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Copyright all right reserved 2008 Cho Duck Hyun

  Reversing the Historical Imagination _ Young June Lee 2008/08/31

Reversing the  Historical Imagination :
Cho  Duck-Hyun’s project “Entering Yiseoguk”

Young June Lee

Our historical imagination is strongly anchored in  records, materials and evidences that elevate history to the level of fact. In  “the Discourse of History”, Roland Barthes has put it this way: “Our  civilization has a taste for the realistic effect, as can be seen in the  development of specific genres like the realist novel, the private diary,  documentary literature, news items, historical museums, exhibitions of old  objects and especially in the massive development of photography, whose sole  distinctive trait is precisely that it signifies that the event represented has  really taken place. … Narrative structure, which was originally developed  within the cauldron of fiction (in myths and the first epics) becomes at once  the sign and the proof of reality. “So we believe “in” history. We trust  history to the point in which we think certain things actually occurred that we  did not witness by ourselves.

On the other hand, in order to find the truth of history,  we dig out for some evidences. Historical excavation has a certain direction.  According to it, we go back to the past and recover the truth hidden deep in  the layers of earth. In this case, the earth is the cabinet of records and  materials. As Walter Benjamin has noted in “Theses on the Philosophy of  History”, we, like the angel of history, can only “perceive a chain of events,  while seeing one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in  front of his feet. The angel would like to stay. Awaken the dead, and make  whole what has been smashed. … The storm irresistibly propels him into the  future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows  skyward.” Here, the storm is the power of history that asserts itself as the  only regime of truth in the flow of time. As this power tends to exclude  alternative imagination of history, the angel has no capability to steer the  direction of power in his own way. As a result, the angel can only watch the  piling of wreckage. Here, the pile of debris means the mass of all kinds of  knowledge and data that witness and assert themselves as the sovereign source  of historical knowledge. Under such a circumstance, it seems to be impossible  to imagine a different way of constructing history.

However, things seem to be the opposite. If we turn the  direction of the historical imagination in the opposite way, all the  certainties and facts of history turn to a sheer state of imagination. In other  words, the fact that history has only been a form of imagination disguised as  fact or truth is revealed for the first time. This reversal does not look  totally impossible when we note the claim of postmodern historians that history  is merely a pile of narratives.

Thus, instead of digging for the past, we dig for the  future. What does it mean to dig? Before that question, we will have to ask  first what it means to bury, since only what has been buried can be dug out.  Neither burial nor excavation is a starting point of historical narrative, but  one of the knots in it. What saves them from being reified as a fixed truth is  a creative reconstruction of them laden with imagination.

Such is the goal of Yiseoguk project conceived by Cho  Duck-Hyun. This project aims at recreating the legend about Yeseoguk, a small  kingdom believed to have existed in Cheongdo country of North   Gyeongsang province during the bronze and iron age. This project  is a coordinated effort of as diverse people as a poet, archaeologist and  literary scholar orchestrated by Cho Duck-Hyun. The major concept of this  project stems from the imagination of the poet Seo Rim. In his book,  , Seo Rim writes about his historical fantasy about  this country. However, if this poetic work were limited to simple fantasy about  the past as such, it would not be possible for it to evoke the imagination of  Cho Duck-Hyun. Rather, as the poet is building a connection between the  narrative of the past and the fragments of the contemporary life in Cheongdo  such as the scene of the reserve army training camp, lives of people, TV sets,  and etc, Cho Duck-Hyun could find a thread of connection that relates Yiseoguk  to the present form of life.

Thus, the form of connection he has found is the burial and  excavation. Indeed, what is supposed to be visible in this project is the  scenes and results of the excavation, not the burial, which was only witnessed  by the artist himself along with several other helpers. In sites at Baekgok-ri  in Cheongdo county and at Bomun   Lake in Gyeongju, Cho  Duck-Hyun buries several figures in the form of dog. Later, the Yeungnam University excavation team will dig out  those figures to pile an academic report on them. It seems that the final  report from the Yeungnam   University is the  culminating point of this project. But we should think of the whole procedure  from a different perspective.

For the ancient people, burial meant putting a bridge  between the dead and the living, earth and heaven. That is why they used to put  several articles used by dead person that were believed to help the dead on its  way to the heaven. Here burial carries in it a desire for transcendence. In the  ancient burial, this irony was transcended in the belief in heaven and hell.

The irony of longing for heaven while digging the ground  for burial takes a key position in Yiseoguk project. In contemporary world,  such a transcendent does not work. Instead, we have measurement, examination,  proof, logic, reason and science. The darkness of the madness inherent in the  transcendental dream of the ancient people is driven out by the brightness of  reason and science. However, along with it, fantasy has also been driven away.  When it is no longer possible to recover that fantasy in an exact form as it  used to be, the only option left for the artist is to simulate the  transcendence, not as it used to be, but in a form that he can conceive in the  contemporary context of life. Therefore, he digs out the earth using excavating  machine, buries the dog figure made out of FRP and has Yeungnam University  team to recover the data from it.

