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Walking Towards the Vanishing Point Cradling a Love of Life

  • onAugust 3, 2016
  • Vol.32 Summer 2016
  • byHan Kang

In the courtyard of an old, humble hanok in northern Seoul that has been lovingly restored, folding chairs are set out in tight rows with loud construction noises coming from the building site next door, where a beautiful building like this one has already been demolished. At the designated time the tiny courtyard fills with people; it’s standing-room only with the entranceway full too. In front of the small but tightly packed crowd sits Han Kang, a unique stillness in the surrounding bustle and noise. When she takes the microphone to begin talking about her artworks on display in this tiny gallery, the levels have to be adjusted so her voice can be heard, even though the builders have agreed to take a break.

The hanok is called E’JUHEON and it belongs to a larger gallery called O’NEWWALL. Here, Han Kang’s performance art captured in four videos is on display in an exhibition called “Vanishing Point.” Han’s works take up a single room of the small, squat building. Entering the room it is hard to know where to look. At a glance it is difficult to tell what’s going on, the videos require concentration, and in this way they entice the viewer in.

During the talk Han Kang describes how she came up with the ideas for the four performances. They are closely connected to her latest book, The White Book which began life as a list of white things, she explained. “When I go abroad I feel freer somehow and my imagination works more actively. When I was on a plane coming back to Korea from the Paris Book Fair, I saw a mountain range covered in ice on the screen showing what was below us. It made me think of the white newborn gown I had written about, and then the ideas for these video works suddenly came to me.” The four videos all feature items from the list, things which Han thought she would want to give to her older sister, a baby that died in her mother’s arms after just two hours of life, if she had survived and lived in her place.

The original editions of Human Acts (left), The Vegetarian (middle), The White Book (right)

 

In the first work Han sits on a wooden stool near a window slowly stitching a newborn’s gown, a process which she describes in one of the most moving chapters of The White Book—how her mother realized she was going into early labor, and unable to call for help, boiled water to sterilize scissors, and stitched together a gown for a newborn while going through the pains of labor, to give birth alone. In the second work we see a close-up of a small, white stone being washed repeatedly, although it seems infinitely clean already. The third video features white feathers covering lines of poetry written on white paper, while the last video shows Han walking, with a length of white string running through her hands and charcoal between her toes, leaving a dark grey line and crushed bits of burnt matter on a length of paper. Describing the white string, Han says it has “a start and an end, like life, like measuring a distance.”

Having spent a long intercontinental flight imagining the contents of these artworks Han says that she felt a joyous revelation, “I had imagined all of this without language—the thing that I have lived by.” Indeed most of the questions asked by the audience at the talk revolved around her experiences with language and artwork, and how these two practices differ or relate to one another. Han expressed that for her, the difference was not all that great, “We are all born with bodies; I believe that it is all connected, there are translations between mediums happening all the time, poetry becoming dance, becoming music, I think I had already felt this.” The sense of joy that she felt in the realization that her ideas had been detached from language then is less about the content, the feeling or what they convey, but connected to the constraints of language. She explained, “Language is a very important tool for me, it is something which I love dearly, but it is also an impossibility which causes me pain.”

It is interesting to note that Han’s literary works are full of artists, from her debut novel Black Deer to the short story “Mongolian Mark,” with which she won the prestigious Yi Sang Literary Award. These characters and their work as described in her writing come from things seen and things imagined, Han explained, “I love art and I have many vivid dreams, on occasion I have thought ‘I could do it,’ but when I was at school it didn’t seem like I had any talent with art.” It is quite clear from the work in this exhibition, however, that she does have a talent for conceiving of artworks, just as she has a talent for conceiving of stories, and despite differences in medium her works seem to share a deep and profound sensibility. In Han’s writing there is something which transcends language, and this is even clearer when a similar feeling comes across in her artwork without a single word. Her works are greater than the sum of their parts, and perhaps this is why her novels have carried over so well when translated into other languages.

 

Photographs by Baek Jongheon

 

About half way through the talk Han Kang suddenly stopped for a moment; her parents had just arrived and were standing near the door. Having made sure that they had each found a seat she explained, “They’ve just arrived back from a trip for their wedding anniversary and happened to be passing through Seoul today. Mum doesn’t know what this book or these artworks are about. I haven’t told my parents. I’m sorry for writing about this without your permission. I’m worried now how they will react. So, let me read to you from the book.” Han then read “Newborn Gown,” the fourth chapter of the first section of The White Book. The atmosphere in the packed courtyard grew heavy; it was clear that Kang’s parents were quite taken aback at what they had just heard, but also deeply moved, to find an experience they had lived through, a fact of life, recounted in this way by the daughter who had followed. Breaking the silence that hung heavy after her reading, Han repeated the words of her mother to the newborn, “Please don’t die, don’t die, live.” With a quiver in her voice she added, “These are words for all of us.”

Although not something intended, Han’s works of performance art had a strong sense of the shaman ritual about them. Like the generations of shamans who have presided over the births and deaths, the spiritual lives of ordinary people in Korea for centuries, Han Kang walks unafraid towards the vanishing point, the inevitability of death, possibilities cut short, alternative universes and moments that will never return. Examining this vanishing point, the blurry uncertainties at the edges of the world each of us inhabits, is something which takes great courage, but for Han Kang it seems inevitable. In her artworks you sense a profound love of life in all its forms, all of the things that surround and elude it. There is a deep sadness in her work also, but somehow it is a sadness which whispers, “Life is fleeting, some lives never get to be, but here we are.” A sadness made of light. 

 

by Sophie Bowman
Translator