A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
Gabriel Ritter / Curatorial Assistant, MOCA

The Korean painter Yoo Seung-Ho is best known for his series of works titled echowords in which he appropriates Chinese mountain-and-water landscape paintings from the Northern Song Dynasty (960 – 1127 AD). In these large-scale, ink on paper drawings, Yoo transcribes famous masterpieces by court painters such as Guo Xi and Fan Kuan, among others. Through an intricate and time consuming process, Yoo builds up the image by repeatedly writing childish phrases and onomatopoeias in the Korean alphabet, Hangeul. These countless characters form dispersed areas of light and dark that create vague contours which resemble well-known landscape paintings when viewed from afar, but read as scattered text when viewed up close.

At first glance, the dualities present in Yoo’s work—Chinese and Korean elements, past and present, image and text—seem to exist harmoniously, but upon further inspection, one begins to sense a profound conflict between the original work and Yoo’s interpretation. There is a fundamental culture clash that exists between the message inherent in the landscape painting tradition of Song China, which embodies lofty Taoist and Confucian values, and the ironic, playful Korean texts Yoo employs as his medium. This process of superimposing Hangeul on traditional landscape paintings relocates these older works in a contemporary context which strips them of their original meaning while simultaneously breathing new life into a dated tradition through the use of “humorous, and frivolous words that children often use.” It is this sense of play that drives Yoo Seung-Ho’s practice and carries over into his most recent work where the artist reaches a new level of clarity.

This conflict with the tradition of monumental landscape painting can best be seen in the work Push, and Let Go Here executed in 2003. The large pen on paper work depicts a billowing mountain side covered with gnarled trees that gradually becomes more diffuse toward the paper’s edge. As with all of Yoo’s landscape appropriations, this image is not made up of brush strokes, but instead is an accumulation of the Hangeul characters that make up Push, and Let Go Here’s Korean title, 힘줘, 여기는 힘빼고 (Himjuoh, yeokinun himppaego). Unlike other paintings that are titled after onomatopoeias (i.e. Joorooroorook, 2000 – sound of falling rain, or Shooooo…, 2004 – sound of rocket blasting off) that directly reference formal qualities of the image, the phrase Push, and Let Go Here does not appear to have any immediate relationship to the landscape it portrays. This disconnect between the title/text and the visual image is one of several devices engineered to both relocate the painting in a contemporary context, and highlight the source image’s lack of meaning in this new context.

In order to better understand how Yoo achieves this disconnect, one must first be familiar with the source image, its accompanying system of cultural and religious symbolism, and how these characteristics are manipulated by the artist.

Yoo’s work Push, and Let Go Here, is derived from the influential Song dynasty court painter Guo Xi’s well-known landscape painting, Early Spring, ca. 1072. Originally executed in ink on a silk hanging scroll, Xi’s work depicts a monumental landscape of mist covered mountains that soar above deep valleys lined with rivers, lakes, and trees. The entire work is executed in dramatic contrasts of light and dark that create a powerful sense of depth and atmospheric conditions. Emphasizing the grandiose nature of the landscape, Guo Xi makes a point of including several small figures in the lower portion of the composition, as well as a grouping of buildings nestled in the mountain side to establish a sense of scale.

For landscape painters such as Guo Xi, this level of detail was intended to transport the viewer into the natural environment so that the landscapes “exist as if they were real and not painted.” Landscapes were to be created and experienced with a sense of reverence for nature’s “divine beauty” and correct painting technique was prized for its ability to express the “inmost thoughts of men’s souls.” These noble sentiments were further bolstered by a complex sign system of Taoist and Confucian symbols embedded into the tradition of Chinese landscape painting. For example, the Taoist belief in the duality of yin and yang as agents of creation, and their opposing yet complementary forces that exist within the natural world would have figured heavily into the thinking and worldview of artists such as Guo Xi. Yin is the female power and is represented in the landscape painting tradition symbolically through the “low and quiet valleys, and in the fluid receptivity of water.” Yang, on the other hand, is the male counterpart and is found in the “bold assertive mountains and in the hardness of stone.” Even the visual contrasts of light and dark found in the dramatic contours of Chinese ink painting can be understood as a symbolic interplay of yin and yang forces. These two elements, along with Tao, the guiding principle of change in the natural world, formed a philosophical and religious sense of harmony that was not lost on the landscape painters of the Song Dynasty.

