in high school and university.”  Yook’s studio reflects his modesty. Though full of tools, TV monitors, video-editing equipment, and traditional Korean furniture, it has the spirit of Bauhaus: everything in it follows function; nothing looks added or decorative. His small office at the back of the studio has a simple desk, several chairs, and a few neatly organized shelves. In many ways, Yook is the antithesis of artists who celebrate their flamboyant eccentricity. Instead, he seems to revel in his quiet austerity.  The only thing that is flamboyant about him is his neatly trimmed mustache, which is unusual for Korean men. When asked about his mustache, Yook said, “I gave it a try years ago, and people liked it, so I’ve kept it every since.”

    Yook Taejin has had a varied career that has followed the contours of contemporary Korean history. Perhaps the best way to understand Yook’s career is to divide his work into three distinct periods, what might be called the public monument period, the commercialism period, and the meditation period.  In his public monument period (1984-87), Yook worked on a number of large projects, and in doing so honed his skills as a sculptor. In his commercialism period (1987-94), he created objects made from found pieces of commercial culture. In his meditation period, which began in 1995 with his work entitled Ghost Furniture and continues to the present, Yook arranges repetitive moving images in various types of installations.

    The public monument period began when Yook graduated with a major in sculpture from Mogwon University College of Art, an important provincial art school in Daejeon. After graduation, he went to Seoul, where his training in sculpture helped him get part-time jobs in public monument construction.  During the years of dictatorship, the South Korean government sponsored many public monuments, and since the mid-1980s, a number of companies and private institutions have also built public monuments. Like monuments in Victorian England, these monuments symbolize the wealth and power of the patron institutions.  Yook worked on a number of large projects that are prominent in Korea today, such as sculptures on the campus of the Pohang University of Science and Technology, one of Korea’s most prestigious engineering and science schools; statues at Independence Memorial Hall, a history museum in Chungbuk Province dedicated to commemorating Korea’s struggle to resist Japanese imperialism in the twentieth century; and a fountain at Lotte World, a large indoor amusement park and shopping center in southeastern Seoul. Yook has said of these projects, “The work was hard, especially in the hot summer sun, but it forced me to focus on detail and to see big projects through to their conclusion.”

    Yook’s first gallery work, Atomic Insight (1987), is an antique Korean box with a small octagonal peephole on top. Inside the box, a light flashes different colors against a piece of clear Plexiglas to evoke an image of the cosmos. In his subsequent work in the late 1980s, Yook experimented with putting advertisements and other images of commercial culture in antique Korean boxes. But it was his 1991 work Madame Aema in Paris that marked the real beginning of his commercialism period. In this installation, Yook placed poster images from a soft-porn Korean film of the same name along a gallery wall. When viewers enter the room, they activate a red light that reveals the images.  When they leave the room, the light turns off, which hides the images in darkness. This work was the first installation in which Yook expanded his definition of a box to include the boxed spaces of the gallery. A 1991 visit to Lotte World, where he had helped carve the lavish fountain, inspired Yook to create Lotte World I (1991) and Lotte World II (1992), which used photos of advertisements to comment on the raw commercialism of theme parks and shopping centers.

    In Ad Vulcan (1992) and Vietnam Sightseeing (1993), Yook expanded his exploration of commercialism. Ad Vulcan was an installation that used images of film posters and movie stars projected onto the gallery walls from a rotating slide projector. On one wall, Yook placed three stylized pedestrian lights, one for each color of a traffic light. The combination of pop-culture images and pedestrian lights suggests that an outside force controls the actions and movements of people through images and colors. Vietnam Sightseeing was based on a newspaper advertisement for group tours to Vietnam, which had suddenly become popular in the early 1990s. Korea sent a number of soldiers to fight with the Americans in the Vietnam War, in exchange for U.S. financial support in the early days of industrialization in the 1960s, and has developed close business and tourism ties to Vietnam since relations were normalized in 1992. Yook used hundreds of photocopies of a narrow strip of advertisements from a Korean newspaper and layered each copy on top of the other in a concave pattern to create a long, three-dimensional paper sculpture.

    In Patriot Game (1992), his only overtly political work, which takes its title from the Hollywood film, Yook dealt sarcastically with the 1992 Korean presidential election. The work showed the stylized pedestrian lights from Ad Vulcan projected against rose of Sharon bushes (South Korea’s national flower) onto the wall of a darkened space. Each light represented one of the three Kims—Kim Dae-jung, Kim Young-sam, and Kim Jong-pil—who have played a critical role in Korean politics since the 1960s. Kim Young-sam won the 1992 election against Kim Dae-jung, but Kim Dae-jung came back to win election in 1997. Kim Jong-pil’s support helped both men get elected, and remains critical to Kim Dae-jung’s government today. Though these three men have vied for power, most Koreans yearn for a generational change in political leadership.

