Not for circulating without the author's permission
Jeong-yun KIM

Seung Ho Yoo has explored images and the effect of ink in traditional painting in the past years. His series of landscape paintings originates from old master’s paintings. Yoo borrows old paintings and then imitates their diverse shades of ink and water that have permeated into the paper.

In the exhibition Yoo’s work, Joo Roo Roo Rook (fig. 15) is representative of his entire oeuvre. At first sight, the work looks similar to traditional landscape painting in which mountains and rivers are depicted in diverse shades of ink. But it is discernable that the image and its accompanying text on the work are slightly blurred. The title of the work, Joo Roo Roo Rook, is an onomatopoeic word that imitates the sound of rain falling, and also a mimetic word for liquid running downward in the Korean language. When viewers read the title, they would come to experience the sound of falling rain in the rainy landscape. This evokes the landscape melting downward as raindrops.

Furthermore, if the viewer takes a closer look at the work, he/she comes to realize that the image is constructed with innumerable tiny letters: 주 (Joo), 루 (Roo) and 룩 (Rook), the three Korea letters for the title Joo Roo Roo Rook. If the viewer does not recognize those tiny letters, the work would remain merely a landscape painting. But once the viewer discerns that the image is not painted but written with thousands of letters, they realize that what they see is not simply a landscape. They come to experience that the landscape is not a landscape anymore. The image becomes flocks of letters floating in an abstract space.

The practice of borrowing an image from the past, and subverting the image with a word and a sound is a main characteristic in Yoo’s work. In terms of the image and the traditional mediums that he uses, his work is located in the traditions of ink painting. He beautifully creates a sense of sublime and small variation in shades of ink and water, but he simultaneously deceives the viewer’s visual perception of the image through breaking apart the image into pieces.

Yoo refers to his works “Echowords,” seemingly fine but merely an imitation or a prank of something else. This mimicry has been a significant concept of Yoo’s work: mimicry of an image, a sound and an original. Since Yoo lost his father at a very young age, the loss of his origin and an origin, in general, has become a crucial element in his work. In an essay, Yoo writes, “For sure, I do probably have a father, but what I do not know is what father is.”[1] The self-question of his unstable and unknown origin appeared in a series of his early self-portraits. The series of Untitled (fig. 16), Yoo reveals the agony of seeking for his roots. Mostly painted with pen, ink, charcoal, or linseed oil, the work evokes a somber atmosphere in dark shades of black –a face roughly sketched in acrylic and charcoal, blank eyes and distorted body and limbs. Yoo, however, concludes that “nothing is absolute, but only an impression.”[2] This sense of instability, the loss of roots, has contributed to Yoo’s strong interest in mimicry.

Imitating traditional ink painting is one form of mimicry used by Yoo. Of the three artists in the exhibition, Yoo is the only artist who studied Western painting techniques in a university in Seoul. However, due to his series of traditional landscape painting, Yoo’s work has been shown and discussed both in the contexts of both traditional and contemporary art in the past few years. In terms of subject matter, subtle landscapes, his work is put into a traditional painting categorization. But, depending on how a viewer sees his work, it can be either a figurative landscape or an abstract drawing. His work cannot be easily defined or located within one specific context, because his painting style is not easily categorized; moreover, it prevents the viewer from trusting in his visual perception.

The beginning of his imitating traditional painting was brought out from his early drawing. Yoo was not interested in traditional painting while he was studying Western painting technique. Working for a while on depicting his body, Yoo found himself most comfortable with drawing. Instead of painting an image with a brush, he preferred drawing lines, dots and small letters with a pen. In the meantime, he also discovered that the image that he had drawn reminded him of traditional ink painting. The outline of his work was formed not with bounded outlines, but with several overlapping lines, smudged and faded. These outlines resulted in blurred images, gradually disappearing; Yoo found a common characteristic that his drawing and ink painting shared.

Becoming interested in the effects of ink on traditional paper and, specifically, the shades that are produced by differing levels of permeation, Yoo began to experiment with the traditional mediums: Chinese ink and Korean paper. Because he was not educated in traditional mediums, he had to find alternative materials that provided a similar effect as ink and water, but the new medium also had to have the ability to draw fine lines and dots like a pen. Yoo chose a special pen that uses Chinese ink. It is the Rotring rapidograph pen, specially invented by a German company for designers, architects and craftsmen who needed to draw very fine lines. The pen satisfied Yoo’s needs, a great tool for drawing fine lines and tiny dots, but also a pertinent medium in order to mimic traditional ink painting.