Equally important, was the Confucian belief of a cosmic order shared between mankind, nature, and heaven. In this cycle, the three components were expected to fulfill their purpose in order to remain in harmony with one another. For this reason, people were expected to engage in tasks suited to humankind, such as work, meditation, travel, living, etc. lest they upset the balance with heaven. It is with this mindset that Chinese landscape painters depicted figures within the landscape, dwarfed by the majesty of nature and the heavens, but more importantly, involved in proper human conduct.

Returning to Yoo Seung-Ho’s appropriation of Guo Xi’s painting, Early Spring, we see that Yoo has chosen to recreate only a small fraction of the overall source painting. The work Push, and Let Go Here depicts a small grouping of tree-covered mountains found in the upper-left corner of the original landscape. All traces of the flowing rivers and deep valleys contained in the lower half of Xi’s original work have been removed, along with any references to boats and figures found within the original. By removing these symbolic elements from the landscape, Yoo has essentially stripped the original painting of its intended meaning. Although similar in appearance to Xi’s painting, Yoo’s work no longer carries the weighty religious and philosophical undertones found in the original. For Yoo, this break with tradition mirrors the outdated nature of the mountain-and-water painting traditional itself. According to the artist, “the general image of traditional mountain-and-water landscapes in Eastern painting evokes the intellect, nobleness, refinement, gentlemanly virtues, and loftiness, but for me…these landscapes simply give rise to the dull feeling of seeing some very old, famous paintings.” This “dull feeling” that Yoo describes is essentially the artist’s reaction to the inability of traditional landscape painting to connect, both physically and mentally, with the contemporary landscape. The thoughts and feelings expressed through painting by Guo Xi and his contemporaries, in response to their physical surroundings, have little in common with the urban landscape of modern-day Korea. As Yoo asserts, “those old traditional paintings are very grandiose. But when we look at our landscape today, it’s full of architectural structures so we can’t really feel a familiarity with those old landscapes.” This fundamental disconnect between past and present, original and copy, is made all the more apparent through Yoo’s use of the Hangeul alphabet to deconstruct his original source material.

As previously discussed, Yoo Seung-Ho utilizes the Hangeul alphabet to recreate Chinese landscape paintings in a process the artist refers to as echowords. According to Yoo, this term can be defined as “words that mimic,” and serves to highlight the image/text relationship present within the work. In many instances, this statement holds true, but as the curator Jyeong-Yeon Kim accurately points out, this relationship has nothing to do with Yoo’s source material, the Chinese landscape. In fact, there is more evidence that Yoo’s use of Hangeul in his echowords-type works plays a large part in deconstructing the image and meaning associated with the original than it does with establishing any concrete relationship between the two. The most obvious example of this is found in the titles Yoo assigns to his works such as: Push, and Let Go Here, 2003; Yong Yong - Betcha Can’t Stand it , 1999; Oh so scared, 2001-2002, and DADA, 2005, which all have no visible link to the source images they depict. This technique of seemingly arbitrary naming of works serves the dual purpose of emphasizing the temporal and philosophical disconnect between the original and Yoo’s copy, while simultaneously re-contextualizing traditional Chinese landscapes in an ironic and humorous context. Yoo’s use of humor to “chase away” the heavy meanings associated with his source material can be viewed as a uniquely contemporary process when viewed as a postmodern reassessment of the past through irony. At the same time, this irony is rooted in a specifically Korean cultural context as evidenced through Yoo’s almost exclusive use of Hangeul.

On a purely visual level, Yoo’s echowords break up the brush strokes of the original painting by blurring the contours of the ink painting, at times, to the brink of abstraction. This technique functions as yet another break with tradition in its ability to dissolve the original artist’s brushstrokes which, like calligraphy, were thought to “reflect the character of the maker.” In this way, Yoo obscures not only the artist’s original intentions, but any claim to authorship they may have had. Ultimately, the use of Korean characters to diffuse the contours of the source image transforms Yoo’s work from landscape paintings into word-based compositions. These works are no longer landscapes, and this transformation is made tangible to the viewer based on their physical distance from the painting’s surface. This transformation from image to text is also a temporal relocation of the viewer that moves from a representation of the past (that of mountain-and-water landscapes) to the realization of the present (through ironic text scrawled in Hangeul). For Yoo, this relocation/transformation process is meant to be less of an epiphany for the viewer, than a joke that is played on the viewer. Ultimately, it is this sense of play, be it the formal manipulation of the source image or the literary word games that toy with the viewer, that Yoo is after in much of his work.

