Review
 
 
 

The Landscape Beyond Memory

 

 
 

Jung Hyun (Art Critic, Inha University Professor)

 

All memory is individual, unreproducible – it dies with each person.
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others   

Who is really alive today?
Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real

1.Photography and Memory
In her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag regards photography as an activity to record the incidents that humanity should commemorate and remember. The quotation above is a testament to how photography transformed individual memory into a collective one and how states created historical monuments using photo images. Sontag raises an ethical issue that is now missing in the distribution and consumption of photo images of death. She says, “The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs. This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding, and remembering.”1)

 
2.Invisible Deaths
Our lives have been accompanied by “deaths” from last year until this year. To be more precise, it seems that instead of mourning death itself, we have been obsessed only with inquiring about the causes of death and accounting for the number of deaths. In other words, the death that we still fear and feel pain from is more like the “statistics of death,” than death itself and the memory of the deceased. In fact, we were more acutely aware of the “possibility of our deaths” than death itself. What Sontag invited us to think about was the ideology of memory-invoking photography that uses images of violence, such as famine, calamity and war. In this context, what image of death is Korean society is faced with? Contrary to what Sontag said, we can say that we are now experiencing invisible death and the death that cannot be represented.

 
3.Discovery of Landscape - Procedure of Mourning
The artist ROH Seung Bok stares at death that has failed to become a symbol and failed to enter into memories. She did not do her work from this point of view from the beginning. Her whole collection of works, however, from her early ones to recent ones, used her personal affairs as its theme. She did not replace her personal experience with a grandiose discourse, either. Instead, her willingness to see her own affairs face-to-face became the motive of her artwork. The inevitable, universal process of “aging” motivated the upcoming exhibition, “The edge of Landscape.” In this exhibition, Roh looks back on her life, after observing the aging of her parents while she nursed them, and after hearing about an untimely death of an acquaintance at about the same time. She had to visit the graveyard. Faced with the death that she could hardly believe, she came to recognize the numerous deaths at the graveyard. She finds johwa (condolence flowers, (johwa) / artificial flowers, (johwa) / harmony, (johwa), lain at the graves. The artificial flowers meant to mourn the deceased in eternal rest brought strange feelings to her, as death also did, and she took photos of the flower carvings on the marble tombstone. Given the fact the condolence flower is a sacred symbol linking life, death, and the memory of the deceased, putting an artificial flower at a place of death may be more than a mere ritualistic gesture. Thus, Roh traces death. It was an almost instinctive behavior, and a process to accept the deaths of others at the same time. While she was tracing the death of her acquaintance, she naturally came across the deaths of others. While visiting the cemetery, she happened to spot a seemingly abandoned grave. The word “condolence” in English also has the meaning of sharing pain. Forgotten death and the abandoned grave are hidden in the landscape as parts of nature. The artist’s endeavor to trace death is not just for condolences. Her painstaking efforts to confront the unacceptable deaths of others paved the way for her journey to trace deaths in reality.              

 

 
4.Korean Funeral Culture
It is said that there were many cases of burials in ginseng farms during the Goryeo period. However, it was from the period of the Joseon dynasty that the culture of seonsan (ߣ,ancestral mountain”), or family graveyard, became popular. The popularity of family burial grounds was due to the belief in geomancy that a good gravesite brings blessings, reflecting a cosmological view that does not separate life from death. However, there was also a practical reason behind the switch. The wealthy and powerful at that time are said to have utilized family burial grounds as a means to occupy more land. There was a law at that time which banned burials inside fortresses, but there were many violations of the law because of the preference for graveyards with good geomantic conditions. Those who had no family graveyards were allowed to bury their ancestors in the plots outside of fortresses, called jipjangji (collective graveyard, ). They could share the collective graveyard with other families. There was also the practice of “road funerals” in which those who died unmarried were buried at roadsides. Respected priests, those who died unfortunate deaths and died of epidemics, and the war dead were cremated. These cases were classified as special funerals. 2)
It was under Japanese colonial policy that public cemeteries were established in Korea. The Japanese colonial government set up cemeteries and promoted cremation in its judgment that the family graveyards stood in the way of land reallocation and development. As seen above, death was not separated from the life of Koreans, but a solid part of it. However, death was gradually removed from the realities of Koreans, as the compulsory modernization policy expelled death from their daily lives. The deep-rooted funeral custom was reinterpreted under the rule of the colonial government and absorbed into a framework of institutionalization. “Over the course of the changes, the funeral gradually lost its conventional concept as a ritual (), and was, in turn, dominated by hygienic and economic concerns.” 3)

 

 

