The title of the exhibition The Ways of Folding Space & Flying stems from the Korean words, chukjibeop and bihaengsul. Originating from Taoist practice, chukjibeop means a hypothetical method of folding space and of allowing one to travel a substantial distance in a short space of time. The word describes various techniques for a speedy movement or could literally refer to the energy used to contract physical distance. Bihaengsul is another supernatural power to levitate, fly, and travel across time and space. The power emerges from one of the oldest human desire to challenge and triumph the physical limitations of human beings to reach an unknown realm. In the history of Eastern culture, these ideas have been explored not only as means of meditative practice but also as methods to reach a state of complete emancipation of both mind and body from physical limitations and natural forces. A method of levitation without the aid of any scientific technique and only through the means of pure mind and body, bihaengsul still remains a valid hypothesis.
Both chukjibeop and bihaengsul are an epitome of mental practice to overcome the human capacity through the power of imagination. These rather ludicrous and illogical ideas closely echo the basis of artistic practice in that they both are a creative manifestation of human desire to surpass the barriers and structure that bind us. Within this context, we intend to show the human endeavor to constantly break path and challenge the self and also envision the future of art.
- Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho
*Internal Note: Artist note to be followed by conversations with Yu Jae-Won and Kim Dai-Shik on the meaning of chukjibeop & bihaengsul
A Conversation with Yu Jae-Won
January 26, 2015
Yu Jae-Won in Conversation with Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho
As you set out to Ithaca…
And if you find her poor, Ithaca won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithacas mean.
- Excerpt from Ithaca by C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933)
Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho: How would you approach the terms chukjibeop and bihaengsul?
Yu Jae-Won: I encounter chukjibeop and bihaengsul in mythology. There are numerous stories all over the world – not only in Greek mythology but also in Eastern mythology including the Korean legend of Jumong (the founding monarch of Goguryeo) – of humans flying across the sky. The heavens are reserved for divinity, and the human struggle to reach the heavenly realm illustrates the desire of the mankind to become god by transcending the fear for the divine power. The story of Icarus is a classic example. With the pair of wings—an invention of his father, the master craftsman Daedalus—Icarus escapes the labyrinth of King Minos, but when he disobeys his father’s advice and flies too close to the sun, the wax in his wings melts and he plunges to his death in the sea. This is at once a story of a tragic failure caused by greed and hubris. The fall of Icarus gave birth to many literary works dealing with the failure of flying.
Unlike the East, the West thinks of chukjibeop as teleportation. However, there is no such thing as teleportation in the East – it is chukjibeop. Such difference may be due to the discrepancies in geographical environment between the East and West. Chukjibeop refers to the method of contracting (or shortening) the earth with every step and therefore traveling long distances in a single step. That is, folding and unfolding space at will. Most of the land in Asia is covered with a lot of mountains and rivers and has a lot of curves and folds. People who live in a land with varying creases and folds – as opposed to wide plains – have different temperaments, languages, and culture, and tend to be polytheistic, which is to worship many gods. Chukjibeop may be a manifestation of the human desire to dominate and unify the heterogeneous environment. Most of the heroic figures in Eastern mythology use this method of chukjibeopas a means to roam around the land and save the suffering people. Regarding the rough geographical features as fatal barriers inherent in the land, the idea of chukjibeop could have emerged from our ancestors’ wish to overcome such environment at will. Unlike the concept of wormhole – which transcends time and space – in Western science, chukjibeop may be a manifestation of the will to overcome the land in which he/she is standing on and overcome the predestined fate. All this began from the boundless imagination of the people.
Moon & Jeon: You said that life itself is an adventure, drift, and a continuous navigation. As an individual, you began studying philology, majored in Indo-European history, and then became a professor of cultural anthropology after studying in Greece. You were also fascinated by mythology and later became a professor of philology. During those days, you established the department of Hellenic Studies because there was no department for it despite it being the core of humanities. While creating a Korean program for computers, you realized the importance of script and established the “World Script Festival.” In this way, your adventures and navigation seem to be endless as you are taking on new challenges all the time, going beyond history and mythology and from language to script. As a scholar of Eastern and Western culture, cultural anthropology and mythology, can you talk about, from a mythological perspective, the challenge and will of the mankind to overcome finiteness?
Yu:The Odyssey, an epic poem written by the ancient Greek poet Homer, depicts the trials and adventures of Odysseus over the ten years it takes him to return home to Ithaca after his victory at the Trojan War. All the major Western writers wrote this Odyssey. James Joyce’sUlysses packs in the story of a day in Dublin, Ireland, into the original work of the Odyssey, and Nikos Kazantzakis also dedicated the most of his lifetime to writing the Odyssey. This is because these writers believed the Odysseyprofoundly portrayed the human life and world in its entirety.
