Seo Hye Soon
written by John Shrader
Imagine you are traveling in a far off land, a place where your mother tongue is not heard. The local language swirls around as you try to grasp meaning before it passes by. You struggle to understand and be understood. Any familiar phrase catches your attention and creates a sense of nostalgia and unexpected longing. This experience inspired Seo Hyesoon’s recent art project.
Seo studied and worked in France where she almost never heard Korean. Then, upon returning to Korea, she noticed the lack of French spoken. The subway provided English and Japanese announcements and buses and signs used English, but other languages were rare. Inspired by the absence, Seo created the aural installation “Nostalgie for minorities”, an intermittent playing of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of French radio broadcasts in Busan’s Shinsegae in 2017. This created a sense of temporary belonging to Francophones and Francophiles in a far-flung foreign mall while also potentially creating a minor sense of unfamiliarity and discomfort for the local inhabitants. It is also a great jumping off point for exploring Seo’s oeuvre, examinations of sound and place which often feel like an extended Dear John letter.
John Cage that is. “Nostalgie for Minorities” uses the iconic duration of the composer’s 4’33”, with only the visual and audio aspects of that piece reversed. But this is far from the only homage Seo pays to Cage. In “harmony” soundproof sponge from an anechoic chamber carpets portions of a glass room, a reminder that perfect silence is impossible. Small sections of the soundproof sponge are replaced with ceramic castings, contrasting white against the black sponge. Speakers on the floor provide the sounds of ceramics being fired and cracking due to rapid temperature change, a harmony of contrasts that echo the experience of hearing your own body while in an otherwise soundless vacuum. Even more directly is “For John Cage”(p. 20) which features 12 radios, tuned to various local stations, all facing a microphone as would a choir. This references Cage’s “Imaginary Landscape No. 4”, a composition for 24 musicians playing 12 radios. While “For John Cage” lacks the performative nature of Cage’s work, the installation creates a new context, setting the radios alone in an otherwise barren shopping display. This makes it easy to see the radios as performers in their own right rather than mere instruments, yet it also commodifies the performer, reminding us that music, as all art, is grossly and inexorably with the commercial.
*Sound link : https://youtu.be/__ A3S6DuD4M
It is not surprising that Seo is not afraid to use sound and space to look at social issues. In “Beyond” porcelain pipes come up out of the ground and connect to the walls. Distant war sounds are then piped into the room, an uneasy reminder that for many, modern war feels far away. But it isn’t. War and death is homegrown, facilitated by domestic industry and finances, making one complicit despite its unassuming nature.
Meanwhile, in “Home Sweet Home”, Seo contemplates a broken home with a ceramic house half smashed in chaos. The audio isn’t provided to the whole room, but is heard through headphones connected very literally to the shattered home. Put on the headphones and one will hear a sad and lonely humming of Henry Bishop’s “Home! Sweet Home!” The song itself is about love for one’s home regardless of where one travels, but Seo’s “Home Sweet Home” turns this into a nostalgia for a place that, perhaps, never really existed.
*Sound link : https://youtu.be/3IlDlm77wT4
While Seo’s work relies very heavily on the audio component, her 2008 “Untitled” focuses a little more on the visual. Here the gallery’s white room has two white plaster speakers flanking a window flung open to the green trees outside. The expectation of listening to the speakers is subverted by only being provided with the sounds of trees swaying or a bird singing. But the genius of the piece manifests after the installation is gone and all that is left are photos, for it allows the visual to imply the audio. The window framed greenery creates a feeling of the sounds of the natural and the outside coming through the silent speakers. It makes one feel like they are both here and there, an alien in their homeland.