The task given to art is to construct a new system of sense. Art ought to make the invisible visible and to develop ways to hear the inaudible. This does not mean that it requires some sort of preterhuman capacity of creativity or an acute sensibility for signs as portrayed in the novel, Smilla’s Sense of Snow. As long as humans are linguistic beings, their bodies, which are the sources of their senses, too are coated with signifiers. The signifiers shrouding the body do not move around freely lacking certain orders. Instead, they are ordered and knotted around particular anchoring points?points de capiton. This order in itself represents both the possibility and limitation of the human. It is an ahistorical fact that the formation of the senses of the human who uses words is governed by the influences of the order of the signifier, and nonetheless the order is always historical. For the mental and sensory system of a certain human being can be constituted only in his or her relation to the Other that embodies the symbolic order of the given period. The limitations of the time structure those of the subject, and the possibility of the subject sustains that of the time. The reason that artistic activities experiment with new sensory system lies in their intention to explore such limitations and possibilities. And such an experiment is necessarily carried out around the axis of a specific point de capiton. For that very point is the kernel that determines the fate of this present time. Since it concerns with the remodeling of the system of sense, perception, and thought or with “rebirth,” it cannot avoid a confrontation with death. This death is, of course, a symbolic one. Yet it is a process of undergoing the nothingness of one’s own in the state of being alive, it is much more horrifying and dreadful than a biological death.
This is why the paintings of Li Set Byul brim with ominous charms and taut tensions. After walking down a series of artistic paths, Li has now arrived at the battleground in which she struggles with the ideas of the human destiny, the limitations of the time, and the possibility of other scenes. Li’s artistic journey originated in the ambivalences of disillusionment about and fascination for the ugly being that necessitates the disguise as a means of life (Disguise, 2001). The ambivalent emotions were not to be reconciled by choosing one over the other. They were subject to the curious synergic, dynamics in which disillusionment instigated fascination and in turn fascination incited disgust (Addiction, 2002). For a while, she enjoyed this addiction (The Circulation of Circus, 2004; The Spring Time Goes By, 2006). Against the background whose entirety printed with flower patterns were rendered the artist’s inner mind and the social reality projected onto it. During this period, her objects were floating in obscurity, like bodies mired in the swamp of hallucinations.
View from Below (2008) marks a stylistic shift in Li’s art. The flower-patterned background and the dreamy atmosphere were abandoned. Instead, faces, which had been concealed by flowers, frames, or shadings, started to occupy the entire picture planes to the extent that one might be find them obscene. The discomfort and fright that the faces generate are caused by the fact that they do not suggest inner personas at all. They were nothing but utter surfaces, meaningless fragments of skin. The faces with holes did not license the viewers to exercise imaginary identification. Rather, they enticed them into the abyss like a black hole. The flowers in full bloom painted where eyes should be were fatally sensual like “The Flowers of Evil” as they were overlaid upon the abysmal holes. This shift signaled that the artist was approaching closer to the idea of the gaze?not the world that the artist captured but the look of the artist that captured herself. Toward there, that is, toward the gaze that her own death is written greatly. From this period on, the artist embarked on her attempt to give forms to Lacanian psychoanalysis, more specifically, the theoretical insights of Slavoj ?i?ek. Since then, she has devoted herself to the elaborating of psychoanalytic images with her own style. Here the subject can be a person, group, and even civilization. Lacanian psychoanalysis has nothing to do with the mythical inner mind of the human. It inquires into the Borromean knot that is tied around the symptom?the structural correlation among the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real.
Lacan elucidated his own distinctive theory of painting. A painting theory set forth by a psychoanalyst is nothing of deviation. Drive pushes humans beyond the pleasure principle. And object ? of the drive is ultimately nothingness in itself, yet it presents itself as partial objects such as breasts, excrements, gazes, and voices. These objects of the drive do not evoke the nostalgia for being such a mythical utopia as the bosom of the mother. They are what have sad stories that are referred to as the psychoanalytic concept of ‘separation’. More accurately speaking, they tell stories not of sorrow but of fright and fear. They are the traces of those moments when the utopia suddenly starts to collapse from its bottom, when the Other which was thought to represent a utopia reveals its lack as the subject of desire, and when one is nakedly exposed to what is enigmatic and to hopelessly ask ‘Che vuoi?[What is that you want?]’. A human being obtains object ?, which is the cause of the desire, through this second loss, the loss of loss, the loss of the subject’s lack, and another loss of the other’s lack. Object ? is the MacGuffin of life. What is nothing or what is nothing but remnants becomes the treasure that tallies with everything in the world?agalma. Human beings make a desperate and frenzied search for it throughout their lives. The merciless reality that sinks deep into their mind and skin. It is an fantastic formation, a stage equipped with special lightings whose effects fall directly onto this object ?. Without intervening in this, any slogan for change is nothing but an empty phrase.
