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Copyright all right reserved 2008 Cho Duck Hyun

  Leaning forward, Looking back – Jeff Kelly 2008/08/31

Leaning forward
Looking back

Cho Duck-hyun

As an artist, Cho Duck-hyun manufactures physical evidence  for Korean histories that do not exist. He does this by staging archaeological  digs in which life-size fiberglass dogs are buried in selected pits months  before they are subsequently excavated with all the fanfare of actual  discoveries. Cho’s principal “medium” is archaeology. Because archaeologists  uncover things gradually and methodically, Cho’s art may be thought of as kind  of tediously slow performance. As the earth is brushed from the ears and snouts  of the dogs, as their vigilant and upright bodies come fully into view,  speculations about how the dogs got there arise from the pit as well. How old  are they? Where did they come from? Why are they standing in rows? Who put them  there? Why are they behind the new Asian   Art Museum?

Usually, Cho’s excavations are visible to the public in an  arrested state, that is, not quite finished and in the process of being  unearthed. Professional archaeologists, not the artist, do the digging. Viewers  can witness the archaeologists at work, and many, curious but perplexed, ask  questions about the age and origins of the dogs. The archaeologists, who apply  scientific methodology to the dig, know they are participating in a work of  art. The histories—Cho calls them “scenarios”—that accompany the dig in written  and oral forms are an important part of that art. The scenarios are  fundamentally speculative, suggesting how the dogs might have ended up in, say,  a field near Gurim Village, Korea, or under the street in front of the Jeu de Pomme Museum in Paris, or—as in our case—in a  pit dug out behind the new Asian Art Museum in a walled enclosure originally  set aside for design as a classical Chinese garden.

Cho is not only an archaeological performance artist. An  entire body of his work is composed of formal canvas drawings based on old  (often family) photos. The drawings are large and sometimes staged in gallery  settings with their own standing lights, as with photo studios or theater  backdrops. They are not hung on walls. Cho’s drawing ability is impeccable, and  the slow accretion of pencil marks that build to form the images is the  inversion of the slow removal of dirt that reveals his buried dogs. Time, for  Cho, is of the essence, not because he’s in a hurry but because drawing and  excavating are both painstaking processes.

The twenty dogs out behind the Asian Art Museum  were buried in a multi-tiered geometric pit in June 2003 and excavated by  members of Archeo-Tec, a preeminent Bay Area archaeological firm, beginning in  August. By the time the show opened in October, the project was nearly  complete. Audiences could look into the pit and wonder about the pack of muddy  brown dogs emerging from the earth, arranged, as they were, in a kind of swift  wave pattern suggestive of their sudden liberation at having been unearthed.  Some dogs were mired up to their bellies in the mud like the schooners  abandoned in San Francisco Bay during the 1850s Gold Rush, but most seemed  alert and “on course,” like a fleet of sailing ships cutting across Pacific  from Asia. The overall image was of migration, which is what packs of dogs do  when not domesticated. As a body of artifacts, they resembled a real find, like the terra-cotta soldiers discovered in  Xian, China.

In southeastern Korea there persists a legend— a  kind of Korean Atlantis myth—of a lost civilization called Yeseoku, thought to  be at least two thousand years old. Today in the rural areas, one sees  businesses—such as flower shops—called Yeseoku, and the people of this mythic  past are still spoken about with a certain reverence. Cho Duck-hyun is himself  from a rural part of Korea,  and his father is buried in family ground. A sense of loss pervades Cho’s  burial works—and also a hope of redemption. As an artist committed to the  processes (performances) of burial and excavation, he helps stimulate the  legend of the lost Yeseoku people, for whom no actual physical evidence exists.  In a recent excavation of Cho’s dogs in Gurim, a small rural village in the  mythic vicinity of Yeseoku, 80 percent of the villagers, the artist reports,  believed the artifacts were authentic even though most had witnessed the entire  process of covering and uncovering the dogs. People believe what they want and  what they must.

The site of the new Asian  Art Museum is that of the San Francisco City Hall building that was destroyed in  the earthquake and fire of 1906. City Hall later moved to its present location  across Civic Center Plaza,  and the new main San Francisco Public Library was built on the ruins of City  Hall; the library flourished there until falling into disrepair in the 1970s.  During the 1980s it was decided that the Asian Art Museum, for years  sequestered in Golden Gate Park (in a wing of the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum  that had been added to house the Avery Brundage Collection before the Asian  became a separate organization in this shared facility), would relocate to the  old library building; this would require a massive renovation. When the new  main library was built next door to the old one in 1994, fundraising for the  transformation of the old library building into the new Asian Art Museum  began in earnest. All of which of is to say the building has a layered and interesting history, not the  least part of which involved digging up actual human remains (and other  artifacts) as the old library/new museum’s foundations were excavated.

