Ha Ji-hoon’s works give an impression of islands and mountains springing up from a structure on a stable, solid ground. Paint is applied in either a thick or thin and semitransparent way to the canvas using brush techniques. Many viewers and critics may enjoy the visual tension that arises on the border between abstraction and figuration in his works. Be that as it may, they cannot detect the sort of poetic game that takes place within them.
To begin, it is important to know more about artist Ha Ji-hoon. He was born in Busan and studied art in Daegu. As a result, he might very well have been influenced by the Daegu art scene. The coordinates of the Daegu art world is determined by the gravity of purism. Purism has allowed artists who have desperately explored a medium’s functions and limits to attain a position of honor but resolutely excluded movement to defame or belittle the value of purism. When the Daegu art community subscribed to the concept of purism, it was respected in some accounts but it could not amply embrace numerable life experiences and existences. This is a so-called love-and-hate error which artist Ha felt was burdensome. Above all else, he wants to be a problematic painter. He would like to retain his own world and new form. Upon graduating from college, he went to study at the University of Fine Arts Münster (Kunstakademie Münster in Münster) in Germany because he had a strong affection for German-speaking regions which put more emphasis on depth of thought compared to English-speaking areas which stressed trends and strategies.
It was here that he met Michael van Ofen. Ofen gained the favor of Gerhard Richter, a legendary German photographer. Ofen appreciated Ha’s talents and taught him much about art while encouraging his activities. This resulted in German tradition gradually filtering into Ha’s works. Most shocking to Ha was the dialectical history of confrontation and reconciliation between individual freedom and a communal spirit.
Potent tradition and hierarchy began to collapse in Europe in the late 18th century. Normative, religious lifestyles were being replaced with newborn values such as autonomy, equality, justice, and freedom. In 1840 French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville referred to the tendency to emphasize individual desires and concerns over communal values as “individualism”. This refers to the transition from a big society to a small community such as a community or circle of friends and families. A community exists based on a grand narrative, a worldview that sees human history as moving to fulfill some purpose. This grand narrative is called “teleology”. This movement, however, could not help but be contrary to a massive teleology once the trend of seeking out small societies was triggered. When the heavy burden inflicted by a colossal teleology was removed, people felt as if they could fly but encountered some side effects like emptiness, a sense of guilt, and a sense of loss. In addition, contempus mundi, or contempt for the world, appeared.
It is alleged that there are three dimensions of consciousness: the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. The Symbolic is one’s consciousness as a child which determines one’s image of the world and lasts a lifetime. It is both a solid image and a holistic sensibility immune to any rational reasoning. For instance, if Greek heroic epics were established in one’s territory of the Symbolic, his worldview becomes like a heroic epic, and he dons a hero’s mask at the decisive moment of his life. If a Christian saint who practiced merciful, benevolent love dwells in the Symbolic, one comes to view the world with love. He encounters the world and practices love with the mask of a saint. The Crow Tribe of Montana live as valiant warriors throughout their lives due to the image that is shaped in their childhood. When we undergo a shift from historical, narrative, or communal humans to individual or modern humans, we regard people as a colony of depersonalized individuals in the fabric of society, objectifying them. One enjoys common interests and tastes only in a small circle, regarding it as all there is. One loses elemental nature, degenerating from the higher self to the lower self. We no longer see a human as a purpose but as a means, degrading our lives from abject yet sedate lives to rich yet nimble ones. The two major drawbacks of modernism and individualism are self-alienation and loss which Heidegger described as “homelessness” and “uprootedness”.
Art is much the same. Prodigious artists and great artworks were brought forward when a grand narrative of teleology dwelled in the Symbolic. Ever since individualism became prevalent, however, art has become aimless and the world and the concept have become fragmented. We continue to press the accelerator to make the world go faster toward individualism; it has accelerated with time. As great philosopher Charles Taylor is quoted as saying: “People no longer have a sense of a higher purpose, of something worth dying for(Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity. 1991. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Press, 4).” In the German art world Joseph Beuys held that there is only one way to cross the abyss between tradition and individualism. He encouraged us to ask ourselves to think about what a desperate, sincere experience is. The only truth that he held as everlasting was the fact that he was in a plane crash during the war and was rescued thanks to a shamanic ritual performed by Tatar tribesmen. Butter was a material that Beuys used in his works throughout his life. Richter, his disciple, believed that his family members had fallen into a swamp of pain due to other members of the family who had collaborated with the Nazis and that the only way to escape from it was to use his works to hark back to invaluable memories fraught with pain and the dim memories laden in his pictures. That was why he asked after his family every morning and monitored social peace by reading the newspaper. Ofen, Ha’s teacher, resolved to lay out his own epic and narrative in search of the interface between photography and genre painting in the era of individualism, or the interface between abstraction and figuration. As a result he made both photography and art history his lifelong topics and decided to overcome the untraversable abyss between tradition and individualism.