In his eleventh seminar, Lacan mentions an anecdote about Parrhasius and Zeuxis who were the master painters of 4th century B. C. and talks about the human scopic drive in which the gaze functions as an object. According to the story, Zeuxis painted grapes, and a flock of birds flew down to peck at them. That is, Zeuxis fooled the birds. On the other hand, Parrhasius painted a veil. Zeuxis begged him, “Now, pull the veil aside and show me what you’ve painted.” Parrhasius deceived the eyes of Zeuxis. The veil was revealing what was prevented from being seen or what did not exist. It was the object of the desire?object a. Before the painting of the veil, Zeuxis was confronted by the impossibility of the gaze. The human eye is not a simple organ that reflects the world transparently but an agent that distorts the world through the desire. The world unveils itself only after being deformed by the desire. The world revealed to humans, therefore, contains humans themselves whose the kernel of the desire that crooks it, like a black hole that warps the space. The world reflects on the subject that sees it.
Lacan finds it deceptive in the pure formal aesthetics in which the autonomy of the formal play is emphasized without regard to the subject. A painting cannot play as it pleases. For the look of desire traverses the object of a painting. If the painting of Parrhasius made the gaze of Zeuxis face up to the impossible, it is more than an evidence that attests to the superb artisanal skill of Parrhasius or an object onto which his inner mind is projected. The painting functioned as the subject. Such a function corresponds to that of an analyst: to make Zeuxis doubt his own truth by disrupting the imaginary narcissism of Zeuxis who fancies himself as the subject of the look. Lacan located a painting in the place of an analyst. Then, where should the artist and the viewer be? They should lie down on the couch. And then pay attention to their drive to see ‘beyond’ the painting. Where the drive was, shall the subject be (Wo es war, Soll Ich werden).
“Green Catastrophe” is a name given to the symptom of the end from which this catastrophic time suffers. It describes this present pleasure-seeking time of the last man who picks up organic groceries from the selves of a supermarket in the face of ecological crisis, who values life and thus make special efforts to preserve his precious body, and who promotes the harmony among all things in the universe while being captivated by new-age spiritualism in order to overcome the abuses on the environment brought by modernism. The paintings produced for the project of “Green Catastrophe” delve into on the symptoms of this age more scrupulously than those shown in her other solo shows did. And they comments on and articulate those symptoms. The method used here is doubling: splitting the green from its inside; thus forcing the green confront the green; discerning the point where the green is impossible within the green.
The artist employs the technique of montage to illuminate the doubling. No painting of her shows a single scene. Every work of her is characterized by the layering of different scenes, which collapse against one another to create the overall images. Among the episodes that appear in two or more of her works are free-floating humans, teenage violence, thoughtless riots and policemen who forcefully quelling them. Triads that seem to be doppelgangers of the artist observe or mimic the scenes, or sometimes they turn their faces away from the scenes facing the outside of the picture planes. It can be safely said that the effect of the montage in which scenes are colliding with each other points to the significance of “Green Catastrophe”. In regard to the montage technique, The Green Valley demonstrates the artist’s daring attempt to divide the picture plane while abandoning the well-orchestrated arrangement of various episodes in a single picture plane. Precarious instability is conveyed through the oblique arrangement of the people enjoying their meal on the prairie in a green valley where the purest nature seems to be intactly preserved. The darkish blue landscape interrupts their pleasant rest as it is pressing down on them. The soaring colossal snow mountain stately stands on the left. This snow mountain that represents nature as the real is an image of impossible enjoyment that ruins every pleasure. And all the scenes are darkly shadowed by this image. The pleasurable rest planned by those who love and enjoy nature turns into a disaster, and against this paradoxical landscape the dining table on which meals are prepared to be relished is attacked by a stream of blood red. It is at that table that the image starts to shift all of a sudden. Just like a part of the liquid metal terminator in Terminator 2. The figure with a rabbit mask is making an observation of this metallic anamorphosis. It is this moment of catastrophe that the artist directs her obsessive eyes to. The artist detects the pulpous shimmer that suggests a breakdown in the reality that is solidly sustaining itself without showing any hint of immanent collapse, and in this sense, the artist is clearly delusional. Yet this psychotic delusion is not groundless at all. This kind of artistic delusion coming out of the weak knot of the rings of reality exposes the closed reality to uncertainty. Lacan uses the term “critical delusion” to designate such a delusion of an artist while endowing an active meaning to it.
