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Her Way of Reading

Jung Hyun / Art Critic, Professor at Inha University


Blank on Timing _ Timing belt, Motor, Steel, Collected Words _ Variable Installation _ 2022

Solo Show _ A Blank Confession, Artist Residency TEMI, Daejeon

   “I don't know. We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren't happy. Something's missing. I looked around. The only thing I positively knew was gone, was the books I’d burned in ten or twelve years. So, I thought books might help.”

- Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), Fahrenheit 451, Ballantine Books, 1953


  Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel describing the year 2049 when possession and reading of books are banned. The main character, Guy Montag, is a fireman whose job is to burn books. After realizing the values of books by chance one day, he decides to take risks to recover a world where thinking by way of reading is allowed, and shoots down other firemen. Eventually, this unknown city is destroyed by bombs and remaining survivors pledge not to repeat the past mistakes of using books in wrong ways. In the book, Montag’s boss Beatty is a contradictory character who has a huge library in the basement of his house. He says that the problem is not owning books but reading them. Where do the values of a book lie? Is a book just a vessel carrying texts? Do ownership of books and reading them get separated into different values? The novel suggests the effects of reading as well as the possibility of rewriting, based on the act of reading through the discrepancy between ownership of books and the practice of reading and on the resultant act of subversion. This ambivalence in value judgment has a thread of connection with Kim Wonjin’s work. 


   Mobility of books

  To Kim, a book works similarly as a symbol. She has liked written records particularly since her childhood, and she confesses that one day she was shocked to find out some discrepancy between her memory and certain texts. There can be no human being whose thinking and actions perfectly match his or her memories, but somehow it seems that Kim as a child believed that they had to. To conceal the discrepancy between the records and her memories, she seems to have reproved herself dispassionately and developed a kind of obsession to discard the past quickly. “For this reason, I took out my past from the drawers, oxidized the pages to make it age quickly, and mounted it on the values of time advancing towards death.” 1) This experience is assumed to have provided the motivation for the current work. If we consider this psychological conflict from an aesthetic perspective, the attempt to reduce the discrepancy between actions and their outcomes recalls (a priori) hierarchy between intelligence and senses. That is, perception needs to be connected to a certain common sensation based on direct and indirect experiences so as to produce the belief that rational and reasonable thinking has been made. Then, this leads to the question if, on the contrary, we need to turn away from these uneasily wavering sensations to be able to have a human character deemed desirable by the society. If intelligence tends to try to follow the given rules, senses can be considered to be more similar to endlessly moving feelings or emotions. Maybe the artist imagined precise description of her own experience would help revive her past vividly when it is read later. However, despite her anxiousness, it is one of the highly desirable ways of reading. As we are beings that live incessantly repeating creation and destruction, our past and present cannot be continued without any rift. Her early works on the theme of ‘dismantling of books’ are seen to represent a process of experiment to overthrow the conventional sociocultural attitude toward books. By taking off pages of books she has read, cutting them away one by one and piling them up again, the artist turned the books into materials of silence. The values of books filled with numerous thoughts and texts vanish as they transform into sensuous beings due to the material property and volume of paper (Twisted Moment #0, 2011). To Kim, reading does not mean book reading in general. The actions involved in burning a book, putting on the scent, collecting scattered remains and inserting them between the leaves of another book she’s been reading represent her own way of reading. Here, the book is not the material that proves her reading as much as it is the material that gets somewhat distant and recalls the time of a day (Flow_Collected Books, 2014). The Chronicles of Today (2016-2018) was created by piling up discarded books, cutting holes and pouring plaster in them, to commemorate the doomed fate of books by building abstract towers with them. The anonymous book-monuments no longer useful (in public/administrative views) enough to be booties or monuments look exactly like countless ‘impersonals’ generated due to the lack of a shared community.     


  Reading does not only mean reading. The actions and processes of touching, overturning, burning, emptying out, and filling up the books, as well as burning and reducing them to powder, then mixing it with plaster to replenish the weight and volume, are far from reading aimed at appreciation of texts and literature or acquisition of knowledge and information. To the artist, the act of reading is closer to the process of phenomenological experience related to the size, weight, texture and smell of a book. Do the goals of reading indeed have to be to read texts, develop literacy and discover the answers that the world want? Pierre Bayard (1954~ ), a professor of literature and psychoanalyst, recommends not to follow the common sense about reading. He advises that one needs to figure out the situations created around a book to be able to talk about it. It means that the book should be treated as a ‘mobile object.’ Values are subjected to undergo changes through various mechanisms. As both books as objects and their contents are changeable, anyone can become “creators of books that they have not read” 2) by using this mobility. Here, ‘not reading’ may be a different way of reading. A different way of reading again allows a different way of writing. This way, reading and writing become equivalent conditions. It was during the process of burning books and blackening them that reading and writing synchronously occurred. 


