In Jayoung Yoon’s Brooklyn studio, a postcard reproduction of a Duccio alterpiece (Jesus holding a fishing net out to his disciples) hangs next to a photo of the artist, head shaved, standing in a lake. Floating off the opposite wall are a net and a shirt, both made of the artist’s hair, and two pictures of lotus flowers. Religious references abound.
To the religious philosophies she studies, Jayoung adds Ho’ponopono ideas, Butoh dance, cartography, digital video, and sewing to try to “make invisible thoughts visible.” Her materials include salt, egg shells, sumi ink, hair, and water. This mixture is all brought together into an art practice which sits at the seemingly contradictory point where asceticism and aesthetics meet: Jayoung shaves her head for each performance (saving the hair for future sculptures) and often subjects herself to the elements for many hours at a time during her ritualistic performances, aiming to achieve a state of empathetic mindfulness, but the images that result from these performances are not at all Spartan. They are luscious and serene.
Museums and galleries are sometimes referred to as secular churches—spaces of solemn and hushed contemplation, places where the mortals come to contemplate the otherworldly—but a direct connection between the spiritual realm and the art world has long been dissolved. In fact, if you were to bring up a discussion of God in a contemporary gallery or art school you would probably be laughed out (ironically, some would consider the same discussion quite reasonable in Congress). That being said, religious forms of thinking have never entirely left the art gallery, and the desire for ritual, community, contemplation, and many of other “religious” trappings seem to be burgeoning among artists.
A year ago my grandfather died. The funeral service and its accoutrements served as a container into which I could pour my loss—with whatever tears, dirty tissues, unearthed fears, or irresolvable regrets might accompany it. The particular combination of hearse, hymn, eulogy, hymn, reading, hymn, and coffin bearers, followed by tea and cakes in the community room, has been designed by collective wisdom to be cathartic, allow the grieving to be alone but together, give closure, and provide communal acknowledgement. The structure of the ritual gives people on shaky legs a direction to walk and gives those with choked and wavering voices words with which to express unfamiliar emotions.
At this year mark, I feel a fresh tugging of sadness. My body remembered the anniversary before my mind did, waking me up in the middle of the night with a sudden urge to call my granny at, as I realized later, what was probably the precise time that Grandpa died. I wish that the Methodist tradition had a prescribed ritual for the anniversary of a death, as the Jewish, Cameroonian, and many other traditions do. Alone, my mourning feels small. I would like a structure to hold it, amplify it, make it meaningful and loud; and then let it calmly dissolve away.
Jayoung’s videos have an appealing rawness and simplicity. For Non-Ego she made eleven large pots, each roughly the size of her balled up body, and placed them in a circle, with her body occupying the twelfth spot. Naked, she unravels and steps awkwardly out of the circle, placing herself apart. “I am taking myself out of time,” she tells me. Watching the video, the world feels cold, still, and eternal, while her actions are momentary, fragile, and alive.
Just as in Victorian times it was common to keep a piece of hair as a physical remnant of the departed, hair has become Jayoung’s visual cue for the crossing point between the physical and spiritual realms. This connection makes sense—hair is a part of our body, but one that both continues to grow after our death and is constantly replaced in our lifetime; it is considered beautiful when attached to us but often a source of disgust when detached. Sometimes the hair snakes out of her ear, rising up like a lotus leaf overhead, sometimes the hair coils out from her heart, and sometimes she wears her own hair knotted into a glove or hat. That her hours of labor working on these hair sculptures produce something that is almost nothing is part of the point—a reflection on our own temporary (and absurd) reality.
My grandpa played the organ at his local church. Grandpa and I rarely discussed religion, and I suspect that his faith was based on a love of the poetry of scripture, the music of hymns and, being a teacher and civil servant, the moral clarity of the Bible’s language, more than it was about a hard line belief in our Father, who art in heaven. Or maybe that’s my own atheism talking. But it comes as no surprise to me that a family full of ministers is also a family riddled with artists; both art and religion are, at one level, about reaching for the ineffable. Both can be hampered by their unappealing dogma and, by dint of their ineffable center, are vulnerable to the whims of charismatic preachers. Perhaps it is the awareness of this weakness that makes many people unwilling to believe in the teachings of either.
I recently heard a radio interview with scientist Johnathan Kabat-Zinn in which he commented, “When you hear the word ‘mindfulness,’ if you’re not in some sense automatically hearing the word ‘heartfulness’ you’re misunderstanding it.” According to Jayoung, in Korea the mind, our central self, is thought of as being located in the chest not the head, which is why in many of her pieces the hair sculptures radiate from her core. It also helps to explain the generous or “heartful” nature of her practice—whether sitting sewing with her hair or walking barefoot in the desert, Jayoung uses repetitive action to clear her mind, and then to direct her calm thoughts towards others. Raised Christian, well versed in Buddhist philosophy, and holding an M.F.A., for Jayoung the distinction between prayer, meditation, and art making may be purely linguistic.
In the last year I have started to meditate more. By meditate I mean that I sit still and try to focus on the sounds around me—birds, the distant freeway, sometimes a garbage truck or a car alarm—rather than the whirring thoughts in my head. Similar to painting, this reminds me that I am a part of the physical world beyond my apartment windows, rather than the digital miasma that comes rushing at me through a computer screen. The process places my mind where my heart is; this is sometimes calm, sometimes full of tears.
Alex Moore is a writer and artist living in Los Angeles. You can read more of her musings about art and artists on her blog, Fantastic Heliotherapy.