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18 Jan 2011

Five Looking West – Yesterday I submitted my column for the next issue of Koreana. I seem to be something of a rotating columnist—usually I handle the “Living” column, but I’ve also written special features, and this time around I wrote the “Discovering Korea” column. Truth be told, I didn’t actually write most of what will appear in the column. In fact, most of the column consists of an interview with an artist named Lois Lancaster, a member of the Five Looking West Artist Consortium and curator of an exhibit that is taking place right now at the Korea Foundation Cultural Center in downtown Seoul. The exhibit features the work of five artists based in northern California whose work has been influenced by Korea; art forms range from ceramics, sculpture, photography, drawings, and paper art. (If you are in or near Seoul, the exhibit will be continuing through this coming Saturday—I would highly recommend it if you have some time to spare. You can find more information about the exhibit on the KFCC Website.)

“If you’re in Seoul I would highly recommend stopping by.”

Unfortunately, Mrs. Lancaster was injured in a fall shortly before she was supposed to come to Korea, and she was unable to make the trip. Our interview was to take place by email, and despite a broken arm, she graciously answered not only my original questions but also an even greater number of follow-up questions. All told I ended up with over 150% of my limit for the column with the raw interview alone, which necessitated some rather painful cutting of certain questions entirely and parts of others. In the end, though, even though I probably could have written a column twice as long and just barely covered everything, I was happy with what I ended up with and think I managed to capture the spirit of Mrs. Lancaster’s art and interest in Korea.

Since the exhibit opened last Friday, I thought it would be a good idea to see it for myself before finishing the column. Hyunjin and I went late Saturday morning, taking the subway to the City Hall station and walking through the bitter, bitter cold to the Joongang Ilbo building (the Cultural Center is located on the first basement floor of the building). There we met Linus Lancaster, Lois Lancaster’s son and another member of the consortium. He was working with some photographs on his laptop near the entrance to the gallery, and he stood up to greet us when we approached. I had already communicated with him via email—at Mrs. Lancaster’s suggestion, I emailed the other artists in the consortium for brief statements on their art—so when I introduced myself he knew who I was.

There was no one else in the gallery when we arrived, and Linus said that there hadn’t been many visitors so far that day. This was our good fortune, though, as Linus was kind enough to give us a guided tour through the exhibit. He showed us not only his own works, but also talked at length about the works of the other artists. For example, he told us how the beautiful colors and patterns on the pottery vessels were not the product of separate coloring or glazing, but the result of the unpredictable interior of a traditional Korean-style wood-fired kiln. He shared so much fascinating information with us that I could not help lamenting the limitations on my column—I could have easily written another column just on what I learned from him. As we neared the end of our time, I realized that there was nothing stopping me from doing just that, or at least the next best thing-writing an entry here at Liminality (which, incidentally, has ended up being longer than my column in Koreana will be). The rest of today’s entry will be just a sampling of the things I learned from him—and if it encourages any Seoul-based readers to visit the exhibit while they have the chance, all the better.

In addition to all the information he shared about the art works and how they were created, he told us a number of interesting “behind the scenes” stories as well. One that sticks in my mind concerns a pottery tea vessel with an interesting shape—one side is slightly indented and has a rough surface. There is no explanation, just a card saying, “Tea Bowl 1 – Chawan.” Linus explained, however, that the vessel, crafted by fellow Five Looking West artist Chris Sarley, had been sitting on an upper shelf in a kiln and somehow fallen off the shelf during firing. It had fallen into a slightly larger vessel just beneath the shelf and the two had fused together. It took hour upon hour of work to separate the two vessels, and each bears the mark of the other. What I found most interesting about the story, though, is how the incident was seen as just another example of the unpredictable process of firing, and the finished product was put on display in the exhibit. Being the perfectionist that I am, I would probably have a hard time putting such a vessel on display; I think there is a valuable lesson to be learned from that pot and its maker.

