Light on Ground

Landscapes without Borders 

Lee, Kwan-hoon (Curator, Project Space SARUBIA)


2013 was a year of many changes for Sangyon Joo. With a certain dispositional change, the once suppressed creative spirit has been reborn through experiment and challenge. After her third solo exhibition in 2004, Joo went to study in San Francisco in 2007 in search for new inspiration. She met photographer and San Francisco Art Institute(SFAI) professor Linda Connor (1944-), who became a lifetime mentor and shared everything from the principles of the photographic medium to what it is to live as an artist with Joo. This was a chance for Joo to go a step beyond the boundaries of the photographic frame. 

The inspiration from Linda enabled Joo to see the ether beyond reality she had always dreamed of, taking various forms in harmony with the light and air in nature. Since she was young, Sangyon Joo experienced freedom in the harmony of nature and religion. And with a perspective of wonderment, she developed ways of breathing without being conscious of the natural elements such as water, earth, air, light and sky, but such sensibility stopped growing as she reached adulthood. This was partly due to the mainstream Korean art education system, which for many years caused her to form a centralized and formal viewpoint within the boundary of one function of her senses, that is, the frame of art1). Though fortunately, such education did not settle with her and instead triggered doubt and opposition. 

After majoring in fine art, design and photography, Joo worked as an artist in the field of art, presenting works such as <Thoughts on Intangible> (1999), <Dirt, Water, Air, Wing> (2000) and <Walks on Water> (2004). As she examined the world of mysterious images, at first she focused on technicalities and plastic forms of the surface, but later considered the cognitive and psychological vision of the “seen and shown frame” to be more important. Then gradually the movement of form took place, and she established a structure of thought encompassing earth, water, sky, light and air, which are the germinating points of nature. Due to side issues in the field of photography and lack of infrastructure to express her structure of thought, Joo dreamed of deviation. And then came San Francisco. This can be seen as an expression of a fundamental dormant homing instinct, by which the instinctive sensibility of her childhood could not surface, but caused inner waves from deep down, later causing her to long for a state of boundless freedom. 



Sangyon Joo encountered new light in the United States‘ west coast where her once-blocked photographic language received fresh energy. As she witnessed the instantaneous phenomenon of mysteriousness taking place in the gap between the clarity of language and the unclear world that transcends language, Joo came to evoke her dormant memory of senses through a new window2) . She lets herself loose in a seemingly infinite landscape and an unknown world with instinctive desire. She crossed deserts, chased clouds in the sky, and used her camera as sensuous tentacles in spaces ranging from the home garden she cultivated, to wild coastal forests. All things surrounded by the harmony of air and light become prey to the photographer, and she captured her encounter with small dust particles and insects, hardly noticeable grass or weeds, and other phenomena of mother nature scattered about on film. To the photographer, the images are insignificant and obscure like small grains of sand in the ocean, but after some time lapses, the photographs compose a story. This is the <Grace and Gravity> series, which were compiled into a book. 

By not looking at the photograph as a representation within the limited boundaries of the medium, but taking a principal and meta-photographic viewpoint, <Grace and Gravity > demonstrates a particular writing skill, which mixes up language and shakes the strata of perception. In book form, the meaning of <Grace and Gravity > cannot be communicated in single images. The characteristic and open possibility that is unique to this work is that the images are mixed as they move about between the lines, and link together numerous sentences3) . The chaos and collision of images reverberate within. Amidst such phenomena, she is unassuming. In the absence of text, philosophy cast aside, and the consciousness confined in the photographic frame discarded, the photographer maintains an open attitude without any borders in that empty and infinite space. Therefore, the images of <Grace and Gravity > reach a level that cannot be approached with the clarity of language. Moreover, attaching text about this work’s philosophical sublimity ultimately results in no more than attaching ornate tinsle to where it does not belong. 



