공사 중 (Under Construction), 문호경

2024.02.19 Review of Heejeong JEONG’s Naked Island

At dawn, a man stands on a patch of land overlooking the sea. Beside him, rises a mountain adorned with blooming trees.
Dark clouds loom overhead, releasing a gentle rain that mingles with the changing hues of the leaves. As the sun sets, the distant beat of drums reverberates from the depths of the mountains,
while footsteps crunch through the pristine snow. Then, night falls.

Heejeong JEONG, Naked Island, 2015, Video installation, 8min 55sec, Image courtesy of the artist.

Realistic Landscapes
Heejeong Jeong’s Naked Island (2015) is a panoramic animated video that reinterprets contemporary landscapes through the lens of Sansuwha (Shan Shui, landscape painting).
Originally trained as a painter, Jeong developed an interest in photography and video, eventually delving into panoramic animation in the mid-2010s.
This video represents one of her early ventures into panoramic works.
The piece is a fusion of painting, photography, and video, in which she digitizes standalone paintings, stitches them together akin to a photo collage,
and crafts a video that flows seamlessly in a single direction.
For those familiar with traditional Korean paintings presented on folding screens or hanging scrolls, the panoramic format of Naked Island may evoke a sense of familiarity.

To fully appreciate Naked Island, it is essential to grasp the context of traditional Korean landscape painting.
Sansuwha, which portrays natural landscapes of mountains and water, has evolved since the Goryeo Dynasty in the 11th century, branching into two distinct styles: “Sil-kyung Sansuwha” (Realistic landscape painting),
focusing on faithful depictions of mountains and streams, and “Gwan-nyeom Sansuwha” (Conceptual landscape painting), which offers imaginative interpretations of nature.
Throughout the Joseon Dynasty, which commenced in the late 14th century, Sansuwha continued to evolve.
Particularly in the late Joseon period, Sansuwha advanced to capture not only the physical beauty of mountains and streams but also the spiritual essence inherent within them.
This period witnessed the flourishing of Sansuwha, which sought to convey the profound spirit and essence of nature alongside its visual form.

Seon JEONG, Clearing after Rain on Mount Inwang (Inwang jesaekdo), Joseon (1751),
Ink on paper, 79.2×138.2cm, Seoul, National Museum of Korea ⓒ National Museum of Korea.

In the East, including Korea, Sansuwha serves not only as a portrayal of nature but also as a reflection of the human perspective on the natural world.
Nature held profound significance and was revered as sacred by the predominantly agrarian societies of the East.
Unlike viewing nature as an inanimate entity, people in the East perceived it as a vibrant and sentient being akin to humans.
As a result, artworks depicting nature were imbued with spiritual resonance to reflect this interconnectedness between humanity and the natural world.
This close bond between humans and nature prompted the early emergence of Sansuwha in East Asia, including Korea and China, and this tradition has endured through the centuries.
Sansuwha continues to be painted to this day, carrying forward the tradition of portraying nature as a living, dynamic force intertwined with human existence

If one were to capture a screenshot of Naked Island and examine it closely, it might evoke comparisons to the allegorical paintings of Hieronymus Bosch or Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Like the works of these masters, Naked Island exists on the threshold between reality and imagination.
However, unlike the fantastical realms depicted by Bosch or Bruegel, Jeong’s video draws inspiration from the more tangible landscapes that the artist encountered in her daily life. Her experiences, observations, and interactions with nature inform the landscapes depicted in the work.
The landscapes described in this piece vary in their details, encompassing scenes of serene coastlines, majestic mountainscapes, verdant forests, or tranquil riversides—each imbued with its own distinctive aura and character.
Such landscapes are not merely products of imagination but are rooted in the reality that the artist perceived.
Through her art, Jeong captures the essence and aura of these landscapes; therefore, by experiencing Naked Island, viewers are invited to explore the landscapes she encountered and the unique atmosphere she perceived within them.

Mixed Desires
“I used to move to various neighborhoods in Seoul, and every area had its own secluded mountainous terrain.
One day, as I ascended one of these mountains, I stumbled upon an army bag, and it sent a shiver down my spine.
Despite being a low-lying mountain with sparse human activity, the sight of this human-sized bag filled me with an eerie sense of unease.
I found myself pondering its presence: Why was it here? This experience lingered in my mind, prompting reflections on the intersection of human presence and untouched wilderness.
At that time, my fascination with landscapes led me to contemplate the distinction between the natural and the man-made.”(Nemaf in the “FOCUS” section of VIDEOFORMES 2023 Talk, August 15, 2023, KT&G Sangsangmadang Hongdae Cinema, Seoul)

Naked Island presents a dynamic landscape that undergoes gradual transformations as the passage of time and the shifting seasons—spring, summer, fall, and winter—interact.
What makes this portrayal intriguing is not solely the cycle of the sun rising and setting, flowers blossoming and withering, or leaves flourishing and falling.
Rather, it is the subtle yet significant alterations that unfold: a traditional pavilion in daylight gives way to a contemporary gazebo at night, an apartment complex emerges within the once dense forest, a serene cemetery transforms into a desolate hill, and a playground where children once frolicked vanishes without a trace. Indeed, populated with diverse imagery from various locations and scenes, the landscape of Naked Island evokes an unsettling and eerie atmosphere, leaving viewers with a sense of discomfort and unease.
This juxtaposition of familiar and unfamiliar elements contributes to the creation of a surreal and enigmatic experience, captivating the viewer’s imagination
and inviting contemplation on themes of impermanence, transformation, and the unsettling nature of change.

