The Familiar Conflict of Ego, and the Fragmented Body


The main focus of Western philosophy and sociology since the dawn of the modern era has been on emphasizing the subjectivity of the individual that changes fluidly in the relationship with the others, and on paying attention to the importance of the body in the formation of the subject that has been relatively neglected compared to the mind. In contemporary art after the 1970s, ‘relationship’ and ‘body’ are the most important themes and still represented in various forms to this day. ‘Relationship’ and ‘body’ are also the key words running through the overall work of the young sculptor Namhyeon Kim, who has been grappling with various problems of the individual living in contemporary society. But at this point in time when we see his second solo exhibition, his work shows a sea change on the surface, compared to his first one-man show. While previous works were mainly concerned with symbolic representation, by the medium of tools or places, of the body of the individual that was tamed by society, the works for this exhibition are more direct expressions, by means of fragmentation of the body, of the individual self that is faced with conflicts in the relationships with the others in society. However, similar interests of ideas and traditional medium of sculpture are running through pieces of work that seem much disparate with one another.

Before going into the specific works for this exhibition, some explanation of previous works would be necessary. Former works, which have been done in two large series called ‘Confined One’ and ‘Single’, are sculptures that fixed, with a kind of tool, the bodily movements of the individual who is familiarized with the disciplines or the generally accepted ideas of a society, or that personalized the typical places according to the body of a person where those ideas and disciplines were operating. The first thing the artist paid attention to was the personal prison made of cement and steel fitted to the height of a standing adult male so that the work could symbolically represent modern man living of his own accord up to the disciplines. After that, he continued to make, of the same materials, heavy gears to fix the postures of prayer, a military salute, and a deep bow; and used other materials to produce various forms of the so-called physical ‘confinement devices’ that kept the figure in a posture of being punished with both arms upward, or made two figures face each other with their hands held together. The various confinement devices were mostly means to fix the symbolic movements according to the hierarchical order and the stereotypes of our society—from the actual institutions like prison, army, and school in which strict disciplines are in operation, to the invisible ideologies such as Confucianism. On the other hand, these instruments developed into personalized spaces. The list of the ‘spaces for one person’ that were reborn by the artist includes army barracks, hospital represented by beds and crutches, bathhouse, toilet, classroom, amusement park rides like trampoline and ball-pool, and tile-roofed house like the personal prison in the previous work. But all of them are symbolic spaces that cannot be used as they are different from the actual size of the human body although they have bodily shapes, or they cannot be opened although they have doors. This seems to suggest that it is an impossible hope to live an isolated life alone, away from the disciplines and institutions of society.

This series of work naturally reminds us of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975). As well-known, the book, sub-titled ‘The Birth of the Prison’, recounts in detail the surveillance system implemented by the authorities since modernity and subsequently, the ‘docile bodies’ of human beings who conform to the system, by showing how the prison appeared in Western history and how it has worked. Public executions of[serious criminals, which had been cruelly practiced before the 18th century, did not scare people any more nor made them submit to authorities, but instead, aroused indignation among the public or even led the people to riots. This brought the need for rationalized punishment and a new form of prison emerged which put the prisoners to isolated imprisonment. Prison, which seemed a rational form of punishment, not only forced the inmates to live a mechanical life following routinized daily timetable but to internalize the discipline within themselves so that in the end it broke their resistant spirit and made them conform to the system. Most of all, the mechanism of prison extended to a variety of social institutions including school, hospital, army, and factory. This made it easier for the state since modernity to rule, and people began to adjust their bodies to the power system without thinking. Meanwhile, Foucault points outs that this principle of ‘discipline and punish’, which enforces voluntary submission to rules, has further individualized human beings since modernity. Namhyeon Kim’s series ‘Confined One’ and ‘Single’ represent the theory of Foucault in a light and witty sculptural language.

