HD film, 45min., or 6 channel video installation, 2008
* Sindoan: A round valley under the Gyeryong Mountain, in the direction of Daejeon City. The site, where Gyeryong City is located at present, had been set up as the capital of the newborn Choseon Dynasty in favor with LEE Seongkye the Grand Founder—that is the origin of the name ‘Sindoan(新都內),’ whose meaning is ‘new capital city.’ It has been believed to be the center of Utopia to come among various neo-traditional and ethnic religions and the Punsu-Tocham(風水圖讖) theory, which seeks to know the future by interpreting the signs of everything in nature. During and after the regime of the Japan Empire, hundreds of religious organizations had proliferated here. In 1984, the Gyeryong unit under the headquarters of the three armed services stationed in Sin-doh-an, taking away almost residential and religious facilities around here.
Two oppositional images have been projected upon the Gyeryong Mountain. The one is a world full of superstitious forces; the other is an enchanting vision of national mysticism. For me, it was above all an object of fear. Once I was struck dumb with incomprehensible shock to see the Gyeryong Mountain. It may be much more overwhelming to face the Baekdu Mountain or the Himalayas, but that was enough for me.
And a general truth: traditional culture of religion has been continuously suppressed in the Choseon Dynasty, which established Confucianism as the state ideology, as well as in the regime of the Japan Empire and the following modernization of the Korean Peninsula. Under the tendency of westernization and globalization, traditional religions and folk beliefs are recognized as a tourist attraction or a potential commodity of mysticism at the most. We easily criticize folk beliefs, neo- traditional religions, and mountain worships, jeering at their naïve faith and crude theories, without considering whether the measure with which we judge them is already perverted.
The common impression about folk religions is more deep-rooted and stubborn than one may think: the prayer seems purer than the incantation; the religious symbol seems more rational than the charm; the hymn seems more sophisticated than the sutra chanting. Although ‘Sang-jeh(上帝)’ was originally a mere translation of ‘God,’ it sounds inferior to God by the same mechanism that makes red wine more well-being than Makgeolli, which has quenched our thirst for hundreds years. Most of institutional religions, however, have explicitly appropriated the tradition of Kee-bok(祈福, wishing good fortune), Hae- won(解寃, soothing grudge), and spiritual ecstasy to grow rapidly in S. Korea for the last century. It is well known that the ‘S. Korean culture of religion’ with distinctive mythical features has been brought about mainly through combination of shamanistic tradition and Christianity.
The more the major religion from abroad utilizes the local religious tradition, the more it needs to distinguish itself from what it determines as superstition. Nevertheless, it is the very ‘anti-superstition’ where the local fantasies with the stigma of superstition keep up living surreptitiously—the earthly paradise, the fierce tiger, the spirit of mountains, the heavenly emperor, the lord of the dead, and all the other sacred beings. Here is a possibility to put the current situation the other way that the folk beliefs have wisely metamorphosed to survive the crisis, not that the general mental modernization of S. Korea has violently marginalized the traditional religions. Before concluding that Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have exploited the local culture, we can suppose that shamanism and Zen Buddhism have made use of—or at least allowed—Christianity. How about to assume that the resulted combination of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, shamanism, and Christianity in people is still vexing the unconscious of the conservative religious elites and officials?
If the religion is in the opposite side of the modern science and technology, the superstition is in the other opposite side of the religion. I like neither science-technology nor institutional religion; and yet, I cannot follow the so-called superstition. I am not a cool-headed materialist; I like the religion when warning of blind techno-science; I like the superstition when undermining the unconscious of religion; and yet, I like the rational thinking when refusing the superstition. The Gyeryong Mountain stands outstandingly but ambiguously among the incessant impressions.
Supposedly, I am not the only one to rethink the folk tradition in this way. The Princess Bari, the Heavenly Emperor of Dong-hak(東學) philosophy, the legendary hermit Cheongsankeosa(靑山居士), and all the spirits in granny’s tales, they are not leftovers to be condescendingly tolerated by the modern culture; on the contrary, we should consider the mythic figures as threatening force to subvert the regime of modernity. A Northeastern-Asian Gothic Culture is possible, even if it sounds oxymoronic. There is no comparison between the narrative structure of myth where people make a dialogue with beasts and the ethics of society where animals are slaughtered. Even the politics of deceitful pseudo-religions, at the worst, is too complicatedly entangled with different motives and causes to judge according to the simple rationalistic measure.
However risky and corruptible it may, everyone has the right to form a collective body and seek Utopia. And someone always appears and reappears who is too wise or driven away to be content with the current situation. Is it so far from Duc de Saint-Simon to “Suh-woon(水雲)” CHOI Jeh-woo? Or, think about “Il-boo(一夫)” KIM Hang and Jean Baptiste Joseph, Baron de Fourier; they seem to me so similar to each other. The people who went to Jiri Mountain and Myohyang Mountain might have been so unique and deeply engaged in metaphysical affliction, deprived of institutional education or universal happiness. Although some were genuine and many others were not, we should first of all reflect on our own dull desire to easily distinguish the false and the true, the real thing and the illusion.
What was I doing when a contemporary woman was walking deep in the mountains to pray to the Spirit there? I might have deliberated how to get a car or to win fame. Occasionally, however, I also dream of a mountain with old pine trees and weird looking rocks.
2015 PA-GYONG : LAST SUTRA RECITATION, solo exhibition, INIVA, London
2010 "Yebisu International Festival for Art & Alternative Vision 2010," Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Tokyo2009 Experimental Film And Video Festival In Seoul (EXIS), Opening Film