A Blind Masseur’s Story Machine for Experiencing the Real
With Wood and Motors
Yang Jung Uk attempts to tell a story through wood and motors. By using very unique media, he is pursuing direct and intuitive communication methods, which mass media and personal media typically ignore today in favour of digital technology. While people use the Internet and smart phones in order to share their stories with wood and motors to tell his stories. For him, these moving machines are a medium for storytelling rather than thorough speech and writing. His machines, made of wood but characterized by both rationality of the industrial society and the uncanniness of automata, are sending their stories out into the world.
In the exhibition, ‘Mr. A-The Blind, Retired Masseur-Now Sells Electric Massagers’, on until 14 July at the OCI Museum of Art, two large massaging machines and five small ones have been displayed. The characteristics of these objects are ambiguous because the artist invested these machines with an imaginary narrative of a blind masseur. On one hand, they are custom-made in consideration for each user character’s specific situation. They substitute the masseur, whose massage and talking relieves physical and metal stresses. In this sense, it can be said that they uphold instrumental aspects. On the other hand, these machines imply users’ specific occupations and physical experiences through their different structures and movements. They represent each user character, and simultaneously provide sensory experience. Therefore, it can be also said that these machines include aesthetic aspects. By combing use value and aesthetic value, Yang tries to make objects containing a narrative, from which to make their movement.
The artist tells us that instant intuition and durational time are crucial to his work. These two elements used to be in the opposite positions and seemed to be irreconcilable. When Michael Fried attacked Minimal Art as the degradation of art to objecthood in the debate about Minimalism, which made a turn in the modernist concept of the work of art and its experience, his point was the contrast between aesthetic decisions made by instant intuition and phenomenological experience in actual space and durational time. Yang embraces qualities that have been defined as contradictory, to make a communicative tool that is beyond the autonomous art medium and to produce a literary narrative. His machines do not differ from media in everyday life.
In this regard, Yang’s work reasonably finds its genealogy at the junction between the defiance against autonomous art and the relationship between art and technology.
His machines constructed with wood and motors stem from technological objects in human life and speak of the specialized scenes of life. The artist utilizes two devices in order to transcend the distinction between communication tools and the aesthetic medium, and to remove instrumentality from his work.
First, he introduces wood, which is natural and accidental. In his work, wood is a material that covers a handicraft sensibility with the coolness of machines, which links to the rationality and instrumentality of the industrial society. As a result, the massage machines become closer to the human body. Second, he connects motors and other parts in very simple ways. It enables the audience to intuitively capture the structure and the movement from a work and to read them as a temporal narrative. Then, in detail how do Yang’s machines conduct their particular brand of storytelling?
In the Transitional Space
The Machines of Mr. A, The blind masseur, talk to us as if they are moving in actual space Like a body. The machines are instruments that represent the human body and that articulate its presence. Their corporeality is related to the presence of objects perceived with both visible and tactile senses. The notion that the world is habitually perceived through body composes our phenomenological presence is shared with the perspective of Minimalism. It is from here that actual space, specific objects there, and the subject experiencing the objects emerge as significant elements to a work of art. Yang emphasizes the reason that he works on three-dimensional work rather than two-dimensional one. It is because the three-dimensional work makes it possible to actualize a moving object from an image in order to draw a story from an observation. In this process the artist projects his speculations onto the machine and technology of the object.
Yang’s machine is not the object of digital technology, but the object of mechanical technology. This machine stands as a solid object in actual space. Its parts interlock with exchanging physical powers and express a specific body movement, shifting between circular and rectilineal motions. The electric massager doesn’t know much about my darling’s shoulder, installed in the entrance of the gallery, is a 250-centimeter-high large structure, representing a massage machine or a massaged body. It has a vertical column-like wooden frame in the centre with four-tiers of horizontal circular structures whose sizes gradually reduced from the upper to the lower part. Each layer holds motors and connects to others with rods and strings. According to the motions of the motors, the strings and connected rods repeat tension and relaxation. In front of this work, the viewer tries to figure out the meaning of the movements that this strange wooden machine is making.
