Ciara Ennis, curator/director of Pitzer Art Galleries interviewed artist Kyungmi Shin for her installation Babel: Chaos of Melancholy.
This interview was published in a catalogue accompanying the exhibit at the Pitzer Galleries in July 2009.
BABEL: THE CHAOS OF MELANCHOLY
Published in 1621, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy was written in part to combat the debilitating effects of depression. How did you come across this book and what inspired you to use it as inspiration for your project: Babel: The Chaos of Melancholy?
I came across the quote by Burton during a library research on the Tower of Babel, and I was intrigued by the notion of looking at the failure of Babel to be caused by a psychological depression rather than a linguistic confusion. The actual quote is “The tower of Babel never yields such confusion of tongues, as the chaos of melancholy doth variety of symptoms.” I liked this introduction of human emotion in the discussion of the effects of utopia-building, because I felt that the emotional reality is the true barometer of the quality of life of an individual.
The Tower of Babel parable carries uncommon socio-political resonance today bringing to mind celebrity-architectural excesses of the past two decades as well as the idea of multiple tongues and cultures struggling to communicate. How does your work relate to these two issues?
The initial inspiration for the installation at the Pitzer came from my experience in Ghana. In Ghana, I was really surprised to see so many used products from the West and other developed countries. It was fascinating to see used cars from China and Korea being used in Ghana. The original Chinese or Korean writing was still left on the cars such as kindergarden bus, delivery service etc, and the cars are re-purposed for public transportation and other uses. In the outdoor markets I saw piles of used clothing from the west sold to the locals at 50 cents or a dollar a piece which is much cheaper than their own traditional clothing. It is common to see African villagers wearing T-shirts bearing logos of American sports teams and political campaigns, and I smiled often at the irony of my reaction and recognition of these logos versus their relationships to those images as pure visual designs. My initial amusement at seeing these global connections turned to apprehension as I researched further and found out that Ghana ends up with huge amounts of old electronic equipments from the West and that they are salvaged for parts and material by hand exposing the workers and the environment large quantities of toxic material.
So I began to think about the relationship between the developing and the first world economies, and that was the inception of this idea of building a large sculptural structure that is inspired by both what I saw in African shanty towns as well as the ambitious city-building that are happening all over the world but especially in places like Dubai and Shanghai where this building of a new city seemed to be occurring almost overnight. I wanted to create a sculptural form that somehow showed both the optimistic feeling about “building” a utopian future and the reality of building a house for the majority of the world population. So I looked at the tower of Babel as a metaphor for this utopian vision as well as the failure of that vision.
Built as it was to honor great works of man, previous representations of the Tower of Babel have focused on the tower’s architectural brilliance, sophisticated engineering and supreme elegance as typified in Bruegel and the numerous artists who have interpreted the subject. Although structurally complex and multi-faceted, your installation eschews traditional notions of sophistication in favor of a junk-pile asymmetric aesthetic—comprised as it is of multiple and diverse materials in an erratic form. How is the myth altered when your work’s physical manifestation articulates a form contrary to the conventional Babel?
I wanted to use the material that the majority of this world population is limited to because of the lack of economic resource. What does it mean to build an architectural structure when you only have an access to scrap wood, earth, leaves, cardboard and some nails? In addition to the tower of Babel, I am also thinking about iconic towers such as Eiffel tower and the unbuilt Tatlin monument. So I see my structure as a prototype of a monument or an anti-monument based on a variety of archetypal structures such as the Coloseum, Empire State Buildig, and Burj Dubai, currently the tallest building in the world. But the more powerful archetypes that I am looking at are ones existing outside of main stream architecture, the shacks that people outside the castle live in and the shocking poverty that inspired Buddha to abandon his palace life. I am looking at the photographs of shanty towns in Accra, Lagos, Caracas, and Cape Town. Another major influence on my work right now is the work of architect, Lebbeus Woods whose work deals with designing systems in crisis. His architectural drawings and models, all unbuilt, work with an existing chaos and crisis and creating structures that are built in harmony with the existing forms.
I think of my construction not as a demonstration of a depressing and deprived process, but rather a creative process of building an alternate monument.
