Affirmation and Transcendence

Yooah Park’s Performance, ‘Ressentiment-Hyo’

 

Baek-Kyun Kim / Joong-Ang University

 

Before I begin to comment on Yooah Park's Performance, ‘Ressentiment-Hyo,’ I must state that, as a person who has thus far led a relatively simple and easy life, I lack the qualifications to fully understand neither how painfully the dilemma shaped by the clash between the starkly ambivalent emotions of love and hate drives an individual's consciousness to the limit, nor the abyss thus created by that aporia. It follows that, from the very beginning, the desperation of Park's performance can only be the mere inference of a bystander, myself—who can do nothing but try to empathize through my imagination—and an impression felt superficially through her gestures. However, despite the dissimilar conditions of our lives, I feel as though the symbolic metaphors of Park’s specific gestures open up a type of hitherto unaccessible new world of perception and circulate within me an exhilarating sensory pleasure. I believe reason for this is that we share a sort of spirit of the times, both getting by in the same era.

 

Having specialized in Eastern-style painting, Park thus far has used not only ink but various mediums such as ceramic, metal, and textiles, continuously expanding the scope of her work to sculpture and multimedia installations. If we accept Herbert Marshall McLuhan’s idea that content follows form and innovation gives rise to new structures of sentiment and thought, one cannot deny that there then must exist different modes of consciousness before and after a change in medium. The fact that an artist—who had begun her career with a traditionally Eastern technique while experimenting with various mediums consisting of recent innovative techniques—has now switched her medium to that of performance which utilizes the body, her decision provides a new way of perceiving her work on multiple levels.

 

The act of switching the method of her storytelling from the use of a secondary instrument to performance is a gesture as revolutionary as an attempt to switch from instrumental to vocal music. The reason why the body so differs from other instruments, i.e., secondary analogues such as painting and the new media that results from the mechanical variation that filters this secondary act, lies the difference between the ways in which our senses are utilized in each case. If the body is a system that responds instantaneously to external sensory triggers, then a secondary analogue instrument is not a mere producer of simple sensory gestures that result from the objectification of the senses but one that creates within the internal sensory mechanism a triggering point for an awareness of handling the instrument. If one can describe the absence of a gap between the instrument and its user as a state of their becoming a single harmonious entity, then the optimum situation would be when the instrument is considered a part of one’s body. However, because it constitutes a different mode of consciousness, new media that is filtered through digital mechanical transformations lie on a fundamentally different basis from that of secondary analogues, by which secondary senses react via the extension of one’s bodily senses. New media requires an understanding of the machine’s own response system; it is useful only when one is able to control those senses within one’s given scope of consciousness. Thus an impenetrable wall comes to exist between the use of senses that filter through an instrument and that which is projected directly.

 

Thus far the other side of Park’s media expansions held the effect of her work diminishing the use of one’s senses and in turn unveiling the consciousness through an abstraction of the object; now the artist presents a performance that demonstrates the body’s most primordial senses by mobilizing a contrary effect. Precisely at this point my question about her work is, if there exists a kind of necessity that Park felt in choosing performance as the only method by which she could express the content she wishes to convey, of what does this necessity consist? The Yooah Park that I know has long trained her senses that have now become inseparable from the instrument called painting, and is that much skilled in its manipulation. Therefore performance, which uses the body itself as ‘raw material,’ may actually be more unfamiliar to Park than using a device such as painting. The reason why I raise this issue foremost is because I believe her performance can hold merit only if her choice to discard her instrument of expertise in order to utilize relatively unfamiliar bodily gestures reveals a different level of signification that reaches further than that of accelerating the process of heightening and immersing the sensory experience by the use of her body as a mechanism that is the most elementary and primary instrument.

 

A careful look at Park’s performance shows qualities that distinguish it from other performances. An ex post facto conclusion felt during the process of tracing back the course of Park’s work—beginning from painting to new media, then, at the end, returning to the most basic medium, her body—is that the artist’s use of performance—its most primordial physical gestures—appears as though she is using the most progressive of media. This does not result  from the mere fact that Park utilizes film and photography as a method to share her work, but from the fact that the drama constructed by the artist affects a characteristic of a ‘relational’ mass media with its interactive qualities. The reason is that, if an essential characteristic of today’s mass media is ‘the simultaneous occurrence of action and reaction’—by  which, as a result, one is able to actualize a way of living a ‘mythological’ and ‘integrated’ life—then Park’s performance, too, takes the form of actualizing a kind of integrated consciousness by returning to a time before analogue instruments. Though ‘Ressentiment-Hyo’ appears to be using the most primordial of human senses as device to immerse the viewer, in the sense that it directly integrates both action and reaction, the artist actualizes the common spirit of both eras.

