By Kyoo Lee
On Rituals of Signs and Metamorphosis, Red Brick Art Museum
Nov 03, 2018 – April 07, 2019
Curated by Tarek Abou El Fetouh
La scène où toute scène prend origine dans l’invisible sans langage est une actualité sans cesse active.
The scene in which every scene has its origin in languageless invisibility is a ceaselessly active actuality.
— Pascal Quignard, The Roving Shadows (trans. Chris Turner)
Tout n’est pas dit.
All Is Not Said.
— Pascal Quignard, Abysses, citing Quintilian (trans. Chris Turner)
Whether saying good morning to someone passing by, or goodbye to someone who just passed away, we, Homo Performans, give forms to all sorts of embodied encounters in and with life. From the small, simple gesture of daily greetings to elaborate funeral rites structuring the days of mourning that provide buffer zones in the middle of time stopping and spreading itself, all such rituals keep us going and going somewhere in response.
Someone who would drop everything today at 4:30 or 4:31 p.m. to pray is one who makes a decision almost automatically if not exactly. One pauses, entering/exiting into another plane, albeit briefly, not unlike a butterfly. Rather different, although inseparable, from habits, customs, or training in that regard, rituals become performative, unfolding per form; there is that extra-layer, thick or thin, of a sense of actually following them as in activating them, like some priest trying to get up at 4:30 a.m., reading the scripture out loud, alone, fighting the yawning gravity. In one way or another, arbitrarily, rhythmically, one would follow a certain script while writing and riding it along the way. Poetry everyday.
A ritual as a sort of psychospiritual stabilizer, an internalized metronome for life in transcendence, is transformative in its very transitive transitoriness. In the process, you go somewhere and somelsewhere elastically, even a tiny bit. While inhabiting a ritual, one lives in and through time, via an odd interval sliced open and stitched back together.
A ritual per se, even when seemingly formulaic, arbitrary, clichéd, etc., works across and moves beyond human intention, agency, control, or capacity, the allure of contrapuntal asceticism included. Normality, piety, serenity, or sublimity alone does not encompass the self-congealing and concealing semiology of rituals I am pointing to; whether at a festival or at a funeral, once one enters that zone, one’s time gets split open, surrounded by the void that is the live event that will repeat—and differentiate—itself over time, time permitting. Gilles Deleuze’s paradox of “a festival,” which also touches on this concept of differential repetition, is not meant to sabotage any spring festivals with some paralytic analysis by a party-pooping philosopher. Rather it would help one learn to stand aside for a while to see better a passive synthesis of time passing as such. Again, transformative rituals, intriguing.
Go see—sense—these (meta)physical, metaphorical manifestations, forces, and resonances at work at Rituals of Signs and Metamorphosis, the show at Red Brick Art Museum curated by Tarek Abou El Fetouh, the alchemist of historical hallucinations or hallucinatory histories, who carefully—perhaps I mean ritualistically?—selected and spaced heterogeneous beats and bangs of time, especially “Asian” oriented, ten works here, to amplify the polyphonic contemporaneity of a re-enchanted world so newly disappearing as we go on. This ensemble of transense & sensibility, designed to “allow the unexpected, the unknown and the mysterious to appear,” as El Fetouh says, is quite, quietly remarkable.
Obviously, I wouldn’t want to spoil the party but if you will … Enter the museum and you will be greeted with a roaring sound coming from somewhere. First, you wonder if it is a noise from some construction site nearby or sudden thunder outside. With Descension (2015), another rescaled reiteration by Anish Kapoor in the foyer, the exhibition space quickly becomes a makeshift shrine for everyone strolling in, and this instant site comes to house ghosts and you the guests, yes, both. Between the famously selfie-ready beautiful museum and the expansive ground on which it stands, between the roof and the interior, a unique curatorial cocoon arises spirally, upward and downward, like a temporary abode in a dream; and this feeling of getting sheltered under and sucked into the skin of a vital concept finds its compositional correlates in the layout of the exhibition space as a whole, thoughtfully constructed with measured shadows in the corridors, elegantly layered projections in the video rooms, and visually animated wall spaces.
So the focal point of the synaesthetic orchestration is this (hole) thing that is not a (whole) thing, a material mystery. Thicker, darker, and steadier than Alfred Hitchcock’s (maternal) shower scene that would make one scream, this whirlpool of abyssal terror soon becomes rather tender, soothingly repetitive like a lullaby, as the centrifugal dynamism of its sight and sound starts chanting as if breathing. Visitors, if lingering long enough, still alert and inert at once, would start to marinate in the texture of time: expect the unexpected, the “poetry” of it, “what happens or is conveyed on the outskirts of sense” (Fred Moten).