Ha also decided to follow the path his teacher and his teacher’s teacher had trodden alone. He bet his life to reinstate the power of painting from a sharpening individualism, and decided not to follow the paths of the countless artists who had appeared and disappeared in pursuit of trendy works. Ha moved frequently during his childhood, relocating from Busan to Pohang, Pohang to Daegu, Daegu to Münster, and Münster to Seoul. Whenever he moved, a diaspora of memories was formed and the territory of the diaspora was relocated to his heart. Landscapes were inevitable for Ha to exist.
Ha paints landscapes. His are not a representation but a structuralization or figuration of landscapes as heavy, massive lumps. Ha poses an elemental question concerning the visual act of “seeing” while his teacher Michael van Ofen structuralized an encounter of individualism with traditional narratives on the boundary between figuration and abstraction. What is “seeing”? Western landscapes rest on a fixed viewpoint that results in absolutely stationary, geometrically promised imaginary lines and then puts objects into them. All the same, we cannot enjoy this viewpoint. We cannot see the world from a fixed geometric viewpoint due to our ever-changing motions and our eyes’ movements. What, then, of photographs? A photograph relies on the camera’s eye that has been shaped by binary numbers of 0 and 1 and programmers, not our natural eyes.
Even if we travel to Corsica, one of the regions of France or view Sainte-Victoire mountain firsthand, both the island and the mountain are not seen as photographs but are abstracted in our minds. Those objects imprinted in our minds are not utterly visual. They come to us as something emotional. Our five aggregates (piles or heaps, 五蘊), a medium of every sensibility is involved in regenerating our memories. And yet, they are elementally abstract.
Ha Ji-hoon has deconstructed our vision. He readjusts and rearranges issues pertaining to our sense of sight, elementally speculating on them. Mountains that change by the minute and our perspectives work together with his walk, movements, hand gestures, and breath. He looks over the mountains while feeling the sounds that come from them, the fresh taste of the air, and the hands of the wind. His senses burst forth and his emotions intensify. This holistic feeling can by no means be expressed in photography and landscape painting which rely on a fixed optical angle. Thus, everything we feel from our traditional landscape painting is more truthful than that which we feel from Western landscape painting which is dependent on a fixed viewpoint. Ha’s landscapes are not the same as the ones seen with his eyes. They incorporate the five aggregates in Buddhism: Rupa (body, form, material); Vedana (feelings, sensations); Sanna (ideas, perception); Sankhara (desire, will); and Vinnana (mind, consciousness).
Great poet Su Shi (Dongpo) who is forever located in our hearts sang in Writing an Inscription of the Wall of Xilin Temple (題西林壁) that “It’s a range viewed in face and peaks viewed from the side / Assuming different shapes viewed from far and wide / Of Mountain Lu we cannot make out the true face / For we are lost in the heart of the very place(橫看成嶺側成峰, 遠近高低各不同, 不識廬山眞面目, 只緣身在此山中).” We cannot describe a landscape formed by nature either in language or art. We have to realize that we cannot portray its true nature. This meta-consciousness is none other than the nature of art. Ha is an artist who adopts a new introspection through a complete accommodation and unification of most modern philosophies and classical senses in social conditions where people become more alienated and repulsive in the world. If you are on a mountain, you never know its true face. And yet, you are able to structuralize the holistic feeling the mountain gave you and deepen it in your heart. What Ha is doing is beautiful and sublime but in no way heavy. It is fresh and bracing. I see the future of Korean painting here in his works. From his art I have learned that painting is not appreciated by my eyes but by my whole body which manages to thoroughly contemplate and incarnate it. Inspired and derived from Western tradition, Ha’s landscape structure has weight and depth added to it in accordance with our traditional view of life and the universe.
By Lee Jin-myung, Art Critic