Tag Archives: Goyang Residency

2018.11 Science of fire, embodied language, and “ unforgettable things” (Namsoo Kim)

Lee Minha: Science of fire, embodied language, and “ unforgettable things”

Namsoo Kim, Choreography critic


#1. “Light plays upon and laughs over the surface of things, but only heat penetrates.” (Gaston Bachelard, Psychoanalysis of Fire)

#2. “If the nature of such life or moment required that it be unforgettable, that predict would imply not a falsehood but merely a claim unfulfilled by men, and probably also a reference to a realm in which it is fulfilled: God’s remembrance” (Walter Benjamin, The Task of the Translator)

By presenting a form of intentional anachronism Lee Minha’s work reminds me of the artwork of the ancients, who have been banished into the future (the present). The work is archaic in style, as if it were scooped out of the historical tides of time, and brings forth a sacred language, not decorative, into the present, as “grand marks carved in the sky” and “the scribbles of the language of god”. What does it mean to recollect the sacredness of the past in this hyper-connected, mega-machined society? Which aspects of this contemporaneity in the artwork harnesses a form of sacredness, which is sometimes not unlike the ideology and business of religion? Lee’s work is a vivid example of a “secret treaty between the primitive and now”—a form of contemporaneity espoused by Giorgio Agamben. The work ties different eras together and make a tight knot, reminding us of a Gordian Knot that leads to a unified spirituality, not an insoluble mystery. A sudden appearance of an enigma, so to speak.
Tanning of sheepskin and inscribing text with a heated iron on the smooth surface is considered as a vernacular practice, and it is now treated as an ancient tradition before the modern era, from which it takes place. Not unlike shepherds who lived in caves and nomads of the nomadic era, something once visible disappears into an invisible realm. In this respect Lee Minha is a very special visionary who shows what has disappeared. According to Collin Wilson, a “visionary” starts from a point where anyone can understand, and jumps to a higher realm where the ordinary cannot reach”. She opens the hidden dimension as a visionary in the dark, by writing the life of the other side through a science of fire. The opening and closing of the hidden dimension is most prevalent in deserted sites. This is why the wilderness holds a special space in Lee’s work.

What Lee Minha is performing in her work is not a simple scorching nor branding of text onto leather. Here is an artist who desires (if this can be named) to willingly sacrifice herself in exchange for visualizing Gnosis, or knowledge of spiritual mysteries. Lee takes risks when engraining the existential condition in her work because it requires not only skillful hands or technical gestures, but the artist as an empirical self who endlessly throws herself into a kiln. A recognition, that a life of a scapegoat and that of a human are not just marked as equal, but are considered equal, makes this self-immolation possible. It is impossible to bring the hidden dimension forward without a sacrifice.

An artwork that is technically seamless indicates nothing more than its being taken into the fold of the fabrication of the modern era. Meanwhile, Lee Minha struggles and gives herself up to the expression of text as marks from the hands of god to the realm of the mortals. The concept of exchange bridges a sublime infinity and the limited.


#3. “In order to satisfy the Arabs, the enclosed space must have (…) an open view..” (Edward Hall, The Hidden Dimension)

As a philosopher once said, “language is the house of being.” Lee Minha dwells in language. To be specific, it is the language of a larval-subject [sujet larvaires, Gilles Deleuze]. The ‘larval-letter’ crawls and roars — like Roaratorio by John Cage — and its calligraphy wiggles and squirms. The strokes of the letter, the tracks and the traces are signs of its vitality (also its angle and direction). The larval-letter shouts out into the direction of a fork — this way!— as if to engrave the eternal trace of the way. Some letters that once belonged to god cannot be pronounced.

Therefore, ‘the house’ is a place to return to. When one is born ‘the presence’ is blessed and anointed, but we all forget their faceless beings — pristine, unrefined yet chaotic, without characteristic eyes, noses, and mouths. The house is a place for seeds where all the beings gather to recover their original existence, prior to language or the texture of things. Lee Minha writes stories and a history of people in a simple and clear language, with the power of fire and iron, so that the scorching sound and smell sends them back to ‘the house’. This is what ‘the house’ is for.

