by Jean-Louis Poitevin in I SEE THE SEA AND THE SEA SEES ME, Christine Laquet
112 p., 2011, Ed. Mediabus, Book Society (Seoul), with the contribution of the Gyeonggi Creation Center (KR).
We are in Korea, in the republic of South Korea in the spring of 2011. First, there is the city, the megalopolis Seoul, one of the biggest cities in the world. There occurred the greatest shift of the second part of the 20th century, as the population went in only 40 years from an 80% rural population to an 80% urban population.
We only have to step aside to find ourselves on an island or a site still haunted by this rural past, only a stone’s throw away from the big city to realise that, although urban functions are there, there are others areas that have been covered, erased, quashed, cleared off and are nevertheless still alive and ongoing.
We are in Daebudo, some thirty miles South West of Seoul. Between the former fishermen’s village drained from all activity owing to a huge project aimed at connecting the island to the continent with a fifteen- kilometre- long pier, where you can find holiday resorts, painful traces of the past together with modern creations such as vineyards, you can also meet shaman women who are still active, present and powerful. You can also find an art centre devoted to contemporary creation, offering residencies for Korean and foreign artists.
After attending a shaman ceremony close to the residency, Christine Laquet got in touch with a shaman called Kim Sul-Hwa working with two other shamans performing a ceremony devoted to ancestors called GUNUNG. They easily agreed to be filmed by an artist. Later on, when the shaman came to the opening of the artist’s exhibition called “thinking noise” (“Bruit qui pense”) at the GCC, she even asked her to become her “shaman daughter”. How can we percieved it, how can it be understood by a western, rationalist and agnostic mind ? How far can such a relationship go? So many questions, which -we are aware of it- can but remain unanswered. Except if one crosses the invisible border separating one creed from the next, one culture from the next. Except if one lifts the ban on believing or at least on questioning the believing starting from obvious differences. The shaman and the artist both understood that they shared a way of life, of perceiving reality, had a common sensitivity and a common relation to time. It became obvious for instance when in the course of a discussion the shamanic conception of the future was enounced as such: the future is behind us because we can’t see it and the past is ahead because we can see it.
Diamonds of Gould
Birds live a life on the border of human understanding as they freely wander, unbound to the law of gravity. That is why, when they don’t embody the human soul after the death of the body, they symbolise the bond between man and the world above. Birds are efficient and reliable messengers when it comes to accessing to the divine, the world of spirits or the land of the dead.
Christine Laquet conceived her many-sided work at the end of her journey with the shaman. There will be a set of photographs related to the various experiments with the shaman and a video “Gunung,” “Achieved gesture #1”, a painting which is a resin on paper and an installation called “Vain Ceremony” made of black weeds proliferating on the ground and creeping up the walls and a dead tree from which a cage is hanging, containing two living birds, Diamonds of Gould, exchanging their warble.
The purpose of shamanic practices is more particularly to instate a bond between the world of the living and the world of spirits. The shaman is the one who can receive and convey messages, notably those sent by the living to the dead, to tell them they do not forget them and that the order of things has been respected since they left as well as those the spirits might want to transmit to the living, notably to pinpoint the causes of their problems and thus help them to solve them.
The main function of the shaman is to convey messages between one world and another and she can only perform it if she uses her own body as the device, which ensures the reception of those various messages and the possibility to translate their content. Those messages are indeed uttered in incompatible languages that only the magic skills of the shaman allow to translate.
Rituals are what enable that double translation through the preparation of the body. As soon as the ritual begins, everything starts to vibrate to uncertain waves, so to speak, everything starts to babble in some unknown language, everything nevertheless becomes sign, message, information. But how to decipher it? The shaman does not resort to drugs. She must nevertheless reach a different state, a sort of trance through songs, dances, the performing of various gestures in order to have access to those voices from elsewhere. In order to translate what the voices will tell them, she also has to resort to elements enabling the mediation or translation from one language to another.
A whole pig and two living chicken are used both as mediators and potentially meaningful elements. They are the involuntary actors of the message translating process. However nothing could happen without the presence of risk, of danger. Knives, pitchforks, choppers are an array of tools enabling to invite and control the danger there is to go beyond appearances and come back. There is no return from death, one knows it, and since the shaman is in contact with the world of the dead, she has to protect herself from the very real danger caused by nearly breaking into the other world, somehow entering it and coming back.
The chicken that will pay the heaviest toll are used to signpost a space within space as well as to repel danger by offering their quivering of agony to a bloodthirsty earth.
As for the pig, this statue apparently devoid of all mystery, it is used as a basis for the gestures, which enable the passing from one world to the other. Pricked, opened and carved, it is the witness and the oracle, the victim and the go-between, a sign of presence and a witness of absence. The pig is in itself what the work of art may be for western culture, the elusive presence of otherness under the mutant hand of man.
The gesture does it all here. It draws and weaves, inscribes and erases, opens and shuts, slices and rejects, it endeavors to transform meaningless elements by loading them with the intangible density of affects and symbols.
Talking to the spirits
When she took part in the ritual Christine Laquet had to face the irreducibility of believing. Indeed, what can the images of a ritual mean? Is it not the entirety of the process as performed and experienced by the participants and only in this existential dimension which ensures the real quality of the affective and magic content of it and its efficiency? Because this emotional charge is what makes the ritual efficient. Without it no message would ever be formulated and conveyed.
Moreover, if the ritual takes place on the side of a path, in a countryside undermined with the work of men it would seem that it definitely couldn’t be.