As examined so far, the distinctive common denominator among the works shown at this exhibition is the dominant use of dark green color. The color of green reminds moderns, who are exhausted by the gray tone of civilization, of nature. They believe that green nature promises rest and nourishes life and thus emanates the vibes of mystery and spirituality. Needless to say, this does not accurately describe the actuality of nature. It is merely an illusion of nature projected to the minds of city dwellers. According to the Western conventional view, the color of green implied something ominous. For they were helpless against the destructive power of nature and were unable to foresee when her wrath would come to seize them. Nature was understood as something alien to civilization, which provided humans with safety. Maybe, this explains why the aliens and monsters in the movies are given green skin or green blood. If people of today feel pleasant around the color of green, it is because it represents not nature itself but nature conquered by civilization, in other words, nature that has been civilized. The truth of this civilization is the colonization of capital. The tour packages to remote places offer one not the experience of nature but paradoxically with pilgrimages to the areas that have been gulped down by capitalism. The color of green in “Green Catastrophe” can never be transparent. In it, there are layers of green paint of diverse hues, and at the same time the points of different colors are incorporated so as to represent green color tainted with ideology. And this results in the picture plane overwhelmingly governed by the morbidity and heaviness of the color of green, which is supposed to be the main element of a refreshing ground for leisurely and pleasant activities.
Pseudo-Composure depicts such a paradox of green both comically and tragically. Floating humans are heading toward a heavily wooded jungle. Two figures turning their back on the viewers are staring at the mysterious forest whose end is invisible. It somehow appears that the rear views of them are suggesting their aspiration for those who are unrestrainedly floating into the darkness of the jungle. But then, a figure in a firefighter’s uniform is unexpectedly entering the forest with his search dog. The artist inserted a cursor in the midst of this tumult. Let us pull this image by controlling this cursor like in a simulation game. This may debunk the actual nature of the forest. A close look at the upper right corner beyond the forest reveals something that resembles skyscrapers in a big city or a huge apartment complex. May this fuss be a farce happening at a small grove constructed within the premise of the apartment complex? Then, the jungle has been degraded into a capitalist garden! Green is no longer antagonistic to gray. For nature has already been victimized by civilization. No, more fundamentally speaking, nature that has not been symbolically engulfed cannot have any meaning by itself, and such meaninglessness makes nature more threatening and frightening to humans. For the artist green cannot denote an alternative to capitalistic life. On the contrary, the green alternative fortifies what capitalism advocates. For the green, pleasant life will demand the exploitation of more labor. The green has already become a high-end commodity. ?i?ek snaps at the lifestyle like that Scott and Helen Nearing had shown, which many admire and aspire for, while accusing it as causing a calamity to nature. At the very moment when the population, which has supersaturated the earth to the extent that the earth cannot accommodate any more, chooses to go to nature to live in it, the ecosystem of the earth will be immediately subject to a total destruction. The ecological crisis cannot be solved by the romantic love for nature. The artist lays out the green that has not been conceived by our mind for us to see.