The above is one possible thought for the reason why artist Lee Minha attempts to reveal gnosis, or spiritual knowledge, by scorching sheepskin with an iron like a tanner. However, the method, ironing as a fruit of the science of fire (though modern science cannot answer to what fire really is) is another aspect of the work that deserves attention. The artist imprints text on sheepskin with an iron heated by the fire of god—instruments from an ancient era. Yet, unlike palimpsest, her inscription is conducted once and for all. Written without corrections, the work is a book written with the language or science of fire. Consequently, all living beings have a place to return, ‘the house’ that will last, and the history of a visionary that reveals this hidden dimension continues. Hence, Lee’s work requires us to see it with a dimension of myth and adventure. It is inevitable, in regards to the spiritual aspect of the work.

Ironing, in the work of Lee Minha, is not of light but of heat that penetrates. This heat recalls a scorching sound on skin, the burning smell and pain from a collective unconscious passed down from the ancient age and the medieval age. On the surface of textured sheepskin, the chronicling of a collective memory is revealed. It forms a tableau the artist works on that carries archetypal memories accumulated under the skin. The surface bears traces of life, its hardship, and the ethical imperative of remembering. This is only possible within ‘god’s remembrance’ (Walter Benjamin). In this regard Lee’s work is accompanied by a religious aspect. Those who bear every corner of life—some would dare call it empathy—, from its unfolding, its severe depth, and its ups and downs, come closer to a Leibnizian concept of god. Therefore, it is god who is confessing—some confessions are divine.


#4. “Looking for one’s own nothingness in a fire that speaks of human greatness.” (Empedocles)

The topology of Lee Minha’s work contains the following: Even a divine being needs a specific context, foreshadowing, and allegory in order to present itself in front of today’s human spirit — in layers and plys, immediacy and presence, olfactory minds, and things highly Gnostic. Things that become gradually outdated and discarded within the waves of New Media art. In a time of New Media that replaces older forms of media the artist suddenly and conspicuously summons the primitive sign of the medium. She does so as if she argues that all lives are immortal, and thus should not be forgotten. It is as though she testifies that what lasts in memory is a sign that teaches us immortality. “It is a life that without monument, without memory, perhaps without witness, must remain unforgotten. It cannot be forgotten. (Walter Benjamin, An Aesthetic of Redemption (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 44). An absolute positivity lies deep inside the marks made through the science of fire, and appears as a transcended negativity – like that of a phoenix.


“ I blinked my eyes in a sandstorm and I was at Incheon.”

“A heartless act is only selfish and self-satisfactory”

“In fact I long for people deep in my heart”

“My marriage demanded me to live in a different way”

“Discriminations surged my life like rustling paper”


Lee Minha’s work is tinged with a religious promise, like the story of a human who jumps into the flame and is revived like a phoenix with the signs and marks of eternity. There is a tacit implication that an unforgettable essence works as a measure of intensity. In the project Anamnesis (2017) the artist lies down like a tableau in which the ironing is symbolically performed, and in which diverse stories of those from different regions are incised like aphorisms in their own foreign languages. In that moment the body of the artist is the Tower of Babel, as ‘the house’ where heterogeneous language returns. Lee provides her own body as a room for dispersed languages to gather to become spiritual seed. The body is simultaneously the flesh of the scapegoat, a body in flames, and a pile of ash. In the next moment, it rises as another life form from its ashes. It is “a bird of fire” for Gaston Bachelard, and for Lee, it “recollection”. Why does she recollect? Perhaps it is because of Gnosis - the fact that one, like everyone else becomes a phoenix when one realizes it. Through the ritual of sacrifice and by the science of fire, language is embodied onto flesh, appearing as the phenomenon of ‘recollection’.