In 1999, Yoo started directly imitating traditional landscape paintings that were reproduced in manuals for traditional ink painting. He randomly selected and photocopied old masters’ works from books found in libraries.[3] After choosing a work among the photocopies, Yoo sketches with a pencil the image of the photocopy onto a sheet of Korean paper. When the sketch is finished, he starts writing letters that eventually construct an image, with a pen along the sketch lines.

But this process is not exactly a copy of an old painting; instead, Yoo freely manipulates the image and intentionally disconnects the relationship between his work and the original work. Joo Roo Roo Rook (fig. 15) shows a typical composition of traditional landscape painting, describes composition with a short text in the upper right hand corner. But one can only see the traces of the text written in Chinese characters; the text is smudged and unreadable. In traditional painting, a piece of prose or poetry accompanies a painting in order to explain motives or inspirations of the work. Explaining the relationship between the text and the image in Chinese painting, Chiang Yee, a Chinese scholar, indicates that the inscription, “sheds light on an artist’s purpose or basic idea; it helps to remove obstacles between his creative mind and the understanding of the onlooker.”[4] Ancient people believed that the inscription could deliver the exact meaning of the work and prevent misunderstanding. Consequently, these two modes existed in compositional and conceptual conformity and without hierarchy, because calligraphy, the writing of letters, and painting, the act of depicting images were traditionally regarded as one.

The simultaneous painting and writing in Yoo’s work shares a property of traditional painting; a text and an image inseparably coexist. They correlate and support each other’s existence. In Joo Roo Roo Rook, obscuring the original inscription, Yoo interprets an old landscape painting with his own text, an onomatopoeic word that the painting inspires. This onomatopoeic word describes the rainy image, and the image, conversely visualizes the word. Then, he rebuilds the image with words from his own interpretation, with the help of the actual letters of the word. Therefore, those two elements of the work inseparably reference each other.

However, the onomatopoeic word of falling rain does not have any relationship to the original work. From the beginning, the word comes from Yoo’s arbitrary interpretation of the original work. Through creating the image with his own text, Yoo creates a connection between the image and his text and they become inseparable. Disconnecting his work from the original work as well as connecting his text with the image of the original work, Yoo repeatedly confuses interrelations between the image and the text in both the original and his work.

The words that Yoo uses are generally onomatopoeic or mimetic words. While Joo Roo Roo Rook refers to a sound, Balbari (fig. 17) describes a gesture or movement that does not reference sound as strongly as an onomatopoeic word. Balbari depicts a landscape in which there are small cottages surrounded by mountains and sporadic groups of people walking toward the mountain. There are a few people who are just about to cross a bridge, and more are walking on the mountain. It looks as if they are laboriously walking to reach the summit, visualized by their bent backs and staffs. On the top of the mountain, the people are disappearing in the distance, buried in numerous particles that make up the mountain. Then the mountain and dot like figures become indistinguishable from one another.

As in Joo Roo Roo Rook, the landscape in Balbari is constructed with letters. In Balbari, only one letter, 발(bal), is repeatedly written to compose the image.[5] In the Korean language, “balbari” refers to someone who aimlessly wonders about and rashly behaves, or it can also refer to a small dog that always trots around. Thus, when someone or something is called as a “balbari”, it becomes a mimetic word that explains a state in which a person or an animal is rashly wandering about.

The original painting that Yoo appropriated in Balbari is a landscape painting by a Chinese painter, Yu-Chien (mid-13th century). In Yu’s work, title, there are only two people walking toward the cottages in the mountain. While transferring the image of Yu’s work, Yoo inserts more people into his work. Then he recreates the mage with the mimetic word, Balbari, which visualizes people who keep moving. Naming the subtle landscape painting simply as a Balbari, Yoo destroys the original’s elegance and silence. The work becomes a humorous scene where people are trotting in the mountain. Like “a lamb putting on a mask of a rabbit, a rabbit putting on a mask of a lamb,” Yoo plays a pun between the language and the image.[6]

