The Creative Time of Thermocline: Conflicts between and Becomings of Different Time-Spaces

Wonil Rhee, Curator of the Exhibition

History - The 20th Century - The Sea of Humans There was a picture of a man who had been at once thrown right in the middle of the world history and, simultaneously, out of the world. It was a press photo of an Asian in German military uniform who waslooking off into nothingness as if resigned to all while being held for interrogation at the US military base immediately after the Normandy invasion. It was supposed that, though not highly likely, he could be a Japanese guy because there were Asian prisoners of the Russian army or mercenaries in the German troops. However, the caption of the photo said that the prisoner identified himself as a Korean. He could not even figure out what the interrogators said and no one in the military base could understand his language. The man seems to have chosen 'silence' rather than words and disappeared from the official history, just leaving this black-and-white news photo. You were not allowed to locate the final destination of these strange turns of his fortune. I thought that perhaps, he might have not wanted to complain of any injustice and wrong or require his due portion in history; but, rather, it appears to me that he only desired to ask them to return him to his home. Nevertheless, he was unable to make even this desperate wish understood by them, only to vanish into history hopelessly and absurdly.

Neither do I intend to exhaust myself by using this picture as a means to fulfill my 'artful' mission as a curator; nor do I dream of the historical restoration of the subaltern, the minority that ought to be reestimated or reconstructed, encouraged by the passion for documentation associated with press photos. What I can say is that, in the reality of the photo where even all of the prospects and memories of the subject were completely sealed off and even the communication between minds based on reason and consciousness was clearly denied, blockaded and not given, I just wondered what kind of the sea of time he was looking at: Where was the horizon he was staring at placed, on the sea of the 20th century humans who longed for the immaculate ocean; and what will the posterior history comment about his gaze?

Beginning from the story of an Asian man in the photo who escaped out of history after leaving the unanswerable questions behind, I would like to describe 'the 20th century of Asia' within world history, Asian modernity which has penetrated the 'Meta History' as the structure of its grand narrative, and the history of Asian contemporary art which, by reflecting the unique modernity peculiar to Asia just like a mirror, has born confusion, ambiguity, and absurdity as the driving force of creation. When I first saw the picture of the Korean soldier in Normandy, my only impression of him was that he had humble but very hostile eyes. And, in his gaze, I could witness the moment of 'standstill' when the ego's internal and exterior visual perception toward the world were totally broken. That moment of short sigh of 'standstill', I found the temporality all of whose messages or intentions, whether be it history, ideology, war or anything, were castrated or removed and, thereby, which existed as an emptied sign. It resembled the eyes of an animal, caged in the zoo and crouching on the ground, where deep despair and the desire of escape were mixed. For me, it was the 'situation where a text escapes out of itself', a kind of bursting sound suggestive of the break of the discontinuity and disconnection of fixed reading, 'fuzziness' and 'hallucination', and the very condition of 'absurdity' and 'confusion'. His poorlooking body evidences the state where the corporality as the common place of desire and reason is destroyed, existing as the sign of the anomie of 'loss' and 'absence' which occurs when you resist against extremely unendurable noise coming from the outside regularly. His body and stationary pupils disclose the tendency of self-torment and self-hatred which devour even the secret shelter of self-love, bringing the consequence of exhausting, squandering the fate of the self. What only remains in the place that has been evacuated of both body and soul in that way is meaningless 'monologue' like nonsense murmuring. The message of that blind and nonpurposive 'confusion' is nothing more than the painful confirmation of the reflective self-existence, for the 'murmuring' does not suppose any external receiver and thus, is a lonely boomerang returning towards the self. This condition of 'panic' where the pure functional horizons of the visual and auditory (the American soldiers' interrogation was a mere noise to the Korean man) perception toward the external world are both eliminated at the same time brought about the total 'overturn' of all sensory orders, which interrupts the rapid passage of time and ultimately promotes the emergence of the synesthetic world of 'disorder'.

Post History - the 21st Century - Creative Time and New Sea At this time when we have crossed the threshold of the 21st century, looking back to the 20th century's vicissitudes and sufferings of Asians represented by the Korean in Normandy, I am looking up into the peculiar modernity of Asia which has underwent the historical times and events different from that of the West, the modernity that is pregnant with an infinity of varieties and mutations. The wandering, the Diaspora, the nomadic situation that the Korean had to experience (not only the movement from Korea to Japan, Manchuria, Russia, Germany and the coast of Normandy in France, but also the journey of the communicative negligence, indifference, and confusion ranging from Japanese, Mongolian, Russian, and German, to the final English interrogation), whether he liked it or loathed it, comprehensively symbolizes and resembles the temporality of Asian modernity (that is, the experiences running through the multiple layers of dissimilar realities) too much to be underestimated as a mere personal history of one man. What I would like to do here is neither to expose the ordeals of a people or an Asian as a victim to the power struggles of the Great Powers through the wretched life of an individual; nor to remind you of the terrible, detailed battle scenes of the 20th century or the miserable life in prisoner-of-war camps; nor to bring to light the part of the tragic history of Asia where the rights and claims of the minorities were disregarded and the fate of both individuals and communities were determined by the agreements and decisions of big powers. Rather, I aim to demonstrate my opinion as an observer that Asian modernity, that will be discussed here, and the common features of Asian contemporary art, that have, directly and indirectly, evidenced Asian modernity like the steady flow of a great river are full of psychological panic, extreme confusion, chaos, incongruity, unstableness, incompleteness, absurdity, and 'creative paradox' that passes through all these states, that are, in many parts, similar to what the lonely Korean experienced.

