Korean Yodelling
Claire Roberts / Curator, Asian Decorative Arts and Design, at the Powerhouse Museum
The 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 2006

Yoo Seong-ho is best known for hie word-pictures, For a contemporary artist, his landscape works - one form that the word-picture take - look anachronistic. At first glance, they appear to be a homage to a glorious, much earlier age of chinese landscape painting. beneath their apparently conservative visage, however lies a playful and mildly irreverent attitude that is revealing of the artist's background and age, Yoo was born in 1973 and studied Western painting at Hansung University in Seoul. Since graduating in 1999, his work has been included in the Gwangju Biennale 2002 and numerous exhibitions in Asia North America and Europe.

When examined at close range, Yoo's landscape pictures are found to be composed of thousands of tiny korean words or Hangul characters. The words are written rather than painted. they are selected for the sound they create when spoken out loud. They are onomatopoeic and generally funny. In some cases Yoo copies a detail from a famous Chinese painting or reworks elements from that painting, actively angaging with feelings of nostalgia and familiarity. Words are empolyed in the manner of a dot-screen, abstracting form and translating the painting into a language of the present. The work is slow, virtuosic and obsessive, reqeiring the painstaking repetition of the word or word phrase until the image approximates the outward appearance of the original.

In a series of works titled 'Yodeleheeyoo!' which draw on chinese Northern song dynasty (960-1127 CE) landscape painting - the Hangul word ya-ho is written out over and over again. Words are grouped tightly together in some areas to create a density of form, and sparsely in others to create the impression of a graded wash or a transition to an area of void. 'Yodeleheeyoo' is the song-like sound of Tirolean mountaineers, and ya-ho is the sound koreans make when yodelling in the mountains Yoo describes ya-ho as an ehco word, one that reflects what he felt when looking at the original chinese landscape painting. It is a word that activated his imagination, The title 'Yodeleheeyoo!' creates a bemused response in the viewer, who is encouraged to assume the role of a time-traveller, reclaiming and reconstituting the past.

Yoo writes his art works with a Rotring pen and ink, not brush and ink. He uess Korean mulberry paper called hanji, which he then mounts onto wooden boards for display. His tools combine those of a contemporary draftsman or cartoonist and a traditional painter. While Yoo employs calligraphy he denies its scholarly heritage. He also turns his back on the arcane Chinese tradition of textural brush strokes - a highly codified language in itself - that has historically been used to emulate nature and convey a particular artist's style. chinese characters have long been used in inscriptions on traditional chinese and korean paintings and, when written by a skilled hand in brush and ink, are said to carry within them the spirit of the artist. Instead, Yoo uses Korean script known as Hangul, a phonemic writing system with an alphabet comprising letters, consonants and vowels. It was developed in the fifteenth century to create a national language that wad distinct from Chinese Today, Hangul is the script of everyday life in korea and the writing system that Yoo grew up with. While Yoo's Rotring-brawn Hangul characters lack the modulation and lyricism of Chinese brush and ink calligraphy, they are not weighed down with serious and lofty emotion. Instead Yoo's words are employed to perform a more analytical function. Disengaged from their subject, they are set free to engender feelings of humour and absurdity.

Despite their seductive and familiar appearance Yoo's word-pictures or 'character-figurations' remain curious texts. viewers have no choice but to participate in a disorienting interactive experience involving image, word and sound. Yoo's word-pictures resonate with the early-twentieth-century French poet Guillaume Apollinaire's calligrams; the ecriture works of Korean artist Park Seo-bo (b.1931); and Lee Ufan's calligraphic 'with winds' series, which reverberate with sound and movement. they may also be regarded as a reaction to the character abstractions of Korean modernist artists Nam Kwan (1911-90) and Lee Ung-no (1904-89) - artists who employed elegant and spare forms derived from Hangul script in the creation of an abstract art.2 they can also be considered in relation to the large and symbolic illustrated Chinese characters found in Korean folk art known as min-hwa. Decorative folk paintings which date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were freely brushed onto walls or onto multi-fold screens. In some of these paintings, vignettes of elegant lives, as well as symbolic motifs and auspicious emblems are contained within the outlines of large Chinese characters. These are intended to impress upon the viewer sentiments such as filial oiety, loyalty, devotion or longevity.3 These paintings draw on Chinese calligraphic and visual traditions, as well as wordplay and are paintings within words. What Yoo creates is very different, but perhaps not entirely unrelated. Yoo employs words within his paintings - Korean words, with global references and applications that do not require such intensive decoding. In doing so, he creates a form of conceptual art that plays with and subverts the idea of Chinese landscape paintings, which is widely regarded as the ultimate expression of east Asian art.

Yoo combines elements of the past and the present in a quietly confrontational manner. His word-pictures refer to the cultural and artistic baggage that many artists from east Asia carry around with them and find hard to shake off. At the same time, he denies specific cultural and artistic references by introducing words and sounds tat are familiar to all people. By employing transnational elements in his picture, Yoo forges a new artistic language that places the past firmly in the service of the present. Yoo that are suffused with a breath-like insubstantiality that is fragile and appears on the verge of disintegration. Drawing on faculties of sight, hearing, imagination and humour, he reconstitutes works of art in his own image.