#philosopher #oilpainter #golem #frankenstein #danielmaidman #interview
Modern Prometheus: Interview with Hyeseung Marriage-Song
Tell us a bit about your background in art. What kind of training and study led to your current work? Who do you look to historically and in the contemporary world for inspiration?
I came a little later to art, in my late twenties. I did my undergraduate as well as some Ph.D. work in philosophy, and I think of myself as arriving to what I do in the studio as through that discipline.
Despite this alignment with philosophy, about 15 years ago, I ended up leaving it after coming to grips with how much more critical than creative philosophy is as practiced in Western academic settings. Given that void, I wanted to take some time to think, not yet about what I wanted to do careerwise, but rather, about something much more basic, something that when you know could not be more obvious or simpler to have arrived upon, but when you don’t, seems so inscrutable: that is, what I liked to do. To make a long story short, I spent the year after leaving Harvard responding to the world as creatively as possible-- I sculpted, painted, drew, made animations, cooked, baked, sewed.
If philosophy wasn’t the place where I would create something out of nothing, it was painting that made me feel powerful. As a first-generation Korean-American immigrant, I didn’t grow up knowing many artists-- I think I knew one among the doctors, engineers and oil and gas folk I was surrounded by in my hometown of Houston. While researching art schools and figuring out the economics of starting a totally new course of study, I learned about ateliers and had I not attended Water Street Atelier, which was a great education for me, I probably would never have attended art school.
I said philosophy is the route through which I come to my practice even today. I still read philosophy, but the net I cast for ideas is much wider and less specialized than it was 15 years ago. I am drawn to texts-- and all kinds of art-- that are synthesizing and creative while critical and examining.
Why "Modern Prometheus" - what does the title tell us about the show?
A writer friend called me up in the summer of 2017 and asked me to collaborate with him on a book he was writing, a reimagination of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein set in Nazi Germany. As you probably know, Frankenstein just turned 200 last year, and the large-scale paintings and monoprints in this show comprise a visual response to my collaborator’s manuscript (still in progress) and the Shelley novella as well as some mythologies from the ancient Greek and Jewish traditions.
Shelley gave her masterpiece the subtitle “Modern Prometheus” as acknowledgment that her tale was a kind of update to the ancient Greek one of Prometheus, a Titan who created a man out of clay, stole the gods’ fire and gave it to the humans who then used it to make civilization. In updating the update, my collaborator drew upon the Jewish mythology of the golem, so I thought about it a lot as well, and I would say that the show could have just as easily been titled “Modern Golem” as “Modern Prometheus.”
“Golem” in Hebrew means “raw material.” In Biblical tradition, the golem is a man or woman made out of clay and then animated, given life, by the breath of God. Adam and Eve, for example, are golem. In Jewish tradition, the golem is usually made to provide succor to the Jewish people at a time of crisis. But what happens? What happened to Adam and Eve? The thing you made out of nothing doesn’t do what you want it to do; in being imbued with life, it was also imbued with a free will. When the golem becomes too destructive, the rabbi-creator must destroy that which he created. The golem has free agency, and its own creative life.
You don’t have to believe in a divine power to realize we’re all in some way golem: we are born, we are moved to create copies of ourselves as an expression of who we are (yes, children are the most obvious golem, but I'm speaking about the products of any creative impulse). It is the human aspect to want to exercise whatever power we have in ourselves to create. And it is the human aspect to want to exercise that lower instinct to control that thing which we have created. And it is this tension, of the aspects of being both beautiful and terrible and both creators and creations, in which we are lost in an iterative process.
That's how I see the Frankenstein story, as an allegory about art and art-making. The scientist Viktor Frankenstein acted as artist-- he created something magnificent and powerful (a man) out of nothing (a bunch of cadavers), and his work went out into the world and had its own life, its own interactions with people. That kind of alchemy, what makes something out of nothing, is what artists trade in, and then what is it that illuminates the work? -- that is something of yourself that is you and only you.