    Ghost Furniture (1995) marked the transition from Yook’s commercialism period to his meditation period. Yook used a number of materials and motifs from his past work—peepholes, moving images, and antique Korean boxes—in this piece, but did not use any symbolic references to commercialism or pop culture. Instead, the image on the TV monitors that are built into the drawers of the traditional Korean furniture is of a man repeatedly ascending stairs. When asked who the man is, Yook responded, “The man in Ghost Furniture is one of my assistants, but I played the role of the ‘walking man’ in all subsequent works. It’s hard to tell who the man is because none of the images shows the man’s face head on.” The image is black and white, which suggests an old film, but it also suggests the repetition of movement and, by extension, the boredom of everyday life. The drawers, which are connected to a motor, open and close automatically in a slow, alternating pattern, revealing one monitor at a time. With this work, Yook moved away from an investigation of the trashiness of commercialism, and toward a contemplative look at the individual in time and motion, which has since come to characterize his work.

    In 1996, Yook Taejin completed the transformation that began with Ghost Furniture with his second solo exhibition at the cutting-edge Kumho Gallery in Seoul. His main work in the show, Walking Man (1996), was an installation in which black-and-white images of a man walking alone were projected in a dark space. The work used images from four TV monitors arranged on a rotating base in the center of the room. The work combined two types of movement: the man’s methodical walking and the rotating movements of the base on which the TV monitors were positioned. The repetition of the movements and the austerity of the work suggest not only the boredom of everyday life as expressed in Ghost Furniture (1995), but also the loneliness of the individual. Walking Man II (1996) was similar to Ghost Furniture, but took up more space in the gallery. The work was built around two low, rectangular antique Korean boxes placed side by side with a TV monitor gliding slowly atop each of the boxes. On the TV monitor is the image of a man walking alone along a path in a wooded area. For Disguise (1996), Yook used an antique sewing-machine stand and placed one TV monitor on top where the sewing machine would have been and a smaller TV monitor on the foot peddle. The image on the monitors is of a man riding an old bicycle in an undefined gray space. The man on the bicycle peddles and peddles, but like the man in Walking Man and Walking Man II, seems to get nowhere because the background never changes.

    In his most recent work, Tunnel (1998), Yook takes the idea of meditation further by adding sound to his work. To darken the viewing space, Yook uses a large tunnel made of wire and black plastic gauze. At the end of the tunnel, the image of a man dressed in white grows slowly larger to the sounds of a moving train.  The larger the image grows, the louder the sound of the train. After filling the entire end of the tunnel, the image slowly retreats and the sound of the train fades. At the end, the image disappears and the sound of the train stops, only to start again after a few seconds’ pause. The slow, methodical increase in the size of image and the sound of the train in the darkened tunnel holds the viewers’ attention and invites them to contemplate the meaning of time and the cycle of growth and decline that is basic to all life. When I visited the gallery, I noticed that most viewers stayed to watch at least one complete cycle of image growth and decline, which took about ten minutes.

    But is what Yook is trying to convey really boredom and loneliness? Could it be meditation and solitude instead? Or perhaps both? When asked about his work, Yook politely said, “I prefer to leave interpretation up to viewers because everybody feels something different when interacting with a work of art.” A longer, more pensive look at Yook’s work becomes a form of meditation that clears and quiets the mind.

    “I don’t make plans in advance because I like to decide on something suddenly” is how Yook describes his own future. Yook has already shown that he can make sudden changes in his work, and he will no doubt do so again as his career progresses. The thread running through his work, however, is his interest in movement and the projection of images. His detached attitude toward life and his interest in “quiet” give his work a minimal, if not austere, feeling that at first suggests boredom and alienation, but eventually sedates viewers into meditation and, with luck, catharsis. In a wired, digital world where “home” is a virtual as well as physical place, Yook’s work takes us out of our daily lives in the hope that we may truly find ourselves—if only for a few minutes.

    Acknowledgment: The author wishes to thank Mr. Yook Taejin for taking time to be interviewed in Daejeon on September 22, 1998 and for providing the images for this article.

    Original Article: Fouser, Robert J., “Yook Tae-jin: The Art of Meditation,” Persimmon, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2000.

    © 2015 Robert J. Fouser


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