Art may reflect the world view of the time and society, but the artist does more than reflect it: he makes the world manifest itself through the eyes having penetrated his inner world.
―in the artist’s monograph
When entering an unfamiliar place, you will probably begin to reflect on where you are now. This reflection is, however, already largely influenced by certain elements: what you are seeing such as buildings, streets, cars and people, what you are hearing such as car honks, popular songs and buzzing voices, and so on. These perceptions are habitual memories. They determine whether you feel something strange or not in a given situation. Once you have an unfamiliar feeling, you will want to become disentangled from the uneasy state as soon as possible and make efforts to get concrete memories(‘image-souvenir’) on the basis of habitual memories(‘souvenir-habitude’): first, you will check the names of the area, building, street where you are and gain the information of your location; second, you will confirm the exact date and time to have a record of when it was. This is the inevitable process you go through whether you are finding your way during traveling or you have just moved to a new town. Besides, unlike the former which gives much weight to the experience of strangeness, the latter requires you to repeat the course over and over again. In your new neighborhood, a lot of things look unfamiliar but should become familiar. So repetition is essential. Through repetitions, the unfamiliar gradually become the familiar and ultimately, turn into the habitual memory like language or walking. In other words, the repetition of a concrete memory constantly reduces the process of reflection, until it is converted to a habitual memory, the base of another concrete memory. So the apartment you moved into comes to feel old and familiar. It is the very journey to make the experiences in unfamiliar places familiar that artist Shin Soohyuk intended to follow in his works: the works about reminiscence. Then, what made the artist explore his own remembrance?
In 2002, the artist went to Japan for studies. I think everything felt awkward to him. I think he felt fear of strangeness as well as curiosity about novelty. So he started a kind of ‘way-findings’ as during traveling and made his trajectory by recording them. For this, he drew maps by imprinting date stamps on the places he visited. This project began in earnest in 2004 and continued for two years. The more he went to a spot, the thicker it becomes and the thicker, the more familiar to him. From the formal perspective, this cartographic work may remind you of what International Situationalists did in the late 1950s, in particular, Constant(1920-)’s New Babylon(1958). Although Situationalists were concerned about the political issues related to the post-war social climate and urban development, a link can be drawn between Shin and them since both approached the matter of space in terms of psychology and participation. Nevertheless, what distinguishes them is more notable than what they have in common. First of all, Shin’s works have no political orientation because they are the document of the progress of adaptation to a new urban environment. In addition, the act of stamping on the roads he passed seems to have more than mere psychological meanings. It is also connected with the physical level. Although the concern for space is initially caused by a feeling of unfamiliarity, an emotional state, and thereby, considerably influenced by psychological aspects, or although, undoubtedly, the sudden strangeness coming over you leads you to have an interest or even make you feel Sartre’s nausea, what makes a difference is not what you feel but what you do: the physical activity of affixing seals.
On the basis of these stamping works, Shin began a new series of painting in 2006. These paintings include a series of elaborate depictions of the part of a building on white backgrounds, which constitute the main body of the exhibition, “One day Somewhere.” Drawn in pencil, they look like monochrome paintings. Though both the previous and the new works are the documents of the space experienced by the artist, the seeing-eyes descends to the ground in the latter while having floated in the air in the former. This is because the artist thought the bird’s-eye view and figures were too idealogical to capture the concreteness of experience. The very urge for concreteness propelled him toward the painting again. Yet, his original intention to represent his memories remained unchanged, for these new paintings are painted in dim, black and white tones in the technical aspect. In a way, detailed rendering may sound contrary to faintness but here, strangely enough, the preciseness is overcome by another, making it possible to preserve the subtle, serene atmosphere evenly in the paintings. The white background, which contributes to the clam mood more than anything else, is made by applying dozens of coats of gesso and completing the sanding process to make the surface smooth. This pure white blank, as the picture plane with the illusion of infinite depth, both absorbs and disclose the depicted images. To enhance that effect, the outside of the outline of the building is not described. All things except for the building which became the index of memory by attracting the artist’s eyes sink and disappear into the white background. Nevertheless, they still maintain their functions. On the contrary, they make clear where the artist’s body was situated at that time. But it is clear only to the artist who has the memory of that image, not to us, for we do not know the names of the building or the area. However, these clear, distinct records do not feel strange to us at all. This is not because they are painted images, but because we project our own image-memories and habitual memories to what we are seeing in his paintings, whether the white background or the painted building, irrespective of what he recorded actually. Here, the represented image functions to link us to the artist because it is, by definition, an image-memory bridging the gap between the artist’s physical and psychological responses. In this way, we are able to put ourselves in the artist’s place. Following the trajectory of the artist’s eyes from this point of view, we could find that his eyes are traveling over the street, the narrow lane, or the building. However, it turns out to be unimportant to analyze that movement in each work. The reasons are that our eyes themselves do not make any epistemological analysis when moving in space, and that our place in front of his painting is nothing other than the artist’s one because the communication between him and us occurs only in recollection.
In order to promote the audience’s understanding of the expression of the space experienced by him, Shin incorporates installations. So they are not the major part of his works, but the vacant lot built in this exhibition seems to be meaningful in interpreting his art. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Korean government initiated a mass construction plan for housing. Spending the youth in that period, the artist frequently saw the empty construction lots and came to have a both familiar and unfamiliar feeling toward it. And when studying in Japan, he happened to find a similar space evoking that feeling in the neighboring street, again: an empty construction area where only foundation work was already done. In spite of the differences in time and space, the place became a medium to conjure up the past memory for the artist in the present.
We live by memory. Without recollection, whether voluntary or not, habitual or image-like, there is no life. And presumably, without expression, there would be no memorization. In this sense, the work of art is nothing but the memory itself, or more precisely, a well-balanced connection between the two aspects of the memory mentioned above. This is all the more true when it comes to personal emotions, because, as the artist said, it is only through individuals that the meaningful world reveals itself. And this is why particular attention is drawn to the works of artist Shin Soohyuk, who transplants his memories of space to another new space.