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Sunday, 9 January 2011

Spirituality in Contemporary Art

Jungu Yoon is a South Korean artist now living and working in London. His book, Spirituality in Contemporary Art: The Idea of the Numinous, is of particular interest because Yoon writes as an artist not an art historian and out of an Eastern, rather than a Western, heritage.

In his own conceptual and digital work Yoon is seeking contemporary equivalents to the numinous aspects of Chinese Shanshui painting: "concepts of ‘void’ or ‘nothingness’, and ‘moving focus’ or ‘multi-viewpoint’ devices." Additionally, he argues "that multimedia ... exhibits unique characteristics which facilitate artistic explorations and revelations of the numinous." These include: time controllable experiences providing out of the ordinary feelings (Nam June Paik); exposure to visible sights beyond natural perception (Bill Viola); reconfigurations of the natural order (Atta Kim); and utopian virtual experiences of interconnectedness (Mariko Mori).

Yoon creates, exhibits and documents responses to four artworks utilising aspects of the concepts summarised above in the hope that "such practice-led research may be of interest not just to people with an inclination towards the spiritual in art, but also those already experimenting with multi-media technologies and open to expanding their horizons."

The latter chapters of the book which deal with the above provide an original analysis of spirituality in contemporary art which fully bears out Yoon’s conclusion that "contemporary artists understand and express the concept of spirituality" and "the process of expressing or approaching spirituality in art is a constantly changing one."

Preceding these chapters are more problematic introductory chapters which seek to survey the history of spirituality in art and definitions of the numinous. The strength of the latter sections come from Yoon writing as a contemporary artist drawing on his Eastern heritage while the weaknesses of the initial chapters derive from the fact that he cannot write as a Western art historian.

Therefore, we get a simplistic adaptation of Bellah’s five stages of religious development leading us to a place where organised religion and contemporary art are opposed, with artists such as Ofili, Serrano, Viola, and Hirst viewed as Anti-Christs. All this in the space of little more than eight pages leading to the conclusion that "in order to apprehend contemporary spirituality in art, we must search in unconventional places and seek the numinous in the guise of secular ideas and forms."

Similarly, in his definitions of the numinous, Yoon emphasises that "the concept of spirituality within modern art cannot adequately be expressed by relying of traditional theological jargon" and that "the numinous is greater than specific moral laws." As such, he argues, "the museum or gallery has replaced the church as a site where the ‘numinous’ might be encountered."

There are numerous issues with the assumptions and arguments that Yoon utilises in these sections of the book. His historical summaries are clearly sketchy in the extreme, his own definitions of the numinous constantly expand to the point where the term means so many different things that it is essentially undefined, and he describes his own practice as drawing on "Taoist speculations about the significance of the non-existent" thereby demonstrating an engagement with organised religion.

While there is much in Yoon’s historical analysis that is open to challenge, his description of his own practice-led research and his insights into both the spiritual potentialities of multi-media and the spiritualities of his immediate artistic predecessors and peers are compelling.

Brandon Flowers - Only The Young.

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