A single inverted character glows within a dark room, reflecting its meaning in a circular pool below. A droplet falling periodically disrupts the water’s mirrored surface and legibility before it returns to clarity. This trans-lingual character 明, meaning “brilliant” and “tomorrow,” is an ideogram combining the characters 日 “sun” and 月 “moon” in a writing system made to visually resemble forms of the natural world, rather than being phonetic. Its origins date back to an oracle bone script in China invented some three thousand years ago, whose traces are still found in contemporary language. This installation by Hyung-min Yoon, 日月月日 Sun Moon Moon Sun (2015), exemplifies her fascination with the distillation of meaning and its fragile and fugitive form in language, image, and gesture across time and cultures. Here, Yoon reveals how perceived binaries are interdependent, even complementary: two celestial bodies with centuries of oppositional and mythic power (yin and yang, female and male, night and day) together generate new and amplified meaning.
Yoon’s works are meditations. She accesses ancient time and spiritual depth to slow things down, juxtaposing ancient and contemporary materials to awaken language’s aesthetic and symbolic power. Her works unfold an awareness of the complexities of language and interpretation, through a conceptual research-based process manifested in installations, photographs, videos, prints, and books. Having grown up in Seoul, she recalls how that city’s saturation of images and text prompted a strong desire to restore sanctity in language: to reconnect with a time when writing was revered as mythical, a communing with supernatural forces greater than humankind. During the Shang Dynasty in China (1766–1122 BCE), diviners would use oracle bone scripts to carve questions about the future into bones or shells, which were then intensely heated; the resulting cracks were interpreted as the universe’s prophecy. Yoon’s image-text works are directly inspired by this, in her quest to forge these ancient forms of interpretation with the contemporary.
門 The Doors (2016), among her ongoing series of light-box ideographs, posits text as ephemeral light sculpture within open landscapes. As described by the late Japanese scholar Shirakawa Shizuka, the character 門—meaning “door” or “gate”—derives its original form and symbolism from temple doors.1 It is also an identifying radical for many characters (閂, 閃, 閒, 間), a sacred housing for multiple meanings. Reflecting on this deep spiritual connotation, Yoon places an inverted 門 on water-horizons, allowing the image-text to enact its own metaphor as portal, threshold, and gate in-between worlds. The water, nature’s first screen, becomes the primordial translator, sometimes rippling with the winds and eventually finding calm. In back-lit photographs, 門 The Doors time-travels from streams within dusk cityscapes and marshes adjacent to shipping armature to the Pacific Ocean’s edge. Together, their journeys conjure an existential philosophical reflection by Vilém Flusser: “That both the external world and Self are nothing but horizons of language.”2 Yoon also relates these gestures to Lucy Lippard, a key inspiration, who asks, “If one distrusts the value systems of society, where does one look for alternatives? Back to beginnings.”3
The world can be in tumult, Yoon seems to be saying, but there are always ways to remain still, anchored and deeply connected.
Gesture is a language symbolizing humanity’s instinctive, embodied expression. How do language and signs connect with the body, across time and cultures? Yoon’s Magic Hands (2013), a series of twelve silkscreen prints on nineteenth-century paper, pair imagery inspired by sixteenth-century artist Albrecht Dürer’s celebrated Praying Hands with text from magic instruction manuals. Stripped of identifying content or magic tools, the text reads as awkward poetry, automatic writing, and elusive prophecy: “Because masquerading as the top, it looks like you’ve bent a right angle. / Say, ‘Spent years learning how to bend. Much simpler.’” The Renaissance hand gestures also become ambiguous, open-ended poetics suspended in time: they pray and hope openly; clasped in rumination, they show signs of labour; fingers intertwine, as if dancing, or like birds in flight. Yoon is particularly drawn to the tradition of mudras, which, in spiritual practices, help reorient the flow of energy in the body and tap into one’s inner wisdom. As she comments, “It seems to me that symbols and gestures fill the gaps of language itself.”4 They point to humanity’s enduring fascination with the enigmatic and the power of minor movements; we imagine them uninhibited by explanation or context, in our inner worlds. On the intricacies of knowing beyond language, Yoon references Giorgio Agamben: “In the final instance, magic is not a knowledge of names but a gesture, a breaking free from the name. That is why a child is never more content than when [s]he invents a secret language.”5
Becoming a mother also helped Yoon witness a child’s coming into language and gesture. “I eternally appreciate the whole new world she opened: the child point of view… the memory I lost, and the fact that art is actually a part of the world, not the before or the world itself.”6 In The Gesture of Writing (When You Realize There Is Nothing Lacking The Whole World Belongs To You) (2016), Yoon synthesizes both movement and written language in her own invented sign language. As a temporary sign installed in the traditional Nakwon market of downtown Seoul’s historic centre, the hand-shaped calligraphy sits in wonderful similitude to the Korean (Hangul) signs nearby. Its strange form invites a slower reading much deserved of this ancient text, creating a contemplative pause within the urban bustle. The quotation is from the Dao de Jing, a classic Daoist text from the sixth century BCE ascribed to the sage Lao-zi, translated as The Book of the Way and of Virtue. A philosophical poem deeply influential to Asian philosophies, including Confuciansim and Buddhism, and to artists and writers for millennia, its internal structure consists of declarative statements and intentional contradictions, forcing the reader to reconcile meaning in a way that enacts an immediate inner transformation—an epiphany, perhaps—that is strongly felt yet difficult to explain. In the Nakwon market, the aphorism reads as a reminder of gratitude for our internal abundance, amidst the plethora of consumption. It reminds me of another Daoist anecdote, by the venerable Zhuangzi, on the purpose of language itself: “The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget about the trap… Words exist because of meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.”7
In today’s sea of signs, images, and information saturation, the enigmatic is still everywhere if we are open to it. If meaning is indeed fleeting and merely suggested through signs, the deep challenge of communication is in knowing and sharing another’s inner world. The world can be in tumult, Yoon seems to be saying, but there are always ways to remain still, anchored and deeply connected.
(1) Hyung-min Yoon, 門The Doors
(2) Vilém Flusser, “Translation as Knowledge,” one of a series of lectures given 1963-1965 in Brazil. In Philosophy of Language trans. Rodrigo Maltez Novaes trans. Minneapolis: Univocal, 2016.
(3) Lucy Lippard, Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory. New York: The New Press, 1983, 90.
(4) Email correspondence with the artist, March 1, 2020.
(5) Gregory Agamben, Profanations, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Zone Books, 2007), 22.
(6) Email correspondence with the artist, March 1, 2020.
(7) Chuang-Tzu: Basic Writings, trans. Burton Watson
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).