The human body is a mystery. It goes through ups and downs such as biological growth, aging, and disease and also undergoes social growth and pain. For a human being, the body is a tool and a subject of his or her life that continues through recognitions of physical and social changes. Therefore, the body with its immense importance needs to be more clearly understood. Seung-bok Roh’s works have two main themes: search for autonomy of the body and speculation on the body which is formed and controlled by societies. Thus, the body is a medium of her work, an origin of self-imposed questions, and questions themselves.
Roh’s works are presented in the form of video performances utilizing her body. Her videos are only observations of her performances and do not allow any interventions of the mise-en-scene. Starting with Cell (2001), she has explored her body, especially her eyes. In this work, she dramatically shows the changes of the iris responding to light in the darkness. The video contains scenes of unstable opening and closing of the iris when a strobe light flashes and widely her opened iris exposed for long time in the dark. These scenes look even sadistic. Viewers may feel scared or even terrified by looking at the artist’s agonizing eye movements. Here, the body’s biological responses are interpreted as physical wavelength not as psychological aspects. Wouldn’t this physical wavelength or a pre-empirical matter be like fears which have not been experienced yet? A type of art mainly using the human body is an act of resistance. Body art originates with the 68 generation in France, who questioned conditions of human existence and did not regard the human body as an object of suppression, image and desire any longer. Similarly, through a dismantled body and its dysfunctional eyes, Roh expresses a passive resignation of hierarchy, human desire, and lust for power derived from the relationship between seeing and being seen. Unexpected sadness created by such abandon is probably the body and sound that the artist intends to deliver in Cell.
1366 Project (2003) starts by showing documentary photos of an anonymous woman. The video is developed with women’s hotline 1366, and focuses on the woman’s wounds as those of “the other,” a victim of male violence. Roh zooms in on the woman’s bruised skin. The enlarged view of the wound is no longer a bruise as a visible sign but a form of abstraction. Roh continues to zoom in on this abstract image, and the video screen finally shows the intense pink ? a typical color of love - area on the woman’s skin. This lovely pink is formed by the bruise, but it also hides traces of violence. Even though 1366 Project clearly shows wounds, it does not dwell on the human body in and of itself. For the artist, it seems that a bodily damage is not worth showing in public and a damaged body is degraded as the other, an outcast from society. Roh finds out the disturbingly beautiful pink in the bruised body and disguises cruelty, much the way violence is hidden or disguised as something beautiful in our society. Finally, the human body disappears and the wound is transformed into something rather beautiful. In 1366 Project, the color pink signifies a socially non-existent and disguised body and is a shadow of excessive love and irresistable desire.
After exploring self-control of the subjective body, Roh moves on to explore the body as an object. Her theme naturally progresses from the subjective body, or self-recognizing body, to the body that responds to others’ gazing and social demands. A social body has a multi-layered social status, with its various gestures and mannerisms, behind which is the psychological body. Clumsy dancing in Survival II (2004) and singing in Survival I (2008) are the process of making a body as social expressions and indicators. Even more important thing is to build a social body. The artist’s awkward gestures are not for training for success or for achieving some desire. They are necessary gestures to survival by creating social expressions. Those clumsy gestures are ridiculous and look even tragic, when the performer expresses the idea of a social body. It is interesting that, in her early works, gestures to explore freedom of the body such as eye movements and bruises include sadism in Cell and masochism in 1366 Project in an abstract way, which rather evokes universal emotions. On the contrary, the body as a social expression is described as detailed images in Survival I and II, but it becomes a metaphor of the artist’s psychological state and psychological body containing pathos, which is quite different from the clumsy and funny looking gestures in the videos.
In the video performances, the artist records thinking by the body, understanding of the body, and violation of the body different from mentality in a unique way. In the beginning of the works lies her daily living, professional, social, and personal crises. A crisis means a crossroad that the artist must choose to overcome or be sunken in. A crossroad triggers resistance to destiny or remorse. Oedipus stood at a crossroad in Thebes, closed his eyes, and tested his destiny. In the end, he pricked out his eyes and became a blind wanderer of the world. In her works, Roh confronts such a crossroad and observes a body that yields to an inevitable force. Through the medium of the body, she experiments with self-existence and the possibility-of-coexistence, the process of which is painful experience for her and for others. It is notable that Roh’s attention to the objective body coincides with her career entering academia, namely, professors’ society. Since then, themes in her work have moved from individual and subject areas to systemic and social ones. It is noteworthy that that while Roh’s early works, which seem to focus on subjectivity of the body, represent universality of the body, her recent works, which seem to present social ideas, ironically highlight her interest in her personal psychological state. The body in her video art is not simply an experimental medium or reproduction of the other in a society. Instead, she is in search for possibilities and limitations of the body which lies between subjectivity and objectivity.
While Roh’s studies of the body have revealed a double structure of psychological and social aspects, her most recent works present a quest for expansion and intervention of the body in its surroundings. City Beautiful (2008), in which the artist herself serves as a street cleaner on an urban blocks, and Block Game (2008), in which a body and digital technology are interlocking, still show Roh’s search for the body on internal levels shown in her previous works. However, the artist also turns her attention to the environments surrounding the body in these works. In a body-intervention process described in a short video, City Beautiful, the body is presented as a metaphor of an erased body, hiding in a city (a place) and cleaning public sculptures. In this video, the body is not limited to a phenomenological question of seeing and being seen. The act of cleaning, having a double meaning of sanitation and elimination, nullifies the identities of both the street cleaner and the public sculptures installed in Seoul. Roh attempts to mock traditional values and shallow-based modernism through the social body of the street cleaner, which is eliminated from a capitalist society, and the symbolic action of cleaning beautified bodies or public sculptures, which are clearly part of the city but are easily forgotten. Block Game, which shows participation of the body, is an interactive work that extends the use of media and sculptural materials with block game completed with digital technology. The artist is not so interested in opening a new genre as in stimulating the movements of the viewers who participate in the game. The work becomes visualized and completed by the movements of its participants. For the artist, the application of a new technology and media becomes the basis of experiments for unexplored fields. Roh's various experiments mainly utilizing the body should also be understood as the artist’s inexhaustible efforts to move beyond the area of video performance.