Homo Poeticus 

- Sunghoon Yu and His Work

 

                                                                                                                                           Jinmyung Lee

                                                                                                                                 Art Critic 

“Poetic.” This is how I would describe Sunghoon Yu’s work in a single word. The artist himself is poetic as well as his work.  What does this word “poetic” imply then? Laozi’s Dao De Jing begins with the well-known sentence, “the Dao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Dao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name

(道可道 非常道 名可名 非常名).” This brief sentence is the most acute insight into human nature.

 

We comprehend the reality of the world by means of letters and digits. We believe that we can grasp the phenomena of the world through human rationality and language. However, we have now become skeptical about our belief systems. We have come to realize that this system has gone through transformations depending on shifting paradigms. For example, what do we know about a rainbow? In ancient times people believed that rainbows were created by huge snakes. Therefore, the word ‘rainbow(虹)’ in Chinese is a combination of two characters that signify ‘bug (虫)’ and ‘craftsman (工).’ According to the Yin-Yang and the Five Elements theory, people described a rainbow to be "iridescent in five colors". The prism spectrum of modern science made people to envision a rainbow in seven colors. Still, rainbows caused by light waves passing through the moisture of the air are mysterious phenomena that always leave us in awe. We can never fully grasp rainbows. Our limited perspective allows us to see only some parts of this magic of nature.

 

We feel at ease with these limited perceptions. We are comfortable with these familiar notions as if lying down in a cozy blanket. However, there are moments when this blanket is lifted.  We call this, ‘dis-covery'—moments of uncovering the blanket. Lying under the blanket, everything seems horizontal. When this blanket is lifted, however, we have to get up and stand vertically. In the horizontal state the world is explained with ordinary language. Language makes us to see the world through specific conventions and paradigms, and we feel comfortable with them. Yet, we are to meet with the unexpected, the unknown from time to time. On encountering the ineffable, the blanket is finally uncovered and we are exposed to the cold air. Now we must find a new word – this is the poetic moment. 

 

A poetic moment is like opening a soap box. Suddenly the air is filled with a new fragrance. A sensation, not a sense. As time passes this sensation becomes interpreted and described. This soap is now used. Bubbles are formed but the soap disappears in the end. This sensation can never be experienced again.  

 

A Lock of Hair (2018) measuring approximately 370cm is made with copper wires.  

 

I offer you, 

a lock of hair,

cut off while asleep.

 

Somebody is asleep here. This person may be a lover, a family member or anonymous others. I am awake while they are asleep. It is a different state of being. I observe this person, but he or she does not recognize my presence. I dedicate a lock of hair to this sleeping person. The act of cutting hair and offering it implies devotion. When this person wakes up he or she will be surprised on discovering this lock of hair. This person has to make sense of it. The initial bewilderment now turns into a poetic compulsion. A poetic moment is always sacred, rising anew each time. The encounter with the unexpected urges us to create. This work is Sunghoon Yu’s dedication to all. He observes to discover, to create a poetic moment to which everyone is invited.

 

In Yu’s video A Letter (2018), the artist writes a letter on the images of products arranged in an IKEA showroom. The walls of this showroom are covered with fake landscapes of Seoul creating an illusion that it is someone’s home furnished with all kinds of IKEA products. In this illusion we feel comfortable as if under the blanket. We want to bring this comfort to our own home. This desire compels us to purchase. Yet, this scene of a capitalist society controlled by illusions and desires is not the only story Yu tells us.

 

Ancient people were not separated from nature. Their images were not disconnected from reality. The world used to be magical as all were intertwined in a single entity. Their language was poetic. They communicated indescribable feelings through the poem. They thought rainbows were created by the work (工) of bugs (虫). Then, language was invented to define this magical situation. Text constructed history. History is about rationality. Rationality made us to live outside magic. Now men became separated from nature. They stepped out and began to ‘ex-ist.’ Human rationality created technology and technology built civilization. We enjoy material affluence of modern civilization, but we are not happier than ancient men. This is because we live by description, not by poetry. Human history has moved away from poetry in pursuit of more sophisticated narrative. Human history resembles the story of soap that wears down once it is unsealed. It is a story that begins with a living sensation but ends up in an absurd nonsense.

 

Yu sends a letter to all of us. He says, "some people say that talking about poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. Still, we should continue to talk about it. The essence of human nature resides in poetry.” His iPhone drawing series Pitch Black (2018) have a similar resonance. Smartphones, the culmination of high technology, have brought about enormous changes in our lives. They gave us more information and expanded our senses. They have become a part of our bodies.  The first encounter with an iPhone was a poetic experience. However, it has now become our daily routine. We suffer when we cannot use it.  We can hardly stand its absence, even for a few days. This is because it has become another reality that is more real than the world. Not just an individual, but the whole society is dependent on it. The surface of an iPhone is merely a mirror when the screen is off. Nevertheless, we are affected by it, always relying on it.

 

There is no unchangeable self. We just believe there is a self that is seemingly constant. Things change constantly. Everything is relative and interdependent. We can never reach the reality itself. Poetic language has been the only means for us to communicate with the world and others. The artist leaves the most primitive drawing on his iPhone – his own fingerprints. A fingerprint is a symbol of authenticity that cannot be found in technology and capital. The artist says “human nature can be neither defined nor fully described. What we can do is to keep making poetry.”