Mediating the Sacred and the Profane, Becoming a Sacrifice
Kho Chung-Hwan (Art Critic)
The work of Lee Minha involves writing texts onto paper and leather. Lee began with oiled paper, and then gradually moved on to tanned sheepskin, cowhide, hog leather and deerskin. The job of tanning animal hides has long been considered menial. Therefore, the artist’s decision to transcribe texts on leather is not unrelated to her self-awareness of social vulnerability, not to mention the problems of social class distinctions. Lee is very much concerned with social issues and communal environments. For her recent project titled One Thousand Questions and Despair (2017), the walls of a tiny room in the Garibong-dong shantytown were almost entirely covered with texts. Firstly, Lee plastered the walls with oiled paper, and then filled up the surface with sample questions for civil service exams, the TOEIC test, and the real estate licensing exam. On the whole, the project can be described as a satire on the grim realities faced by today’s youth who have been driven to desperation with little hope for the future. In addition, Lee’s 2011 project Very Difficult Labor, which exhibited the entire process of inscribing texts on leather, was a way of honouring the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake. The act of incising texts onto leather thus acquired a ritualistic undertone. By embracing the anguish of such socially disadvantaged groups as the younger generation and disaster victims, the artist heals their wounds and allows new flesh to grow (i.e. regeneration).
As for textual sources, Lee Minha has transcribed a variety of prayers written in many different languages. Sometimes the artist herself takes on the task of transcribing texts. Sometimes it is left to participants (as a form of audience participation), and sometimes a plotter is used for transcription. Why does she turn to prayers? What significance do prayers have in her work? What profound meanings can we find in the artistic transcription of prayers on paper and leather? Indeed, people pray for personal gain, and yet at the same time they are prompted by more fundamental concerns including altruistic and ontological values. Prayers are therefore ambivalent in nature, belonging to both sacred and profane realms. As a result, prayers mediate the sacred and the profane. By purifying what belongs to the profane world, prayers sublimate it to the sacred level. The sacred-profane connected is created through purification and sublimation (the sacred-profane dialectic?). Or, rather than newly uniting the two, Lee Minha reminds us (which then results in anamnesis) of the initial, connected state, the most primitive state, or the state at the beginning. The initial state (and therefore the archetype of existence) is then reconstructed and restored. Georges Bataille argues that in the initial form of existence, the sacred and the profane as well as life and death are all connected as one (continuity). According to him, mediation by capitalism and economy-first principles has led to a divide (discontinuity) between what is productive (secular life) and what is unproductive (the sacred realm of death). Given this, our task is to overcome the consequent discontinuity and restore the original continuity.
Lee Minha explores the correlation between the sacred and the profane, not to mention the restoration of continuity between the two realms. In this respect, religion is closely associated with the practice of purifying secular things and subliming them to the sacred level. One of the most effective ways to achieve this is to recite and transcribe prayers. If you continue transcribing prayers, you will eventually find that ‘self’ has been erased and that you’re only left with the act of transcribing. What does it mean to have one’s ‘self’ obliterated? It wipes out all your agony, desires and wounds. Having thus been erased, one then finally becomes transparent and complete. Here lies a paradox; paradoxically, deletion brings about completeness and ‘true self’ (true ego in the original state) arises only when ‘self’ is gone. In short, the act of transcribing prayers on paper and leather and inviting audience to participate in the effort is closely connected to the process of introspection that wipes out all anguish and desires, and then heals wounds by erasing ‘self’ and confronting ‘true self.’
