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Copyright all right reserved 2008 Cho Duck Hyun

  Cho Duck-Hyun – biographer of illusions _ Jan Donia 2008/08/31

By Jan  Donia

1. Cho  Duck-Hyun – biographer of illusions

Cho  Duck-Hyun (1957, Cheong Il, South Korea) has acquired in the final decade of  the twentieth century an independent status in the world of art. His  presentation fits in an international framework. His source of inspiration,  however, is authentic: his work is rooted in Korean history. Together, these  two elements determine the quality of his work. That quality is high, perhaps  sometimes even exceptional, thanks to his mysterious interpretation of the  past.

The past is  a monument created by memory. And it is memory with which Cho Duck-Hyun  concerns himself. He has shown this – and still does – in his paintings of  Korean families. On his canvas, pictures from family albums get in pencil and  charcoal lines take on the allure of ceremonial portraits. They stand out above  a reality that never had the capacity or the ambition to demand a place of its  own in history. In this way a new memory is created. Families, their  surroundings and pursuits have a new identity. 

At the turn  of the century, his aim to create a new past and a new memory acquired a  magical and compelling character in his project ‘Entering Yiseoguk’. Here Cho  gave new life to a small kingdom from the Iron and Bronze Age. It represents a  legendary culture of which there are no remains save a vague tradition that has  never been set down. During excavations in a fairytale landscape in the Cheong  Do district, myriad numbers of iron dogs were discovered that must once have  been the protectors of the vanished kingdom. In the middle of Asia, dogs were  the metaphor for a memory of nomadic life. Early Koreans moved from there. 

The  panorama that unfolds in photographs and films is at once spectacular and full  of pathos. The scene it shows is that of an historic drama. A paraphrase of  history, presented as an archaeological wonder, based on dreams and desires.  Cho Duck-Hyun is a biographer of illusions. The dogs are his dogs, Yiseoguk is  his dreamland. If you want and if you dare, you can join him on a trip to the  twilight land of an unknown god, where his dogs bark at the moon. Significant  is the title of his 2000 exhibition in the Musée Jeu de Paume in Paris: Dogs of  Ashkelon - Journey to the Alien God.

In the  autumn of 2003 Cho will bring the illusion to Gorinchem. A precious treasure.  Only in the visual arts does illusion have a charter of integrity, because in  this expression there is no limit to fantasy and creativity. Visual art is  Cho’s core activity. Archaeology, genealogy and history are merely aids. They  have not been chosen because of the aura of truth and genuineness they lend,  but because they hold the keys to a mystery. The title of the exhibition in the Gorcums Museum is ‘ONTMOETING’  (Encounter). This is a reference to the unlikely tale of the ‘discovery’ of the  Korean peninsula by ship’s bookkeeper Hendrick Hamel, who was born in  Gorinchem. Sailing on De Sperwer, a  vessel of the Dutch East India Company, he was shipwrecked in 1653 on the rocks  of the island of Cheju, just off the south coast. He subsequently spent, quite  against his will, thirteen years in the country that until then had literally  been a closed book to Europe.

Until  recently, Hamel was completely unknown in the Netherlands. This is not the case  in Korea. A sizeable monument erected on Cheju in 1980 recalls the arrival of  this reluctant explorer. Korean school children know his name. In the meantime  – fortunately – historical awareness has grown in the Netherlands, and  especially in Gorinchem, which became twinned with the Korean city of Kangjin.  It is therefore not surprising that the old fortified town on the river Merwede  is central to the commemoration of 350 years of ties between the Netherlands  and what is now South Korea.

The show of  Cho Duck-Hyun can be regarded as the highest point of the festivities. Oddly,  the relationship between Cho and Hamel only came into being after the artist  had agreed to hold an exhibition in the Gorcums  Museum. He was invited to do so because of the high quality of his  paintings and installations. The fact that he chose to delve so deeply into the  remarkable history of Hendrick Hamel was a surprise to us. But it fits  seamlessly into his creative field of interest as he gave it shape in projects  such as the world of Yiseoguk

In the spring  of 2003, Cho followed Hamel’s trail through South Korea, collecting historic  objects along the way. On 5 October 2003 they were brought to the surface by  divers in Gorinchem’s port, Lingehaven. They had been tossed there after  Hamel’s death in 1692 by his relatives, according to the illusion Cho grants  us. After all, what could they possibly want with objects that may have been  reminiscent of a wife and children in an unknown land? Luckily, the objects are  now being preserved for future generations in Gorcums Museum. Not only the Dutch, but the Koreans as well, will  be drawn into this web of fabrication on their pilgrimage.

