Blotches of paint or shapes with outlines, undefined images of green that seem to spill down the surface on canvases of various sizes overwhelm the solemn dark space of the exhibition room. This is the first impression of Li SetByul’s solo exhibition titled Green Echo (Artist Residency TEMI, 2017) that was left engraved in my head. However, facing the canvases as you follow the well-organized direction of path and upon a closer look at the surface, you will gradually see the cliches of reality disguised in green (tone). Looking back at the series of works titled Green Echo 1-3 (2017), sharing the same title as the exhibition, the eye catches familiar places of daily life and ordinary people colored in green amongst the landscapes of a wildly grown green forest. These ghostly beings are so entangled in the green that you cannot even imagine they could be complete in themselves. They look so trapped in the vacuum-like unrealistic green atmosphere that you almost think that they must have been like that from the beginning.
On the other hand, the video art of Human or Contaminated Time – Blue (2017), which was installed in a slanted direction as to border the exhibition space, features two characters who repeat unrealistic acts to the point of boredom in a blue room where the dimensions of space have all but been erased. The two figures are endlessly running toward the end (or limit) of the space in an empty room full of blue like a double pun. Perhaps the repetition of such worthless act may be the reality of the anonymous bodies already trapped in blue, who have lost their way out from the ghostly space –and who perhaps have given up even trying anymore– producing an endless meaninglessness. That is why the green or blue vacuum-like worlds that Li presents do not come to us as a form of abstract perfection, but rather, lets us sense the existence of those that do not exist, those that can no longer satisfy such mythical imagination.
As such, Green Echo drawn by Li is something that cannot be substantiated, much in the same way the afterglow of light or silent vibration cannot be substantiated. Found within the contexts she referred to, the nymph Echo in Greek mythology and Anton Chekhov’s short story “Curved Mirror” provide an explanation to the situation. In the end, as Li expressed, the voice of “the body without a voice” and the structure of “an absolute closure” trapped inside oneself resemble the tragedy of desire, which is a constant repetition of failure after failure. In this sense, the Green Echo series suggests the endless division of the subject, who forever has to repeat someone else’s words or feeling pleasure at seeing one’s own face distorted in a curved bronze mirror. At this time, the blankness of the subject, which is not available anywhere, is being filled with familiar things that disguise the deficiency like the monster-like green landscape.
In her comments as the artist, she asks: “If the green returns as an echo, what color, form, and sound would it be?” Li approaches the landscape of this period of poverty, an overly distorted ideal or desire like an illusion reflected in a bronze mirror which has become an echo without a master haunting the emptiness of reality. In the end, the green echo reveals the landscape of excessive reality that has even erased the boundary between life and death and while the reality sealed behind the green seems actually very close, it escapes from the control of our gaze once more as a puzzle-like and completely concealed existence. In short, Green Echo seems to, in a state of the gaze divided by dual blocking of the green echo, simultaneously imply both the compulsive pleasures started by the subject and the tragic but endless self-alienation that everyone is bound to experience in the never-ending space and time of the end. All of this is slowly embodied in a subtle combination and check between the tangled blobs of green paint and dim shapes on a canvas that seems about the right size.
Li drew our similar thoughts in her last two exhibitions, Interface Landscape (Zaha Art Museum, 2014) and Green Breakdown (Arirang Gallery, 2013). In the case of Interface Scenery (2014), which is a large-sized painting with a vertical length of over 4 m and sharing the same title as the exhibition, confronted by a faded and vast landscape that we cannot control with our gaze, we experience a moment when we have to face the outside world of reality which is so hard to perceive that for a moment, it is as if we have lost our sight. It would almost make more sense to just say we have indeed lost our sight. Imagine the back of the artist as she, barely able to stand straight in front of the vast painting, ceaselessly imitating the world of reality with her hand crouching over a thin brush. Imagine that scene of obsessiveness. Maybe that is all we can do in front of this de-constructed picture with boundaries lost between the form and the background, the inside and the out, the center and the periphery, the reality and the unreality. It is a question of the visual division of the subject, about what they have not seen rather than what they have seen. What makes us uncomfortable in that moment is the unrealistic scenes of reality that are over-exposed as if they are an excess of senses. The failed scenery of reality constructed by the unbelievably repetitive act of the artist ultimately becomes the embodiment of a visual tragedy that is the inability to be seen.
