The Vital Nature of Subi/Levigation, Treasure of Yongsun Jang


Paik Gon (aesthetics, public art curator for Seoul Metropolitan Government)




Treasure 37°32'33.504"N 126°56'6604"E.

This is the title of a piece by artist Jang Yongsun. The longitude and latitude in the title are the coordinates for the neighborhood where the artist lived from birth to adulthood, Yonggang-dong, in Seoul’s Mapo-gu district. This ‘Yonggang-dong Treasure' piece involves a representation of the topography of Yonggang-dong using fine earth on the gallery floor. Hanging in the air above this are about twenty round forms made from green foxtail. The natural light coming in through the front windows mixes light and shadow with the topographic mounds on the floor and the forms hanging from the ceiling. When the sunlight passes over the soil of the Yonggang-dong terrain, the darkness erases all the light. At that moment, the viewer’s attention is slowly drawn to the fine light within the spherical foxtail artworks hanging in the air, previously unnoticed owing to the natural sunlight in the room. As light shines on the objects, while darkness simultaneously encroaches upon them, Jang's “Treasure Yonggang-dong” exists on the very edge of the boundary between light and shadow that emanate from within the artwork. In the overlapping margins of their boundaries, Jang wants to talk about 'life', a word that encompasses both the concepts of creation and destruction represented by light and shadow. ‘Life’ and ‘Treasure Yonggang-dong’. 'LIFE!’ how can we find this high-flown and originary concept in 'Treasure Yonggang-dong’? Does this ‘life-ness', let me call it ‘vital nature’, refer to the cosmic essence that Jang has tried to reveal through his organic and geometric metalwork forms? Or is it a new ecological approach to finding artistic potential in natural materials? Before asking such questions, let us remove any preconceptions about his works and move away from the formal standards of sculpture, installation art, and ecological art, and listen to what Jang is trying to say through his artworks. Whether making formative sculpture from pieces of stainless steel pipe or presenting installations made out of discarded green foxtail, Jang has defined the origin of his artwork as ‘vital nature’, something he has been studying for a long time in order to address it. This 'life' concept is something we must look into carefully. While his early work was a metaphysical and ideological study of the standards and values of what we know as ‘life’, in his more recent work since 2014, he is seeking to find it within our society and real life. ‘Treasure 37°32'33.504"N 126°56'6604"E’ is a piece that aptly shows his changed artistic thought about life.


1. A new proposal through subi/levigation


In pottery making, terms like sifting, sieving, washing, elutriation, and levigation all refer to methods of purifying clay by sedimentation. In Korean pottery making, such a process is called subi (水飛). Fine usable clay is made by placing leftover clay in water and removing impurities. To allow clay to be reused, the subi process purifies clay by repeatedly immersing it in water and straining out the coarser particles with a screen or sieve. The fine clay powder that Jang uses to reproduce the topography of Yonggang-dong is such clay obtained through the subi process. Through the process of subi, which involves doing some hard work to salvage discarded clay, he was able to get a little closer to the source of the 'life' which he sought. The topography of Yonggang-dong made of purified, filtered clay makes us think about it not simply as a set of geographic coordinates, but as a city of concrete constantly being built up and then discarded according to capitalist values and standards. In other words, the places where we live. Not only in Yonggang-dong, but throughout society as a whole and in our individual lives, there is a history of countless eliminations carried out in the name of usability and its economic value, and numerous inhuman and ahistorical acts performed as mechanisms of development for the future. Through this Yonggang-dong created from purified and filtered clay, the artist seeks to once again recover the memory of local life. Here, the concept of recovery or retrieval touches on the question of how the powers-that-be arrived at the criteria for removing and restructuring nature for humans. Of course, the question is not posed to find an answer, but to recognize it and reflect on it. Therefore, in his work, the purified and filtered clay symbolizes a kind of 'cleansing water of purification' that filters out the impurities of capitalistic values and standards. The idea of this cleansing began with the round forms made of foxtail suspended in the air from wires attached to the ceiling. These rounded forms of grass provide a clue to the concept of 'life' which he is constantly seeking through his work. When he witnessed herbicidal spraying to remove roadside foliage as part of an urban renewal project in 2014, the artist realized that to continue his search for the ‘source of life’, he had to look not within the concept, but outside, that is, in life. With the idea that the piled-up mounds of dead removed grasses were the graves of a city armed with a logic of development, the artist collected all the discarded grass and weeds and thought deeply about to how to reuse them. While watching the process of the discarded grass decaying, he became interested in various seeds, which do not decay, and in green foxtail, a wild grass which stays intact even as it dries out. As something that does not decompose, foxtail is endowed with perpetuality. From that point on, he began to use foxtail, which contains the seeds of life inside it, as a key material for his work. Like the clay purified through subi, the foxtail became a significant artistic material for him, one with which he could address questions about the purification of removal and dissolution, and about the perceptions and values of us humans with regard to nature and life.


