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Whiza Kim's Zen Surrealism by Richard Vine

Wheiza Kim’s Zen Surrealism


By Richard Vine


Comprising a score of new works, “Psychological Scenery: Homage to Tree Soul” highlights Wheiza Kim’s longstanding—and somewhat conflicted—spiritual quest. For forty years now, ever since her 1984-86 MFA studies at Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul, the Korean-born, US-based artist has pursued parallel interests in the forces of nature and Zen consciousness. The two concerns melded for her in 1997, when she experienced an epiphany near her house on Long Island. Strolling alone at twilight, Kim suddenly sensed the great trees around her as living presences, as beings. From that day to this, she has sought to honor the souls embodied in wood, her primary artistic material. Consequently, many of her works acknowledge their own materiality. In paintings like Glittering, The Place—Indivisible Space-Time, and Eternal Silence, acrylic colors applied in thin layers, almost like a chromatic wash, highlight the grain of the wooden panels, thus evoking a wavy visual intermingling of water and sky.

              The conjunction, sometimes the fusion, of those two elements—amorphous but tangible water and infinite immaterial sky—reflects a paradox at the heart of Kim’s practice. On the one hand, she immerses viewers in the substantive world of tree trunks and clouds, rivers and seashores, rocks and stars. On the other, she employs mirrors as emblems of pure mind—human consciousness distinct from its objects, an intangible awareness different in essence from any materiality, even the brain’s.

This dichotomy between physical and intellectual presence is particularly evident in Kim’s three-dimensional works, whether window-sized box constructions with cutouts or tent-like installations featuring projected light and sound. Some of the boxes are rectangular with arch-like internal recessions where surprises lurk: a painted forest or miniature plastic birds or the image of a spangled skull. Such works literalize Leon Battista Alberti’s 15-century advocacy of linear perspective, making painting an open window onto the world beyond the picture plane. In Kim’s case, however, the window—lined with mirror strips—opens upon a psychological interior. The works thus foster insight, a seeing beyond or through mundane surface, reminding us that every perception of reality is conditioned by the state of mind of the viewer.

Many of Kim’s mid-sized constructions are triangular, a geometric form that, while reminiscent of a Platonic Idea, summons up myriad associations: mountains, pyramids, the seated Buddha, trees as the meeting of two organic triangles (the branches above ground, the roots below), pagodas, the Holy Trinity, Duchamp’s upended urinal, geometric abstraction, numerological claims that 3 is a “perfect number,” Abraham Maslow’s hierarch of needs, and Plato’s division of the soul into reason, spirit, and appetite, echoed centuries later by Freud’s superego, ego, and id. The list could go on. This jumble of multi-cultural references accords well with Kim’s overall aesthetic approach, which she has dubbed “kaleidoscopic.”

Making her own toy kaleidoscopes was a childhood pastime that stayed with Kim through her undergraduate studies at Seoul National University, evolved during her MFA days at Sungshin, and continues to influence her art-making today. Her tabletop-size pieces, encased in relatively simple and stable external structures, invite one’s gaze inside to a fluid complexity of closeups, reiterations, and reflections. For example, A Dance of Jubilation for Joy and Full Solitude with Fullness feature, respectively, far and near imagistic encounters with Kim’s beloved trees. Embracing the Rays of Light captures multiple glints and bursts of light within the context of a rocky pool. Come as Morning Dew—Leave as Evening Star is festooned with pearlescent dots, while Contemplation surrounds a tiny Buddha figure with images of glistening cut jewels, a clear allusion to the Diamond Sutra (one of the key Perfection of Wisdom texts) and the notion that trained meditation can coalesce over time into a mental brilliance that cuts through all falsehood to shine with the light of true knowledge.

