Han Ho’s Luminous Consciousness and Path to Liberation
By Thalia Vrachopoulos, Ph.D.
Korean Buddhism embraces the idea that upon hearing, or reciting the Nirvana Sutra can remove bad karma that binds people to samsara (cycle of rebirth). By producing such works as Eternal Light-Different Dreams in the Same Place, 2015 Ho Han helps us bypass this state of suffering or samsara transporting us to nirvana while still in this life as opposed to that which involves material death. This path is an extinction of sorts wherein the individual becomes subsumed by the whole or universal surrendering the ego-self. In sub-entitling his installation Different Dreams in the Same Place he is referencing the state of union of the individual with this collective consciousness thus overcoming desire, individual consciousness and averting suffering on the way to nirvana or yeolban. This is the place where everything converges and where beatitude is to be found.
Even while dreaming different dreams the individual is part of the whole without adhering to the selfish desires that keep him from attaining a higher consciousness. This doctrine of ‘non-self’ or ‘impermanence’ is analogous to nirvana’s idea of transcending the self to a place of deathlessness, timelessness, and universality.
Mahayana Buddhism, the form mostly practiced in Korea, distinguishes between a nirvana arrived at during life in which the acolyte feels light and part of the universe, and one that ends with physical death, with a continued spiritual life but without rebirth. The goal of this tradition is to reach Buddhahood where a Buddha re-enters life to do good works for all humans. What Han calls Eternal Light is similar to the idea of luminous consciousness or nirvana like the eternal void and supersedes the ego. In this state all is one and there are no distinctions between long, short, big, small, earth, fire, water, as they all disappear. Buddha-nature is light in four dimensions like Han’s installation that is filled with light and shine.
In the Mahayana tradition this is the result of meditation and ethical living that brings about a release from these finite considerations to become total awareness with light all around. In likening this philosophy to Han’s installation Eternal Light-Different Dreams in the Same Place it is possible to see that this idea is inherent in his concept of the four dimensional space that is lit from within. Han has used black mirrors on the ceiling and floor of the gallery while setting up landscape scenery interspersed with human figures on the three walls to give the effect of reflections on water. When the viewer enters the interactive installation it becomes day akin to the space of reality. 15 seconds later, it changes to night like the world of dreams. Consequently, Han has created a dream world within a four dimensional space that can be read as Nirvana.
Han’s Eternal Light in which space is depicted endless, can also be discussed in terms of the fourth dimension or non-Euclidian space which is infinite. Linda Dalrymple Henderson wrote about the space beyond our immediate perception and a higher, fourth dimension and their relationship to modern art. This concept like that of Han’s suggests that there is another space beyond our normal physical perception and that what we perceive of our world, may be only a reflection or shadow of another higher realm. Along these lines, Han has made a computational modeling of space one with multidimensional perspective increasing the interaction of the arts. In the beginning of the 20th century, this idea influenced major artists like Kazimir Malevich, Max Weber, Marcel Duchamp, and the Futurists and Surrealists, to undertake radical innovation in their works. In Han this concept couples with his spirituality to become an updated innovative work that is interactive and that breaks the barriers of art-making by incorporating the physical art, with the projected, the interactive and the imaginative. In a recent re-introduction to her text Henderson points to the return of the subject of higher dimensions in contemporary art after 1980 with the emerging string theories of physics and information technology.
Han’s Eternal Light on its walls, and floor, contains human figures in various positions that are also reflected on its sky dome. In the daylight scene the landscape consists fluffy clouds leading to a recessed background with a sun in the center, along with variously sized figures dotting the whole. These figures are variously dimensioned with a little girl crying while situated in the center under the sun. A little boy depicted on the left wall, wears a sailor’s hat perhaps as portent of things to come. He is reflected in color below in standing pose with hands in pockets, pants’ cuffs rolled up, mirroring a sailor stance. On the right wall a girl dressed in traditional Korean costume looks to the horizon in a dreamy stance that recalls 19th century romanticist notions. Behind her is a soldier who looks at us as we enter the installation. The separation
between these two people can also be associated with the division between South and North Korea which has left a bitter taste in the mouths of its people, one to which they refer as dongsangyimong that they liken to an endless yearning to reunite.