The title  of the exhibition emerged on a broiling hot Sunday afternoon in July, when we  were sitting on a shady square in Gorinchem philosophising about what is of  value in life and art. “What is the Dutch word for encounter?” he asked. “Ontmoeting”, I told him. “That is  essential. It is both the motto and the motif here”, he said.

There are  three vantage points from which to view  ‘Ontmoeting’ (Encounter) in the Gorcums Museum. Hendrick Hamel  encountered Korea in the seventeenth century, Cho Duck-Hyun encountered  Hendrick Hamel in the spring of 2003, the public encounters Cho’s  interpretations of history in Gorinchem. Although the remembrance of Hamel is  with the excavated objects a central aspect of Cho’s project, the main focus is  the exhibition of installations, excellent paintings, photographs and video  projections, most of them from the period from 1993 - 2000. In addition to Korean  family portraits, the artist also shows recent canvases based on the history of  Gorinchem. In a large drawing he mixed his son’s figure with children of  Gorinchem in the 19th century.

At the  beginning of February, during his first visit to the city , Cho collected a  series of photographs from family albums and archives. At home, in his studio  in Seoul, he enlarged the scale of the pictures, recreating them on canvas  along the lines of his own personal inspiration. It is a remarkable act with  which he gives expression to his special ties to Gorinchem that evolved in such  a short time. In a certain sense, it is a spiritual annexation. He has added  chapters to the history of the town that are not accessible to historians. This  is the strength of the visual arts. In Gorinchem, where Ad Dekkers gave an  extra dimension to geometry almost forty years ago, they have known for years  how to live with this kind of mystery.

2. The origin – an intriguing connection with history

It is always complicated and in a way indiscreet to analyze why an  artist does what he does in his work. I explicitly refer to visual art, because  it has infinitely more possibilities to push back frontiers and to step outside  the paths of organized life than do other forms of art. One thing should be  clear: this applies only to art of a very high level. Cho’s level. An artist of  his calibre has a great responsibility in the field of art. That makes it  perfectly legitimate to ask after the ‘why’ of his creative expressions, the  mysterious sources he taps and to which he alone has access. One thing is  certain: his intriguing connection with history, whether it be in the past,  present or future, has its roots in his early childhood and can primarily be  traced to an event that still traumatizes him, particularly in a creative  sense.

When he was seven years old, he lost his father. “A shock, a bolt of  lightning. And yet I was too young to experience the emotional impact. It was  as if he had simply vanished. It is something that occupies my mind to this  very day. As an artist, I bring people and events that have dissolved in the  mist of history back to reality; perhaps this is based upon my father. When I  made my first drawings from old photographs, I felt the very strong presence of  my father. The work is extremely intensive, very physical. I often had the  feeling that he was guiding my hand.” The actors on Cho’s podium, the human  people he is reproducing, are silhouettes that thank their appeal to a yearning  for the riddles of a shadowy past.

After his father’s death, Cho moved with his mother and six sisters and  brothers from Cheong Il in the eastern province of Kang-Won to the capital,  Seoul. This was the beginning of a dilemma. Life in the teeming city was filled  with longing for the landscape of his earlier years. This nostalgia has never  left him since. It is an elemental part of his spiritual luggage on his journey  through life. He was reminded of it again on a misty spring morning when he  gazed out over the ramparts of Gorinchem at the encompassing waters. Twilight  landscapes are frequently part of his work – in paintings, in the Yiseoguk  project and in the brilliant and dramatic installation ‘Exhumation for burial’  (1996), consisting of dozens of small boxes lit by lamps, each of them containing  a photograph of a baby’s face, tiny coffin-like boxes awaiting interment. The  earth gives, the earth takes away.

If you immerse yourself in the history of Korea, you get the impression  that here the earth has taken away more than it has given. There has been  immense pain and suffering throughout the centuries, not to mention recent  decades. Cho does not allow this to quell his spirituality. He reshapes history  and places it into a new context without false romanticism. His works are pure  art.