In relation to this, let us look into the significance of the free-floating humans, the frequent motif appearing in most of her works. Don’t they pin you on the notion of ‘nomad’ expounded by Deleuze, which has also been appropriated in a commercial advertisement? For Deleuze, the concept of ‘nomad’ alludes to a being that realizes the life of escapism by carrying out nomadic behaviors without being bounded by the symbolically demarcated reality. Yet the artist understands these nomads as Nietzsche’s “the last men”. According to Nietzsche, if there is an ending to history, one who leads a life in this last era can be called ‘the last man’. To this Nietzsche’s last man, nothing of the majestically sorrowful, which may be entailed by the meaning of the word ‘last’ pertaining to the temporal end, cannot be attributed. For they do not possess the will to transcend. If they feel an inch of comfort in sitting on their sofa, they wish for no change for that sofa, even though the sofa is in an awful and gruesome condition. And they name such a will to non-will “happiness”. In ?i?ek’s list of products for this last man, you can find decaffeinated coffee, alcohol-less beer, non-fat ice cream, cyber sex and so on. They avoid any burden, and in the end they lose the substance of life itself. This is probably why those ‘last men’ in her paintings are decolorized. Their only purpose in life is to survive, to survive comfortably. They eventually lose the essential property that makes the human as such and differentiate it from something other than that: “strong attachment,” that is, stubbornness. Stubbornness is of a pathological attitude. What sort of humanness can be found in a human who skims the cream off exercising appropriate worldly wisdoms without persistence to have his or her own way? We are repulsed by them because we see animals in their human faces. Isn’t the human love an example of “strong attachment” to an object? Isn’t art a “strong attachment” to beauty? Isn’t an intellectual pursuit a “strong attachment” to truth? Badiou used the world “fidelity” to describe this and in Christianity it is called “faith”. It is also madness. This pathological state, this inhuman passion that cannot be regarded as normal due to its insanity is paradoxically what the seminal attribute that defines the human as such.
Let us look at Strong Attachment. In comparison to other paintings by her, this is marked by its simplicity. Against the background which consists of the last men futilely floating around and passing by a closed factory, which is a place of tension, a figure with a stubborn expression is portrayed in the foreground. Submersed in this strong attachment, he arrives at the point when reality stops?his or her own image becomes anamorphic. Near View-Comedy is a variation on the same theme. Here, the figure is bleached into disappearance. The figure that is fading away from the world seems to be taking one more step toward his or her own symbolic death.
Another motif that is shared by most of her works is the image of a closed factory. Here is The World of ‘Das Beinahe’. Why ruins? Why a factory? Our endeavor to search for a clue traces back to Hubert Robert who is a Baroque painter famous for his paintings of ruins. One of the typical strategies used in the then popular paintings of vanitas is to insert images of ruins to landscapes. The destroyed architectures added to such paintings were mostly the great architectures of the ancient Greece and Rome, which have been the ideological hometowns of the West. Hence, vanitas represented the nostalgia for the ideal world that had been lost. But Robert approached the spirit of vanitas from a different angle. Men Playing Dice among Classical Ruins, one of Robert’s representative works, depicts laymen playing a dull game at the architecture that once was the place for heroes. For Robert, ruins no longer represented a place of mourning over the lost ideals. They were where contingency presented itself while being filled with the tensions of life and the world. Who knew the eternal arena of ideals would turn into the public’s playground! The dice intimates the unpredictability of time. For Robert, ruins were now a place from which he could unloose a skein of thread toward the future. The indeterminacy of time invites the disaster that harasses the privileged of the given time but means the hope for the unprivileged. This shed light on why Walter Benjamin was fascinated by the ruins of eighteenth-century arcades. They shared the same echo of the images of ruins in Baroque paintings. Ruins are the places in which tension toward Messiah’s time prevails. For him, ruins were symbolic merely of vanity, but the allegory of them meant the openness toward the uncertain time. Ruins are places of contingency and virtuality which penetrate through the closed world. Li’s closed factories are always accompanied by staircases that redirect themselves at some points. In the places of virtuality, homeostasis halts.