Kim seems to hope not only to commemorate Buddhism’s famed contemplative process but to actively induce it. Her exhibition at the Youngeun Museum of Contemporary Art includes three triangular tents, each three meters high. The tents’ exterior sides are painted with floating clouds that suggest a restful and elevating experience within. The interior sides are mirrored, and the back wall of each tent serves as a screen for video projections. This immersive imagery modulates between tree silhouettes and ever-changing abstract forms and colors, punctuated with twinkling lights and accompanied by slow chordal music that enhances the viewer’s pleasant spiritual transport. The spell, at once pleasant and profound, recalls the sense of suspension one feels amid the star-like lights in Yayoi Kusama’s mirror rooms. (Both artists have been motivated, in part, by a Baudelairean need to escape “no matter where out of this world”—Kusama from her mental distress, Kim from familial duties that, years ago, delayed the launch of her professional career.)

These tents, intimate places for contemplating infinite spaces, are perhaps the ultimate reification of Kim’s metaphysics, which requires what Coleridge called “temporary suspension of disbelief”—including a transcendence of formal logic. Like many artists, Kim works intuitively, seeking primarily to explore human subjectivity, not to establish empirical or philosophical proofs. Her interviews and artist statements teem with references to shamanism, quantum mechanics, mirror neurons, psychological theory, phytoncides, microbiology, cosmology, and the concept of universal chi. Her practice, blurring all epistemological boundaries, is ultimately spiritual. Its diversity works upon viewers emotionally and aesthetically, in a mode beyond reason; even its seeming incongruities are artistically generative.

Traditional East Asian art, the cultural ground for Kim’s contemporary experiments, is founded on a paradox. Attuned to the poignant ephemerality of earthly life—the opening and fading of cherry blossoms, the flight of cranes, the misty rush of waterfalls, etc.—it nevertheless celebrates the timeless persistence of natural patterns. Blossoms die, yes, but new ones sprout each spring; cranes depart, but they also return; water streams continuously, but the river is constant and the mountain endures. Though the particulars are fleeting, natural cycles are perpetual. The cosmos, infused with chi, maintains its own balance and harmony. The social system, the government, and one’s individual comportment should honor and echo that pervasive order.

Or so it seemed, until the Industrial Revolution, followed by the Anthropocene. In the midst of global warming, Kim’s art—with its clear skies and waters, its sometimes flourishing and sometimes blasted trees—has an air of nostalgia, not unlike the work of ecofeminists ranging from Agnes Denes and Betsy Damon in the 1970s to Aviva Rahmani and Sonya Kelliher-Combs in the present. Distress certainly registers in works like Old Future, featuring a red sky and twisted tree trunk with barren truncated limbs. But Kim’s rapport with the natural world is more perceptual than political; she celebrates the fundamental sensory bond despite its numerous contemporary disruptions.

What critic Robert Hughes called “the shock of the new”—reflected in Kim’s conceptual collage of influences, techniques, and interests—was most strikingly embodied in Surrealism’s knowingly absurd juxtapositions: Dali’s lobster telephone, Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup, Man Ray’s tack-studded iron. Similarly, in her painting At Deep Blue Black Night, Kim presents a mysterious light-blue flaming ring hovering aslant over a sweep of blue-black water that doubles the enigmatic form in reflection. A Prayer for Sublimation, set on turbulent shoreline waters under in starry night sky, centers on a bizarre binding together of what look like small strands of the aurora borealis. Such images remind us of two disparate aspects of Surrealism: first, its claim to convey states of being that ordinary language and rule-bound thinking cannot express; second, its conviction that many initially baffling verbal and visual incongruities in fact bespeak a shared repertoire of signs and symbols. Surrealistic artworks are uncanny (i.e., evocative of something already known but not yet fully recognized) because they draw upon a common lexicon of forms and figures lingering just below the threshold of consciousness—a vocabulary that is either genetically innate or deeply ingrained through centuries of cultural repetition and variation. Pioneering psychologist Carl Jung, Kim believes, plumbed this language the Red Book, a handwritten compilation of quotations, meditations, and drawings, unpublished in Jung’s lifetime, which archived evidence for his concepts of universal archetypes and the collective unconscious.

