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The World of Kokdu

2022. 9. 15 – 10. 22
Nam, Jonghyunl

Song Jinhyup (Criticism)

In etymological terms the Korean word for photgraph, “sajin,”is quite different from the English word “photograph.” Photo-graph is merely a technical explanation of drawing (graph) with light (photo); however, sa-jindefines this genre as an artistic act of depicting (sa) the truth (jin). How can a photographic work successfully reveal the truth? If so, what truth is being presented through these exhibition photos of kokdu, Korean wooden puppets?

안내자 (E 1_5), 2022, Korean Traditional Paper(hanji), Pigment Print, 100 × 150 cm

The philosopher Martin Heidegger brought renewed attention to the Greek word “aletheia” as “truth.”Truth is revealed to him as,“not-hidden or forgotten (a-letheia).” On a journey to find the truth, we need to understand that our world is essentially a single and closed system fully encompassing all subcomponents. In Nam Jong Hyun’s kokdu series, one can see how these wooden puppets were once part of a highly decorated traditional coffin carrier. This monumental funeral artwork represents numerous ideas on traditional cosmology and the world after death. Each kokdu carries out a negligible role, such as that of musician, guide, or escort. And even now when there are so many remaining kokdus, we stay focused on the highly decorated coffin carrier it self for cultural enrichment rather than the small puppet pieces. In this large and complex ceremonial funeral art display, the kokdus are depicted as replaceable and marginal parts, ones rarely noticed and appreciated. We may say that the true appearance of the kokdu is hidden in the astonishingly splendid funeral procession.

안내자 (E 1_10), 2020, Korean Traditional Paper (hanji) Pigment Print, 110 × 93 cm

However, the moment the funeral procession reaches the river Lethe, a striking ontological turn occurs. While the procession flows into this river of oblivion, the symbolism and physical structure of the coffin carrier is destined to be thoroughly washed away. The moment that kokdu figures are removed from the coffin’s structure, separated from each other to be sold individually without provenance through the art market, the feeling becomes quite gloomy. As the whole artistic structure of the coffin falls into oblivion, the original position and symbolic role of many kokdus also become forgotten. For example, a circus member that performed an acrobat jump as a part of funeral procession, now appears as an ambiguous and immobile figure in a weird handstand position. Art historians and collectors often feel a sense of despair when seeing the kokdu figures separated from the full display of the coffin, though ironically this disconnection reveals the true existence of the kokdu themselves. Surprisingly, the resulting and tragic oblivion of the coffin’s artwork liberates the kokdus ‘being’, an act achieved through their separation or freedom from the superstructure.

In many art dictionaries, kokdus are described and defined under the title, “coffin (or coffin carrier)” or at the very least referred to as,“traditional funeral art.”As defined in this system, kokdu srein force stereotypical categories of funeral artwork, only representing figures that guide, escort or entertain. If a kokdu puppet were to break out of its ceremonial funeral role, it would be thrown into an emptiness of meaning. This is exactly where Nam Jong Hyun’s artistic focus lies, he has no interest in the overall iconography of coffin art. He tries to point out the full existence of the kokdu, one that is separate them from the highly decorated universe of death. When the entire system of coffin art is wiped out or forgotten, the true existence of the small dolls will be revealed, they will be set free, to walk away; the puppet un-concealed (a-letheia) will then acquire a new existence or attention.

영수를 탄 관리 (E 1_5), 2022, Korean Traditional Paper, Pigment Print, 100 × 150 cm

For several decades our world has been well-organized under the global trading system, each nation and every individual has quietly played their part. The shock of the Covid-19 pandemic has truly wiped out this intertwined, international system. The striking death of globalization may be the time to disclose the existence, meaning and self-awareness of people and nations that are no longer part of the whole but instead are truly individual beings. Hopefully, here the newly ‘un-concealed’ little puppets will be able to guide us into a new world of beings, one full of truth.

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