One step further had to be taken for the magic charge, the ritual’s efficiency, and the power of the gestures to elicit some undeniable response in an agnostic mind. Christine Laquet has agreed to get involved in another ritual, a ritual of divination upon her own life, which she stages as a performance. The shaman conveys messages to another person though songs and numerous manipulations and the latter draws strokes and shapes with black ink on a large sheet of rice paper which at first sight seem meaningless, together with signs and words which finally draw some kind of improbable map of destiny.
Although it is essential to have on the spot someone to translate from the Korean into English, it cannot be seen as a cause of interference. On the contrary the translation renders the whole process understandable. Talking to the spirits is translating anyway, and it is translating from some unknown language, that of spirits or divinities, into one that proves just as mysterious. The gap to bridge is even wider that the gap between Korean and English and in the end French.
Shamanic rituals, like undoubtedly all rituals, are both evidence of the existence of those improbable languages and hence of the spirits who speak them but also of their possible inexistence. If the ritual instates the link and establishes the connection between worlds, which would otherwise not be connected when there is no ritual as there is no contact, only the memory of their existence can be ascertained in and through the ritual.
If believing is holding for true, Christine Laquet had to see for herself that some elements pertaining to her life and conjured up by the shaman were right or at least pointed to sensitive spots. The power of the ritual performed by the shaman is to establish a link between truth and truthfulness from elements, which are seemingly without meaning. But isn’t language on the same lines, a body of signs meaning nothing by themselves and whose function is to link mental images to the objects perceived allowing to believe that others can understand them too.
Thus has the shaman delivered her message or rather her messages? One deals with the artist’s private life, the other aims at the artist as a creator. The first one will remain unknown. This personal message will eventually be part of the work of art when inscribed on the large sheet of paper. To make this possible it had to be somehow translated a second time. The large sheet, divided into pieces, has become a set of small abstract paintings keeping the mystery of the message while delivering the gist of it. Creating is ensuring the conveying of messages from one world to the other and validate the inscription with gestures whose genuineness cannot be questioned.
As rationalist as he may be, the artist, like the shaman is a go-between, a messenger.
Creation as such has probably never been anything else but the attempt to translate, through signs that can supposedly be shared, secret information, transient but significant visions, undisclosable certainties, sheer impulses, beaming confessions.
Thus Christine Laquet has taken pictures that remain forever unscathed by the experiment of the magic instant and yet testify to it. She has made some drawings her own, that were performed as close as possible to the language of spirits and are only meaningful to the extent of what we can accept and see.
But she has also crossed back. To do so she has on the one hand made a classic portrait of one of the residents of the GCC and on the other hand set up the arcane installation with the birds. The painting, “Achieved gesture #1”, is also the first one of a series to come, focusing on universal gestures with a strong emotional and symbolic charge. It encloses the question raised by the held out hands, the priest’s or the politician’s imploring gesture, but also every man’s gesture when facing adversity.
What matters in the resin on paper painting is more the gesture than the portrait itself, a gesture figuring, in its very existence, the mere distance or the void between the two hands. The expression here comes from the hands. They are held out, open, welcoming, calling may be, they are not offering anything real, are not carrying anything and yet their message is that going toward someone or something is opening oneself to someone or something else, in full acceptance, be it a friend, an animal, a spirit or a god.
A dead tree trunk, charred weeds which nevertheless seem to be growing out of the ground and the wall, as if it were the new face of a both terrifying and proliferating life, a cage in which two birds which are perfectly alive exchange their warble; this installation is puzzling. Each element seems to bear the mark of its opposite. If a tree symbolises life and knowledge, a dead tree only conjures up the impotence of knowledge and the impossibility of happiness. Yet it bears something which is neither a bud nor a leaf but some improbable fruit, a cage in which two living birds are singing. These birds are prisoners and yet they embody the soul and freedom. But should we try to set them free, we would sentence them to death. Those birds only mate in a cage. The weeds stand as the barbaric sign of a spoilt nature, a living messenger of death.
What matters here is obviously less the meaning of each element than the coexistence of the opposites that it stands for. That coexistence of opposites could very well be a sign that realities can coexist without abiding by the rules of logic or obeying the dictate of reason?
Instead of attempting to translate the mystery in a language that would not recognize it or fail to do so, Christine Laquet has managed to lead us to the brink of consciousness in her set of proposals focusing on the topic of belief. For although we are not the birds, the charred weeds or the dead tree the outcome of the gathering of these three elements vibrates in us: mixing the impossibility of living, deprived from possibility, with what goes beyond us.
Christine Laquet has managed to capture what is probably the gist of the message of shamanism and convey it into her work as an artist. She leads our historical and rational consciences to the threshold of an acceptance: radical otherness. She opens inside us the door that will make us welcome the greatest of mysteries. She makes us feel indeed, through these birds in a cage, that the impossible exists, for if we can’t prove that it is true, if we can’t be forced to believe in it, we can create, i.e. testify to its impact on us.
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Jean-Louis Poitevin was born in1955. He is a writer and an art critic. He has a PhD in philosophy and has written numerous books and articles particularly on contemporary art and literature as well as fiction. From 1998 to 2004 he was a cultural attached and head of the French Institute in Stuttgart and Innsbruck. Today he gives lectures in France and abroad, particularly in Korea where he has published numerous texts on Korean artists. He directs a seminar on image and post-history. The works of Vilem Flusser, Walter Benjamin and Gilbert Simondon have been studied in depth in the framework of the seminar. Some texts or lectures are available on the following website : www.TK-21.com