Kim’s transcendence of contradictions resembles an act of faith, and the religion she routinely invokes is Buddhism. Clearly, certain aspects of that 2,500-year-old spiritual practice—remarkably diverse in its global schools, subdivisions, and sects—have a direct bearing on Kim’s art. Disciples of Zen, the branch of the religion explicitly favored by Kim, are often confronted with koans and other logic-defying conundrums meant to undermine rational categories, clear propositions, systematic inferences, and syllogistic argumentation. Moreover, the goal of this process itself defies either/or thinking—a fact echoed in Kim’s use of mirrors.


   Kim frequently states that the mind, mirror-like, reflects only what is placed in front of it. This seemingly simple image becomes kaleidoscopic the moment we realize that it fosters two directly contradictory interpretations, each of which has many adherents in Buddhism past and present.

On the one hand, regarding the mind as a mirror would seem to prescribe naturalism, close attention to appearances, and even scientific exactitude and measure. For some Buddhists, this is a desirable state of cognition—the eighth level of consciousness, sometimes called “storehouse consciousness,” which holds the karmic seeds of one’s next level of being or next incarnation. It is a prerequisite for the slow accumulation of wisdom. Certainly we can see that in Kim’s work certain elements of the world—trees, flowing water, the stars—are valued both in-and-of themselves and for the perceptual pleasures they provide.

On the other hand, the mirror-mind can be viewed as something separate from, and in its active comprehensiveness superior to, the fragmentary and relatively inert objects of apprehension, the things of this world. Several critics have discussed Kim’s mirrors with reference to Dajian Huineng (638-713 C.E.), an enormously influential Chinese monk who maintained that the soul, per se, is pure and perfect as an unblemished mirror, immune to the “dust” of mundane experience. Chinese artist Xu Bing won 2004 Artes Mundi Prize with an installation featuring a floor mirror covered with powdery 9/11 debris and inscribed with the words “As there is nothing from the first, where does the dust itself collect?”—a translation of two lines from Huineng’s most famous poem, which asserts the essential inviolability of one’s inner being. Huineng’s central notion—sometimes less cryptically rendered as “The bright mirror [or the Buddha nature] is always clear and pure / Where is there room for any dust?”—was said to mark the unconventional sage’s sudden (as opposed to gradual) enlightenment and his ascension to the status of Sixth Patriarch of the Zen Buddhist tradition. Kim’s many mirror works can also be read as endorsements of this alternative approach: the reflective planes stand apart, physically and ontologically, from the clutter they reflect.

All of this can be confounding—very engaging but ultimately baffling—for viewers accustomed either to systemic reasoning or, conversely, to the super-simplified version of Buddhism popularized (especially in the West) at “well-being” meditation retreats and group yoga classes. In those benign environs, the myriad gods and goddesses, the demons and monsters, the levels of heaven and hell, etc., of Buddhism as it is actually practiced by countless adherents around the world are all eschewed for a pared down spiritual exercise involving controlled breathing and a blissful emptying out of consciousness. But even that elemental version of Buddhist cognition retains a kernel of paradox essential to understanding Kim’s work.

“First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is,” Donovan sang in 1967. The ditty is a charming—and admirably vivid and concise—summary of the Zen enlightenment process, whether sudden or slow. One begins with the world as it appears, with the everyday reality of trees, let us say (since trees are Kim’s signature subject). But through concentration on pure mind or one’s inner Buddha nature, one eventually comes to regard trees and all other sensory phenomena as illusory, mere aspects of the veil of maya. Yet with true wisdom comes the realization that the world of things is at once there and not there, real and not real. One can, so to speak, make spiritual companions of the trees, right down to the grain of their substance, because they no longer ensnare one in ignorance; indeed, in Wheiza Kim’s art, they invite one to transcendence.  

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