The View from Mount Sumeru, Dai Goang Chen, 2019
Dai Goang Chen presents a site-specific and site-dependent art installation that symbolizes the nature-oriented philosophy of East Asia in gallery damdam.
Dai Goang Chen is an artist who uses architectural forms to express his interest in and share his research on spatial experiences as site-specific installations. He constructs topologies as models of natural representation, but also as spaces isolated from the outside environment, in order to allow visitors to interact with and form their own sense of belonging amid his creations. This stems from his own preoccupation with space, as a means to materialize and examine his own experiences and nostalgia. The title of Chen’s first solo-exhibition in Berlin is “The View from Mount Sumeru”. This show is an extension of the Traction City Project series that began in 2013, a life-long project where the artist creates a new piece inspired by each new city he visits. Mt. Sumeru is a five-peaked holy mountain in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, and is considered to be the center of the universe as well as utopia. For this exhibition, Chen uses Yin/Yang and Wu-Xing theory as the basis for his new piece, which attempts to recreate balance of all the universe’s elements, thus, creating utopia.
Yin/Yang and Wu-Xing is a concept in East Asian philosophy and is used to explain all phenomena of the universe and human societies with two distinct energies – negative and positive. It also explains the creation and destruction of all things through interactions and relationships between the five types of energy forces – wood, fire, earth, metal, and water – dominating at different times. East Asian history began in the area around the Yellow River in China as its center, where the weather was unpredictable and uncontrollable. These natural changes in weather had people feeling powerless and also forced them to adapt to nature. Traditionally, the main source of livelihood in this region was agriculture, thus, the influences of nature’s different elements, such as precipitation, the amount of sunlight, the temperature, and the soil, as well as the balance between them, played an important role. This philosophy was, in effect, developed as result of the geographical circumstances in this region.
The East Asian view of nature is that it is something organic and inseparable from the human element. Some examples of this view can be seen in the landscape paintings from Joseon-Dynasty (1392–1897), where nature was painted much bigger than man and figures or villages were often painted in much smaller scales. The garden culture in East Asia also exemplifies this idea. In Chinese tradition, the scale of nature was reduced by creating a smaller, duplicate version, to be enjoyed as a garden. Japan and Korea were influenced by China, while still developing their own unique styles and adaptations. In Japan, all elements, such as the location of rocks and their shadows, as well as the balance of plants, are decided meticulously to create harmony. In Korea, it was thought that nature should not be changed by man, so a part of nature would be adopted as a garden – man joins nature rather than struggling against it. This view of nature, which resulted from environmental factors, became the basis of East Asian Philosophy. This is different from the anthropocentric view of the West that has Christianity as its foundation, where man often dominates or conquers nature.
Yin/Yang and Wu-Xing, of whose philosophical backdrop consisted of indigenous religions and shamanism, strongly affected all aspects of East Asian culture, philosophy, and even medicine. Korea is one such country that was influenced by this theory: due to the importance of being in harmony with the natural world, people needed someone who was able to communicate with nature in order to find the right balance between nature and man and to protect them from nature’s unpredictability. It was hard to forecast the weather, especially impending natural disasters. Therefore, the existence of, and reliance on shamans, the mediums that connected nature and man. This is evident in the myth of Dangun Wanggeom, the legendary founder and god-king of Gojoseon, the first Korean kingdom (2333 BC), who was thought to be a shaman. The traditional costumes of shamans consist of red, blue, yellow, white, and black, the color spectrum of Yin/Yang and Wu-Xing. The usage of these colors on the shaman’s clothes is believed to strengthen shamanistic visualization and abilities during rituals as well as being analogous to the five elements of nature. The core idea of East Asian philosophy is to achieve balance and be in spiritual harmony with one’s surroundings, and this is what the artist is trying to achieve by using space, spatial elements, and spatial relationships.
Chen believes that achieving balance and harmony in all things is the key to creating utopia. In this exhibition, he attempts to present a model of utopia. In particular, he plays the role of a medium, to undercover any hidden messages at this particular location of the Korean Cultural Center as well as within the gallery space, by applying East Asian philosophy. He then utilizes these as resources to create utopia. The carefully-built five rooms representing the five elements transform gallery damdam into an immersive landscape rich in hidden elements that can trigger a sense of nostalgia for utopia. These feelings of nostalgia leave open the possibility that we do not only wish to return to what we have experienced, but also to a condition or even a place that we feel connected to, even if we have not come across it – a fundamental sense of belonging. When the exhibition is finished, this piece will be destroyed. This further creates an additional relic of nostalgia. It is perhaps our postmodern loneliness that propels us to feel connected with an idea, and hence, attempt to trace these reflections to a deeper understanding of oneself.