Joo Yeon Park is a London-based artist whose works often manifest as drawings, writings, moving images and sculptural installations integrating mirrors, lights and shadows, that consider the poetical and political aspects of the self and ‘otherness’ in languages.
Her latest work, Library of the Unword – currently exhibited at Southbank Centre’s National Poetry Library – commemorates the 30th anniversary of Samuel Beckett’s death and features the installation, Twenty Times a Thousand (2019), a response to Beckett’s 1935 poem ‘Echo’s Bones’.
To gain a more personal insight into the exhibition, we spoke to Park about her relationship with the Irish writer, and the creative process behind her installations.
Prior to being asked to contribute to this exhibition, what was your relationship with the work of Samuel Beckett?
On several occasions throughout my career, I have drawn on parts of Beckett’s work, like Lucky’s nonsensical monologue in Waiting for Godot. I’m intrigued by how Beckett uses language, often evacuating it of superficial meaning in favor of an alternative experience.
Even if I don’t refer to Beckett explicitly, I might be motivated by his play with language, as when I filmed monologues of three Irish men who were teaching English in South Korea. I replaced their voices with dubbing by their Korean students even though the students barely understood the words they were saying and were recounting personal stories of Ireland with slight Korean accents.
I often feel that Beckett’s work demands listening rather than reading – like listening to unfamiliar sound – so one can recognise slippages between sounds and words. I am also particularly interested in Beckett’s extensive self-translation, which he practiced throughout his life. His decision to write in French – that is, a second language – alienated him from his mother tongue. His writing continues to raise for me questions about a space that may open up in the practice of disjunctive self-translation, in which failure might become an artistic act.
‘Unword’ is an interesting term. How did you settle on that?
It’s a term coined by Beckett in his ‘German Letter of 1937’. He imagined a new form of literature – a literature of the unword which deals with the impossibilities of understanding the very language itself. In the letter, he writes the highest goal of a writer is to ‘bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing – begins to seep through’.
Already early in his career, he was concerned with things that would inform his work for the rest of his life and continue to echo now, and I thought it would be poignant to recall Beckett’s views on language and literature in conjunction with the exhibition that marks the 30th anniversary of his death.
Your installation, Twenty Times a Thousand has been created in response to Beckett’s ‘Echo’s Bones’. What drew you to this poem?
I considered responding to his bilingual poems that he self-translated between French and English, but in the end, I settled on ‘Echo’s Bones’, which was written only in English. Echo is a nymph in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ who has interested me for a long time. She is punished by Juno so that she can only speak by repeating the words of others. When she falls in love with Narcissus, she tries to talk to him by carefully repeating and appropriating Narcissus’s words, but he rejects her. She hides in a cave, and her sadness destroys her body, turning her bones to stone and leaving only her voice. Her disembodied voice continues to repeat the words of others in a space that is neither life nor death.
In my works prior to the current exhibition, I had addressed the repetitive mechanism of Echo’s self-translation and the reflective mechanism of Narcissus’s self-relation in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, which are possible only through the relation of the images or words of others. Sharing the common fascination of the mythical figure, I wanted my work to form a conversational relation to Beckett’s poem. While ‘Echo’s Bones’ focuses more on the material transition of Echo’s deteriorating body, Twenty Times a Thousand focuses on the repetition of disembodied voice.
How do you begin ‘responding’ to a poem through another medium to form an installation?
My work rarely develops linearly. There are several starting points. I think about tangential points where words, sounds and images meet. At these meeting points, I discover they are neither fully words, sounds nor images. I start making decisions to narrow down possibilities along the way, while putting my thoughts into different mediums and methods without limiting myself to one type of either.
The decisions I made for Twenty Times a Thousand came quite quickly and naturally. The materials I used for the work are not much different from the materials poets use to write – writing papers, graphite and ink – except for the mirrors and frames. I spent a lot of time thinking about how a poet’s writing space could be used differently by a visual artist. I often get inspirations for my visual artworks through reading different types of texts – poetry, philosophy, lyrics, magazine articles, scribbles, and so forth.
The detoured movement – from texts to image – instead of addressing images directly, is sometimes a necessary alienation I invite in my artistic language. There’s a voluntary failure that opens up a space for me. Perhaps this detoured directionality echoes Beckett’s decision to first write in his second language, French, then self-translate into English.
And how did you settle on the approach you’ve taken with this work?
Twenty Times a Thousand consists of a mixture of mirrors and a hundred pages of a ‘disembodied voice’ written as circles on Korean manuscript paper, which is squared as a way of measuring the syllable count of Korean writing. The title of the work refers to the number of these writing spaces in the work. Because I’ve conceived of it as a system, the work can vary in its arrangement and dimensions and grow in numbers, so it would be retitled accordingly. The circles in graphite and ink could be read or seen as both letters and images. The mirror reflections in the work are dynamic images – they change according to the movements and the perspective of the viewers.
I wondered if the repetitive circles could exhaust meaning and resist the necessity of translation from Korean to any other language. This exhaustion of meaning could also bring out what I think of as the negative space of writing – that is, the aspects of writing that you don’t pay attention to because you’re focused on the meanings of words, like the bodily movement of writing, the time expended in writing and reading, and the physical materials of writing. Focusing on these things may lead to alternative readings or even an alternative means of reading.
Twenty Times a Thousand is a form of memoir recording the traces of linguistic system on the page. It was important to me to write all the circles by hand, in order to bring out the physical aspects of writing and to suggest the personal memoir, but also to introduce the inevitability of linguistic failure that I take from Beckett’s work, since one can aspire to perfection in writing a circle, but one can never achieve it.
And lastly, what do you hope the viewer will take from Twenty Times a Thousand, and indeed Library of the Unword?
I tried to consider the conceptual space between ‘Echo’s Bones’, Twenty Times a Thousand, and the myth of Echo and Narcissus in the formation of the exhibition so that viewers can freely ponder the relations between the works. I hope that the viewers can resist the temptation to try to interpret or understand the poem or the installation and be present with the works. I hope the exhibition will inspire visitors to think about the points where images and words may merge and how the differences in languages could turn into shared commonalities.
It will be an opportunity for visitors to appreciate Beckett as a poet, which is a rare opportunity, and to expand the exhibition of Library of the Unword further into the library bookshelves to explore other poets, writers and artists whose works may also be drilling holes in their languages.