 

Park’s performance is the artist’s attempt to dismantle the preexisting notion of ‘hyo’—what has served, for over 2500 years, the societal foundation for the moral code of Northeast Asia and functioned as the ideology of societal integration—in order to reconstruct its meaning through her own family history. Because hyo is essentially the act of children repaying their parents for their upbringing, the idea appears to be a universal humanitarian value, but its institutionalization into a societal norm can only arise from a uniquely Northeast Asian cultural arena. The final result of this type of mindset is the birth of Hyo-Kyung (The Book of Filial Piety). The way in which hyo (filial piety) came to be a canon (kyung) is that, through this idea, attempts to explain the origin of metaphysical ethics and principles of the universe were able to assume a certain kind of structure. But when hyo no longer remains a mere act of repayment on a personal level but becomes a rigid principle that operates as a societal norm, it turns into an immense religion that has little to do with an individual’s free will. Turning hyo into a religion and demanding that descendents perform compulsory commemorative rites for their ancestors is in fact an essential principle of Confucianism. In this way, ancestors become gods.

           

Because hyo is a principle that operates on the order between ancestors and their descendents, its stage is the family. Although the basic traditional meaning of family is a group of blood-related individuals centering around a head of the family, ‘love,’ indeed was considered the psychological bond that linked the discrete entities within the same blood line. Thus one differentiates parental love toward their children as ‘ja’ (‘love’) and children’s love toward their parents as ‘hyo’ (‘filial piety’). Regardless of the fact that both are a type of love, they exist on different hierarchies. This is because unlike ‘ja,’ a parent’s unconditional love for his/her children, ‘hyo,’ a child’s love for his/her parents, appears to have had from the beginning some sort of inherent reason why it could not be a universality, that it even had to be imposed it as a societal requirement. The character ‘ja’ (慈) is the pictorialization of a feeling that grows abundantly like innumerable blades of grass; the character ‘hyo’ (孝) depicts a child carrying an elderly person on his back. It follows that the relationship between ‘ja’ and ‘hyo’ can only be an asymmetrical constitution of an eternally one-sided love. Herein lies the reason why ‘hyo’ feels not like proper conduct but like an obligation.

 

Park attempts to dismantle the conceptual weight of the ‘hyo’ that is obligation not proper conduct, by replacing the idea with Nietzsche’s notion of ‘ressentiment.’ What Nietzsche calls a man of ‘ressentiment’ carries a sense of indebtedness similar to that which results from the persistent guilt and resentment felt by a human being who, only capable of finite love, cannot possibly return the infinite love bestowed upon him by god. Thus the idea symbolizes a type of psychological reaction to an unavoidable reality of a situation. Nietzsche describes resentment as an ability to heal one’s wounds and hinder the outbreak of victim mentality, as well as the gesture of shifting blame to an external source for one’s own inability to move on, and attacking it in order to compensate for this impotence. Therefore as the man of ‘ressentiment’ is denied compensation through behavior within a proper reactionary system, i.e., through self-development after self-affirmation; he can only receive compensation through a fictitious revenge. It follows that ‘ressentiment’ can only be a psychological, imaginary, and symbolic notion; a man of ‘ressentiment’ carries a weak human nature and psychological state that is neither honest, naïve, nor truthful or straightforward with himself. Unlike a noble man who bears self-confidence and openness, this category of opportunistic human beings seek out hiding places for their spirits, love back doors, know how to keep silent, and are versed in subservience.

 

Despite the fact that ‘ressentiment’ and ‘hyo’ are two inherently disparate notions, Park utilizes each as a tool that deconstructs and reconstructs the other. To the artist, the ‘ressentiment-hyo’ relationship constitutes a two-fold semantic that is organized by both the structures of subordination and of parallel inversion. Having been presented as an obligation that stems from the condition leaves no choice but for one to become a person of ‘ressentiment,’ the notion of ‘hyo’ is that of subordination. Park’s inner wounds lie within the violence of a love that is carried out in the name of family, and within the rigid demands of self-control and one-sided self-sacrifice in the face of a lofty propriety that requires the repayment of this love. Here one must understand the peculiarity of Park’s family history in order to begin to perceive how this structure of ‘ressetiment-hyo’ can operate simultaneously within the artist’s inner self.

 

Within the reality of Korean society—where ‘hyo’ renders the concept of ‘my life is my own’ an impossibility as long as one clearly has parents who gave one birth—the simple fact that Park’s father is Chairman Tae-Joon Park makes this tacit societal order a notion of the utmost abstraction.