And so what do people do around this thing that is not a thing if not circling around “it” and looking in at “it” like some ritual object? The railings that both protect and produce the viewing subjects instantly complete and perform the ritualistic duet of curatorial vision and spectatorial visit. This particular version installed in this space works like magic: Red Brick Art Museum and Brooklyn Bridge Park, for instance, come together, traversing the scalar as well as spatiotemporal differences, a generative move readable as a more lateral and geocultural counter-gesture for liquidating the naturalized national boundaries.
There is a quest in every question and it is often felt most acutely around the edges. Limit experiences test our inertial complacency, and it is also such active questioning that brings all ten (artists), eleven (the curator), twelve (the writer) voices together.
Kora (2011–2012), “a walking circumambulation” in Tibetan, a video by Jawshing Arthur Liou, is a poignantly concrete, moving sublimation of the artist’s personal tragedy into a colorful videographic performance where the artist’s encounter with the passing of his daughter, which prompts this private pilgrimage, literally opens up a new vista of otherworldliness. Where does “one” end and “the other” begin, “life & death”? Where and when does a trauma relocate? When hit by an oxygen deprivation along the way, one would no longer think of this as an idle question savored by some French café philosophers and pipe-smokers. Hallucination is part and parcel of a life in death and a death in life.
One just goes on, comes through, as does Hu Xiaoyuan in her three-channel video installation, Axing Ice to Cross the Sea (2012), partitioned like a triptych, where the intense, durational performance produces cutting-edges, in this case, of crashing waves. How is it possible? How does it become possible? A slow spectacle of the persistence of an “I” against or with the ice in the middle (panel), it shows a temporal struggle of the human “self” or cells in nature, a matter of life and death, if you will. Characteristically holding a spear (戈) in its hand (手), an “I” (我) in action, a woman there—not a more generic Sino-man(kind) (亻) or a Sisyphus from ancient Greece—facing a boundless ocean, whose back we see, keeps hacking (伐), cutting down, the ice as she tries to make her way in/out horizontally towards a certain horizon. A hard life. A long hard life that will melt away—eventually, when? (T)here, though not on a hilltop, exhaustion comes to characterize experience, and the exhaustion appears to achieve experience at every point, as the solitary adult female character in this video ful-fills, in an endless loop, a given task of existence against the background of the hard liquid mysteries, full of temporal tension & tensional nano-dramas.
This particularly private, publicly played game of life-making in and across the self-freezing “river of lethe (λήθη, oblivion, lack of mindfulness),” if the Platonic fable of death too can be woven into it, is indeed a fitting member and membrane of the corporeal philosophy of transitory and migratory metamorphosis; so are two of Hu’s more recent, equally labor-intensive, works, two paintings, Wood-Purlin N. 7 (2018) and Wood-Purlin N. 8 (2018), also included in the show. As with her earlier grainy board paintings, compared to the ice video work, these pieces are more materially focused in terms of their transfusional transaction, between wood and silk, and yet, insofar as the artist’s ongoing interest (inter esse, between essences, à la Heidegger) lies in working through the gaps between “objective” realities. Her psychophilosophical attention to the active void, in both cases, remains palpable. Note the Chinese title in this regard, how it visualizes this conceptual mise-en-abîme: 木|檩 (Wood-Purlin), “|,” a slightly wavy silky thread going down in the middle, slight to the left.
So “where do the gone things go?”
Or maybe the bird is with grandmother
inside light. Or grandmother was the bird
and is now the dog
gnawing on the chair leg.
Where do the gone things go
when the child is old enough
to walk herself to school,
her playmates already
pumping so high the swing hiccups?
— Kimiko Hahn, “In Childhood,” The Artist’s Daughter (2002)
As I am importing this line from a poet “in childhood,” I am entering into another set of dreamscapes, and vice versa. In Tomoko Kashiki’s elaborately layered paintings, Untitled (2007) in particular, the epi-phenomenology of dis-appearance itself is vividly traced and centralized in a uniquely luminous way that its own grisaille “impressionism,” so to speak, becomes instantly impactful like a fleeting scene in a daydream, quite different from a framed landscape with those lilies, castles, rivers, ladies & gentlemen on the grass, etc.