In some projects Lee Minha not only performs the imprinting of text but also intones the text, bringing it into the present. By her chanting, text becomes alive with flame—it is not canned and preserved. Then, the text resonates within the space of the shepherd’s expansive cave, or a medieval library with an expanded domed ceiling. By intoning while transcribing, the very basis of recollection, the artist creates an acoustic image, opening a dimension that is both visual and conceptual. The same happens in the movie, Diary of a Country Priest, by Robert Bresson—in the scene in which a young priest of declining health writes his diary in agony—, the sentence is written on the blank space of the scene as it is read with a voiceover. The subtitles of the movie visualize the sentence, written once again. Listening to what is verbalized with one’s own voice is the foundation of an unforgettable life, and a life that is revived from the echoing of space. This spatiality is revealed in the performance of the artist.

Every life is a voyage to an ocean of pain. It is not a surprise when one encounters heavy storms—becoming nearly shipwrecked. This agony gets caught up in a vicious circle of the neoliberal agenda. Despite all this, Lee Minha does not attempt to resists the social. Rather, she argues that we can replace our existing sets of mentality with a completely new Tabula Rasa, transcribing what has been forgotten in the deep oblivion. Furthermore, she argues that this needs to be recollected. Why? Because this cannot be forgotten in the first place. Though life may be a moment in time, it is not meaningless —the instant, anonymous, ephemeral moment, are themselves signals of eternity. The temporality of the moment are captured and materialized by the language of fire. It is embodied by becoming a part of oneself, rather than through others. Because in navigating an ocean of pain through Gnosis, one might fall into an aimless religious routine, Lee asks us to see the essence of life as physical sensation, self-sacrifice, recollection and revival. No, she sends shock waves.

I would like to pose this question once again. Why does Lee Minha pursue her own spiritual language, in her work, by scorching sheepskin like a tanner? Iron has the concentrated power of fire on its tip, not unlike St. Elmo’s fire. As if Magellan’s fleet encountered the phenomenon in which a lightning strike created a glowing ball on top of the mast when they turned the corner through the vast Patagonian valley—following their destiny without any promise or religious faith. Allegedly, the crew prayed calling out the holy names of saints. Lee’s work provokes the same urge. God watch over us! Through the darkness a “muffled and distant, voice of god is unintelligible but resonates beyond the doors”. This is what we need to listen to, and burn with iron until it resonates. Iron has its secrets. A divine power is hidden at its tip as a ‘science of fire’ and with its concentrated power, drives life to be remembered forever, wherein each surface collides. Thus a “life unforgettable” is sensory. It follows the sensory channels.

The is the moment when a relief made by flames, appears and can be sensed by a primitive instinct. As I continue to ponder the Korean word, natanada (to appear), I am wrapped by a sensation of divinity all around – that which expresses itself in a language of “fire,” “smoke” and “smell”, in Lee’s work. Surrounded by five senses, we inhale the heat of life, the burning smell, and it’s stimulant all at once. All this is inevitable, in work of Lee Minha.

(MMCA Residency Goyang)

2018. 11 이민하: 불로 쓴 말 (김도희)

이 민 하 : 불로 쓴 말

김도희 (작가)

1.  간곡한 바람은 언제나 반복적이다. 기도문 필사는 손을 움직임과 동시에 목청 아래로 지속적으로 발음을 내려 보내 몸속에 그 말이 깃들기 바라는 행위이다. 이민하의 불로 쓰는 말, 인두 필사는 추상적 개념의 메시지, 그리고 육신을 연상시키는 가죽, 언 듯 보아 이 같은 반대의 요소 사이를 오간다. 겉과 속, 바꾸어 말하면 외부와 내부, 또 다르게 말하면 그림자와 이데아계 사이에 통로를 내고 넓혀 선명하게 한다. 새겨지는 것이 표면 속으로 침투하고 겹쳐지고 파고 들면 스며든다고 바꿔 말한다. 종이가 기름을 만나면 투명해지고 열이 가죽을 만나면 그을음이 눌어 앉는다. 이민하의 작업은 이러한 상반된 요소 사이를 기도하듯 오가는 행위를 통해 인간의 겹쳐진 몸을 표현하는 것 같다.