However, the pun does not appear upfront at the first sight, because the letters are too tiny to easily discern. According to the artist, he conceals the word in the image and waits until the viewer catches the hidden conundrum. Indicating an importance of pleasure in Yoo’s work, Choong Hwan Koh writes, “This [Yoo’s work] is deeply related to the nature of play or pun which brings a world of significance or the world constructed with signification, and then it is dismantled and reorganized. It is a play between the two properties of letters: the property of signification, and the property of visually pleasant sensation.”[7] The visually pleasant sensation in Yoo’s work was already posed by the artist in his short artist’s statement for his solo exhibition, entitled Hee Hee Hee, in 1999. Yoo writes, “The game, consisting of dots and letters, floats in space, which releases the heavy meaning… The letters are playing like Hee Hee HeeHee Hee Hee of delight, and Hee Hee Hee of ridicule…”[8]

Inviting viewers into his game to play, Yoo, however, acknowledges that he would quickly be caught by the viewers. Thus, he questions himself as to why he would do that since he already knows that he would be caught. In another artist’s unpublished note, presenting a short conversation between two people, Yoo describes his work as an idiot’s painting.

You: What did you paint? Why did you paint like this? (What is our intention?)
I: Just for fun.
You: Whose? Yours? My?
I: ‘I am an idiot.’[9]

Yoo implies that the idiot is not only someone who engages in a silly riddle, but who is also a painter who does not paint a painting, but who writes or mimics a painting—a work that lacks of meaning and seriousness. Interestingly, Yoo contradicts himself in terms that he painstakingly spends so much time and energy in writing hundreds of thousands of letters for this idiotic game, although it is obvious that he would lose this game. What is significant in his paradoxical practice is that Yoo anticipates that he would not be just an idiot in this game. He notes, “Being caught by the viewer simultaneously occurs as I strike the back of the [viewer’s] head.”[10] In other words, the moment the viewer deciphers the letters is the moment of “being caught.” This is also the moment that the viewer realizes that they were deceived by the artist.

As soon as a viewer discerns the relationship between the image and the word in Yoo’s work, the image begins breaking apart. It gets disintegrated with the very word for the image. In Joo Roo Roo Rook, at the time a viewer realizes that the image is constructed with the onomatopoeic word, he simultaneously comes to experience that the image is falling down as raindrops. Even though the word references the image that it is forming, the landscape cannot be an image anymore. Yoo exploits a word in order to obscure an image; he creates an image with a text, and the text causes the image to collapse.

Another method that Yoo uses to disintegrate an image is to adopt an auditory experience along with visual experiences. For instance, in Ya-ho, Ya-ho, Ya-ho… (fig. 18), a series of sublime traditional landscape paintings, Yoo demonstrates how a word and a sound related to an image eventually break apart the image. Ya-ho, Ya-ho, Ya-ho… depicts a landscape of high-rising sharp cliffs topped by trees. Surrounded in fog, the scenery creates a solemn and silent atmosphere with dignity and sublimity.

The landscape is composed of thousands of tiny two Korean letters, 야 (Ya) and 호 (Ho) (fig. 19). In Korean, “Ya-ho” is a special sound of people shout in order to hear an echo when they reach to a top of a mountain. This action functions as a moment that their voices penetrate a silence in nature, and demonstrates the pleasure of existence on top of the world, overlooking nature.

Yet the endless echoes caused by the shouting break the silence of the mountain. It not only visually echoes in the title, Ya-ho, Ya-ho, Ya-ho…, but also repeatedly echoes within the image as letters. Therefore, when a viewer reads the word in the image, they begin to see and hear the echoing sound that breaks apart the silence in the landscape. It becomes suddenly filled with continuous noise. Then, the mountain collapses, due to the letters as well as the echo.

The auditory experience of a text is crucial in Yoo’s work. It integrates into the image, and also induces another level of physical experience. As in Ya-ho, the visual experience of reading the sound leads a viewer to mimic the sound, which induces an auditory hallucination as if they actually hear a sound. Yoo creates a direct and immediate experience in which both visual and auditory experiences are simultaneously evoked.

In terms of the images that are created with text, Soo Mee Kang, a Korean critic, points out that there are things in common between Yoo’s work and Calligramme.[11] In 1981, Guillaume Apollinaire wrote a poem, Il Pleut (It's Raining), which looked like falling rain.[12] The five vertical rows of text formed streams of rain. According to Kang, Apollinaire adopted a visual form into the text; therefore, the text subordinates the image in order to reinforce the auditory experience. But Yoo simultaneously overlaps visual and auditory experiences, which differentiates his work from Calligramme. In Yoo’s work, there is not any subordinate relationship between two. Instead, the bond and contradiction between them continuously interrupt precise readings of his work.