The video of component of Babel: The Chaos of Melancholy merges footage from your recent trip to Dubai with views from your sea-side studio home in Ghana, Both are representations of paradise, one fabricated the other natural, how does this erzatz waterfall that you are creating represent these two vastly different worlds and do you see your structure as a bridge between the two?
Your description of the videos as “waterfall” is inspiring me to project the video vertically! I think the videos function as snapshots of these two different worlds. These two videos don’t necessarily capture the most shocking or poignant compilation of images. Rather, I wanted to use these videos as a way for the viewer to experience the everyday of these two extreme examples of societies. I literally experienced these two drive-throughs one day apart. The first one in Dubai on new year’s eve, and 24 hours later, I was being driven down the streets in this small African village, and the juxtaposition was really jarring.
Can my structure be the bridge between the two paradises? In reality the bridge between these two worlds already exist in their intimate intertwining of economic exchange. The cheap labor pool for the constructions in Dubai come from the poor countries including Ghana. Belgian chocolates offered in the 7 star hotel in Dubai starts with the cocoa beans in Ghana, the largest producer of cocoa. The gold jewelry worn by beautiful women in Dubai also could have come from Ghana, one of the largest producers of gold. Ghana’s neighboring country, Nigeria, is one of the largest producers of oil. Yet Nigeria’s general population does not benefit from the profits, and it’s a curious fact that Nigeria is a center of email scams. So the lives in two paradises are already entertwined intimately with one another once we look beyond the surface.
So thinking about my piece and how it functions in relationship to these two worlds, I have to be really pragmatic and say that at the end of the day what I’m creating is an art object that is inspired by these two extreme manifestations in the world. I am creating a structure that is an anti-monument, a structure that tries to celebrate the material and the aesthetics that is unique to poor, deprived economies. And I am creating a sculptural form that derives a lot of inspiration from a host of other artists who worked with the material from life, Robert Ruschenberg, Ed Kienholz, Hannah Hoch, Kurt Schiwtters, Jason Rhodes, and Dieter Roth.
The materials used to create your cascading tower—building scraps, corrugated metal, colored Plexiglas and used aluminum—have much more in common with the shantytowns of Ghana and favelas of Brazil than the multi-billion dollar follies of Dubai—built by immigrant workers earning under $38.00 a week. While referencing the extremes of wealth and poverty the pop-colored waste products included in your construction are distinctively festive. What is the viewer to infer from this paradox?
Perhaps a presentation of paradox is a good thing. I believe in the power of a good question in the education of a mind, and perhaps the paradox in my piece can serve as a question in the viewer’s mind? Ultimately, I am interested in making a piece that raises questions rather than provide answers, and if I can create a piece that can present a paradox, and engage the viewers with more questions than answers, I would be delighted.
The recent building boom in Dubai has resulted in fantastical construction projects such as Palm Jumeriah—an artificial island built in the shape of a palm tree with each frond extending a mile into the sea—The World—an island in the shape of a global map—and currently under construction, the Universe, an island that mimics solar system. Are these islands a horizontal Babel, a hubris doomed folly?
Definitely! Rumors have it that the Palm Jumeriah has already sunk a few feet, and The World project has been halted right now after the financial market crash of the late 2008. What’s really interesting to me is that even though these projects might end up as failures, it won’t stop another city or country or an investment firm from trying to create another fastastical project, another tallest tower. The endlessly sinking Venice is still here. I find that really fascinating.
Your recent curatorial project “Building Paradise,” explores notions of paradise from a fantastical, utopian and positive perspective. Would it be fair to say that Babel: The Chaos of Melancholy, suggests a much darker scenario?
I am definitely wrestling with the darker side of the utopia-building in this piece if we were to define “darker” as the poorer societies. This piece deals both with the hopeful and playful idea of building a future as well as the reality that a majority of this world’s population face on a day-to-day basis. Using shanty town-esque material is a way for me to deal with this complex and challenging reality. I would say that the scenario I am creating in Babel: Chaos of Melancholy is one that is replete with elements from the real world and real fantasies.