Roughly thirty percent of South Korea’s population is Christian, their numbers increasingly evangelical. Christian churches abound in Seoul, where one finds crosses that are often lit by neon announcing the building’s location. Noted sculptor Sook Jin Jo, a Korean artist who has lived in New York for many years, also makes drawings and takes photographs. She took on a new project, documented here, in which she recorded red-neon and LED crosses with a digital camera. The basic image occurs in a broad variety of backgrounds, ranging from open sky to apartment buildings to rooftops; the photographs are almost always taken at night so that the neon looks especially radiant. While Jo’s undertaking is artistic, it also quietly underscores the very strong presence of Christianity in Seoul, and by extension all of South Korea. Also, even though the images have a conceptual origin, it is essentially a visual project, in which the imagistic repetition of the cross makes it nearly abstract–it is impossible to read such a well-known image as fully abstract–during the course of experiencing the book. After seeing the group of photos, the viewer has the strange sense that the imagery is much more whimsical than devotional. Additionally, Jo has said in conversation that she is attempting a critique of the visual trope—she is suggesting that the crosses actually have an effect opposite that of religious feeling. Perhaps they are both a recognition of piety and a criticism of it; we live in a secular period. We live in a time when religious feeling has been pretty much blurred and taken over by consumerism; indeed, the cumulative experience of these crosses tends to place the project in a light not so distant from materialism—the effect is strange. This happens likely because of the artificiality of the light used for the crosses, which in no degree approximate natural light, the image we tend to use for religious feeling. As a result, the ongoing experience of the pictures turns to something alienating rather than religiously embracing. Jo has had an interest in spiritual life, but as a contemporary person cannot internalize conventional imagery. Somehow, over time, the crosses distance the viewer from the feeling they are trying to express.
This book contains images taken entirely at night; Jo took very, very few at daytime, and they are not included in the volume. The crosses are almost always red in color; and because Jo shot the photos in a city, the crosses are always contextualized by buildings, whose interiors often are electrically lit. As a result, there is a contrast between the two kinds kind of light—red emanating from the crosses and white light from within the surrounding structures—and the deep darkness surrounding them. The contrast is starkly visual, but it is also thematic. Western culture’s passion for dialectical forms of vision, and also Christianity, has greatly influenced Korean thinking—and as Jo has lived in New York City for many years her choice for this project is likely influenced by her involvement with contemporary art there. This by itself at least partly distances the crosses from their pious statement; Jo’s undertaking becomes more conceptualized, although not necessarily visually because the work can be seen as occurring within an intellectualized, even an abstract, context. As a result, the crosses become greater in meaning than their traditional representations; they participate in the history of recent Western art. The double implication of the sequence—its experience as visual piety and its contemporary thematic aura, echoing the light of the crosses but also undermining it—complicates and indeed strengthens the viewer’s experience.
Can the sequence be considered particularly Asian? More than likely not. We happen to know that the photographs were taken by a Korean-born artist in Seoul, so we might well expect the images to emanate an Asian perspective. But that hardly means anything at all today, in light of a contemporary art’s monoculture, where it is close to impossible to assign a particular racial, ethnic, national, or gendered view of the art we now see. (Likely, this will be seen as problematic in an art historical sense.) But there are no cultural suggestions of Jo’s background here; nor are there any suggestions of an Asian city in the photos. Still, the cross is not seen today as an Asian display. The melding of cultures in today’s art has resulted in a large gray space, where influence and eclecticism hold sway. If we look at the individual images, it is clear that the crosses appear within an anonymous urban matrix, one that would apply to cities everywhere today. In one picture (image 10) two crosses appear in the complete dark; the one near the top is larger, and the other, on the bottom is smaller. Both crosses are created by outlines of reddish light. Oft to the left, on the bottom, is a sign in Korean supported by wire struts—one of the few signs available of a Korean location in Jo’s string of images. One has the sense that a spiritual drama is being portrayed, but this feeling is undercut by our numbness today to traditional Christian imagery. The tension between the crosses and our indifference to their traditional import renders them as abstract as they are conventionally meaningful. I think this deepens the image, but this depth occurs because of its context rather than anything found in the picture itself. As regularly happens in art today, our contextual knowledge of the motivation of Jo’s work become as important as the art itself—even though we experience the imagery primarily, or even entirely, as visual. An understanding of the project’s contemporaneity, as well as its esthetic implications, is necessary.
In another photo, a cross outlined in yellow and red light stands upon an extension from the top of a brick church, illuminating in red light a more modern building behind it. Some green foliage presents itself on the bottom right. To the left, a tall modern office building exists; and in the upper-left corner, there is a sky in the last stages of twilight. The scene is certainly visually dramatic, but its religious strength is inevitably diminished by secular modern culture. Even so, this is not a picture determined entirely by spiritual decay. Something ineffable does remain; this is the legacy of Christian feeling. But it pales in light of our current estrangement from received pieties. In the final image to be mentioned here (image 7), the imagery is complicated and, given the Korean-language advertisements and electric signs, clearly Korean in its geography. Two neon crosses, seen from some distance, occupy the top third of the photograph. They are also at a distance from each other. The bottom half of the picture is a busy one, taken up with bright ads on narrow, vertical boards rising from the street; a dense group of storefronts with electric light illuminating them along the right, and some ads, outlined in neon, on the right. This is an urban landscape of unusual intricacy; but the crosses, remaining alone in the upper half of the night sky, are as visually dominant as the tangled density of what we see beneath them. The elevation of the crosses above the visually complex street below indicates some sort of spiritual distinction. But then, as we have said, it might just as easily be an intimation of a time-worn trope. It makes no sense, though, to insist on a reading one way or another; visual art today takes part in a variety of meanings—as it always has done.
In summary, this work begs the question whether the cross can be understood still as a meaningful vehicle for religious emotion. It is pretty likely that it cannot be seen this way now. Even so, it retains significant power, based on its history. Jo had to be aware of this when she set out to capture the crosses with her camera. At the same time, the project belongs to the critical implications of contemporary art, which would distance almost any audience by estheticizing, politicizing, or alienating us from its traditional implications. This is the reason why we cannot reject the more than obvious Christian implications of what we see. At the same time, we must accept the notion that the meaningfulness of such an image is more or less lost to time. Art, documenting what is happening now, must comply with the consequences of a long secularization. It feels like the gap between an idealized outlook and a temporal one is permanent. Such a gap wasn’t evident in the Renaissance when major artists were supported by the Medici’s! It is important, though, to realize that the breach has been around for a while. If it is impossible to regain the legitimacy that results from incorporeal longing, then we can only understand the cross as a remnant of devotion. So the experience of Jo’s sequence is given to a kind of mourning, which truthfully recognizes the doubt we have about anything immaterial. I don’t know if Jo set out to do this. It may have simply happened, as things do in art. But she is to be congratulated on the historical awareness of her effort, as well as the visual accomplishment of her undertaking. Such work may not lead us toward any true God-fearing regard, but it can serve of a reminder of what used to prevail.