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On Sindoan: Some Scattered Views on Tradition and “The Sublime”

I once had an accidental encounter with Mount Gyeryong and an indescribable shock came over me. The light of the full moon allowed the mountain, covered in snow, to reveal itself in its full glory even in the middle of the night. Unlike other large mountains in South Korea, which one can rarely see fully because they are usually hidden by neighboring peaks, Mount Gyeryong is a so-called protrusion-in-the-field type of mountain whose overall shape is quite visible even from a distance.

I suspect that the experience I had was akin to what is called “the sublime” in Western aesthetics. The theory of the sublime, only introduced to South Korea with theories of postmodernism, seems to have been revived here in the wake of September 11, 2001. Prior to that, in Western society, looking at the culture of the relatively recent past, we can also identify recurrent revivals of the aesthetics of the sublime in diverse genres, as for example Werner Herzog’s film Nosferatu, which borrows from Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes; all the disaster films that simulate Turner’s stormy seas and other Romantic painters’ images of ruins; and the montage of primitive sacrificial rites in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. By now the aesthetics of the sublime, more than its theory, has become a familiar part of South Korean visual culture. And this is, in a sense, only natural, for if the concept of the sublime is premised on given conditions such as death, nature, and the infinite nature of the universe, then the concept is not specific to the West but universal for all humanity. If the sublime can be explained as a Kantian universal human experience (even though the German philosopher distinguished between peoples who are close to the sublime and those who are far from it), then we can also attempt to explain how it functions in Korea and Northeast Asia. So my question—to which I have no clear answer—is: How has the sublime manifested itself in Korean and Northeast Asian cultures? If certain traditions can correspond to the sublime, in what ways might we now make works of art, and what meanings and values would such representations have?

In Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s well-known film Tropical Malady (2004), the protagonist passes through bizarre locations on his way into a deep jungle, where he suddenly enters the time-space of a fable in which he can converse with animals. Ultimately, lost in the jungle in the middle of night, he comes face to face with a tiger, or the ghost of a tiger. On the one hand, I suspect that Tropical Malady might be yet another example of contemporary Orientalism. On the other hand, I have a strong sense of solidarity with such a sensibility. And this sensibility, perhaps, parallels my childhood memory of accompanying my parents to the mass of the forty-ninth day for a dead distant relative by marriage, where I saw golden Buddha statues and paintings of Buddhist deities and mountain spirits through candlelight and incense smoke in a temple deep in the mountains.] The mass of the forty-ninth day is so named because it is conducted on the forty-ninth day after someone dies. Originally a Buddhist rite, the mass is based on the belief that the soul of a dead person wanders without a body for forty-nine days until it reincarnates. In present-day Korea, the mass is widely practiced not only by Buddhists but also by people of various religious affiliations as well as by secularists.] I am also thinking about the old Asian paintings of bizarre-looking rocks I have seen in museums. Such experiences inspire in me—as they do in probably all of us—one of the most important human emotions, that of fear/awe.

Fear/awe is without a doubt informed by local nature and culture, because it has long been inherent in the experience of them. In this sense, Mount Gyeryong is not a Korean version of the Alps but rather relates to its own “site-specific” aesthetics. One may question, of course, whether my generation’s urban culture has already been severed from such aesthetics, and furthermore, whether I may be forcing a theory. The opposite point, however, could just as easily be made. The hermitages and old temples one happens upon deep in the mountains, precisely because of their remoteness, can appear even more unexpected, difficult to interpret, and jolting. From the publication of Yoo Hong-jun’s book My Survey of Cultural Heritages, which inspired a traditional-culture tourism boom during the 1990s in South Korea, to the current situation in which the world has become an enormous photographic archive thanks to technologies like Google Earth, the old, the deep, and the fearful have increasingly fewer places to hide. When poet Kim Ji-ha speaks endlessly and almost with a certain naïveté about the importance of Haewol Philosophy, and when Choi In-hoon feels a profound remorse when faced with the ruins of Goryeo Dynasty–era Buddhist temples, are such emotions really so remote? Furthermore, when the dreams of Buddhistic salvation found in the work of writer Kim Seong-dong and the Korean Romanticism of film director Im Kwon-taek’s fixation on traditional culture are taken to have a certain remoteness from their subject, do they not appeal to us even more poignantly? Or, to use examples from art, what about Park Saeng-gwang’s talisman-like pictures of shamans, Oh Yoon’s humorous images of demons, and Min Jeong-gi’s bizarre paintings of Mount Geumgang?

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