In an international sense, the field of art is dominated by the west.  What happens in the United States and in Europe sets the tone for the rest.  Quite rightly so, because that is where it has always happened and is still  happening. But this influence can be cloying and can result in a bevy of  epigones. In Asia – particularly in Japan – this tendency is stronger than  elsewhere. At the root of the problem is the fact that, as an artist, you must  be aware of the achievements of earlier and contemporary generations, and you  may make use of them, as long as you can take your distance from them when the  time comes.

For Cho Duck-Hyun, the time came around 1990, right after the fall of  Berlin Wall. Then he left American and European influences behind him and opted  to follow his own, independent path. It came to expression in the series, now  comprising dozens of paintings, under the titles ‘Memory of the 20th Century’,  ‘Genealogy’ and ‘History of Korean Women’. They emerge in graphite and charcoal  and refer to family life and social and political developments in Korean  society. Many facets of existence are manifested in these works. To name a few  extremes: origins & romanticism (painting of a baby) and charges &  tragedy (portrait of a war criminal). The high quality of this work immediately  served to enhance his reputation in his own country. In 1990 – at the age of 33  – he was appointed professor at an University in Seoul. Later that year he  entered into relations with Kukje Gallery, one of the most prominent galleries  in the international society.

The fascinating series ‘History of Korean Women’ is related to the  Memory series. These paintings are valuable as critical comment on his society.  Women have contributed greatly to the development of Korea and their contribution  has received way too little recognition in a country that has put women in  second place for hundreds of years. The works primarily pay homage to his  mother. After the death of her husband, she went to work hard, raised a large  family and made it possible for her son to go to art school. Thanks to her, he  was able to choose a route that is reserved in any society only for privileged  outsiders.

This work is by an outsider who rewrites history with the tools of the  plastic arts. In the mid-nineties, when Rien Robijns, who ultimately took the  initiative for the exhibition in the Gorcums  Museum, and I saw one of his paintings for the first time at the Kukje  Gallery stand at ART in Basel, we knew that this art was a part of our world.  Of our longing for magic and mystery.

3. The  Encounter three vantage points from which to depict Hendrick Hamel

For Europe, Korea in the seventeenth century was a closed book. And the  Koreans wanted to keep things that way. Throughout the centuries they had been  the plaything of their warlike neighbours. The successive invasions had left  them with a traumatic fear of contact with foreign peoples, a fact that would  prove to be quite an obstacle to Hendrick Hamel and his companions. As a matter  of fact, several decades before Hamel came on the scene, Holland had already  noted the opportunities for trade offered by the mysterious peninsula. In 1610,  on behalf of the Dutch East India Company the first multinational of the  capitalist world Prince Maurits asked the king of Japan for permission to trade  with Korea. This was refused. The Dutch East India Company struck out on its  own in 1636, but the convoy was intercepted by Korean warships.

When a violent storm threw the ship De  Sperwer, on which Hamel fulfilled the officer’s positions of bookkeeper and  paymaster, onto the cliffs of the island of Cheju in August 1653, it was under  way from Taiwan to the Dutch East India Company’s trading station of Decima  near the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Of the 64 crew members, 36 survived the disaster.  From the very beginning, the Korean government had no intention of ever  allowing them to leave. They spent the next thirteen years in various places in  the country in a state just one step above slavery, sometimes under reasonable,  sometimes under severe conditions.

In the capital, Seoul, they were received by the king, who had but  limited power because he had to bow to the hegemony of the Manchus, who were  called Tatars. The Manchu emperors of the Ting dynasty ruled in China from 1644  to 1912. When the Dutch met the Korean king and other rulers, Jan Janse  Weltevree from De Rijp, a tiny town in the province of North Holland, acted as  interpreter. This sailor, who had been washed ashore and taken prisoner in  1627, had risen to the position of king’s bodyguard. He was married to a Korean  woman and had been completely assimilated into Korean society. The reason that  not he, but Hendrick Hamel, is regarded as the ‘discoverer’ of Korea arises  from the fact that Hamel kept a Journael in which he set forth the experiences of the Dutch and gave much information  about the country.

Twenty men died during their enforced stay of thirteen years. In 1666,  eight of the sixteen survivors, including Hamel, managed to escape to Japan in  a dilapidated fishing boat. Once there, it was not yet over for Hamel. He was  not allowed to leave Decima for another year. During this period he was  subjected to extensive questioning by the Japanese, whose knowledge of Korea  was also quite limited, and the Dutch East India Company commissioned him to go  on writing his Journael, which was  published in Rotterdam as early as 1668 and went through several editions.