 

Ever since I was young, the father in my life was an utterly symbolic and conceptualized father. More than being my own father, he was the father of Korean industry, father of the nation’s economy, and father of domestic modernization. The DNA I inherited came from my father but my father’s unconditional love always faced his country and industry; as his children in real life, my siblings and I have had to live quietly trying our best not to be someone special in this unconditional love. Whenever he encountered hardships or obstacles in politics or society, I, too, suffered pain and bore the wounds. As those wounds became absorbed into my unconscious, I’ve had to live even more quietly and inconspicuously. To me, filial piety (hyodo) was simply to not be an exceptional existence to my father or family and to accept my father’s hardships as his family member.

 

Just as Park confesses, when one’s father no longer remains just one’s own or one’s family’s father, one loses entirely any opportunity to reveal one’s desires in the face of a national proposition and what is the private domain of ‘my’ convert anonymity disappears. When the act of revealing one’s desires is repeatedly interpreted from the outside as one’s worthlessness and incompetence, one is driven to a situation in which no such attempt is any longer possible. Futher, this suppression demands a role-playing that continuously drives one’s internal consciousness to an extremity. The source of Park’s ‘ressentiment’ emerges from a situation in which all corners of her life’s private domain lie exposed under the brilliant sunlight of her father.

 

Of course, this type of self-awareness in relation to ‘hyo’ is only possible after one’s inner self has already been formed. If the formation of one’s inner self is indicated by a possible differentiation from one’s outer self, and if ‘ressentiment’ is the force that operates this inner self, every little component that aids the formation of that ‘ressentiment’ is the reality of modern South Korea, which faces an inescapable historical summons. Ultimately the source of all societal imperatives are the products of the clash between East and West, and the process of westernization that derives from it. At this point the two-fold signification of ‘ressentiment,’ characterized by its structure of parallel inversion, begins to reveal itself. If one looks at ‘hyo’ merely from its interior, one is denied the possibility of examining its roots. The notion of ‘hyo’ exists on an unconscious level that operates like air within a logical structure in which the expansion of ‘hyo’ is ‘choong’ (‘loyalty’) and the extension of ‘ga’ (‘family’) is ‘gook’ (‘nation’). Therefore in order for ‘hyo’ to appear at the surface level, it needs a counter-concept that requires a departure from its interior. When one finally leaves that tradition based on ‘hyo’ and stands in a position where it is possible to try to look back upon it, at last, from the perspective that ‘hyo’ is a fulfillment of a ‘love,’ one can see its point of ignition and impact. In other words, all of this is possible only when one gains a Western perception of the East.

 

Park’s performance unfolds around the scene of a family meal. Its members dine together at a single table. Dining is the most important activity of any living being. If one aspect of the family hierarchy is to serve the primary function of group survival, a meal is the site in which the nature of love reveals itself on its most basic level. An imagined father, mother, sisters, and brother are suspended over the table in the form of scarlet portraits; only the artist converses with them, laughing and crying over the course of the meal (the table is a metaphor of desire. The meal does not merely signify the simple act of eating). On this stage, the family’s hierarchical order amplifies conflict and discord. Communication with her family members is inherently impossible; they are all imaginary. The artist’s own reality may also be a repetition of ruptures as in her fictional world. From within this impossibility of communication, Park enacts the despair felt in groping for a possibility of communication through love. Mirrors installed around the parameters serve as mechanism that emphasizes a obsessively self-fixating affect by reflecting the same images. At the extremity of this conflict and discord, Park overturns the table (demonstrated by shattering the mirror that reflects her) to renounce her preexisting self and dissolves herself in light (an affect achieved by the sudden disappearance of her body in dazzling light).

 

Reconstruction of ‘hyo’—that  is not based on propriety but on love according to an individual’s self-perception—begins when its existing preconception is overturned. One not only feels a sudden exhilaration at this particular moment, but upon tracing back the entirety of the drama, one recognizes behind that exhilaration the unavoidable imperatives of human interaction. The recognition in turn leaves a lingering aftereffect that induces one to question how ‘hyo’ ought to be reconstructed. Such power of Park’s performance emerges not from her usurpation of a historical domain but from her will to draw out the public domain under an even more dazzling light in order to break through it. Having transformed herself not into a planet-like existence but that of a star, she extinguishes the dilemma, confronting it with her own cast of light. Her method, indeed, coincides with the sun-like impression of her own character.

 

Translation: Candy Koh

© 2015 Yooah Park