View from a winding path
Yoon Won-hwa (art critic)
What can we see in a curve? A matrix of numbers plotted on a graph; a gently undulating landscape; the smooth forms and bodies of plants and animals; sleek polished industrial products—we might think of many things, but most of them are likely to be two-dimensional images. Generally, the notion of a ‘curve’ is perceived as a visual property. After all, the act of peeling a potato or taking a walk in a lake park is not remembered through the image of something round; the experience of following a curve with your hands or feet rarely leaves a corresponding impression. Unless you are learning a dance where you mould your body into some round form when practicing some curving move, a curve appears to us as a fluid line without any volume or mass. However, curved images like spirals, streamlined forms, wavy patterns, or arabesques all imitate particular curved objects. The body bends as a result of physical action and reaction. It is the one outside the curve that is able to see it. It is not easy to sense the flowing forces of a curve and its shape at the same time.
The smoothly curving surfaces that recur in Jihyun Lim’s work have been derived from the flow of such forces. “Arch Motion,” the title of the artist’s solo exhibition, refers to the way a pole vaulter bends his or her body like a bow when vaulting over the crossbar. The way the body’s form is momentarily pulled to vault just a little higher is distinct from the way a structural arch in a building serves to support and distribute the load. Of course, in order to physically realize a curved surface, it is necessary to design an appropriate structure to prevent it from collapsing; in fact, the pieces on display here are the result of experimentation at the material/mechanical level. The materials used by Lim, which include ceramics or glued laminated timber, are weak in strength, so the more they grow in scale, the trickier it is to obtain a form able to withstand its own load. However, as if not wishing to reveal the effort involved, the objects hold an attitude of detachment and composure, like graphic patterns that are not subject to any physical force. Here, the pursuit of mutually conflicting effortlessness is artificially superimposed. Meanwhile, on the one hand, there is the familiarity of industrialized abstraction that viewers encounter on a daily basis in an urban environment, while on the other hand, there is the inherent formative nature of the materials that the artist intends to reveal by listening to the properties of the materials. Between our habitual ways of seeing and the physical properties of the materials, the pieces in “Arch Motion” aspire to light and taut gestures that seem to defy gravity.
Lim’s exploration of the form of the arch goes back to the series “The Round One,” which started in 2015 as an attempt to give form to the unique characteristics of ceramic as a medium. Unlike painting and sculpture, which have long reigned as the medium of fine art, ceramics do not assume unlimited freedom to impose any color or form the artist desires. Although diverse effects can be achieved depending on the combination of earth (clay), water, fire, and air, a unique dynamism and delicateness arises in ceramic art because it is not easy to control the outcome. The artist has made a connection between this and the formative richness of nature which brings forth ever-changing phenomena from an unchanging essence. Featuring traditional arch structures that provide stable support for forms crafted from soft pliable clay, as well as unique colors caused by high-temperature chemical reactions, the ceramic objects of “The Round One” series take the form of soft curving surfaces that seem to wrap around each other. Each curve is reminiscent of weathered stone or animal flesh, but the convoluted masses do not figuratively resemble anything in particular. Even at first glance, it does not appear the material has been randomly mashed and squashed; in fact, the pieces are the carefully crafted result of slow twisting and curving.
At the time, the artist tried to renew the image of ceramic art within the serene dynamism of nature, referring to natural amorphous phenomena such as clouds or smoke. However, nature accounts for only half of what composes ceramics. As one of the oldest composite manufacturing technologies for artificially refining, combining, and processing natural materials, ceramics yields an difference irreducible to pure nature or the essence of the medium that arises through the interaction of human/non-human and material/image. Unlike the geological process of rocks metamorphosing through underground heat and pressure, the process of producing ceramics is continuouslyregulated between the hands that handle the clay and the eye that looks at it. How can the metamorphic capacity of the material be drawn into the bright light? This is a problem of ceramic art that is not answered by nature, and one that forms an ongoing issue of interest for the artist. If the artist’s early works focused on the medium of ceramics while pursuing the natural beauty of physical phenomena, she has been experimenting since 2020 with diverse polymeric or synthetic materials, expanding her exploration of the intersection between the visual and the material and between culture and nature. Even if a given curve is a product of nature, whether it is beautiful or useful is up to human judgment. While investigating the ways that living natural objects are studied and managed in arboretums or botanical gardens, the artist developed her ideas on the gap between human vision and the vitality of materials and the movement across it, forming the starting point of recent works using ceramic and glued laminated timber.
“Arch Motion” deftly combines different materials and images to create a space of subtle incongruities that confuse viewers’ perceptions. The wave patterns repeated throughout the exhibition, at first glance, seem to follow a logic of industry, with standard [a1] forms being imposed irrespective of differences in the materials. However, if you look more closely, you can see that considerable effort went into realizing a particular shape for each material. Giving consideration to the similarities and differences between the curves that could be made of such vulnerable materials (soft clay and brittle glued laminated timber), the artist captured the shapes of the objects and composed the exhibition space. The materials may stand in contrast to one another, but what they share in common is that they present an eclectic mix of natural and artificial process. That is, the materials do not appear to be completely artificial, such as synthetic resin, nor completely natural, such as stone or hardwood. This ambivalence was a bit more explicitly evident in the artist’s 2021 solo exhibition “Image Transition,” where ceramic and glued laminated timber objects mimicked marble products and houseplants used for home décor, respectively, as the artist reflected upon herself as processed nature. While the materials and the images they embodied may have possessed similarities, these were not expressed naturally, but were rather the result of bridging a certain disconnect. The artist related that gap to the inherent duality of the visual objects, not restricted to the hybridity of the synthetic materials. There is an inevitable discrepancy between the internal structure of an object and its outer appearance. Today, images slide through this gap, moving smoothly from one object to another. Among these fluctuating images, how should the slow and careful hand forming the object respond?
While “Image Transition” opened up a deep gulf between the material and the visual, “Arch Motion” experiments on how to move between them. An object does not simply support the image passively, but reveals its own materiality by using the image as its own inverted support or springboard. Images can bring out the latent visual potential of the materials by combining seemingly unrelated objects, facilitating renewed collaboration between the eye and the hands. This expectation is particularly apparent in the artist’s video piece “Flickering Object.” The screen shows two overlapping timelines, the first being the artist’s ceramic work process in which she forms clay panels and mixes the glaze, and the other being a chain of free associations from the photographic images from the material in the making to another exquisite images of trees, earth, or celestial bodies. It is unclear what the material being worked on will be. In general, Lim mobilizes her knowledge and skills of the materials to control the process so that the results are precisely in line with her intentions. However, in the video, what guides the hands touching the clay is the state of the material as it binds together and breaks apart right before the eyes, and still other physical landscapes this calls up in the imagination. Using an image search algorithm, the artist experiments with the autonomous interplay between materials and images that are not subject to her own intent. Where will this winding path with no destination lead to? More precisely, what will you see along this winding path? Might we see something that we have never seen before? Does such a thing even exist? Carefully leaving this question open, this exhibition awaits its audience.