2. Latent natural monuments that treasure light


Light is the very thing that illuminates the purified clay and the foxtail in 'Treasure Yonggang-dong', a work that poses questions about 'life' and calls for cleansing of perceptions. The light, including both natural sunlight as well as light emanating from inside of the artworks, reveals the existence of the mounds of earth, alternately hiding them in the darkness, sometimes revealing the rounded forms fashioned from foxtail. In order to reveal the concept of 'life' as his artistic source, Jang has been endlessly studying 'light'. 'Light' was a very important theme in his previous artwork, primarily metalwork. He searched for the origin of life in ‘Luminescent in Darkness’; in ‘Super Nova’, he tried to express the meaning of disappearance and new life through an exploding star. Two of his series, ‘Particle’ and ‘Darkmatter’, also stemmed from his deep thought about light. His work in fact was mainly focused on artistic experiments with this light. While working with metal, he underwent a long struggle to express it. He tried to directly express the concept of light though the properties of metal, for example, by expressing light shimmering in the interior of stainless steel pipes, or surface light treatment effects. He also worked with the distinct colors from gas when doing argon welding, or the effects of burning or scorching metal. Of course, being immersed in the visual effects of light through metal, a material which required an emphasis on form, the work’s concept and form seem somewhat contradictory. However, whether in form or metaphysical concept, all of his works are imbued with his philosophy about ‘life’ and ‘light’. ‘Particle’ addresses the original form of objects that glitter when receiving light, and ‘Darkmatter’ looks at the seeds that may be invisible but which make the universe exist. As such, Jang’s works, expressed in the topography of Yonggang-dong through the purified clay and the seeds of the discarded grasses, show a strong contrast between life and death, and light and darkness.


Believing that the foxtail and nameless grasses discarded as waste according to society’s values and standards will at some point be in danger of disappearing, Jang views them as 'latent natural monuments'. He has also designated as ‘Treasures’—natural monuments that are in danger of disappearing—all things in the world that have lost their usefulness and are thrown away. Thus, ‘Treasure 37°32'33.504"N 126°56'6604"E’ ('Treasure Yonggang-dong'), a sort of preserved copy of a natural monument that has already disappeared, is a piece that attempts to reveal the truths that are hidden by nature and cities, and by society’s standards; it is his artistic proposition that we look at these truths through the eyes of self-reflection and purification. If trifling stuff and discarded things are defined as treasure, how indeed will we embrace this? Of course, this land and nature will be expropriated as useful targets of investment, according to the values and standards of capitalism. The artist holds that this framework of values and thought should be reconsidered, as in the filtering processes of subi or levigation. For the artist, who has been seeking 'the source of life' through 'subi’, his performative actions have encompassed everything from the continuous refinement of metals through a series of polishing and abrading processes, to archaeological squatting to find the seeds of life in folded and broken grasses, to an alchemist-like act of artistic purging to render people’s rigid thought once again flexible. He is currently working on using the subi (levigation) purification process to transform and reuse the discarded bones of animals consumed by humans. He plans to use them as material for his work in a process just like making porcelain, by firing the bones in a kiln and studying the resulting particles, brittleness, and color. According to his argument, many or all of the things that are used and discarded in capitalist societies are potentially natural monuments. Of course, humans might also belong to this category. Even today, myriad latent natural monuments are being deprived of their lives. Artist Jang Yongsun is earnestly posing questions about the value and dignity of these latent natural monuments whose advent lies ahead, now existing in the present in the form of purified subi-processed clay and foxtail.