If the previous works were representations of human conditions under which human beings could not help being tamed and individualized in the power system, the central series of works called ‘familiar conflict’ for this exhibition are more like ‘expressive sculptures’ on the psychological changes or conflicts of the ego that individualized humans experience in their relationships with other human beings in a society. For these works, Styrofoam and urethane foam were formed on steel structures, synthetic resin was painted thickly and roughly on them, and then black and white acrylic paints were put onto it with no clear boundaries with each other so that the paints look like flowing down the surface. Most of the pieces exhibited here are idiosyncratic in their direct expression of the curious re-assemblage of fragmented human bodies. However, there was disciplined ‘solitude’ before the fierce ‘familiar conflict’ emerged outside. In the sculpture of human body entitled ‘Solitude’ that deals with psychological conflicts of the individual in a more planned way, the artist has expressed in a super-realistic manner the human bodies of bizarre shapes which are neither one person nor two. This sculptural figure shows two heads of obviously one body touching each other, two hands on the lap clasped with the other two hands, and the other two legs supporting the buttocks like a chair. The sculptor cast human hands in plaster, realistically reproduced a human figure sitting in a stooping posture, and then clothed the figure in the clothes the sculptor himself used to wear. This literally has the effect of arousing a strange yet familiar feeling at the same time. This ‘lonely’ figure is a representation of the psychology of an individual who is in conflict with the instinctive unconscious he is faced with in his psyche, in addition to the ego exposed on the surface. The encounter with the immanent instinct that had begun this way soon turned to a more expressive technique that made use of resin and expanded into a weird, yet in a sense natural, ‘familiar conflict’, since it was true to instinctive desire: a human body holding the genitals while standing face-to-face with a person hanging upside down, and the head separated from the body caressing his own genitals. This reminds us of the Freudian structure of psyche concerning human ego that tries to keep the balance while constantly experiencing conflicts between the primordial unconscious (id) governed by the pleasure principle on the one hand, and the superego like the guilt or moral ideas imposed by society on the other.

Meanwhile, the artist expanded this complex state of mind of an individual not only into the conflict between the unconscious and the superego but also into a more universal pattern and ponder over its significance. A figure kneeling down with straight upper body has several pitch-black faces with no features in them, and a figure with three vertical heads on a strangely deformed slender body has a weird look with each of the two hands stopping each of the two mouths. These are expressions of the complex ego that manifests itself in an individual in the relationship with other people in a society. They point to the psychological state of people who are torn by clashes with numerous egos that were not fully embodied in the persons. This is not just a pathological phenomenon of ‘double self’ in psychoanalysis, but indeed a ‘familiar conflict’ that can commonly happen to any people. We all play various roles in many groups in a society, and sometimes the roles conflict with each other. Hence it is sometimes hard for an individual to maintain a unified self, or he is dominated by others in his relationship with people and loses his own self for a while. The sculptural figures, which express the complex self, finally culminate in the deformed image in which one person on a tower of dozens of heads spreads his arms to embrace several heads next to his own head. The sculpture, named by the artist a ‘collected self’, was intended to express the inner world of a depersonalized individual that looks like a collection of several similar selves of decentralized and standardized identity in the relationships with people.

‘Public Face’, a work on a flat surface, which is a new attempt for this exhibition, also addresses similar theme although it employs utterly different medium and form. The triptych is done by painting the faces of three people with three colors on a piece of paper, folding it and tearing it into small pieces, and then mixing them before re-combining them into the faces of three different people. The work shows that the obviously different faces at first are bound to become faces which are similar but not whole or normal at all, if the initial faces are mixed together and then divided again. The sculpture tried to point out the social contradictions in which the individual characteristics disappear and become one of the uniform group members as people form and develop their self identity through relationships with others. While this is placed in the context similar to those sculptural figures that represent an individual who has several selves within, it is ultimately connected with the early works of the artist. Through the confinement devices that enforces specific postures and through personal spaces confined to one person for a specific purpose, the artist tried to speak on the stereotyped ideas derived from social relationships and about individuals who are bound to be isolated due to that mechanism. The difference might be found in the fact that if the early works dealt with isolation immediately related to the body of the individual, the works for this exhibition present the isolation and conflict of the individual self substituted by the human body. As a matter of fact, this also shows that body and mind cannot be considered separately but are two combined aspects of an individual. Before that to be sure, the artist tries to say that each individual, who is a combination of body and mind, does not exist as a separate atomized entity but is intertwined in a very complicated relations in which individuals exchange influences with each other in a social setting. By means of the paradox of translating such an intellectual insight and elaborate planning into sculpture, a most bodily visual language.

Hyeyoung Shin | Art Criticism