 2.  손에는 열이 흐르는 인두가 쥐어져 있고 그 아래에 가죽이 펼쳐있다. 메시지를 전달하는 매체인 인두가 가죽 표면 위에 글씨를 남긴다. 펜은 종이 위 마찰을 일으키며 잉크를 남기지만, 인두는 피시식 치직 연기를 피워 올리며 가죽을 태우고 흔적을 남긴다. 성경에서 십계명이 새겨지는 순간, ‘온 백성이 천둥소리와 번개와 나팔소리를 듣고 산의 연기를 보았다.’ (출애굽기 20:18-20). 십계명이 구전이 아니라 반드시 ‘번개와 연기를 동반하여 비석에 새겨졌다’며 성경에 새겨져야(필사) 했던 이유는 그제야 비로소 말씀의 힘이 강한 실재감을 일으켜 믿음을 고취시키기 때문이다. ‘있으라.’ 말씀 한마디로 현상계를 창조한 신의 ‘말’은 단순한 ‘말’이 아니다. 산이 되고, 사람이 되니 ‘속’을 빚는 힘이다. 그런데 이 ‘말’이 현상계인 ‘속’이 되면서 한계와 모순은 시작된다. 이민하의 작업에서는 이런 모순된 두 가지 축이 엿보인다. 육신을 초월한 것에 닿고자 하는 마음이 한 축, 그리고 그러한 마음의 양상이 물질(육체에 기반 한 인간 실존)에 따라 움직이기 시작할 때 일어나는 파괴적 상황이 다른 한 축이다. ‘번제’는 그런 모순의 일례이다. 육신을 정화하고 신에게 닿기 위해 죄를 범한 자기를 죽이는 대신 죄 없는 짐승을 제물로 삼는다. 죽이고 피를 보고, 태워서 하늘로 상승하는 연기와 그 타는 냄새를 감상하며 그 염원이 하늘에 닿는 것처럼 느낀다. ‘아버지 제 몸이 타고 있어요!’ 소원은 고통이다. 갖지 못한 것에 관한 고통이 번제물을 통해 표현된다. 그렇게 따지면 번제는 하늘의 통각을 자극하려는 일이거나 나의 결핍에 따른 고통의 대리물을 찾는 행위이다. 번제물이 깨끗하고 순수할수록 그 고통이 강조된다.

그녀는 커다란 가죽을 입은 듯, 덮은 듯, 죽은 듯 누워있다. 고통 받는 여자들이 둘러 앉아 그 위에 인두로 상처 입은 마음을 말로 새긴다. 작가는 고통의 대리인이 되기 위한 계획과 목적을 가지고 나사렛 예수처럼 가죽 아래에 누워있다. 예수가 당한 육체적 고통에 관한 묘사가 치밀하고 극적일수록 신의 사랑이 강조되는 아이러니. 필사를 하는 사람들의 고통, 가죽에서 피어오르는 연기가 강조될수록 그 아래 누운 예술가의 몸은 ‘번제물’로서의 순결한 매체가 된다. 메시지가 가죽의 타는 냄새와 소리로 치환되니 이것은 ‘번제’다. 현상계로 침투하는 주술적 힘을 상상한다. 참가자들의 주문과도 같은 알아들을 수 없는 말들은 이교도의 주문처럼 들린다. 남겨진 가죽은 예수가 무덤 속에 남겨 두었다는 피 묻은 헝겊과 같이 실재 고통의 증거 ‘아나포라 Anaphora-기억해 내기’이자 번제의 대리물이다. 아마 그들의 체증을 조금은 완화 ‘헤시키아 Hesychia-내적평안’되었을 것이다.