Using Civic Center’s checkerboard history as a guide, Cho  Duck-hyun developed a plausible scenario to account for the “discovery” of  twenty Korean dogs—artifacts from the ancient Yeseoku civilization—behind and  beneath the Asian Art Museum. According to the artist, the Yeseoku people might  have been defeated by the Shilla, who became Korea’s ruling dynasty in 57 bce and remained in power until 935 ce. The Yeseoku might then have fled the  Korean peninsula both for China  and Japan,  assimilating there over time but never forgetting their ancient heritage.  Perhaps some of them might have immigrated to California  in the 1850s as Chinese (San Francisco  officials would not have known the difference).

Allen Pastron, the director of Archeo-Tec, the archaeology  firm that excavated Cho’s dogs at the Asian  Art Museum site, speculated that the  dogs might have been gifts to the City of San Francisco  from a large Japanese delegation that actually passed through the Golden Gate  on its way to Washington D.C. in 1860. Among this first official  delegation from Japan to the  United States were many of samurai rank, and they would have been dressed as  such during the two weeks they stayed at the International Hotel in San Francisco, a site  Archeo-Tec also excavated. The dogs might have been excavated—plundered—from  Korean soil by the Japanese, who were exercising considerable influence  throughout the Korean peninsula in the nineteenth century; the delegation might  have regarded these mud-coated dog sculptures as minor gifts to placate the  bombastic city officials of this obviously “barbarian” American port. The  Japanese samurai delegates would not have realized, of course, that the dogs  were the 2,000-year-old artifacts of the lost Yeseoku people—that these  sculptures were, in fact, the only physical evidence of the Yeseoku then in  existence. Neither would the San Franciscans, which might account for how and  why the dogs would have ended up either stored in a basement anteroom of the  old City Hall or simply buried out back. In the long tradition of bureaucracy  that has ruled Civic Center Plaza, the city officials—having thanked the  Japanese for their gifts—would have stored the dogs underground (an appropriate  irony) and just forgotten about them. Another possibility—also not unknown to San Francisco politics  during the nineteenth century—is that a corrupt local official, believing the  dogs to be valuable or marketable, might simply have stolen and buried them. In  any case, the earthquake of 1906 destroyed City Hall, and the resulting grading  and rubble clearing would have more deeply entombed the dog sculptures, which  would then have remained undisturbed until they were accidentally located in  2001 during the excavation and construction of the new Asian Art Museum.  Given these scenarios, with “2,000 year old artifacts” from the legendary  Yeseoku people buried literally beneath its grounds, perhaps the museum is  located precisely where it is supposed to be. . . .

Cho Duck-hyun’s dogs not only look authentic, they are  authentic—these works of sculpture, each cast in resin by the artist, are  actually from Korea.  Having been previously buried and excavated there, they are lathered in dried  Korean mud—and now the soil of San    Francisco. As artifacts, they signify an ancient  Korean legend. As a cluster of unearthed sculptures in a San   Francisco art museum, they are metaphors of the migratory  beginnings of the Korean people (coming from northern China), as well  as of the mass migration of Asians to the American West Coast since the 1840s.


Like any art, Cho’s excavation performance is part real and  part fiction. It incites the imagination and uses the new museum as a creative  and historical context in which to enact its meanings. The kinds of  archaeological speculations about the origins of Cho’s dogs have also, at one  time or another, been applied to thousands of other artifacts in the museum’s  collection. In the end, however, it is important to remember that Cho Duck-hyun  is an artist, not a scientist or historian. Artists of today need not restrict  themselves to the media and methods of yesterday, and some of the most  innovative artists of the twentieth century have adopted the guises of other  activities and professions: welders, sociologists, architects, ecologists,  historians, adventurers, journalists, and so on.

In a perfect example of San Francisco cultural fusion, Cho’s  installation marries the origin myth of the legendary Yeseoku, the nomadic  roots of Korean culture, the history of Asian immigration through the Golden  Gate, the seismic political history of San Francisco’s public library–cum–Asian Art Museum, the meticulous  methodology of archaeology, and the creative license of art. Tucked in their  chamber beneath the museum, the twenty Korean dogs seem right at home.


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  
  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  
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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