Linus of course spent some time talking about his own works as well, as these were the ones he knew best. In the rear corner of the exhibit—but visible and quite noticeable as soon as you enter the gallery—is a guardian figure. Linus told me about how he had first seen changseung (guardian spirit poles that traditionally stand at the entrance of a village) in Seoul and became fascinated with them. He knew that they were originally erected elsewhere and were later moved to the location in Seoul, and he couldn’t help wondering if the spirit was attached to the original location or if it could somehow travel around with the changseung. With this in mind, he began creating guardian figures of his own, and he deliberately built them in pieces so that they could be transported around the world. The figure on display in the Five Looking West exhibit has already been sold to an organization in Korea, and so will have a new home here once the exhibit ends.

Also along the back wall is another interesting exhibit entitled “Listening to Materialities.” I fear that I will not be able to do this justice, but I will do my best to relate what was explained to me. It starts with the concept of communicating with “more-than-human” objects (Linus specifically avoided the word “non-human”) prevalent in animistic cultures. For example, some people believe that you can talk to rocks. This, of course, sounds ridiculous to someone who has been raised in a modern, industrialized society. But there is some form of interaction between person and rock. Linus picked up a small rock that was part of the exhibit. “When you hold this rock in your hand, your hand becomes cooler and you impart some of your warmth to the rock.” It may not literally be “talking” with words, but if we change our perspective a bit this interaction can be seen as a form of communication.

The exhibit itself consisted primarily of two large rocks, one with a pair of headphones plugged into it and the other with a stethoscope attached to it. The text posted on the wall behind it read: “Don headphones or stethoscope and hold your hand against the rock. Let your mind go quiet and listen deeply. The sound of your own pulse in your ears is no coincidence. Rock is the parent material of Soil, which is our physical origin and destination. It is alive and conscious. The notion of a communication process with ‘inert’ material objects sounds silly to many people in industrialized countries, but it is taken for granted in many other cultures around the world. Understanding what would be involved in a communication process with more-than-human Materialities from within a ‘scientific’/logo-centric mind-set means broadening one’s understanding of ‘communication’ and ‘consciousness’ itself.”

Hyunjin and I did what the instructions said; I donned the headphones and she used the stethoscope. I put my hand on the rock and closed my eyes. For a moment I heard nothing, then I began to hear the whooshing sound of the blood pulsing through my body. I was a bit surprised (despite what the text had said!), and I involuntarily pulled my hand away from the rock. Silence again. The rock was picking up the sound of my body and I was listening to that as it was transmitted through the rock. Communication. I’m not sure exactly what was being said; perhaps I was having a conversation with myself through the medium of the rock.

Soil plays an important role in a lot of Linus’s art (and study—a little more on that later), and was a key element in the next work he showed us. It is an illustration entitled Living with Jung Kwang. I did not place the name at first, but after Linus explained more about this person I remembered having heard about him. Jung Kwang was a Buddhist monk who, when he reached enlightenment, realized that all the trappings of society and religion, all the rules that we impose on ourselves, were meaningless. He developed what he called the “Dharma of Unlimited Action,” which refers to the freedom to do anything and everything. And Jung Kwang did just about anything and everything: drinking, smoking, and having sex with anything that stayed still long enough. He was excommunicated for this and caused quite a stir in Korea.

Well, it so happens that when Linus was a teenager, Jung Kwang came to live with his family for a short time, sleeping under their piano for a couple of months. Although this was not mentioned on the description accompanying the illustration, Linus says that Jung Kwang was an ideal ally for a teenager—whenever his parents told him that he couldn’t do anything, Jung Kwang would say, “Oh, don’t worry, you can do what you want.” The illustration (and the pile of used cigarettes on the floor beneath it) capture the spirit of Jung Kwang and Linus’s experience with him. The piano is, of course, a reference to Jung Kwang’s temporary abode. The mop is a reference to Jung Kwang’s idea that those whose task it was to clean up the world naturally got dirty in the process. And the chicken brings to mind paintings that Jung Kwang used to do of chickens, always with red-tipped penises—Linus says he wasn’t sure how a red-tipped penis would go over here, so he draw a red-tipped cigarette instead. (Hyunjin later told me that, in one of his books, Jung Kwang said his first sexual conquest after his enlightenment was a chicken, so... that may have something to do with it as well.)