For Jeong, a person’s place of residence holds significant clues about their identity.
Reflecting on her statement that “a sense of place is a blend of various emotions such as hope, despair, and confusion about life,
” I perceive in Naked Island the lingering effects of past eras and ongoing waves of “development.”
The landscapes she portrays depict Korean nature scarred and altered by the process of modernization under Japanese occupation,
as well as the urban expansion driven by economic growth and industrialization that began in the 1960s following liberation and the Korean War.
These landscapes are not merely ordinary locales; they serve as maps tracing the trajectory of modernization
and bear witness to the aftermath of an era of development where they were exploited as resources for profit by the construction industry.

As a result, Naked Island does not capture the gaze of a curious traveler or the leisurely attitude of a wanderer reveling in the landscape.
Instead, the artist assumes the role of both observer and participant, interpreting and sensing the tumultuous state of the city (or its periphery) and the disordered ambiance of the fragmented landscape.
Here, the unresolved issues stemming from the relentless urbanization process are palpable, reflecting the chaos and disarray left in its wake.
In essence, the video serves as a testament to the complex interplay between humanity and its environment,
highlighting the consequences of rapid urbanization and the enduring scars inflicted upon the landscape in the pursuit of progress.

On the other hand, Naked Island features a diverse array of characters who come alive with activity during the night, contrasting with their subdued presence during the day.
In the daytime, they navigate a public realm dominated by state power and societal norms, often feeling compelled to conceal themselves, withdraw,
or lethargically sleep rather than fully engage with the scenic surroundings.
However, the nighttime holds a different allure. It provides a private and intimate sanctuary where individuals can freely express themselves, dance, run,
and unleash their desires and passions without inhibition.

For those who have been mobilized for state-driven modernization and industrialization, unable to assert themselves as active citizens, the nighttime setting of nature becomes a
“representational space,” as proposed by Henri Lefebvre in The Production of Space (1974).
It becomes a realm of resistance and alternative practices, a dynamic environment where dominant norms and prevailing ideologies can be critically examined away from
the passive routines of everyday life. Much like a sultry tropical night in midsummer, the nights depicted in Naked Island pulsate with heat, energy,
and a sense of intrigue, as individual creative impulses intertwine and erupt under the glow of the moonlight.
It is a time when the boundaries of conventional behavior blur, allowing for the emergence of spontaneous and uninhibited expressions of identity and desire.

Heejeong JEONG, Naked Island (Details), 2015, Video installation, 8min 55sec, Image courtesy of the artist.

Under Construction
In the subsequent works following Naked Island, Jeong continues to explore both natural and urban landscapes.
In the “Parks” series, there is a notable shift from the sense of closure and tension present in Naked Island.
The series show a palpable sense of relaxation and ease. The once chaotic intensity has dissipated, occasionally replaced by a refreshing cool breeze.
Observing people peacefully enjoying leisure time in the park adds to the surreal and dreamlike quality of the scene.

During Korea’s economic boom, land was predominantly allocated for the construction of residential apartments and various public and commercial facilities, making parks a rarity.
As a result, parks seemed like luxuries, challenging for citizens to fully appreciate.
My childhood memories of parks were often associated with amusement rides, zoos, botanical gardens, or historic sites like former royal graveyards.
While waterfront parks along rivers now exist in Korea, the experience of truly relaxing under the shade of a tree in a secluded park remains elusive for me.
The notion of parks, or the park culture, still feels like a distant fantasy, a dream waiting to be realized.

Heejeong JEONG, Park series 2: An Amphitheater Dream, 2023, Single channel video, 8min 33sec, Image courtesy of the artist

Naked Island serves as a cinematic metaphor for the disjointed and fragmented development of Korea, seamlessly connecting disparate scenes like frames in a movie reel.
The island, in its perpetual cycle of transformation, mirrors the rapid evolution of the Korean landscape.
Much like a model swiftly changing outfits backstage, new buildings emerge overnight while longstanding shops vanish without a trace.
Through the relentless pace of development and redevelopment, the landscape bears witness to a multitude of events and upheavals,
shaping its current form through countless days and nights, changing seasons, and enduring waves of change.
Amidst this whirlwind of progress, nature stands as a resilient anchor, steadfastly enduring the onslaught of development.
The mountains and waters of Korea, despite the ceaseless construction and reconstruction, remain enduring symbols of resilience and continuity.

Ho Kyung MOON
Independent Curator, Director of PLUSMOON

문호경 「공사 중 (Under Construction)」
「터뷰런스 비디오 / 디지털 & 하이브리드 아트, 123호: 비디오폼 2024 카탈로그(Turbulences Video / Digital & Hybrid Arts #123 : VIDEOFORMES 2024 Catalog」 2024년 4월 76-81쪽.