   Overlapping of reading and writing

   To the artist, books are as good as a medium for relationships. Books being discarded can be likened to the loss of one’s hometown due to urban redevelopment. Intervention of alchemy by taking home books that have lost their own homes and transforming their shapes may be called a process of appropriation where grammars are violated and a new order fit for a new relationship, place, and environment is sought. The exhibition titled Blank on Timing (2022) is Kim’s solo exhibition taking place after a long gap due to the pandemic. Without exception, the COVID-19 had a significant impact on the artist. Probably it was possible for her to leave her boundaries and encounter her fellow neighbors, residents, and citizens living the reality, because she had experienced the limitations of contactless society. Her early works indicate a period when the artist built a wall around herself, regarding herself as an other and abandoned books as its home. It was inevitable that she constantly went on consuming herself. From the art historical viewpoint, it can be considered a self-referencing modernist attitude. Meanwhile, it was difficult to present beings that were erased or could not reveal themselves due to various reasons as abstract poetic existences, but her switch to socially engaged attitude seems to help her leave the reason-oriented approach and see all figures existing in the world more clearly. 


  Her work on Blank on Timing (2022) began by documenting the area around Mokcheok Market and Mokcheok-gil in the middle of the old downtown redevelopment project in Daejeon, where she is working as a local resident artist, and capturing the lives of people still living there in the ruins. A village that has been torn down for redevelopment is in ruins, regardless of where it is. This is because a village shows its vitality only when it coexists with humans, nature, civilization, culture, things, and memories. When the ecosystem of coexistence breaks down, things, too, lose their expressions and change into impersonals. There, Kim captured expressionless fragments using photography and recorded the traces of people who were unable to leave the abandoned district. We ask, then, what we can record there. Is it the sublime landscape that has turned into ruins? How can we archive the compassion for humans maintaining arduous life, the attachment to the land, and the rage against urbanization?  Actually, if there is no major resistance or disturbance, local archive is likely to be confined to formal documentation. Walter Benjamin (1892~1940) archived daily objects, not monuments, through his Passage Project. The project is still reviewed as “an example of historical analysis and writing aimed at exploring the relationship among urban environment, personal memories and collective histories.”3)


  At the same time, Kim pays attention to the chairs placed in front of the gates of the houses in the alleys near Mokcheokgyo Bridge. Residents remaining there can be seen sitting on the chairs each morning and sharing their stories even amid the ruins. Wondering around the district, the artist started to document their words and thoughts. Unspoken words slowly sink under the lower layers of consciousness, but they never vanish. For the work Blank on Timing, timing belt, an automobile part,  was installed along three walls of the exhibition hall, with some of the sentences from the excerpt of the interviews by the people remaining around Mokcheokgyo Bridge stencil imprinted on it. The texts rotate forward or backward depending on the direction the belt moves in. As the rotation goes on, texts on the black belt quietly fall off and get eliminated. Only the mechanic sound of the timing belt replaces the voice of silence in the village. The artist dares not represent what they want, or tell her own opinion. In her work, texts are always revealed in abstract conditions. They are not seen nor heard, but they always float. For example, photographs taken near Mokcheokgyo Bridge delivers the mood of the scene, but the voices of the residents cannot be heard. If visiting the bridge is reading, we can call the process of moving the direct and indirect experiences she had in the area to written words as ‘writing.’ Kim’s reading and writing are not separated from each other. The genuine value of reading is not dialectical interaction. Novels by Marcel Proust (1871~1922) are good examples. Reading his novels, one often encounters broken contexts or get stuck on one page wondering through disorderly memories; this doubles the pleasure of reading. It’s because reading a text unavoidably accompanies connection to a different space-time. However, no one can definitely say how we can connect to another dimension. This is up to the reader’s will. In the case of participatory work in the public realm, local residents will need to be the facilitators for becoming authors before the artists do. Maurice Blanchot (1907~2003) even points out that poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842~1898) called readers manipulators, saying that this is because “reading is ‘manipulation’ as in poetry” and furthermore, “elimination.”. 4) In other words, it seems to mean that the act of reading is to erase the original author and to bring poetry to oneself.  



  Kim Wonjin has been building her own unique world for more than ten years. She tries to discover her true self between thoughts and their traces, and then starts to erase her own thoughts intentionally after finding their gap. By crushing and destroying sentences within books that have  been abandoned or read through, or otherwise reached the end of their life cycles, she breaks up the reason and knowledge that they represent. Here, books do not constitute literature but are instead insignificant or useless things. The artist identifies herself with abandoned books and summons ‘impersonal’ beings. These abandoned books that have been read through forms anonymous solidarity. However, sometimes the methodology overwhelms actual works. I guess it may be due to the solidity of the methodology that rarely allows diversion. It is highly welcome, above all,  that the artist’s voice/texture is starting to be heard/felt in between the gaps in crushed sentences.


1) Excerpted from the artist’s essay

2) Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, translated, Yeoreumeondeok, 2008, p.98, retranslated into English

3) Graeme Gilloch, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City, translated, Hyohyung Books, 2005, p.122, retranslated into English

4) Maurice Blanchot, Le Livre à Venir, translated, Greenbee Publishing Co., 2011, p.458, retranslated into English 

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