The figurative pieces in "Modern Prometheus" strike me as a departure from your older work. They have more of an explicit conceptual imposition on them than previous paintings. Specifically, you foreground the evidence of your process, in underdrawings and color patches and lines surrounded by unrendered areas. Additionally, you use it in some cases, particularly Fall of Clerval and Lilo, to represent earlier or later time inside the narrative of the painting itself. Can you talk a bit about your evolution to this stage, and what your ideas or goals are with it?
Something I keep hearing about these paintings is that they combine representation and abstraction. I am not sure I thought in terms of that particular dichotomy when I was working-- it seems a little too cerebral, or at least not immediately experiential enough for how I work-- but what you see is probably consonant with two other visual idioms I was toggling between: resolution and fragmentation. In making this work, the conceptual imposition you’re pointing out is a result of my pulling away from the pole of resolution and moving towards the end of fragmentation.
In my earlier paintings, there was a heavy emphasis on resolution-- I wanted to resolve the painting, cut precisely with the drawing and find the line, the tangent at which the eye meets the limit of the form. I learned so much from working this way, but this way is actually most scary, because resolution means you have to stand for something. At the end you’ve made the drawing, rendered it all up, and hey, that leg is in the wrong place and you have it wrong-- there’s nothing else to say. The resolved, the rendered, some might even say “tight”: that’s the other end of the dialectic; you’ve had the argument, and now you you must say, this is where I’ve decided to stand.
This idea of looseness and fragmentation transcends the idea of right and wrong in some ways. The kinds of marks I was making in these paintings depend on gesture and physicality, and within those activities is built a kind of stochasticism. I make a big swoop on the canvas with a house painter’s brush and then there is this random drip here-- it won’t ever make sense to characterize that drip as right or wrong, because in what way could the drip have dripped better or worse?
Of course, I want to make sure how I negotiate between these two poles makes sense to the project. In this work, I was trying to make sense of an idea that humans are golem and attempting to say something about how we live, create and make things. The most immense and immersive creative project we are involved in, whether we we are awake to it or not, is to create a life, and those lives are not resolved until their end. We are constantly becoming, our lives’ narratives incipient and open, parts of us calcified and done, so foregrounding the process of how I made the paintings I hope makes some sense.
This fragmentation helped me think about the narratives of the paintings themselves, which of course were my responses to a bunch of texts. I've been asked if I consider myself having illustrated a book and I respond, not in the traditional sense; what I wanted to signal was action and plot, but in a psychological way. For example, the character Lilo in my collaborator's manuscript is young and headstrong but she is not two-dimensional. In my painting of her, her head is depicted three times and in a kind of mutating progression; she is becoming more herself or less herself depending on whether you are reading left to right or right to left. Clerval was one of the most lovable characters in my collaborator's manuscript; between him and the friend who sat for him, I saw a similar thread of a strong and consistent personality. I made the painting "The Fall of Clerval" 62 by 62 inches because a square always struck me as harmonious and strong. Clerval disappears in the story, and the multiple exposures are supposed to indicate the movement of his body, his disappearance, and the phase change is arranged in a circular sweep, creating a tension between two strong shapes: a circle within a square. That's how I endeavored to narrate plot through visual idiom, instead of painting a static image of a character running fearfully away from a monster.
It's a bit embarrassing I forgot the subtitle of Frankenstein. With that in mind, tell me about the emotional tenor of the graveyard images. I thought they were very strong. What was your approach and what were you trying to convey?
For years, whenever I traveled to a new city, the first thing was, find where I’m going to get coffee everyday, and second thing was, take me to your dead. Then I’d take my coffee and painting set-up and head to the cemeteries.
My father has always been dismayed about my cemetery studio practice – he reminds me that the average person will think I’m morbid and the paintings ghoulish. But the reason I am drawn to cemeteries is just because I’m not ghoulish: death, or the condition of being dead, doesn’t seem scary to me (though I wouldn't say the same thing about dying), or at least the fact that death is going to happen seems understandable, because it will come whether you like it or not, and that condition is no one’s fault. What is not understandable, on the other hand, are things like war, violence, forward ignorance. A cemetery is a liminal place designed in some ways to remind you that you are always only tenuously existing between life and death. When I visit a cemetery, I'm inevitably moved to think in a bigger, more philosophical way.
