For a westerner struggling to understand some of the spiritual or mystical elements in both traditional and contemporary Asian art there is a huge barrier in that Taoism and other Eastern philosophies are not something that we have lived with since our childhood. The concepts of the void and non-existence, and the idea that blank spaces in a traditional literati painting are as important as — or indeed more important than — the brush strokes themselves, are alien. It is therefore welcome to have a book written by someone brought up in that tradition who can begin to explain some of these ideas. Even better, Jungu Yoon is a practising artist well-known in the London Korean art, scene having participated in many exhibitions over the past six or more years.
As well as producing his own work, Yoon works in the studio of Antony Gormley, and thus has an insider’s view on the practice of one of the best-known Western sculptors.
Yoon’s examination of spirituality in contemporary art starts with a lightning-quick overview of the way religious or spiritual art has developed over the long history of humankind before focusing on the work of a range of modern and contemporary artists. He argues that in an increasingly secular society an art gallery can function almost better than a church in giving the public an encounter with the spiritual, or numinous. In this section of the book what is most valuable is an analysis of various works by famous (or notorious) artists that have caused outrage among some sections of the public, such as Damien Hirst’s A Thousand Years (1990) (an installation which involves a rotting cow’s head), Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987) and Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary (1996) which includes elephant dung as a medium. He also analyses less divisive work by Mark Rothko, Antony Gormley, Olafur Eliasson, Francis Bacon among others.
Yoon then turns East to consider Asian ideas of the numinous in art before considering the special role that multimedia can play in conveying such ideas. Again, for someone not familiar with grappling with these concepts, what is most useful in this book is the analysis of specific works by well-known artists including Bill Viola and Mariko Mori. But even more valuable for followers of this website is his examination of key works by Nam June Paik and Atta Kim. Once again, to have the work of Asian artists discussed by a highly articulate Korean who shares their background and assumptions is worth so much more than the typical essay by a western academic or art critic. While getting to a full understanding of such work will require somewhat more immersion in Taoism and Buddhism than a busy westerner will be able to commit, Yoon’s discussion at least helps pierce some of the fog.
In the final section of the book Yoon discusses some of his own multimedia work, including The Fall Project which visitors to the 4482 exhibition in 2008 will have been able to experience. And, as a good discussion and analysis should, it makes you want to view and re-view the works concerned.
The book was shortlisted for the 2011 ACE / Mercers’ International Book Award for a book which makes an outstanding contribution to the dialogue between religious faith and the visual arts. It is one that I shall return to again.