We may call this procedure an artificial archaeology. It  is artificial in the sense that the layers of meaning hidden in the layers of  earth have been artificially set there. In this effort, the burial is no longer  transcendental. Instead, it takes the form of a simulation. What is to be  discovered in it? The answer is not simple.

Indeed, the whole thing about this project is a fiction.  However, when it is coupled with ‘historical evidence’ excavated from under the  ground, it becomes more convincing, though not necessarily a truth. Therefore,  we are facing a fictional history. The decisive evidence of this history is the  discovery of steel relics in the form of dog which are found in Youngam (2000),  Gyeongju and Cheongdo (2002). He did a similar project in Jeu de Pomme, Paris. The continuation  of these discoveries comprises Cho Duck-Hyun’s recent career as an artist.

In the contemporary art scene, it is not uncommon to see  and artist plan a complex installation laden with a certain conception. But in  Cho Duck-Hyun’s case, by inventing a fiction based on material evidence, the  artist seeks for an alternative of historical narrative. As the British  historian Stephen Bann has noted in “the Clothing of Clio”, the history based  on the nineteenth century positivism has reduced the diversity of the rhetoric  of historical narratives to fact and the real. Before positivist history, they  have been as diverse as to encompass such genres as legend, play, novel and  myth. Clio is the goddess of history. According to Bann, Clio’s clothing has  been radically impoverished with the advent of positivist history that only  privileged factual aspects against the rich rhetoric of history.

By employing the forms of fiction and simulated burial and  excavation, the Yiseoguk project attempts at evoking our imagination about the  historical past. Then, the issue is, to whom is this past revealed in its whole  shape? Of cause, it is the very artist Cho Duck-Hyun who is responsible for  conceiving the whole project and orchestrates everything. However, is he at the  vantage point from which he can have a commanding glance at the whole thing  unfolding in this project? Does the status of being an artist automatically  guarantee him the authority to see?

The vantage point at which Cho Duck-Hyun situates himself  in Yiseoguk project is quite different from that in the ordinary setting of  life in the sense that he is caught in a space between fiction and reality,  past and present and burial and digging. Therefore, regarding this project, no  one can claim a vantage point from which to have a commanding view of  everything. Historical truth does not belong to any single vision. Once again,  the artist here is the digger, not the commander of truth. As a result, the  fictive kingdom   of Yiseoguk is revived.

Here, despite Roland Barthes’s claim of the death of the  author, the artist is not dead. Rather, he is not simply at the place in which  we imagine him to be. Rather, he researches, writes, plans and observes the  procedures. He only catches the remnants of meaning excavated from the site. As  they come as the result of excavation, the locality of imagination is very  important in this project. As it occurs in three different sites, the narrative  of Yiseoguk is anchored in the present material found there. Other than the  steel figures of dog dug out from the earth, there are several other things  that we can witness. One of them is the site of old rampant that is believed to  have guarded Yiseoguk from the invaders. They add to what Barthes calls ‘the  realistic effort.’ “In ‘objective history’, the ‘real’ is never more than an  unformulated signified, sheltering behind the apparently all-powerful referent.  This situation characterizes what we might call the realistic effect.”

However, we are not going to rely upon the realistic  effect for our conception of history. Instead, we will read it against the  grain. It is not easy to challenge this effect in history as it is strongly  anchored at the level of evidence and fact. What we can do is to lay bare the  construction of signifiers of history. It is too late when we are given a  signified because it is given only after the construction of signifiers is  already complete. Thus, the legitimacy of the imagination that seeks for  different ways of conceiving history.

Therefore, the materials found in three different sites of  excavation are not the evidences, but moments at which the crooked path of  history will be looked at from a different point of view. We borrow from  Barthes the hint about this path. “Historical discourse does not follow the  real, it can do no more than signify the real, constantly repeating that it  happened, without this assertion amounting to anything but the signified “other  side” of the whole process of historical narration.”

Finally, what Cho Duck-Hyun deals with is this process of  signification that claims to be the real of history. The Yieseoguk project  reveals that the task of changing the direction of historical imagination can  only be achieved when one deals with the material aspect of signification.  Thus, all the materials mobilized for this project, such as FRP dog figures,  soil dug out by excavating machine and sweat are remnants of historical  narration of Yiseoguk. They have been reconstructed in a curious concept of  time that does not flow from the past to the present, but is twisted somewhere  between them. As much as this twist does not seem to offer any solution, the  Yiseoguk project looks puzzling to the viewer. However, one never knows, while  experiencing this project visually and textually, the viewer might be  emancipated from a singular concept of time. The next step is the entrance to  Yiseoguk. Although both fictive and factual details about it are offered to the  viewer, one never knows what is going to happen there.


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  
  Reversing the Historical Imagination _ Young June Lee  
7   Entering Yiseoguk _ Choi Won Oh  
6   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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