<Light on Ground> is an extension of <Grace and Gravity>. It means, they are in the same context. (Images from <Grace and Gravity > are naturally mixed in the exhibition <Light on Ground>.) In this sense, the phenomenon of these two contents mixing freely in a borderless landscape makes viewers experience variables in which terms are relative and change according to circumstance, rather than being complete as singular images. In such infinite landscape an ether derived from a singular perspective does not exist, but it is an ether born out of the wholeness of many perspectives. What is important is that Sangyon Joo has subconsciously collected innumerable points (point: scattered small stains, single units of image language) that can seem trivial in and of themselves, and digested them through a the unique thought structure she derived throughout her life. 

Joo has done this as an extension of her spiritual experience and convictions, which coincide with her predisposition that is informed by Eastern thought. It seems as if her predilection for the endless ocean and infinite sky is inspired by her contemplation of the space in between nature and humanity and her adherence to a philosophy that rejects the dichotomy of subject and object that is so prevalent in modern society. 

After returning to Korea, Sangyon Joo travels to the sanctuary she always longed for --beyond the reality on this land. On the road, she witnesses scenes where the sea and sky join one another without border, and looks into the wetlands, clouds, forests and waters. She breathes in the images of these landscapes and draws them together with light. To the photographer, her native landscape was reminiscent but also different from the foreign landscapes she had experienced a few years ago. The time was different, and the movement of light and air were different. 

The photographer gained a different perspective because her intuitive attitude of looking at life deepened as she experienced the fatigue of realizing artistic ideals throughout the curves4) in her life during the past three years. Interestingly, through this experience, Joo’s reason and emotion transformed from a linguistic thought structure to an experiential thought structure. Thus, while she reinforced her intellectual studies by reading philosophy, religion and literature for a long time, her experiences in her late thirties and early forties enabled her to broaden her scope as she actually felt the conceptual thoughts from text with her being. 

Finally after a long time, Sangyon Joo journeys through the sun and wind, embracing nature with an easy, natural, and jovial attitude. Overcoming the notion that nature is an object of appreciation, her being enters. It feels, looks, and walks though, and evokes traces of the original memory. As the ground and sky join together as one, the landscapes reveal themselves clearly in the light on the ground. Coincidentally, her ideal space for the expression of her sanctuary (“Jisungso”) takes place at the gallery “Jisangso 5)(place on ground).” There is wonder in such serendipity, and to anyone who accepts such wonder as inevitable it becomes a grace that affirms the notion that making form in formless space is the embodiment of art. As is such, Joo embraces this encounter with “Jisangso” and enters into it with two black and white photographs carved out with light and proves her existence. 



Walks on Water

Youngna Kim  (Director of Seoul National University Museum)


Her photographs are works of the intangible and they give the impression of aspiring to an allusive and surreal world. She is interested in water or the world of the abyss, the sky, the atmosphere, and the cosmic scenery. For a period, she attempted works of scenes contrasting sky and water not because she is interested in the natural phenomenon but because she wants to explore the symbolic contrast between these two elements. It is the light that binds the sky, where clouds are dramatically spread out, and the quiet water, that warns us of its peril. Light appears as a constant in binding all things.

Sang-yon Joo interest in such scenery is almost religious. In this perspective, the infinite and energetic sky is the origin of light and a type of heaven. However, in this photography exhibition, while continuing to take interest in the scenery of thce.

Water, in fact, is the most essential element for all human life. Besides the fact that 70% of the human body is made up of water, man is immersed in his mother womb of water and, in Christianity, man is reborn through a cleansing baptism. Joo sees water as the foundation of all cosmic creation and the receptacle of all its seeds. As a devout Christian, she believes that as water dissolves the dead and is indelibly linked to the origin of all things, it holds the meaning of birth, death and the return to nature in the cosmic cycle.