Despite the hardships and the agony, his text evinces a certain love of  the country and its people, as well as compassion towards them on account of  the disagreeable behaviour of the occupying forces: “Before the Tatars made  themselves masters of Korea, this was a country overflowing with milk and  honey. The people did nothing but eat, drink and fornicate.” After returning to  Holland, Hamel remained in his birthplace of Gorinchem until he died in 1692;  now, thanks to him and Cho Duck-Hyun, this town is on the map in Korea as well.  Hamel’s encounter with Korea became the first vantage point for the exhibition  in the Gorcums Museum.

In the spring of 2003 Cho Duck-Hyun, with a few students and a video  team from the College of Fine Arts & Design of Ewha Woman’s University,  where he teaches visual arts, drove along the route that Hamel and his partners  in misfortune had followed on horseback in 1654 between the port city of Haenam  in the south and Seoul. “It was an extraordinary journey over a distance of  more than eight hundred kilometres,” he says. “Nearly all the names of villages  and cities mentioned in the Journael are still in existence. On our way we attempted to steep ourselves in the  emotions and experiences of Hamel in our country 350 years ago. One way we did  this was on the basis of objects that we found or bought in antique stores and  curiosity shops. While on the road, we had lengthy discussions about those  objects. They had to be old, but they had to have a timeless nature, be  authentic, aesthetic, poetic and preferably mysterious. As to the latter: we  still don’t know what some of them were for. Sometimes the choice was obvious,  such as when we passed an area where the typical Korean porcelain was already  being made 1500 years ago.”

The trip resulted in a remarkable collection: a musical instrument, a  calligraphy board, a stone sculpture, a bronze kettle, a porcelain spool, a  toilet bowl, some wooden things, a pair of iron scissors, but the use of most  of them is unknown. Objects that could have been in Hendrick Hamel’s baggage  during his trip across the country. All of them are objects touched by the  breath of time. In a video report Cho’s 9 year old son Ihn shows them to the  camera. An almost symbolic gesture, also referring to the relationship of the  artist with his own father. The fingerprints of the future on relics of the  past. This was how Cho Duck-Hyun encountered Hamel: the second vantage point,  his ‘excavations’ in Gorinchem.

Under the patronage of the artist, the objects bridged the gap of  centuries and were removed to Gorinchem, there to be fished up by divers from  the waters of Gorinchem’s port of Lingehaven, near the house on the Kortendijk  (now gone) where this globe-trotter was born. The discovery and the exhibition  of these historic Korean implements – on the authority of Cho, I will take an  oath to the fact that they have been in the water of the Lingehaven for over  three centuries – is undoubtedly the most historic heroic feat in the brief  history of the Gorcums Museum.  In other words: the third vantage point in  ‘Ontmoeting’.


23   From History to Memory_ Jiyoon Lee  
22   Butterfly Dreams, Mirrors and Mountains / Notes for Duck Hyun Cho: re-collection _ Pontus Kyander  
21   나비 꿈, 거울과 산 / 조 덕현을 위한 기록 : 리-컬렉션 _ 폰투스 키안더  
20   조덕현의 전시: 리콜렉션 re-colllection _ 신지영  
19   역사에서 기억까지 _ 이지윤  
18   The Scattered Puzzle Pieces _ Dae-Beom Lee  
17   흩어진 퍼즐 조각 _ 이대범  
16   Re-collection : Walking down two women's paths _ Jiyoung Shin  
15   Cho Duck–Hyun _ Ann Landi  
14   조덕현 _ Ann Landi  
13   Ontmoeting: (Trans) fusion of Landscape Portraiture and History Painting by Use of a Symbolical Device in Cho Duck Hyun's Digital Photo-Images _ Inhee Iris Moon  
12   A moral proposal _ Patrick T. Murphy  
11   Two Mysteries Colliding _ Chtistopher French  
10   Leaning forward, Looking back – Jeff Kelly  
9   Restoration of Civilization _ Yongwoo Lee  
8   Reversing the Historical Imagination _ Young June Lee  
7   Entering Yiseoguk _ Choi Won Oh  
  Cho Duck-Hyun – biographer of illusions _ Jan Donia  
5   From an Alien Past _ Hyunok Jung  
4   이중성의 전략과 경계의 미학 위에서 _ 김홍희  
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