It felt right to make the first piece in the collaboration one of a cemetery, as I wanted the introduction of the collaboration to be large and sweeping. The statuary in that painting lives in Père LaChaise cemetery in Paris and I have reprised her so many times in my work, in paper cut-outs, watercolors, wood carvings, and now this. It was so interesting to me when at the opening a few weeks ago, someone came up and asked if I’d painting the Statue of Liberty weeping. I’d never made that connection before, but it made complete sense to me that someone saw that, especially in light of the parallels being drawn between our time and the fascism of the mid-19th century, which is where my collaborator of course sets his story. One answer to why the statuary is weeping is answered by the state of our country and civilization, which, as you know, the Promethean myth says was created by humans with fire stolen from the gods. If our civilization needs a savior, he or she can appear from many different walks of life, military, political, social. The texts I was working with caution us that the power of the heroes we make should not be total. So art becomes both vehicle for limitless creativity as well as rational voice for responsible limits to creativity – that second consideration, I think, is most modern.
I had no idea about your background in philosophy. Given the set of concepts you're invoking here, I can't help but think that the ideas surrounding the prima materia - of pure matter, pure potential - came up in your reflection on this project. Considered in this light, the amorphous but energetic ground visible in your portraits here seems to me a visual counterpart to the prima materia, or even a direct if incomplete manifestation of it: paint, after all, is mud, the potential-filled nothing from which the painter summons images. Did this cross your mind, and if so, what were your own ideas about it?
To be honest, I often think of Aristotle but in an entirely lazy and unrigorous manner which I’m sure would not go over well in any self-respecting philosophy department.
The ancient Greeks opined there was some underlying substrate of the fundamental elements of the world more basic than earth, air, fire and water. This “prime matter” is “pure potentiality,” capable of taking on any form and eternal in its history. Because it threads through all the elements, prime matter is in every physical change that is happening or will happen or has happened. It is omnipresent.
Aristotle’s idea in a lyrical way parallels the raw material of the golem, and the important upshot for me in the way I paint is to reflect the view that there isn’t a lot that separates us – from each other or even what happens in the natural world, because we’re all made from the same stuff (which, as far as I know, is consistent with science as well). For example, my limited palette of six or seven primarily earth colors is organized so as to metaphysically reflect my worldview that the variety of human experience is only made of a few materials.
I traveled again and found myself in a cemetery a few days ago, and I saw a grave upon which was written, “Do not weep. I am not there. I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow. I am the softly falling snow. I am the gentle showers of rain. I am the sunlight on burning grain. Do not stand at my grave and cry. I am not there. I did not die.” Gravestones are obviously not for the dead; they are, of course, for the living. And as one of the living, I read this inscription and thought, lazily and not at all rigorously, but genuinely and with feeling, about how we are born, as copies of some others who are like us, little golem with potential and hopes, growing and being formed into recognizable things, becoming as we go along more particular and specific but always possessing the potential to do and change whether we think we can or not, and then at the end of our lives, a human resolution of that narrative, though in a larger, more fundamental sense, because we are all the same matter, to continue living the life of the world.
What are you thinking of next for your work?
My main artistic goal this year is to continue reading and bringing more physicality into my practice. With this last show it made sense to make large-scale works in part because I wanted the figures to be significant in stature. The largest piece, “In the Cemetery,” is almost 12 feet across, but even though I was using the same expensive linen I always do – and more of it this time – the work, paradoxically, felt less dear. I also made a number of monoprints for the collaboration and really enjoyed the physical aspects of a new medium (handling the paper, using a template and the press). Currently, I’m making a bunch of experimental sketches for some paper sculptures I’m thinking about.