Sang-yon Joo used a large aquarium, five meters deep, and worked with two models to produce works for this exhibition. She captured images of models floating without strength or moving in water. In some cases, she captures continuous movement through long exposure. Rather than controlling, calculating and dramatising, she finds human energy or spirit and tries to capture the trace of non-substance in the midst of accidental effects or in the vestige of the object of shooting. Sang-yon Joo sees the surface of the water as the borderline between it and the atmosphere, though in a different way. She thinks of water as a border where two contrasting substances come together, and as a place where an intense drama is always ready to be played out. Water appears light and comfortable, but when you are in it, you learn it is hard to control. If you submit to its flow , it is smooth but if you resist or go against it, it is difficult to swim forward. When immersed in water, communication becomes difficult and we feel isolated. In her photographs, people drift or float without a sense of weight as if deprived of their will to act, looking as if spirits are roaming in the water. In some cases, they bring up an image of people in formalin. They appear as if they are somewhere between life and death.

A similar feeling is stimulated when you look at the naked back or the face of a girl taking a shower. Fundamentally, rather than taking an interest in physical beauty and reality, Sang-yon Joo is interested in the attitude and appearance of how the spirit of the human body reveals itself.

The photographic works of Sang-yon Joo now seem to have broken away from a vulnerability to sentimentalism that came with being romantic and surreal in her early works. Her recent works are more focused and possess greater depth. These works of photography leave room for study and therefore, are in a process that will, I trust, continue. 



Earth, Water, Air, Wing

Searching for Deep Structure of Symbols                                                         

Bong-rim Choi (Photography Aesthetics)


Sang-yon Joo makes a montage of new images by juxtaposing mutually heterogeneous and even opposing images on a plane. This is not a montage in the form of expressing the rapidly changing senses and consciousness, but a montage in the form of showing the origin of psychological reality that continues without changing in the midst of consciousness even in the 21st century. In fact, the montage technique is quite familiar in the world of mythology where the deep psychological structure is revealed in the archetypical form. The numerous half-man and half-beasts in the Greek mythology and the anecdotes of their transformation are montages, composing heterogeneous forms. Moreover, the myth of creation in Christianity-that the artist often refers to-applies the aspects of montage to the formation of water and atmosphere. _ And God said, _ Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.* So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so.(NIV)* If pictured just as the Bible says, the waters above and below the sky merge into each other like in a montage. Through such montage technique that embodies myths, the artist hopes to find the anthropological meaning that symbols such as _ Dirt, water, air and wings* originally hold.

Through water, earth, emblems of atmosphere, and light that holds the mystery of the world beginning, Joo_ s profound imagination searches for the existential and cosmological meaning of the basic substances that compose the world. Along with the light that the artist captures and projects on the photo sensitive paper, to be exact, the common stone, water surface, rising fish, dark forest, stairs and the ladder make the original innocence and the endless cosmological eternity substantial. Light, permeating the atmosphere, projects the original desire of a spirit-that wants to soar up lightly and shake off the weight of existence-on to the blurry flapping wings of a bird(Wing-1, Wing-2). In the end, as for the artist, light is a mystery that connects the earth and nirvana, the limited and the unlimited, the original space and the present time; and a mystery that makes the earthly objects become the infinite archetypical symbol.

The so-called * light montage* of the artist does not share any similarity with the surrealistic montage. In a surrealistic montage, one sees the combination of suppressed and deformed images derived from dreams or dark unconsciousness; whereas in Joo_ s montage, one sees the search for irreconcilable conciliation of the opposing substances, often a search for the ultimate harmony such as salvation. The ladder touching the sky-that Jacob sees in his dream in Genesis 28:12-is a mysterious reconciliation that connects the earth and the sky(Trans-1). The long stairs that reach for the light of nirvana would be the revelation of the mysterious salvation(Transit). Also, the fish that aims for the light would be the IKHTHUS-fish in Greek and at the same time, an abbreviation for Jesus Christ, Our Savior*-the baptized spirit that follows The fisherman that catches men* in Matthews(Ascend). The light, shining through the darkness, that brightens the chaos of the darkness as solid as a rock, would be the light on the first day of creation(Beginning). Water is the womb of the world that impregnates all living things and where life takes root through the conceiving power of the enormous mother earth(Earth Bound-2). Water that cannot be shaped has, in reverse, the potential for every shape; and the water-that permeates and flows out from the earth, and sublimates into light-mixed with other natural matters, is an essential substance that originates the world(Fountain).