The soil I mentioned before can be seen in the dark outline around the chicken—that is soil that has been smeared on the canvas. It’s not just any soil, though, it’s actually Korean soil. When Linus first got the idea, he called up the Korean consulate. It just so happened that they had Korean soil that had been brought over from Korea in a diplomatic pouch to be used at a Korean War memorial, and they agreed to let him have some. There is even a photograph of the handover, a “certificate of authentication” (that Linus drew up and the consulate signed), and a bag with the original soil on the wall next to this illustration. Linus told us that one of the things he planned to do was return some of this soil to the residence of the Prime Minister, from where it was originally taken.

Linus took us on a pretty complete tour of the exhibit—this is just a sample of what he shared with us. After the tour we spent some time looking around on our own and taking pictures. By the time we decided to leave it was one o’clock, and we asked Linus if he would like to join us for lunch. The original samgyetang (chicken ginseng soup) restaurant happens to be located more or less right across the street from the Joongang Ilbo building, so we decided to go there. The hot soup was just the thing for the bitter cold weather, although the place was a bit drafty and we accidentally sat in front of a door we hadn’t noticed.

Over lunch, we talked about our respective dissertations. It’s not often that I go into detail about my dissertation with people outside my major. I guess you could say that I’ve developed something of a phobia about it, because I’ve had people ask me in the past what I was writing my dissertation on, and when I started talking about the Korean trickster their eyes would slowly glaze over. I quickly realized that most people don’t really want to know what you are writing your dissertation on, they’re just making conversation. So I became a little gun-shy, and even when I suspect that the person might really be interested in the subject, when someone asks me about my dissertation, I generally answer: “You don’t really want to know.” If they press me I will tell them that it is a study of the Korean trickster figure, and I will stop at that. Usually that’s enough.

I guess I felt more comfortable talking to Linus about it because he had talked some about his own research during our tour of the gallery. He also laughed when I told him my usual response to people asking about my dissertation, and he said he could relate. When people ask him that same question and he answers, “Dirt,” they are usually at a loss for words. I have to admit that Dirt beats Trickster any day when it comes to obscure dissertation topics.

I would share more about Linus’s research, but I don’t know if I could do it justice with my limited knowledge. I think it would be safe to say, though, that he is looking at soil not as simply dirt but as a living thing—and indeed it is, filled with various organisms and organic materials. Strangely enough (it might seem to a casual observer), a lot of what he talked about seemed to mesh pretty seamlessly with some of my ideas about the trickster, and he had a lot to say specifically about the trickster figure as well. It was a great opportunity for me to get outside of my own head for a little while. By that I mean: when you’re writing a dissertation (or any long work), there is a tendency to become very isolated. The less contact you have with the outside world, the more muddled things become. I have found myself sitting here at my desk and wondering what exactly it is that I am trying to accomplish, and why. After all, what’s the point? After over a decade of studying the trickster, I am sometimes tempted to think that I have nothing new to contribute to the field, that everything I’ve been studying is just the academic equivalent of running around in circles.

So it was great to have the opportunity to talk with someone who not only knows the trickster figure but understands what I’m trying to accomplish in my research. It not only allowed me to get outside my own head, it also confirmed/reaffirmed some of the things that I’ve been thinking and gave me a fresh perspective. So I’m happy about and thankful for that.

But that’s more of a personal note for me. As far as the Five Looking West exhibit goes, that will be open through Saturday, as I mentioned above. If you’re in Seoul I would highly recommend stopping by. I think Linus may have already returned to the States by now (he has to get back to his students), but there will be an artist at the exhibit throughout the week. I just wanted to do my part (as small as it may be) in getting the word out there. (Once again, the link: Five Looking West).

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