Yang’s machine deliver their stories with visual, tactile, and audible elements. Forms and structures instantly captured by eye inform the ways the machines work. At this moment the movement is perceived as tactile rather than visible, for it involves the viewer’s whole body. They mirror the way Mr. A, the blind masseur perceives the world. He composes his own world from objects’ aspects he senses with hands, space he perceives through body, and information input through hearing. It is an imaginary object. Even though Yang’s machines occupy actual space and presenting strong specificity, they retreat into the imaginary dimension because the artist directs them to perform storytelling. Eventually, these mechanical massagers accost us in the transitional space of the imaginary and the real.
Contrary to digital media, with which we habitually use for communicating with others and which lead us to detour the virtual space, Yang’s machines, as occupying actual space, take us into imaginary space. Light shedding on machines and shadows falling across the floor remind the viewer of the machines’ presence in actual space. As the conversation between the objects and the viewer, however, it becomes clear that they are mere devices for the effect of actuality. Like the transparent showcases containing small machines, the object and the space shift to imaginary ones with light and shadow. Since the artist wants to deliver a story with movement of images, the movement in actual space slips into an imaginary dimension.
Delivering Stories through Motion
As the artist attempts to demonstrate in his massager project the real, or the actual, is what is experienced. Although the real neither can be symbolized in language nor transferred to imagery, it cannot be captured without being mediated by them. The artist stresses that the core of his work is to make anyone imagine a process, or a story, through the intuitive structure of a given machine. The artist, as a linguistic subject included in the symbolic system of the real world, tries to materialize a story communicated with words into a durational process and to make it possible to directly and intuitively experience the story. Briefly speaking, what matters is delivering stories through motion. Accordingly, Yang’s machines turn into strange things that are neither an uncanny fantastic body nor a rational mechanical device, because there are mixed a story symbolized in language, the objective presence of the real, and expressions on the imaginary level.
These strange machines are story machines. A story that a machine provide begins with a sentence given as a title of each piece. For instance, sentences such as He is a subway driver who works long weekends, She says a certain noise won’t stop when she comes home, and he was a head of household before surgery present specific situations of specific characters. It is the balance between the real and the imagination that determines the power of a story machine, once a story begins with words. The artist describes it as ‘tension and balance between the intuitive, the narrative, and the effect’. It is also a condition that can get rid of instrumentality in Mr. A’s machines. His machines are both massaging machines and aesthetic machines. For they perform a literary mission to deliver a story and provide sensory experiences. Thus, the artist is able to imagine expanding the intensive relations of the machines and to diversifying sensibilities and meanings produced by the machines. Erasing instrumentality, the massaging machines actualize a story in the symbolic realm and into mechanical motions in the physical space. Encountering the audience, each machine becomes a story that develops in actual space, a literary narrative, rather than a imaginative pseude-life as an automaton. The story endlessly repeats, but it differs from flowing-away stories people ordinarily make with digital media in the virtual network. Just as human experience and memory was transmitted by word of mouth, the story machines deliver stories (which are based on observations) with accustomed repeating movement.
In this regard, Yang’s work can add a symbolic level to language with its existing levels of the imaginary and the actual. This possibility is what is expected from the fact that a title already functions as a caption. Not only does a story as motion begin with an observation but also it can be drawn out from the general symbolic system. Then, Yang’s story machine will deal with different levels of structure, motion, space, and meanings.
By Im Sue, Lee graduated from the Department of Communication, Seoul National University and from the Department of Art theory, Korea National University of Arts, and congerred the degree Doctor of Philosophy in art history at the University of Florida. She wrote Anarchitecture and Antigentrification: Artistic Pracices on Homelessness and Urban Renewal in Downtown New York in the 1970s and 1980s, The Kitchen, Artist Space, Frank Gillette: Video as process and Meta-process, among others. She teaches at the Korea National University of Arts