Again, this is also an assertion that Asian modernity and the notion of 'Asia' are different from those in the imagination and desire invented from an European point of view (as is widely known, the notion originated in the topographical interpretation of the present Middle Eastern region that had been pictured by ancient Greeks). The narrative structure of 'Meta History' peculiar to Asia that has been built on the foundation of the inflow of the Western technological civilization and advanced culture as well as the assimilations and conflicts between all kinds of historical connections related to each Asian region, politics, religion, language and others is quite far from the Hegelian framework of world history. To put it another way, Asian modernity that Asian artists are now paying attention to and working with is founded upon the radical experiences of incessant comings and goings, inflections, and disconnections among the regions in and outside of its own topological territory. It is premised on the deconstruction and reorganization of the historical standard of world order which initially came out in the West, continuing from Montesquieu, Hegel to Marx. If the key words of the 19th century that crossed the Atlantic Ocean, taking off the cloak of revolution, the colonization and oppression of Asia, South America and Africa with the end of the period of Pax Britannica, and those of the 20th century that opened the epoch of Pax Americana (the age of the masses, the revolution of scientific technology, consumer culture, film, cars, sports, and so on) were reflected in or manifested by the tradition of the Western avant-garde from Dadaism to YBA, all the phenomena such as the Chinese avant-garde like 'Cynical Realism' or 'Political Pop' that made a radical change from social realism after experiencing the Tienanmen Square Protest, the Japanese 'Manga' or 'J-Pop', the pluralization of 1990s' Korean art since Korean modernist art and the Minjung art (People's art) movement, the mixture and deconstruction of myths, religions, and histories in Indian contemporary art, and the religious comments or the complex cultures of post-colonial hybridization in East Asia can be understood only in the context of the Asian 'deconstruction' and 'reorganization' which give forth the values and realities that can be neither explained nor represented in the process of globalization. This process of deconstruction, reorganization and recontextualization turns out to have in common with the Baudrillardian idea of 'rematerialization' or Roy Ascott's concept of 'de-materialization', the intensification of the former in terms of the digital.

From what I have personally observed in India, China, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Tibet and so on, the religious cultural reality which penetrates the spiritual world of Asians can be marked by the irony that, though traced to the Middle East, Christianity was reimported to Asia after having been Westernized, and the repeated deconstruction and reorganization of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Taoism, Confucianism, Judaism, Sikhism and others as a result of being mixed with shamanism and countless folk religions. This phenomenon has been established as another spiritual axis of hybridism and incongruity in Asia. In fact, in the 2006 Singapore Biennale (curated by Fumio Nanjo), the relationships of mutual influences of religious cultural situations of Asian countries and their correlations with politics, economy, and daily life were effectively discursified under the theme of 'Belief'.
The varied historical, cultural, religious, and linguistic backgrounds of the participating artists' birthplaces like Chinese cultural areas(China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet), Indian cultural areas(India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka), Southeast Asia(Singapore, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar), Central Asia(Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan), and the Middle East(Israel, Lebanon) not only has linked the radical streams of changing politics, economy, religion, and society which have interpenetrated the 'Age of Extremes', as was explained by Eric Hobsbawm, with the discourses of contemporary international art, but also has implicitly and incessantly proved Asian modernity and postmodernity that are by no means simple through the processes of the splits and mergers of deconstruction, reorganization, and recontextualization. At this point, through these 'deconstruction' and 'recontextualization', you can witness the change of the power relation between social evolution and art which are experienced by Asian artists. Here, I cannot but point out the 'ambiguity' in another context, which is like, in a way, unstable and uncertain 'fog'. Considering the dangerous situations where many Asian artists including Chinese are bent on taking off out-of-date forms of creation after seeing cultural multipolarization and merely pouring out works responding only to vague 'shockism', and where the so-called commercial 'star' artists who have succeeded in the international art market become role models for the young generation with their formal styles followed by increasing artists, there seems to be a sort of visual trap or fallacy deluding you that the identification, the homogenization with Western art and the meaningless 'self-reproduction' in community are the very embodiment of 'modernity'. It seems to me that this is a serious pathology facing contemporary art in many Asian countries. As a matter of fact, in this age where global capitalism is dominating all over the world, it can be said that Asians are exposed to the fate of respecting and following the new rules of success imposed by the overwhelming and overriding external orders, constantly feeling confusion and bewilderment about the strangeness and unfamiliarity of the rapidly changing realities. The great icon of 'success' occasionally deprives them of the freedom of imagination and thought, even of the inherent dignity, making them tormented by the obsession that 'failure' inevitably leads to backwardness, sinking into oblivion, in short, 'exclusion'. In this sense, if Asian art will not be able to open the horizon of unceasing innovations through original and independent creative ideas, strategies and imaginations, it might be degraded to the status of 'spectacle' and 'entertainment' that are helplessly at the mercy of the logic of post-capitalism as Frederic Jameson points out, or again, to the object of manipulation and editing by the West. Thus, Asian contemporary art is now confronting new values: they need to wage cultural resistance against Western art, to provide cultural alternatives to it, establish critical cooperation with it, and so forth. It is placed at the time of using of a double-edged strategy: both internal and external criticism for creating self-directed and self-esteeming values. Only that changing thought and cultural activity will enable Asian artists to correct the narrowaesthetic criterion and coordinates related to Asia, which are still standardized by the Western, exogenous point of view, and to indicate the errors.