5.Cohort Garden – Within and Without the Secluded Landscape
A scene similar to the land art is made on a rice paddy. In a patch of ginseng field, a solitary tomb lies under the round shape of black awning. Whose tomb is it? Another photo shows a large cemetery. The meticulously well-arranged cemetery set up in the reclaimed side of a mountain, without any shade, creates a rather stark scene. Something that has been forgotten is that humanity tried to establish a cosmology for life from the start of its communal life. This cosmology holds that there was a shrine at the center of the universe. The shrine at the crossing of life and death was responsible for the ritual passage through birth, marriage, and death, while communicating with the human community. The beginning of the modern age, however, led to dissolution of that community. The foundation of sacred life was replaced by shopping malls and luxury residences, with the sacred expelled to the periphery of cities. The ontological meaning of houses embedded with symbols and signifiers evaporates, and the capitalistic idea of possession takes its place. The tombs hidden in the landscape photography of Roh do not represent deaths abandoned by their families. She never intended her work to take on an anthropological approach, either. While repeatedly visiting graveyards to overcome the unacceptable reality of death, the artist discovers that death was crowded out of the memories and the places of the living. 

Cohort segregation is a term now widely circulating since the outbreak of the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic. In the military, the term used to refer to the practice of segregating and treating those who develop the same symptoms. Coincidentally, there is a case of using the word cohort to refer to landscape. In Christian culture, the Garden of Eden is described as an artificial garden enclosed by four walls. We often call nature a landscape, and vice versa. For example, landscape is referred to as the equivalent to nature. Landscape is a semblant (semblance) of nature, but does not refer to nature itself. Landscape might be called a shape of nature, adapted to the structure of human life. It represents what humans want from nature; that is, an ideal of nature. Nature as a landscape appears to be free and beautiful, but the landscape/park reproduced in actual cities is nature confined by an institution. The abandoned tombs Roh captures cannot help but seem extraneous to its environment, as it lies outside the landscape. It testifies, however, to the stark limitations of civilization that even death can be recognized only when being classified and recorded by an institution. Are life and death things that can be placed under the control of scientific civilization? Instead, the humble tomb hidden in the periphery of landscape might be our future or salvation.

 

 

 

6.Nohwa (aging), Johwa (condolence flowers, artificial flowers, harmony) and Jinwha (evolution)
Aging, condolence flowers, and evolution contain duplicate meanings. Aging refers to the limit of humans in the linear passage of time from birth to death, condolence flowers to the linkage of life and death, and evolution to the life process in which death from aging does not denote a degeneration of life but a process of development. At the same time, condolence flowers (johwa in Korean) can mean artificial flowers (johwa) and can also be interpreted as harmony (johwa). Accordingly, it might be natural to contemplate the double meaning of life and death. It is up to one’s own choice whether to accept the reality without hard thinking or experiencing it in person. Roh chose the latter. Her work has shown, thus far, that she has experienced the problems of life in person and overcome them. Her early work, “It-Existed (1996),” is a product of her exploration of self-identity in relation to others through portraits of her deceased family members and those around them. “Periphery of Landscape” shows what the artist does now, 20 years after her earlier works. Though it does not reveal the artist herself, it exhibits how her contemplative point of view on the world has changed. In “Voice (2001),” the artist takes pictures of her own iris in the dark, in order to overcome her uneasiness with the semi-basement space. It shows the animal instinct to search for faint lights in the dark, and the exaggerated voices recorded during the filming represent the sound of the body making efforts to survive. As the title indicates, “Practices of A Timid Artist to Adapt to Society (2004)” is a film about an underpaid youth who struggles to survive in society. The artist, now middle-aged, takes a look at others, aging, and death from a realistic point of view, instead of abstract one. Before the exhibition, even the artist would not know what she had realized and found out about death. I would like to end this review by quoting a passage in On Aging: Revolt and Resignation, by Jean Amery:

“Except that, for a human being, his or her life is never a public matter no matter how much it is socially determined. That we are here and can no doubt think thoroughly of a world without our being here, not however our own not-being-here, is the fundamental matter of our existence. In certain moments it comes to be for us the meaning of the world plain and simple, even if it is an unbearable absurdity.” 4)  

 


 

1)  Sontag, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador. p. 70.
2) Dakamura Ryohei. 2000. “Colonial Seoul Seen in Terms of Cemeteries – Focused on the 1910s.” Seoulhak yeongu (Seoul Studies). 15. p. 9.
3) Jeong, Il-yeong, 2013. “The Meaning of the Changes in the Funeral Practices during the Japanese Colonial Period – Based on the Regulations on Graves and Cemeteries,” Yeoksahak Yeongu (History Research) 525. p. 12.
4) Amery, Jean. 1994. On Aging: Revolt and Resignation. Indiana University Press. p. 126

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Copyright 2007. Roh, Seung Bok. All rights reserved.