by Sylbee Kim and Christina Gigliotti
Image credit: Sylbee Kim, The Red Liquid and Narcissus, Installation View, Nevan Contempo, 2017
*This conversation between artist Sylbee Kim and curator Christina Gigliotti took place between January 22nd and August 21st, 2017, and accompanied the exhibition The Red Liquid and Narcissus (Nevan Contempo, Prague, 2017). Some exchanges are omitted and the emails below have been partially edited.
As discussed, I was thinking to initiate this dialogue to be later open to the general public. The aim would be to expose key thoughts that will found the entire process of developing The Red Liquid and Narcissus. I am curious to see whether this live accumulation could naturally become an artifact for the exhibition, and I happily perceive you as a reliable partner to build this up together!
I once addressed to you the strange déjà-vu between U.S. media reports on Donald Trump mirroring Korean reports on Park Geunhye. The year 2016 was extremely shocking for every part of the world, and South Koreans also witnessed one of the lowest political moments of our time – a long-term and broad political concealment had reached a level that burst bare right in front of us. It felt like a kind of hyper-fiction that forces you to accept it when it actualizes in reality. The aftermath led to enormous gatherings of people who formed together in protest.
Noticing the lapse of our four years’ time, I see some parallels in other geographies where ideas of the future are becoming jeopardized as well. One term that recently popped out in the media struck me at the coming of the Trump government: “The Age of Hyper-Uncertainty”.
Within this reality, my interest to deal with a certain question grows more and more – how and why continue with art? I chose art, probably because it is the only way for me to effectively face hyper-uncertainty, without falling into the binary of denial or acceptance.
Could death be the only available confirmation? How do we work and live with death? I came to a temporary conclusion – death is the most potent weapon and at the same time greatest fear for the agents and supremacies in this hyper-uncertainty. I wish to continue to elaborate these unsolved hypotheses somehow.
- Death is around all the time in life.
- This death is yet concealed to support indignities in life.
Could this thought also be connected to your own practice in art?
I want to jump right in and talk about death with you. I’ll tell you about the anxieties that manifested themselves into the daytime nightmares I had after the U.S. presidential election results came in. Almost every day for about two weeks in January, I found myself facing or picturing my own death. My deaths came swiftly and surprisingly. One day, I’m walking down the street, a tram passes – I imagine myself being hit by it. The next day, someone pushes me onto the subway tracks. Later on, I’m in a car accident on a snowy highway. My death is always so close to me. Only now do I realize that my sudden deaths are just stand-ins for a greater fear, which I think is actually a complete loss of control. I’m not sure if the most potent weapon used by rulers is death itself, but perhaps the ability to take away from us lives in which we feel equal or free, or that our actions make a difference – that we have a say in what happens in the present and near future. Perhaps the power lies less in taking away your life, but instead in taking away your voice. Silence is its own kind of death too. What do you think?
It’s hard to tell if things are more uncertain now than ever before, as we haven’t lived in any other age, but as I read the daily news I do believe we are heading towards a time where it is becoming more and more difficult to tell what is real and what is not. Recently we’ve been given the term “alternative facts,” which is undoubtedly a phrase right out of Orwell’s 1984. Yesterday, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren claimed that “The truth is out of order,” and this worries me. Once we are no longer able to tell the difference between truth and falsehood, what kind of evil will take place right under our noses? How will we know if we ourselves are making the right choices?
What do people fear more – death, or suppression? Death, or life under autocratic rule? This makes me think of how for only less than three decades the Czech Republic has been out of the control of the Soviet empire. In Adam Curtis’s film Hyper-normalization, there is footage of an interview with a young Russian woman from the 1980s living under this regime. The interviewer asks, “What do you wish for? What are your dreams?” and the woman responds, “I don’t wish for anything. I don’t have any dreams, even if I did, they wouldn’t come true.”
I’m wondering if you’ll elaborate on what you mean by saying that death is concealed to support indignities in life. Do you mean that, in order for things to move forward, we must forget about death most of the time? Or that, rulers put on a great charade to make it seem like everything is fine, when in fact the world is falling apart?