This playfulness finds a new outlet in Yoo’s most recent works exhibited at the One and J. Gallery, in Seoul last winter. In his exhibition simply titled Echowords, Yoo begins a gradual shift away from his hallmark Chinese landscapes with several new and impressive works. The most ambitious of these new paintings is a large, multicolored work on MDF which shares its title with that of the exhibition. Echowords, 2005 presents a noticeable departure from Yoo’s landscape appropriations. The work consists of a large, crudely rendered tiger surrounded by a small army of stick figures riding a colorful array of stylized clouds. The tiger appears to be charging toward a seated figure whose hands are clasped together in prayer. Noticeably frightened, the figure is pictured with tears coming from his eyes and a comic book-style speech bubble coming from his mouth. Given the situation, one would think the figure would be praying for his life, but as with most of Yoo Seung-Ho’s work, not all is what it appears to be. Upon closer inspection, the viewer can read that the speech bubble is filled with the Hangeul character yoo (유), which is also the artist’s family name. In fact, the entire composition, tiger, clouds, and all, is created through the countless repetition of this single character. Playing off his last name’s visual resemblance to a stick figure, Yoo not only utilizes the character “유” as the building block for this work, but also populates this fantasy world with miniature “yoos” that are shown riding and repelling down from clouds to attack the oversized beast.

Although this work appears to come straight out of the artist’s imagination, according to the artist, the two dimensional image of the tiger is taken from one of the many ancient wall murals of the Goguryeo Tomb complexes located in North Korea. Dating back to Chinese antiquity, the white tiger is one of the “four spirits” that corresponds to the four directions—west in the case of the tiger—and was thought to provide protection. By incorporating well-known historical imagery, such as the Goguryeo White Tiger, Yoo continues the precedent established earlier in his work. However, unlike his previous landscape appropriations, which utilized childish humor to deconstruct the past, here Yoo’s playfulness materializes through an infantile style and fanciful subject matter. The loose, overlapping quality of line that pervades this work simultaneously signals a newfound freedom for Yoo, both stylistically and content-wise, while also referencing back to Yoo’s student work where contours were built up through the use of overlapping marks done in charcoal and pencil. The abstract composition Slowly Flowing, 1998 also seems to foreshadow Echowords, 2005 in its use of Hangeul characters to create fluid lines that resemble meandering doodles. In this way, Yoo’s latest version of echowords shares much with his past while paving the way for a newfound freedom of expression.

Another notable work featured in Yoo’s latest exhibition is the text-based work, I go, 2005. This visually straightforward work depicts the English words “I go” in a dark, handwritten script at the top of a plain white canvas. From a distance, these letters appear to be slowly disintegrating into a shower of minute specs that rain down into empty space. As is required of all Yoo’s echowords works, a closer inspection reveals that this shower is actually thousands of Hangeul characters that spell out the Korean word “aigo” (아이고), meaning “Oh my!” This simple visual pun of equating the English words “I go” with the Korean statement “aigo” presents the viewer with a clear and concise example of the visual and literary games Yoo plays out on a much grander scale in his earlier landscape appropriation pieces. The disconnect present in many of the artist’s past works also appears here in a simplified, linguistic form through the inherent gap present in the one to one transliteration process from roman letters to Hangeul. Although the English letters read “i, g, o,” the corresponding Hanguel that Yoo assigns to each roman letter is actually pronounced “a (아), i (이), go (고).” In this way, the work I go, 2005 neatly encapsulates the essential elements of Yoo’s artistic practice—play and disconnect—while reducing the work down to its purest form yet.

In the span of just under a decade, Yoo Seung-Ho’s work has evolved dramatically from his charcoal and pencil portraits to fully formed ink paintings based on masterpieces of Chinese landscape painting. As an essential part of his evolution, Yoo has thoroughly deconstructed the Eastern landscape painting tradition through his own form of childish play. The artist’s unique use of the Korean alphabet and humorous phrases and titles has cast these well-known works of the past in an ironic light that reflects his contemporary mind-set, while obscuring the intentions of the original artists. In his most recent works, the artist has shifted away from the tradition of mountain-and-water ink painting to explore new subject matter that is more in line with his personal tastes. This includes works such as Echowords, 2005, that clearly show the artist reaching beyond the narrow cultural and historical scope of his source imagery by incorporating humorous elements from his own imagination that are not tied to the original work. No longer limited by the traditions of the past, Yoo is able to delve into new and exciting territory, utilizing the past as a springboard into his own imagination.