The night scene in its beautiful purple hues, shows people and an animal studded with points of light thus serving as correlations to Han’s idea of Eternal Light. The five surfaces are also dotted with reflections of light while the middle space contains a mountain range landscape with the moon at its center. The great divide at the horizon’s core is also correlative to the actual separation or the land, but is reconciled by the luminous quality of its sitters who have gone beyond physical desire to perhaps reach the state of nirvana. Han’s imagery offers us a paradisiacal plane that for the layman is hard to imagine but that for the socially responsible artist is possible to create.
This site-specific installation at the Palazzo Bembo is part of the 56th International Biennale at Venice taking up the whole gallery in which Han has installed an interactive piece that incorporates fine art, projection, mirrors, and sound. This multi-dimensional and multi-sensorial installation is on par with the Wagnerian Gesamptkunstwerk or total work of art in which there is a synthesis of the arts.
The interest in using light is not new for Han Ho who has been dealing with the medium for years. He created his Garden of Light series exhibited in the United States, which included paintings and a centerpiece installation comprised of rounded bricks formed into the shape of a boat with oars. In 2011, he worked with recycled paper to create an installation for the Sofia Paper Biennale at the National Museum of Art in which he incorporated paper, light and projection. His interest in working with paper and light, continued when in 2013 he created an entire installation for Tenri Cultural Institute’s Gallery in New York. Hung from the ceiling this massive installation reminiscent of the dome of heaven, sought to embrace the viewer in its soft paper tentacles. However, in the Venice Biennale work, Han takes his artistic and conceptual development further seeking maturity not only in his style but also as an ethical entity who is socially responsible.
 Henderson, Linda Dalrymple, The Fourth Dimension and Non Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art, Princeton University Press, 1983. Introduction
Jean-Louis Poitevin / Art Critic
Looking at the sky through the mind’s eyeappears when
HanHo, an artist becoming increasingly global, has the basis of his works in personal introspection. Also, shape of memories and modern meditation intersect to approach this basis with a question about humanity. The directivity of his works has its root in light. The light is the only substance and is regarded as the universe or celestial body. It is the messenger that delivers hope to be instinctively possessed by human beings.
When the point where the sky and ground come together is expressed in HanHo’s works, installation works using large-scale multimedia are mainly applied. The scale of these works brings an extremely intense feeling.
Childhood memories of HanHo
Children do not have doubt about what they see. HanHo in his childhood looks at an object shining on top of a stream flowing between an ocean and mountain. Such a magical moment is one of very strong moments affected by psychological thinking of human beings. Within such moments, people on one hand seek for the source of light, in which case the source turns out to be the Moon. Also, on the other hand, it can be the side that reflects the light. In this case, unlike the former, dark night on the ground might swallow the hope for discovery of truth within illusion. HanHo was attracted to the ambivalent amusement of such contrasting images. The power of this amusement becomes an eternal source of unlimited inspiration for his artistic intuition. What fascinated him more than illusion, twinkling or image is the something that may or may not exist. The gap between expression and extinction and ceaseless twinkling which continues to appear and disappear lead him to the world of deeper thoughts. This is a kind of tightrope walking between existence and non-existence, crossing over anguish and pleasure. His attitude of clearly recognizing this value and not fearing it has pioneered the way to become a true artist.
The path to the sky
HanHo’s works are unfolded in two directions that do not conflict one another. The theme develops into stories about land, soil, history and mankind. However, this is only possible because he continues to pursue a return to the source. This source is not the sunlight, which is the European view of universe, but the second celestial view. It is a being that shines by reflecting light and brightens the dark. It is the ‘Moon’, expressed in Oriental poetry as the center of universe. In Oriental philosophy, poetry and painting, the Moon is an extremely important being. An exemplary artist who expressed the Moon in contemporary art is Nam June Paik. He illustrates the Moon as the first thing that appears when people have a dream while asleep.
In selecting the light, HanHo regards it as the source of inspiration, not as a blind source. Therefore, the Moon exists in works in order to provide us with the path to the sky. A Chinese proverb says that “When you point at the Moon with a finger, a foolish one would look at your finger.” HanHo turns into a finger pointing at the Moon, and we can raise our heads to look at the sky through him.