So, despite its vast size and sophisticated portrayal, Interface Scenery feels empty almost as if it is a fake painting. The term “fake painting” may sound like a ridiculous instance of palilalia, but the existence of this large painting spreads out so neatly and ironically comes on to us like a formless ghost. As such, the artist focuses fiercely on the uncertainty and inaccessibility of reality rather than paying attention to the details of the scenery of reality that she is painting. In the preface to his book Stanze (1977), Giorgio Agamben presents the possibility of a new perception in “the zone where desire denies the object of desire and at the same time acknowledges it” or “the zone of entering a relationship with something that can never be possessed or enjoyed.” Such “stanze” might be the arbitrary place where Li’s paintings can be placed. Again, in Agamben’s words, some of those who fall into the desire of idleness (in reality) “run away not only from the object but also towards the object,” “communicating with the object of desire only in the language of denial and absence.” Such explanations drive us to view Li’s ghost-like paintings as something more understandable.
In the artist’s solo exhibition Green Breakdown in 2013, the emphasis was on the portrayal of the depressed and indolent human that exposes the collapse of reality like a ghost. If her recent works portray depressed subjects positioned in the stanze attempting to reach the impossible scene of reality through ghost-like imagination, Li’s previous works often featured ghosts who stand in a place of unreality and try to think about the reality that cannot be caught. The portrait of a human who puts on a mask when he finds himself in a catastrophic reality and who falls deeper into his paranoid delusion is, as described by Agamben using a quote by Freud, visually closely connected with “humans who are not afraid or shy to enjoy their own ghosts.” “It is an endless alchemical endeavor of human culture that seeks to maximize reality by grabbing as much unrealism and possessing the negative and the dead,” said Agamben.
At this point, I think back on all the works that were exhibited in the Green Breakdown. Distorted and concealed shapes, like a kind of delusion lie in the boundaries of the ambiguous boundaries of reality, dream of a narrative of magical reality while freely coming in touch with the space of reality that has already collapsed. This foreshadows the emergence of ghosts who recklessly try to imitate the impossible world at the border between reality and unreality, just as she constructed the images of Interactive Scenery in an almost automatic technological way, crossing back and forth the context of space and time. This is the indolent human who has fallen into depression, the ghost, who communicates with the object of his desire. Let us take a painting titled Mirror-Tragedy (2012). The person who is wearing a rabbit mask is a character onto whom the artist’s identity is projected. The image is portrayed close-up on the screen and it seems to be staring straight ahead, but it may be caught in a deep delusion, hiding its eyes behind the mask and resting its chin on its hand. Its gaze feels even more hollow because of the holes in the rabbit mask that does not let you measure even the depth of its black eyes. Surrounded by the green atmosphere with the scenes of reality behind him, this character is retreating to some extent from reality, as if enjoying his own ghost inside a delusion. Proof of an imperfect reality is made through the “return from reality” as expressed by Agamben. Perhaps, by failing to prove reality, we may have to admit its existence.
In this sense, Li has been exploring paintings in “the zone of entering into a relationship with something that can never be owned or enjoyed.” In addition to the works mentioned above that circumstantially prove reality through exaggerated landscapes of reality and spaces of unreality haunted by ghosts, there was also the exhibition The Most Desired Drawing (Gallery Dame, 2016), which showed obsessive pencil drawings. What does it mean to draw a painting that desires something intense? It is reminiscent of the incomplete attempt of the subject to “communicate with the object of desire” with “the language of denial and lack,” as per the brief Agamben quote used above. Through her self-tormenting and repetitive drawing behavior that almost seem reckless, she once again approaches the absence of reality, that is, the imperfection and inaccessibility of reality.
The drawings mostly portray the shape of a person with a cone turned over his head, trapped in a pyramid of vision and who cannot see anything at all, and the form of a person whose eyes are replaced by deep holes like the holes in the rabbit mask. These two images are repeated over and over in the drawings. The images, on white paper, are drawn alternately and rearranged in sequential and mechanical repetitions which make it almost hard to believe the drawings are done by hand. They cause a chain of sequence and grow to become meaningless geometrical structures. Through the act of drawing, Li visualizes the alienation and compulsive division of the actual subject. Perhaps this act of drawing is the most appropriate example to prove the poverty of the failed reality at the boundary between reality and unrealism. In fact, for a long time the artist had desired images that do not exist in reality. Going back to Camouflage-Protected Color (2001), she tore a picture of a cherry-blossomed bloom from a magazine to capture the image of an imperfect being that was present in the landscape. These extremely personal and subjective images lie in the ambiguous boundary of reality, the stanze, which cannot be said to exist or not to exist. In view of all these, it can be inferred to some extent that Li, as if caught in a delusion, has consistently and earnestly immersed herself into thoughts about the desire of vision and positively attempted to imagine images that are distinct from reality.