Imagine, reimagine the geometric zero-point of Kashiki’s metamorphic passages now occupied by a versatile human enigma such as the actor Tony Leung dubbed in multiple new voices, and you have stepped into the kaleidoscopic (under)world of The Mysterious Lai Teck (2018) by Ho Tzu Neyn. This cinemato-refabulation of the polyonymous mysteries of the triple agent from the wartime history of South Asia in the 1940s brilliantly contemporizes the psychocultural politics of resignification including its now increasingly data-technologicalized artificiality and robotic artefactuality, where the very notion of individuated or aspirational “agency” is recodified and sequenced through ironic doubling.
If wakefulness, in the battlefield of modernity, is sustained in the mysteriously treacherous transnational character such as “Lai Teck,” other countless moving bodies usually, in fact, fail to “sleep no more.” Such anonymized existential abjection of migrant city builders is exquisitely video-documented by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Chai Siris. Their cinematic(ally fractured) journey focuses on (some very little, incremental) material events, and the steady gaze at the wall-like back of a de-animated worker, for instance, is powerfully subtle; seen sleeping and dreaming motionlessly in transit, his body in view allegorically literalizes the “backbone,” dorsality, of modern urban spaces. A surreal mix of nano-quotidian images and dream visions passing through their dead-tired bodies get multiplied at times outside the projector screen, projected onto the concrete boundaries of the screen room itself, the floor, the wall on the other side of the screen, and the wall behind the screen. So everything comes to—or through—a museum?
See, for instance, how a tightrope walker is crossing a canyon in the highlands of the Caucasus Mountains—and why? In the video Tightrope (2015) by Taus Makhacheva (which I hope was not shot there), this cleverly scaled composition of the inside and the outside shows the walker on a tightrope, transporting rectangular pieces of artworks from one side of the mountain to the other, one by one. It demonstrates the structural precarity of the institutionalized conservation of art and the near-magical survival of artists, a condition tinted with traceable acidity. Whence and whither this ritualistic yearning for object possession and permanence? The spectacular mountains in the supposed background, also contained in the projector space, remain tellingly mute, telegraphing a broader global crisis.
Considered from politico-historical viewpoints too, the very narrative of the “world history” still rather monolingualized by the self-universalizing “Occidental” gaze, as reflected in the standard “art history,” would become a meta-object of scrutiny at various pressure points. In A Small Art History 1-2 (2014/2017), a miniature gallery of collage posters by Park Chan-Kyong, with penciled captions in Korean (and in Chinese translation by the museum staff), one may get a glimpse of a re-curated—or ReDisOriented—FutuRetroBook, where Ed Ruscha’s The Lost Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965–1968) becomes neighborly with a Korean female shaman (Mudang) as well as Kim Hong-do, the iconic eighteenth century “people’s painter” and his paradigm-shifting Kunsen-do, a painting of a circle of gentlemanly divinities (Kunseon) sitting around on the street; also annexed then, more immediately, is a photograph of a mass grave of executed bodies from the Korean War (source: anonymous, July 1950, the City of Daejeon), with one full face of a boy-like body turned to the viewer with his eyes wide open. Gruesomeness, like genuineness, is in the detail, as usual. This ingeniously indexed and transhistorically transposed, mixed reality of an alternative time-space created on an ordinary visual plane with such a discursive perspicuity and aesthetic economy exemplifies an art of worldly re-ghosting, re-telling.
The visual re-narrativization and recasting of cornered time and people in it involves not only interrogating, from such corners, the legacy of discursive ownership, the vestigial legitimacy of postcolonial and imperial power, but also actively reconsidering the legibility of such aesthetic objects collected and displayed as such, the otherwise-rooted stuff thus looted then. Walid Raad’s Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: Les Louvres (2014–2015) and Letters to the Reader (2014), which together forms the corridor in the exhibition space, returns to the repeated cutting(-edge-ness) of the root as noted earlier, the bleeding edge of the political ontology and epistemology of documentation in this case, where the task the artist set to himself with such “letters to the reader,” a call at once aesthetic and hermeneutic, is to restore the shadows in the scarred sacred in dynamic, open-ended ways.
Then moving from the liquid trails of artworks in motion (Raad’s “Scratching”) back to their vibrating void anchored in the abyss of the material imagination (Kapoor’s whirlpool), you, too, might feel—oddly enough—rested despite all that trotting around.