To cite the words of a poet named Arthur Rimbaud, HanHo is a type of ‘prophet’ to create his works and share what he sees and feels with us. The power of his works lies here. HanHo is showing us the magical power required to live more properly on this land and the path to the spiritual part of the sky. HanHo discovered the continuous desire for ethics in human mind. However, he also understands that this message can only be delivered through a deep consideration on beauty.
Human beings towards the universe
The power of HanHo’s works are that they never forget about people, but these people refer to people of today. People as characterized by post-modernism sometimes try to destroy this land and other times look at the land from the sky. When he thinly cuts traditional Korean paper to install a gigantic structure symbolizing the Moon on the ceiling, he does not persist on the traditional forms. He opens up a new door within the classical form and expands it to recreate a new form.
The sky today is regarded as the universe, but it is a concept closer to us than the universe. The power of HanHo’s works are that they get over the magical sky to reflect the old and head towards the sky as the magnificent universe. This sky is filled with points of light (stars) expressing unknown forms. Also, these points can only be seen through a strictly established idea, and they symbolize conveyable traces. HanHo is one of those people who can not just look at stars but look over them. In addition, he is one of few artists who ask themselves about what the stars create inside us, like the discovery of a new cause.
The installation work he displayed at Seoul Art Center in 2011 is innovative among his works. The blue circle filled with white points of light symbolizes the galaxy. Furthermore, the galaxy made of kinetic contemporary installation art based on the classical material and new media such as LED bulb symbolizes our vision about the universe. This work provides a direct experience of a person looking at the sky.
We always and continuously search for light: an eternal light.
All of HanHo’s works contain all intellectual desires of human beings.
Human beings and land
In the work created in Sofia, Bulgaria during 2011, HanHo knew how to perfectly combine the double- sidedness of human situation. Eyes of human are facing the sky with an attitude of explorer and poet. Having an attitude of warrior and conqueror, human beings also had the desire to destroy this land that they created and were born from.
Thorugh the Curtain of Magic that symbolizes philosophy and art using thin pieces of traditional Korean paper, HanHo precisely displays such double-sidedness of human beings. The pyramids, a group of cone shapes resembling graves or meaningless piles of dust, were made of newspaper pieces. They symbolize the human nature as a destroyer and creator at the same time. Traditional Korean paper with a rectangular shape shining on top of the purely white world tells us that “we have not lost anything.” Thinking and art, in a sense, have a role of saving the humanity.
As such, art has the power to change the way of thinking. HanHo attempted to perform a dialectic transformation of this catastrophic ambivalence under the proposition of the end, beginning, completed destruction, and recreation.
The beginning of the world
The works of HanHo have their power in expressing the mythical history of poetry and art surpassing directly projected history of the mankind. As the consistent title granted to his works is Eternal Light, all works that speak about human beings must be related to the meaning of the beginning.
A Romantic poet of Germany named Friedrich H?lderlin said, “Where a danger exists, salvation also exists”. HanHo adheres to such intermediate position between ‘creation and destruction’ When he reaches the question of ‘Where does the mankind stand today?’, he seems to say through his works that human beings pass over the history of destruction to start the world by recreation. This is similar to recreation of a world by gathering thin pieces of traditional Korean paper.
The meaning of the ship embedded in the sky made of thousands of bamboo pieces must be understood. This ship has recreated the Noah’s ark using post-modernistic senses. Such delicacy and instability are the media of hope. Branches sway when wind blows, and a sacred singing voice can be heard.
In the performance of holding a brush in the mouth under the Moon as a symbol of intellectual awareness, the brush is connected to the Moon by a white string that reminds of pure and wonderful umbilical cord inside a mother’s stomach. This symbolic universe
that uses modern technology with advanced kinetic art is the beginning of human world, and HanHo draws our attention to this universe through his works.
The eternal light of HanHo can be seen as the primal light shining in the darkness, which has brought vitality to human heart ever since the creation of the world. We must perceive such aspects from the works of HanHo and recognize that he is one of important Korean artists of this generation.