Her paintings have a whiff of fin-de-siècle collapse to them, with their lush green forests presented with dazzling painterly expression. Green, a color inscribed for us as representing fresh vitality, is to Li Setbyul a color that represents the violence of capitalism, couched in a civilized nature—nature that has been subsumed into civilization. With her series of works, Li has used the concept of “green” to give pictorial expression to a personal narrative with a vast global discourse. Her green and nature limn images of forests are provided to us by capital, but the truth of her images delves inside the universal idea of “greenness.” With her paintings, she attempts to critique human societies that merely advocate their own interests, using the ideology of capitalism as their shield.
The works in her Green Echo series show figures who could be seen as family members of lovers with the landscape of a fantastical forest. Particularly striking is the work No. 4, which shows a figure posed as if to shoot a souvenir photo, his arm around a woman wearing a white dress; images of a forest of violently creeping catastrophe appear as though they might descend upon the figures any minute. Rolling on the canvas, the forest feels less vital than dizzying, as though heaped in a mound of garbage, while the faceless man and woman who stand before the deep forest darkness give off a sense of fear and loss like the portents of disaster, as though awaiting death.
“His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me. I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please.” (Song of Solomon 2:6–7)
Of all the poetry verses to come to mind, it was the entreaty of a waiting bride in the anticipation of love. It is an image akin to foolish people with their eyes closed before some global catastrophe or the destruction of nature, reciting some scripture of love. In modern times, the signs of disaster and death are predicted and assessed within changes in the global ecosystem—yet people remain thick-headed, selfish, and weak.
The artist’s Skinnerseries is filled with the same kinds of energy. If anything, they are rendered more clearly in painting form. Portraits of comely young men and women, who might be actors or entertainers, are filled with green viscera—adorned with nervous tissue in a pustulant state and a fleshy color like lumps of fat or internal organs, they are presented in a way that clashes with their attractive and refined exterior.
Revealing the festering underside of the skin, these images seem like portraits of living phantoms awaiting a future death that will also claim us. Clear away the sleek skin surface refined by capital and selfishness, take away the adoring gaze and the serenading lips, and the lovers look like phantoms hovering before the gates of hell.
Li Setbyul’s paintings ruthlessly demolish the hopes of a “different world” among all of us living today. Utopian fantasy is rendered by Li through images of collapse and decay, of disaster and endings. Acquired through philosophy and writing, her world view has become a concept underpinning her painting work; rather than expressing anxiety and fear engendered by emotions or psychological mechanisms, she shares an unspoken story through images that carry symbols and aporia. Talking about the “other world,” Li Setbyul has said:
“To witness a phenomenon limply alluding to collapse in the forest of a reality that definitely exists before us—one where the symptoms are apparent and the familiar world is being taken over by disparate elements—and to observe the moment when cracks appear in this suitably patched-over real-world landscape is to discover a world teeming with the diversity of an entirely different logic.”
The green fantasies that Li presents are images of catastrophe, pictorial illusions of the world’s collapse as a result of capitalist reality; distorting the sense of realism with greenness to distance it from visual judgments, her paintings show images of love, glimmering, flowers, and beauty—twisting the truth of human desire within capitalism. It is a society where all things are consumed, yet the greenness, the nature, the environment, love, and friendships distort the current reality and make it appear as if it were not so. The green, the lovers, the family, the love, the beauty are like ventriloquists, leading us to talk about the utopias we all desire like so much advertising copy. . .
Frightening as it is, the truth that has arrived for the human beings of the future is the reality of dystopia. Li Setbyul presents the pictorial illusion of people walking amidst the ruins of capitalist reality and a forest in collapse—even evincing, ironically, a sense of nausea toward things like the vulgar hatreds that we hoped to avoid in the future, the unnamable masses within the pus and viscera. And with her paintings, she asks whether humans are truly capable of confronting the state of nature as it becomes frankly “real.”
Environmental catastrophe is one of those realities. At some level, environmental issues are obviously destined to arise over and over within capitalist culture. Yet climate change and the threat of resource depletion are not suppressed; if anything, they are integrated into advertising and marketing. As the majority of survivors on earth, we must ultimately recognize the fact of our inevitable defeat, in animal and existential terms, to the “capitalist reality.” To avert environment disaster in a world overtaken by capitalist illusion is merely to awaken from the illusions of capital: the “need for endless market expansion” and the “growth fetish.”
With her paintings, Li relays a repeated message to a faculty of reason that has not awakened from the green illusion. They are green “issues” transcending art, echoes warning of our descent into a dystopia wrought by capitalism. Viewed in terms of painting grammar, it is a natural and refined harmony of colors and frame composition richly abounding in green coloration that makes the images of capitalist realism and nature in collapse appear fantastical: bubbling water balloons trickling landscapes, and muttered arguments with eyes and ears blocked by unrealistic images that appear viewed through a transparent membrane. Thanks to these pictorial techniques, the green illusions sometimes appear like depressive pleasure gardens or Edenic paradises. Li’s paintings are carefully calculated, as though aggregating experience with the pure material signifiers that Fredric Jameson described as a “suggestive aesthetic model.” It is through this lens that I re-view her work.
What form of world can Li render with her pictorial reflection? Is any form of painting practice capable of fending off capitalist realism’s ideology of prosperity? If we understand that the moment is now at hand when we must stop with the endless play of meaning formed through images alone and realize changes in ourselves, then the paintings of Li Setbyul transform into a spectacular tug-of-war at the formidable boundary between reason and aesthetics.