What kind of texts does Lee Minha write on leather and how? As for textual materials, she mainly uses prayers, and sometimes participants are asked to each come up with an internal monologue (in doing so, they offer confessions and reveal their wounds). In terms of methodology, the artist uses irons to transcribe her chosen texts. When texts are transcribed onto leather with irons, participants soon smell the burning leather and see smoke. As they each give words to their internal thoughts, their wounds buried deep within are burned (purification) and then go up in smoke (sublimation). This is reminiscent of religious rites whereby believers visit holy places to confess their sins (wounds) and find forgiveness (alleviate wounds). We must also consider its symbolic significance. In fact, in one of her previous projects, Lee Minha built a sanctum in the highest and most even place (possibly a holy and divine place, a place that is found here on earth but is ruled by the heaven above – in other words, a church) and received postcards from local residents carrying their invocations. Such invocations are closely related to the act of praying, confessing sins and worries, and then transferring wounds perhaps very much in the same manner as the drop the handkerchief game. Furthermore, the act of receiving the villagers’ postcards with their invocations written on them has a symbolic and shamanistic meaning. This way, the artist lends an ear to their worries and embraces their wounds, thereby healing them as far as the villagers are concerned. Since participants resolve their inner wounds by revealing them, the artist serves as an impetus and mediator. She becomes a shaman (Joseph Beuys asserts that all artists are shamans).
As mentioned above, the artist invites each participant to share his or her internal monologue (wounds) in the form of written texts. Here lies the artist. She looks relaxed and at the same time somewhat defenceless. She covers herself with tanned deerskin as if it were clothing or a blanket. A group of five immigrants (two from Uzbekistan and one each from China, Turkey and Italy) currently living in Korea write down their stories of discrimination on leather using irons. The artist has asked them share such stories, which not only reflect her own interest in social issues (such as the situations of immigrant workers) but also encompass ontological wounds condensed deep within, going far beyond the simple problem of discrimination. When the participants incise their stories onto the surface of leather, the leather burns and smoke arises. Their wounds are resolved through metastasis, and within that process it is important to observe the leather burning and smoke arising. This is because it marks a symbolic phenomenon that records each step in the metastasis of the participants’ wounds onto the artist. It can be viewed as an archetype of the existing symbolic gestures and religious rites.
As I mentioned above, the participants’ wounds are transferred onto the artist through this process. Even though she is wrapped in leather, here the leather in fact replaces her body. Therefore, writing on the leather equates to writing on the artist’s body. In symbolic terms, the stories are etched on her body before it burns, gives off a smell and then goes up in smoke. Lee Minha becomes a burnt sacrifice. We single someone out as a scapegoat for our sins and offer that sacrifice to appease God’s wrath. Interestingly, René Girard regards this sacrificial process as part of our institutional frame (institutional mechanism) that transcends religious rites. The success of any sound and healthy system depends on how well we recognise scapegoats, who could reflect, transfer and alleviate people’s violent nature and desires (desire mechanism), turn people into scapegoats and offer sacrifice. This way, religion serves as a counterweight in the society steeped in violence, where the core system is built upon sacrificial blood.
In the future, Lee Minha is most likely to visit areas of conflict across the world where violence prevails. She will profess herself to be a shaman and sacrifice. A shaman mediates the sacred and the profane, and crosses the boundaries between life and death. Leather is taken from dead animals and therefore embodies death (corpses). Writing on corpses and overcoming death result in regeneration. From participants’ point of view, the death of the scapegoat (shaman) heals wounds and generates new life by reducing violence (violence and desires). The artist sometimes puts on such an emblem of death (leather inscribed with wounds and therefore a body of burning flesh and blood) as if it were clothing, and sometimes uses it as a blanket to cover herself. Sometimes it even works like a screen onto which the world’s agony, violence and disputes are projected.
In Greek, anaphora means remembrance and anamnesis means recollection – a memory deeper than remembrance, an archetypal memory, a memory of existence in its original state. In addition, hesychia refers to inner tranquillity. These three words are central to the work of Lee Minha and provide contextual insights based in humanities. It can be inferred that Lee aims to remind us of the archetypal existence while restoring and reconstructing the original state of existence. Only after we’ve experienced a process of self-reflection that forces us confront ‘true self’ (all of which perhaps leads to regeneration beyond death, and therefore can be seen as reform as well as cleansing rituals), can we regain inner tranquillity. Art is a narrative technique. The act of writing stories on leather can be compared to the act of writing a book. The book can be completed through the culturology of confessions that delicately weaves together the sacred and the profane, wounds and cures, violence and sacrifice (or Violence and the Sacred according to René Girard) as well as amusement and religious rites.
from the Solo Exhibition Catalog September. 2017