Gyung-hyun Hwang’s Black Drawings and Their Timely Significance
and its timely meaning
Yoon-hee Lee (Head curator, Cheongju Museum of Art)
Translator by Art Concept
To see an artist’s drawing means to look at the world through his or her eyes. The world seen through the eyes of Gyung-hyun Hwang's eyes is not a landscape that remains stagnant for a long time, but one which in itself moves busily in a transient state. All of Hwang’s drawings seem to be a depiction of points that must inevitably be passed in order to arrive at a destination rather than demonstrating their own beauty or symbolic meaning. Hwang's gaze stays at scenes that briefly pass the retina while in busy motion and have no reason to grab the gaze. Her images are black. Although the surface is black, the flashing lights from every corner of the surface exhaust the eyes as if looking at artificial lighting. Filled with crowds of people pacing about quickly, Hwang’s drawings are full of repressed exhaustion. The black and white image, without a trace of color, feels like a painterly expression of a moment that does not appear vividly nor have the need to do so.
Hwang’s outlook on the way she sees landscape is comparable to that of the Impressionists at the end of the 19th century. Unlike the landscape paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries that begun as a type of religious painting and the romantic landscape paintings that radiate with a sense of awe for nature, the landscape paintings of Impressionists constitute a composition which seems to capture a fleeting moment of everyday life. This is related to the fact that the camera, which began to be commercialized at the time, allowed for such composition, as well as the fact that the period at the time allowed for a leisurely life of ‘watching’ the streets of shops and anonymous crowds in big cities. Advancement of industrialization brought about an age of mass production and mass consumption, and in such age which produced big cities allowed for more and more people to enjoy ‘leisure’ in life. The middle class, engaged more with leisure and pleasure rather than survival, started to emerge at this period in time, and the gaze that testifies to this period is reflected in the works by the Impressionists.
Charles Baudelaire, a poet of the time, defined such gaze of the Impressionists through the idea of the ‘flâneur’. He described how the Impressionists’ images express their free gaze which happens to unexpectedly capture certain scenes while walking on the streets without a specific purpose. Indeed, it was in the era of Impressionism that the large buildings and spectacular sights lined up on the streets of the city started to attract the gaze of people for the first time. In a changing city, people began to feel the beginning of a completely different life, and the world must have felt like a rapidly evolving and advancing place.
In fact, in the mid to late 19th century, and in the early 20th century, people seemed to firmly believe that they would arrive at a better world with the passing of time. Countless thinkers emerged, filled with dreams to construct a new world, and the discourse as to how to be more and more progressive intensified and deepened. They believed that the following generations would live in a much more advanced world than their own, and in order to do so, desired to distinguish the right and wrong of the present. They thought that the basis of such hope was a life that could indulge in more freedom than before. There is no doubt that we, over a century later in the beginning of the 21stCentury,arelivinginamateriallywealthierera.However, it doesn’t seem like the present is any more advanced than the past, nor does it seem like we have the optimistic faith that the future will be more advanced. Life doesn’t seem to have gotten better no matter how much we chase after the advancement of technology, and it doesn’t seem likely that the future generations would live a more abundant life than the present generation. And this generation seems to have lost the hope that they can ever escape the pressures of life, just like the figures in Hwang’s work who load themselves on the subway to get to work on time like some kind of a parcel being delivered. This is the reality today, for the first generation since modernism ever to be skeptical that tomorrow holds a better future than today.
Hwang doesn’t stroll the streets slowly and look at the world gaily like the Impressionists. Her images are filled with crowds of anonymous individuals who are busily commuting to and from work in exhaustion, street vendors burdened with hardships, and those who toss themselves around on the streets at night to forget their tiredness. It is uneasy to look at the characters. Even the use of exaggerated perspective in her work seems to reflect the psychological sense of speed felt by the figures in the work. The parts that pour out or pull in are expressed in an even more realistic way through the emphasis on perspective. The fact that the figures in the work not only seem to be more or less insignificant to the artist but also seem to retain a relationship of anonymity towards each other seems to somewhat illustrate such point of view. The screen is full of characters who pace about, as if their sole mission was to be swept away in crowds.
Hwang, a young artist in charge of making a living as an artist, mingles in with the busy people, then suddenly stops walking. She captures the fleeting scene in a moment, and engraves in her eyes a fixed infinite scene on its way to meaningless past. Hwang’s gaze, which was suddenly stopped when she was swept away in a crowd, seems to cast an unfamiliar or even empathetic look on the place and figures that she was a part of just the moment before.
For some strange reason, I’m reminded of a phrase by Goethe when I stand in front of Hwang’s black drawings. In Faust by the great German writer Goethe who opened the era of romanticism, there is a scene in which Dr. Faust, who makes a contract with the devil, puts himself in trouble by uttering the taboo sentence, "Stop a while! You are so beautiful!”. This sentence, which proclaims the beauty of the world in the most beautiful way, is by no means a fitting expression of the world depicted in Hwang’s work. In her work, the world is far from being so beautiful that Hwang feels sad by the passing of its beautiful moments. Rather, it seems as though Hwang is trying to imbue the slightest bit of meaning in a scene of the breathlessly fast-paced age. Her black images capture the moment of a world, put on a temporary pause. In it, it’s up to the viewer to sense beauty, anxiety or sorrow.