The element of accidentality or contingency can also be found in her Azure Bell. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra thus spoke. “Lord Chance is the world’s oldest nobility, which I have given back to all things. I have released them from servitude under his purpose. This freedom and heavenly cheer I have placed over all things like an azure bell when I taught that over them and through them no eternal will wills.” As nature fades and space fills itself with floating people, the sound of a bell heralds the abolishment of the law that has ruled over this failing world. The sound of a azure bell. We have now come to the understanding of the virtuality of the tension that the idea of “das beinahe”. This concept of “almost” is similar to Neitzsche’s notions of “noon” or “edge,” and it means the place where or the moment when one becomes two. In The World of ‘Das Beinahe,’ all figures and incidents are arranged against the background of this moment of divergence. The painting montages two incompatible incidents of dancing and the breakout of violence at a single place. This montage demands us to make an infinite judgment upon the relationship between dance and violence. How can a casual and peaceful scene of dancing be reconciled with the outbreak of meaningless violence in this world? This question can be answered by another question. In what way do we feel life in this circumstance of lethargic pacifism in which the last men avoid all sorts of burdens and have lost “strong attachment” or great cause? Is the happiness which the last men want so eagerly possible in this everyday life where the vividness of life gets blurred? “Strong attachment” is a way through which the drive reveals itself. Can humans still exist after the elimination of this dangerous drive? Violence for no reason is an index of the last time to which the last men attest. This world has now “das Beinahe” arrived at the crossroads.
For the artist, the world of the last men who evade fundamental transformations, the world of the subjects who rebuff the negativity of their reality and considers a comfortable and safe life as the sublime has already set its foot toward the irrevocable catastrophe. Vanishing Moment unfolds in a more mature way what was rendered in Suspense, a variation on the scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. A middle-class couple is already discolored together with the world and is being consumed by the devastating power of distortion. But this does not stop them from disavowing the irretrievably determined catastrophe and from nestling in the forest of bare trees. Yet in the distance there is one who is confronting the catastrophe of this world. He has met a divine entity in which he discovers himself. There is another attitude of the last men who repudiate the absence of the Other and do not detach themselves from reality: They postulate another Other that sustains the Other?the Other of the Other. Their consciousness mocks all the authorities there are. But their unconscious belief surrenders to the greater authority that clutches hold of the agitated Other. Such a split enables power to operate. A good example of this can be found in the so-called ‘UFO conspiracy’. It claims that weak-kneed power authorities are hiding the proofs of the presence of aliens who are omniscient and omnipotent. Yet one’s belief in the existence of those uncanny and fearsome aliens testifies to his or her unconscious faith in the very power that invalidates the conspiracy. It is their fear that endorses the last men to maintain their unrelenting resistance to change even in the face of losing everything and that armors them with such superman-like fortitude against the inconceivable horror of reality. This unconscious fear of them persuades themselves to be willingly enthralled by power. This motif is embodied in Encounter of 3rd Kind 1 and 2. The title ‘Encounter of 3rd Kind’ refers to a certain intensity level of one’s experience with aliens. That is, ‘encounter of 1st kind’ may relate to UFO sightings, ‘encounter of 2nd kind’ does to the experience of the physical effects of a UFO, and ‘encounter of 4th kind’ the experience of being abducted by aliens, and so on. The paintings show, however, people watching the solar eclipse. The human eyes are incapable of looking at the sun directly. A direct look at the sun can put our eyes at the risk of blindness. We need glasses with special filters to see the sun safely. But then, how is the sun that has been made to be seen by the human eyes through such a device related to the sun that cannot be looked at by our naked eyes? Isn’t it true that we can be seduced by the power of the sun only after we have enervated it into something that can be looked at? If then, in Encounter of 3rd Kind 2, do the transparent blisters that shield the eyes of those who are watching the sun intend to lay bare the tragedy where one is brought face to face with the dead end of a road? Like those who are distraught with terror and have no choice but to watch helplessly the planet Melancholia approaching Earth to destroy in the last scene of the film Melancholia.
Green Base also plays a variation on the theme of fetishist denial. The linguistic subject can represent himself or herself through the signifier within the given symbolic order. In other words, the subject can be granted with his or her symbolic place only through the alienation of the S into the S/, and as long as he or she wears the mask of the signifier. To the linguistic subject, the split is of inevitability, and without the split, the subject does not exist. The figure in the painting is taking off his or her rabbit mask. He or she is carrying out a symbolic suicide. The figure is starting to be transformed into an anamorphic image. In the background, however, other figures are admiring the harmony prevailing in the world without subjects while rejecting such knowledge of the subject. That harmony is what makes the life of the last man possible. The humans who are leading the modern lives within this realm of plural harmony bow to ancient wisdoms. Their minds never bother to ponder upon whether those wisdoms are compatible with the life of this present time. They welcome anything as far as it brings comfort to their exhaustive life in this maliciously fast-running postindustrial society. The harmonious world in the background somehow reminds one of a picture easily found on the walls of barbershops. For the artist, the real nature of new-age spiritualism lies in its conformity to kitsch.