To sum up, taking all that into consideration, I believe that the standpoint stated above would mean the careful examination of whether the concept of 'Asianess' that was newly invented to realize economic values, as an alternative discourse to globalism and postglobalism, is applied to art. It will also implies taking off the veil of the notion of 'contradiction and ambiguity under the influence of postcolonialsim', mentioned by Gayatri Spivak in her argument about the subaltern, from the Asian perspective, and simultaneously and paradoxically, these cultural activities of actively disclosing and foregrounding 'contradiction' and 'ambiguity' will be able to contribute to 'breaking global oppressive structures'.

The Mixture of Confusion, Disorder, Ambiguity, Contradiction: A Duet for Dream and Chaos Penetrating Multiple Realities The curatorial intention which runs through the artworks of the 117 participating artists from twenty countries was to clarify how 'ambiguity', as the main theme epitomizing the chaos, confusion, ambiguity, uncertainty and unstableness of Asian modernity, generates the affirmative, productive, creative time and space. After trying to answer the countless questions which lingered between wondering and anxiety while we were visiting many studios in the Asian regions, we came to have a desire to experiment to demonstrate that 'contradiction' and 'confusion' could have the same status and value as 'reason' or 'knowledge'. This allows the declaration that 'what is obvious' is 'what is (already) dead'. So we intends to depict, in the exhibition place, the jumbling of the contradictory experiences and the situation like 'fog' which is still so ambiguous as to be misunderstood as 'in-between space' and 'grey zoning' time and space, and to disclose as realistic as possible the almost 'hallucinative' situation violently oscillating between the cognitive strata whose boundaries become blurred. This might be a great paradox which pays attention to the creative time and space that quickens vehemently in extreme chaos and confusion, like the theory of chaos. In choosing the works to be presented, I sometimes got lost in the mysterious forest of colors, hovered around a 'signifier' which intentionally blocked the epistemological presumption about what was signified, and other times found the dopey attitude where the gestures of negating of reality and the activities of eliminating the referential function ascribed to images were enjoying walking a tightrope between reality and illusion. In other respect, this also implies that I discovered the elusive, intangible concepts existing in between the strata of the countless multi-realities and ideals of Asia were placed in the infathomable zone of 'hallucination', making the thickness of illusion.
This 'grey' spot of ambiguity is different from the intentional concealment, the attitude of mysticism in the technique of sfumato in the Western Renaissance. Rather, it is both scream and appeal toward the horizon which penetrates uneasiness, unpropitiousness, and unstableness and goes beyond the cognition, and severely criticizes even the human desire and instinctive curiosity to disclose truth, not being satisfied with 'acceptable' or 'kind' truth. These processes where the ambiguity and chaos in Asian contemporary art become a creative motive are, in some sense, closely associated with the four key words of Wittgenstein's philosophy in terms of formal aesthetics: the repetition of the process from �action�, �clarification�, and �transformation� to �silence�. I think that this soft, mediative process between transformation and silence will make you explore, in the state of chaos, the realm of nonlinear, inscrutable mystery in the ego and the world. It is the artistic practice of ceaseless self-renovation and selfextension. To put it another way, what penetrates the thoughts of Asian artists is the precarious duet of dream and chaos, which looks over the world of uncertainty that cannot be 'completely' reduced or absorbed to order and reason, the world that changes and shakes by virtue of the drifting eyes of the constant self who is subject to transformation and transmutation.