3. 나는 감정에너지 보존의 법칙을 믿는다. 감정은 보이지 않지만 실재하는 에너지로 현상계와 맞물린다. 작게는 몸이고 크게는 우주. 번제물과 희생양은 이러한 에너지를 해소하거나 전이시키는 매체이다. 많은 경우 인간은 자기 행동이 용납되는 조건 하에서는 무슨 일이든 하게 된다. 논리와 이성은 여기서 억압된 인간 감정에너지 표출의 수단을 찾아 대령하거나 죽일 수 있는 상황에서 살육의 명분을 제공한다. 인간의 역사는 ‘종교’와 ‘이데올로기’ 즉, 유일신과 집단적 광기의 임계점이 낮은 곳에 유동 창궐하여 살육의 원인을 미화해 온 것으로 점철되어 있다. 이민하의 불도장은 대량학살이 일어난 곳, 분쟁지역, 자연재해가 있는 곳, 광기의 희생양이 대거 발생한 곳의 좌표에 기계적으로 도착해 ‘쿵!’, ‘쿵!’ 내리찍는다. 비극이 이미 벌어졌거나 벌어지는 중이므로, 이 도장 찍기는 양피지 위의 ‘기록’이자 ‘징표’로도 보인다. 이전의 필사가 그러하듯 가죽 위 연기와 그을음을 통해 참상과 고통을 상기할 수 있겠지만 나는 여기서 어떤 파멸의 징조와 좌절을 담은 저주(파괴적 소망)의 이미지 역시 떠올린다. 도장이 연기를 피우고 지나간 자리에는 정 반대의 말, ‘신의 가호를…’같은 기도 구절이 남아 있기 때문이다. 염원은 다시 저주처럼 자기를 파괴하는 중이다. 좌표축 도장 찍기의 기계성은 욕망의 기계가 된 인간이 그 욕망에 냉정히 파괴되는 귀결이자 순리이다. 원인에 따른 자연한 귀결을 우리는 ‘신의 뜻’이라 부른다.

4. 쪽방촌과 바우하우스, 공감의 좌표뜨기

이민하는 바우하우스 판상형 주택의 아이디어가 한국에서 경제적 효율만 남아 쪽방이 되어버린 사연을 추적했다. 그리고 바우하우스의 높은 창, 빛을 투과하며 열린 형태로 이 방의 사연을 펼쳤다. 콩댐을 한 장판지로 만든 이 구조물은 입방체의 집을 단순히 펼친 모양이기도 하지만 창의 후광을 입은 십자가와 닮았다. 상자를 펼치면 그 펼쳐진 내부공간은 드러난 마음처럼 읽힌다. 살이 타는 감각적 자극이 사라진 곳에서 나는 함께 침묵을 유지한다. 쪽방의 장판지를 칼로 도려낸 연꽃 만다라는 ‘고통’을 확산 전이하지 않는다. 그러니 도려냈다기 보다는 피워냈다고 해야 옳다. 여기서 타인의 경험은 일방적 말씀으로 판별되는 ‘선’과 ‘악’으로 증폭되지 않았다. 대신 인간 삶, 보편의 고통으로 와 닿는다. 원인에 관한 분노와 원망이라는 누적된 감정이 없기에 징벌과 저주, 그리고 이에 따른 희생양과 번제물을 요구하지 않는다. 이 평화로움은 ‘안심’, 즉 나에게로 돌아오는 파괴력이 없는 중에서 그 업의 연쇄가 소거되는 상태이다. 조금 과장하면 가시관을 쓰고 피가 낭자한 고통받는 메시아가 사라진 말레비치의 십자가에 비유할 것이다. 감정의 대리물을 소급해 죄를 짊어지고 기꺼이 죽었던 예수가 ‘너희 죄를 사하였다’ 함은 본인 이후로 욕망과 감정의 ‘번제물’을 삼지 말라한 것은 아니었을까. 이민하가 예술을 통해 세상에 끼치고자 한다던 그 정신적 함양이란 이런 부분이 아니었을까.

국립현대미술관 고양레지던시 협업프로젝트