How are the illusions of harmony, stability, and happiness possible in this world-wide catastrophe? We can examine Pseudo-Composure in the context of this question. In its true sense nature is the limitation of the symbolic world of civilization. In front of nature, civilization finds itself be confronted by impossibility. How can this anxiety faced with the real be relieved? It can be done by civilizing nature, by suturing her up inside of civilization. Like constructing a grove in the heart of the city. This suturing is, of course, not possible. But it can be done in fantasy. If we relish peacefulness in reality, it is because reality is the formation of fantasy. Ate too deals with this. Ate refers to a goddess of destruction and misfortune, and she manipulatively seduces humans to yield themselves to horrendous misunderstandings and frivolous, ridiculous conducts. In the field of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Ate stands for the will to ignorance, “I don’t want to know”. This ignorance allows the human to deny the catastrophe and thus to be in peace. As mentioned above, the real is the limitation of reality and at the same time the true revelation of its impossibility. In the domain of this truth, only a single catastrophe of reality is possible. Nevertheless, most humans, especially the last men refuse to stand on the side of truth. Why does one choose a simple path when the complicated and dull life that can be accommodated by the denial of facts is available? That is, when there is an option of illusion. In the world of illusion, reality is confronted not by impossibility but by inhibition. If reality is problematic, it is because of that inhibition. In Ate, the figure is outside of the place of virtuality. The face of the figure is lit but is not radiant. She is peeping in at the illusion at the crossroad. The illusion is tinged with green. The angel, which is symbolic of the time of the Messiah, gives way to despair.
Response shows the stormy moment of tension when the subject is on the brink of deciding on the borderline between truth and illusion. Her rabbit mask is split by two totally different lightings. The background is packed with the symbols of the real. Over there in the back is appearing indistinctively a new being whose face has not been revealed. Soliloquy for All can be observed in the same context. There is no doubt that its meaning can lean toward the opposite ends depending on whether “all” refers to “all people” or “the whole”. The decision made by a single person can change the rule of the world where all people exist. But the illusion of “the whole” is nothing but a fetishistic denial of the “non-wholeness” of the world. We can find a clue to its meaning through an examination of the relationship with anamorphosis. This anamorphosis lets the bleached figures pass through but erases certain part of the protagonist in the lower left. The protagonist assumes the meaninglessness of himself and of the world in which he exists by being within the world where the real wields its catastrophic power.
Lastly, let us look at Unrevealed Terms. This work’s composition is more distinctive than any other work of her. The incident is happening outside the window where bright sunlight blazes down. It is a closed factory. In the back which is relatively darkly lit, a figure wearing a rabbit mask is giving an intent look to the molten chunks of flesh. In the center, a figure whose eyes are replaced by full-bloomed flowers are bathing a child in teeming light. It is as if he or she were shaping a child out of water. Here, we cannot miss the ardent wish of the artist who is standing shivering before a catastrophe. She prays that her struggle gives birth to a hope. For this hope cannot be created by the artist. The auspicious light befalling onto the incident is coming from the outside. This scene is, of course, is seen from the inside completely cut off with where the incident is happening. This place with no light can be thought of as a gallery in which we see the painting. Yet the intense light generating from the incident is revealing the outlines of the inside wrapped in darkness. Yes. We are now lying on the couch properly. The light will allow us to penetrate through the illusion catastrophically so as to meet whom we have not known all along. As long as the subject crops up where the drive was.
In Green Catastrophe, Li has taken a decisive and bold step. The brushwork has been more refined, and the work is imbued with maturity. She has invested all these capacities of her to face the catastrophic reality. And she has redefined the meaning of green. The heavy three-dimensional reality has been reduced to and translated into the light two-dimensional flatness of a monitor panel. Li Set Byul has now finished preparing the conditions for her decision making.