The categories I divided into, observing above common issues among Asian artists' creations, are as below:

1. Digitized Social, Political, and Economic Status
2. Asian Urbanization, Modernity, and Tailorism
3. Innovations from Tradition, Myth and Religion to Present
4. Globalism and Post-Colonial Issues
5. Identity Crisis, Conflicts, Hybridity, and Poly-Contexuality
6. New Daily Life Reflections: Grounding Realities, Dual realities, and Augmented Realities
7. Asian Imagination, Fantasy, and Black Humor
8. Cynicism, Satire, Absurdity, Paradox and Nonsensical Time and Space
9. Asian Metaphor, Mediation, Meditation and Skepticism

By summoning these common subjects, the exhibition aims at measuring the depth, height, length, and area of Asia with the weights and measures different from those of the Western Euclidean geometry, and inquiring into the Asian modernity which is dissimilar to the rationality peculiar to the Western modernity.

The Creative Time of 'Thermocline' 'Thermocline', the theme of the exhibition, means a layer in a large body of water where warm and cold currents meet to cause a sudden change of water temperature. As a metaphor, this natural phenomenon, that is, the collision between huge currents in the deep ocean symbolizes the encounter between West and non-West, Europe and Asia, and the world and Asia primarily and secondarily, the change of water temperature as the outcome of the physical collision represents a multi-layered system of meaning about the comprehensive change of history, culture, and topographical map, that is, the 'change-conversion of reality'. As if shedding light on the 'Thermocline' phenomenon occurring in the depth of the ocean, the exhibition aims to explain the acculturation and collision between globalism and localism, the discord and conflict between tradition and modernity, the collision and coexistence between high and low culture and so on, which all have run though the waves of dynamic upheaval of modern and contemporary history and contemporary art, with the understandings of the over-all tendencies of the infiltrations, currents, chasms and absorptions of philosophical, humanist thoughts. The theme of 'Thermocline' as a 'metaphor' of 'dynamism' was chosen in order to show the 'dynamics' and 'liveliness' of Asia which dreams of conceptual evolution, the flexibility, absorptiveness and durable intensity like those of running water, and 'eternal presentness'. This metaphor is also related to the creative movement of time and space in the formation of the Thermocline zone: the transition from simple to complex structure where different heterogenous axes, centers coexist or are mixed. In that new horizon, the absolute gaze of modernism will be merged into that of 'relativism' which accepts the networks of polysemous meanings of the world and things. The mise-en-scenes of the visual scenario of the exhibition place, which are based on this temporal and spatial interpretation of Thermocline, will diagnose the traces of the overlappings between the two histories, those of the West and Asia, and simultaneously, will stage, on the reversible relationship of tense, the various axes which are transferred to another time and space like Deleuze's the term 'folding'.
We expect that the viewers will be able to see the marks of the spiral thoughts of the works and the outcomes as the continuation of the crevice, difference and amplification which have incessantly developed in each different time and space, when they are face to face with the arrangement of diverse Asian experiences and the volume of the accumulation of time and space in the exhibition place. By crossing the various spectrums of thoughts of living Asians, this exhibition will surely become a congregation of the visions of Asian cooperators who are dedicated to discussing about their contemporary problems and opening up new intellectual prospects on the world and the future. And I also desire to stare at the creative time-space 'Post-History (Peter Weibel; 2007)' on the horizon of the present time where one world became already extinct but another one is yet too weak to be newly born, as was said by Matthew Arnold.


Works in the field of Media Art and Asian Contemporary Art
MA New York University

2007 Curator of Julian Schnabel, World Art Museum, Beijing, China
2007 Co-Curator of Asia-Europe Mediations, Poznan Museum, Poland
2007 Curator of Thermocline of Art. New Asian Waves, ZKM, Germany
2006 Curator of Silent Power-German Expressionists; Baselitz, Immendorf,
        Lüpertz, Penck, Zendai MOMA, Shanghai
2006 Artistic Director of 4th Media City Seoul Biennale, Seoul
2006 Co-Curator of 6th Shanghai Biennale, Shanghai
2005 Curator of Grounding Reality-25 Young Chinese Artists, Seoul Arts Center, Seoul
2005 Curator of ElectroScape, Zendai MOCA, Shanghai
2004 Curator Director of Digital Sublime, Taipei MOCA, Taipei
2004 Co-Curator of LODZ Biennale, Lodz, Poland
2004 Asian Section Curator of 5th Gwangju Biennale, Korea
2003 Chief Curator of Seoul City Museum of Art, Seoul
2002 Artistic Director of 2nd Media_City Seoul
2000 Managing Director of Exhibition team of 3rd Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju, Korea
1999 Chief Curator of Sung-Kok Museum of Art, Seoul
1996 Chief Curator of Total Museum, Seoul

Yong-seok Oh: Drama No. 3, 2004-2005, Video Still (Detail) © The Artist