In his recent work, She~ (fig. 20), there is a naked boy standing in the center. The image is composed of three letters of the English, s, h and e. The title of the work is written in Korean as 쉬 that sounds exactly the same as the English word, “she (fig. 21).” The title, 쉬 (shē), is a juvenile onomatopoeic word for urination in the Korean language. During toilet training in childhood, parents encourage a child to urinate, stimulating the kid to urinate with making the hissing sound of urination. The work delivers a very direct experience of visual and auditory experience. The unstable moment, a boy urinating, suspends in the work.

Yet the experience of the relationship between the image and the word, “she,” is complicated. Other than associating the word, “she,” with the image of a boy, Yoo does not provide more clues to connect the image and the word to his viewers. It seems that the meaning of the work, the answer of the conundrum, would not be solved, which results in being an obstacle that prevents the viewer’s deeper engagement with the work. In line with his practice of mimicry, the work, She~, remains an impression that can never be formulated or fixed in a logical interpretation.

In She~, Yoo uses his early drawing as a source for the image, not an old master’s painting: this is significant because Yoo originally started to mimic traditional painting because of the similarities it had with his early drawings, and now after having fully explored the style of traditional painting, he returns to mimic his early drawings—a cyclical process that essentially has no origin. The work is an imitation of his early work combined with the style of ink shading found in traditional painting. His work never settles in a fixed state, but keeps floating on the surface.

In this regard, Are You a Man? (fig. 22) poses questions of the ambiguity related to origin, identity and image. The image in the work is derived from his early self-portrait drawing, Untitled (1993) (fig. 16), roughly painted in charcoal and acrylic. In typical style, the portrait is formed with six Korean letters that form the question “Are you a man?”

This work seems to be softer and more voluminous than the early ink drawing. The eyes of the man in the early work are not depicted, but smudged in the dark. As a whole, this man appears still calm and poignant. Yoo describes that the title poses questions to the artist himself and the image as well. As an artist, Yoo asks himself how an artist functions as a man in society. According to him, a man in the work symbolizes himself, a person as well as an artist, who does not properly operate or behave as a man. Yoo confides his inability; he inappropriately and unstably functions either as a man or an artist. At the same time, he reveals a paradox in mind that sustains him in functioning.

“I can work when I am stimulated by circumstances that miss something: uncomfortable, abnormal, complex, anxious, mutative and, furthermore, maliciousness. I am not a person or an artist who is comfortable and normal. No, I do not want to be. Are you a man? No, I do not want to be.”[13]

The work asks Yoo again if he is a man: if the image of the man in the work is a man or is the image is a flock of floating letters?

[1] Seung Ho Yoo, “Na’eui Myutgazi Danpyunjuk Saengakdeul (A Few of My Fragmentary Thoughts),” in The Idiot (Seoul: Project Space Sarubia, 2004), 32.
[2] Seung Ho Yoo, “Sumsaehan Babo (A Sensitive Idiot),” unpublished artist’s note, 2000. n.p.
[3] Byung Hak Ryu, “Ajoomma’eui Hyundae Misul Talk Show (A Middle-Aged Woman’s Contemporary Art Talk Show),” (Seoul: 2000), n.p.
[4] Yee, 197.
[5] According to Korean orthography, in order to make the compound word, balbari, there are two “발(bal)” and a suffix, 이(ē) are needed. Like Dongguri in Kwon’s work, the suffix 이(ē) means a person who possesses a characteristic that its prefix indicates.
[6] Yoo, “Sumsaehan Babo.”
[7] Choong Hwan Koh, Vision 21 (Seoul: Sungshin Women’s University, 2002), no page.
[8] Seung Ho Yoo, Hee Hee Hee (Seoul: Cho Sung Hee Gallery, 1999), press release. Hee Hee Hee is the Korean onomatopoeic word for giggling.
[9] Yoo, “Sumsaehan Babo”
[10] Ibid.
[11] Soo Mee Kang, “Nae Yookchae’neun …loman Jonjaehanda: haehwa’la’neun Yookchae-ae Seu’ueojin Text? (My Body Exists Only as…: Texts Written on the Body of Painting?,” Echowords (Seoul: Suknam Art & Culture Foundation, 2003), No Page.
[12] Guillaume Apollinaire, Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-1916), trans. Anne Hyde Greet (Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 1980), 100.
[13] Yoo, interview by author, 25 February 2005, via email.