Odysseus had left his homeland Ithaca because of poverty. He wanted a grand exodus from the dire circumstances at home to start anew from some place else. The idea of “discovering the self on a journey to an unfamiliar place” serves a very important point in the birth of culture. These journeys are “dangerous” because people discover themselves at unfamiliar places. We claim to travel and take a journey as a break from the ordinary everyday, but it is actually to discover ourselves in a new environment. At these places, people escape from the limitations that surround them and see a different part of themselves. Through this encounter, they come to look at their life and world from a new perspective. The Odyssey is what best illustrates this dramatic experience. The Odyssey gained popular and scholarly interests over the centuries and was adapted into literature, art and films due to the very human characteristics of the protagonist Odysseus that demonstrated a resilient spirit and will power to go against challenges.
Moon & Jeon: From the death of an individual on a small scale to the end of humanity on a large scale, we live in such proximity to “the end.” In The Ways of Folding Space & Flying, the protagonist lives under the delusion that “it” is the new mankind born after the fall of the human race. It investigates the past civilization and the fall of the mankind, during the process of which it encounters the “self” and subsequently grasps the reason for existence. In this fictive setting, an alter-self was born in a new world following the end of an existing one. If we are to experience an apocalypse, how will the new civilization differ from that of today?
Yu: The end of the Roman Patrician Era was the period in which creativity was stalled and the energy to withstand the civilization had been driven to the bottom. No one in Rome dared to harbor any hope for the future. The pride and joy of living as a Roman had disappeared, and in replacement, the citizens across every social strata hoped for an end with the growing sense of meaninglessness. It was during this period when the Germanic Barbarians emerged and revitalized the Romans. The phase of mannerism, which the Romans had been unable to escape, had come to an end and was marked by a new beginning. As a consequence, the Romans began to have hope, which was paradoxical in nature but hope nonetheless. For Romans, what the Barbarians had to offer were “vulgar” yet it invigorated the civilization on the brink of perpetual halt with new, fresh vitality. And this is how the Europe we know today began.
If the civilization today is to disappear, then the newly beginning mankind or life will inevitably face barbarism, which in turn will become the driving force for a new beginning. And a new civilization will be established upon this foundation. I expect there will be a strong faith in salvation to the people of this new civilization. To have survived and born out of death would be considered an ultimate salvation. In the case of the Greeks, their stories are often very dark because they always end in a grim tragedy. What provides a solution to this issue is the concept of salvation found in Christianity. The great values that the Greeks have missed were salvation and love. Christianity introduced these values. Aside from salvation and love, all other ideas and concepts in Christianity stem from the Greek values. If we compare Judaism with Christianity, both share the concept of salvation, yet Judaism does not have concepts of freedom, equality, and justice. These concepts, which are emphasized in Christianity, originated from Greece. The Greek thought topped with the concept of salvation led to the birth of the Byzantine culture. On one hand, the Greek culture meets the blood of Barbarians and founds Europe, and on the other hand, it accepts the Christian concept of salvation and yields the Byzantine civilization. I am guessing that a new civilization will share many aspects of this history—like Sisyphus, who was doomed to forever roll a boulder up a hill.
Moon & Jeon: The protagonist in the video The Ways of Folding Space & Flying makes no verbal communication. The entire communication is made through the bio light signals connected to its head. This optogenetics, which is already being actively studied by the science community, is expected to change the current method and system of communication in the near future. If the existing language disappears and a unified method of communication gets introduced, the view of history and philosophy as well as the human thought system based on spoken language will completely change. What kind of life do you think this new language will bring about?
Yu: I think this leads to the question of whether a universal language is a valid concept. It means whether there can be a universal value system. Is there a universal culture or civilization that embraces the present heterogeneity? If so, what would it look like and how would the people living in such a civilization feel? Would they be happy or not?
A world without diversity functioning under uniform globalization would no doubt be a living hell. A linguist would define human as a “being with knowledge and ability to communicate with language.” A being existing in a world without language could no longer be considered human. It is impossible to think without language, because to think is to have a conversation with oneself. If language were to disappear, so would the thoughts. Then humans will regress into “brainless” beings without thought and every question we had would become meaningless. Descartes constantly doubted everything he saw, sensed, and experienced, and realized that if there is no “self” having that particular doubt, then there is no need for the question itself. From this context, he famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” The thought fundamentally stems from language. Then what is the function of this language we speak? We find the answer when we learn how to speak a different language other than the mother tongue. The view of the world is entirely different according to each language. Even the way we select and define the speech sounds that form a language is very arbitrary, which in turn makes the grouping of the arbitrary signifiers and arbitrary signified also an arbitrary process. In other words, everything is arbitrary, but to think that there may be a language shared by the entire world population? That would be a nightmare. If that tragedy were to happen, the power to change the world and the power to imagine will disappear all together. If language disappears, civilization would disappear and eventually humanity itself.