The artist_ s anthropological search for basic symbols through earth, water, sky, and wings* and her quest for the Christian mystery come across another archetypal symbol. It is the that is deeply involved with the myths of creation in polytheistic civilization. The golden part of the egg made the sky and its silver part created the earth. Through the expanding effect of symbols, this myth of creation extended to the birth of a kingdom where even its founder breaks out from the egg, and it made the alchemists adopt the figure of a breaking egg as a format for accomplishing a new life. Sang-yon Joo, in an attempt to decipher the secret of this birth and beginning, gazes at the various forms of eggs from the acute center. The egg, spotted with Dark Dirt,* appears as a symbol of a soul troubled with the original sin. However, as one takes a closer look, one finds a soul soiled by dirt* shining like a planet in the deep darkness. The _ indefinite dirt*, before one knows it, is sublimated into a star in the great cosmos. The individual of an insignificant microcosm transforms into that of a great cosmos and shakes off the human destiny _ soiled* by darkness. The that documents nine soiled eggs, is a rare moment when the basic imagination, searching for the mythological archetype and origin, shakes off the weight of existence and is compensated. 



Thoughts on Intangible

The Tangible and the Intangible                                                                        

Young-taek Park  (Art Critics)


The photographs of Sang-yon Joo are sceneries of sky, clouds and sea in a simple noun form. Without any particular stories to be told, they are rather a complete exposure of mere existence. The sky that takes one third of the picture and the water surface below it are strictly divided by border. This vacant scenery that is composed by the artist, is calm and tranquil. The tranquility indifferently solidifies that world with solitude. All photographs are portrayed by intimidating silence and emptiness. The scenery/world printed on a photograph proves its own undoubted existence by silence and immobility. It merely shows what has been. Paintings are, in result, just the smearing of paints and brushes, whereas photographs are real images printed on paper. They are a specific and live world by themselves. They can never be separated from it. Therefore, photographs tend to recur by nature. Such fact that they are not free from existential things, on the other hand, may limit them to confirming and emphasizing only the visible world. Joo_ s works seem to have derived from this point. She questions whether she can portray what is invisible through photographs. However, this question precedes the essential question over the medium which is the camera, and I think, ultimately originates from her understanding and attitude on things and the world. She wishes to put in picture disappearing things, things that cannot be documented, the invisible, delicate emotions and feelings, and things like experience. All images and photographs are not free from the eternal circulation of seeing and showing, and the visible and the invisible.

Sang-yon Joo, photographs are the usual things/nature that definitely exist and that we always see around, but they make you feel something in silence when the sky, water surface, and water, in a series of disposition and after editing, transform into odd memories and imagination. Her photographs show a _ Universe' in the end. It is a wonderful universe created by God. The universe, unfathomable by daily hour and human space, always moves the artist_ s heart. Some kind of reverence for universal order and phenomenon beyond human cognition lies deep in the photographs. Their subject is that in the end, there exists a common godly order in the universe, human, myself and every substance. They show that the sky, clouds, sea and water, though different in form, are the same in nature. Under the influence of different pressure and temperature, the same thing becomes a towering mass of clouds drifting away, an ocean, water in a bottle, or drops of water on its surface. The picture of smoke of an alcohol lamp gasifying into the air, juxtaposed with the clouds also reminds one of the physical theory that substance comes from smoke and disappears as smoke. Joo works to express through photographs, her mind and view that always admires and aims at the a transcendental and universal world that goes beyond human perception and understanding. Therefore, her photographs express unlimited admiration and longing for infinitely light and free world. It circulates following one after another. It frequents the visible and invisible world, often creating variations. Also, this is effectively expressed through water, a simulation of existence. Water that the artist captures evidently shows the trace of this universal order and circulation. Such subject, in order to effectively show her reverence and view on universal essence through a medium called photograph, is manifested in the structure where two pictures are joined into one.