Do you see making art as a kind of armor or refuge for you in light of death, or a response or kind of affirmation of the fact that you are alive at this very time, like trying to make something out of this short period of existence?
It is a curious thing, to think about the psychological mechanism of how the U.S. election might have influenced your visions of approaching death. They are such vivid and clear images, of the “stand-ins” – are we being chased? Or are we chasing something that disappears into thin air after turning the corner?
Here, I tried to visualize my explanation of the concealment:
- The only certain belief is that life and death exist, combined, which is marked by each body (yet even this seems to be challenged by plutocratic biotechnology).
- Many parallels are created, among which here I depicted an impression of the separation of life and death by capitalist supremacy.
- So with the concealment/stand-in/suppression, dubious powers accomplish to cover our and others’ deaths, to promote equally dubious values. In doing so, this breaks the bond of life and death, be it mine or to the others’.
- (I would rather wish that silence were freed from the association of death, described as a negative result of oppression. Silence marks sound and vice versa, and I believe they are two names of one.)
Making art: I think it is not enough to just mirror these and other parallels. For understanding what surrounds me, mirrors and parallels are good tools – but if I stop there, my art will end up being a 1:1 representation, no matter from how close or far it might reflect reality. What I try to do is to digest the observations into something that seems to be irrelevant or unrelated. Setting up mysterious and abrupt linkages, the severed bond of life and death could be rejoined, hopefully.
Through the questioning of art, anything should be regenerated and switched over and over, like living and dying body cells. It should be part of this world, nothing transcendental or escapist.
The half of my two months’ stay in Prague has already passed, and the recognition of my ignorance around Central European politics and history led me to an unarmed and naive appreciation of every aspect of this temporary visit. I notice there can be so many different poles, whenever my standing axe switches.
You mentioned the regeneration of cells – in The Red Liquid and Narcissus one can find certain elements from the human body singled out and intensified or magnified like blood, cells, organs. The blood red environment for me acts as a catalyst for connecting realities. In one way, the pulsating body is present; I can hear its heart beating as if I’m inside of it. On another parallel, these elements could represent the carnage and death or destruction that is left behind by the violence that the supremacies we have been speaking about leave in their wake during their struggle for power and control.
I don’t want to believe that the inflated human ego is just as much a part of our physiological makeup as our bones and cells, but these connections do make me wonder if life could be lived any other way, without unnecessary violence and destruction. Historically speaking, I don’t feel so optimistic – sometimes I feel like time is repeating itself or going backwards. I think this could partially be because of the concealment that you speak of. For example, I was taught at school and in my surroundings growing up in the U.S. to believe that the state of the world is getting infinitely better as time passes, that things are moving in a linear progression, no looking back. It took me a long time to un-learn this, not only because it was so deeply engrained, but also because it was something I wanted to believe – “It gets better.” I think this kind of thinking is dangerous, because it blinds you to what’s really going on, and paralyzes you into inaction. In a way, then, exposing this concealment might be a first step to unraveling the curtain completely.
All the best from Prague,
It is such a delight to read the work gives you the sensation of being inside a body! You witnessed my attempts to insert war images, but in the end, I always needed to come back to the key idea of the body as a political universe. So there are organs, cells, fluids and tissues – they are false and incomplete models, strange yet familiar. At the same time, it is definitely related to the development of warfare – how technology enabled us to look into and around the body.
Initially I was thinking of narcissism as an analogy for how we present and observe our bodies, from Donald Trump to cryogenically frozen humans. By now, images of diving into your own body prevail in the work. In contrast, returning to the European art-historical icon of Narcissus, I revised the image and transformed it into an independent woman observing the alterations of our known cycle of physical life and death.
Even the most progressive thoughts and minds deteriorate. Making sure not to forget this aspect, and reexamining your own projections often would be the only thing that might work. Working in art for me means resisting against one’s own blindness that ‘naturally’ develops through gathering experiences and getting older. So we are destined to experiment the valid imagination for 2017, and hopefully we can move on after this, being able to recreate the values until our deaths, without falling to the trap of morbid blindness.