My interest in the Tao Te Ching—the great text said to have been spoken by the legendary Chinese sage Lao-tzu in the 6th century B.C.E.—began many years ago while I was living in Santa Barbara, California. I recall those blissful days, sitting and reading on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. When I got tired of reading, I would walk for miles along the beach, collecting shells, stones, and pieces of driftwood swept by the force of the waves into the sand. In such an environment my mind moved easily toward thoughts of Eastern spirituality. After spending time each day at the seashore, I would return to my small apartment, make green tea, and contemplate a verse from the Tao Te Ching: “We join spokes together in a wheel/ but it is the center hole/that makes the wagon move.”1
Many years later, after settling in New York City, I returned to this passage one day during a conversation with the Korean sculptor Sook Jin Jo. I had long admired her constructions made of found wood and was eager to learn about the aesthetic ideas behind the work. In viewing Jo’s assemblages, I find it difficult not to consider the words of Lao-tzu. In a work titled Space Between (1998–99), she has added a subtitle that quotes directly from the concluding stanza of the passage cited above: “We work with being, but non-being is what we use.”
To see the actual sculpture to which this passage refers is to understand the meaning. Jo has constructed a kind of pyre, an open structure in which branches have been cut and assembled into square units rising from the ground to a height of 10 feet. The opening inside the branches is a spatial enclosure, implying a kind of sacred space, a static hollow entity or a celestial well where spirits of heaven and earth reside. Through the horizontal placement of the branches one can see the light, thus revealing the interior from all sides. One can read the meaning of the enclosure as containing the spirit of the senses. As with many of Jo’s constructions, there is an active engagement with the work as a shelter that nurtures body and soul.
One could say that the Tao in Space Between is built on the absence of worldly things. Without them, this empty container functions as a kind of poetry. The Windows of Heaven are Open (1995), composed of a horizontal line of old and empty window frames abutted against one another, with two broken folding chairs placed on the floor to the right, holds a pregnant emptiness—what in Zen Buddhism is called by the Sanskrit term sunyata. Here, the self is allowed to vanish, to escape the drudgery of formal analysis, the redundant theories of identity politics, and the agonizing rhetoric of otherness and subjectivity.
A similar concept is embodied in the related work We are standing in His presence (1998). There is a trace of cerulean paint, faded and scraped, on two upright door panels. In front of each panel is a table frame, the right one larger than the left, that keeps the viewers at a distance. The sheer beauty and exaltation of found simplicity, as in Shaker furniture, is visual and practical. We are standing in His presence offers a statement of simple beauty that connects with the structural and physical elements. The form abides within itself. It transforms presence into absence and thus engages the viewer in a transcendent phenomenon.
The concept of absence in Taoism functions less as a theory than as an affinity. More than a guide, it offers an inspired way of thinking and feeling, a way of discovering the language of art. This ancient though modest transcript holds a fascinating breadth of knowledge. Many of the intuitions employed in Jo’s constructions are indirectly noted in the Tao Te Ching. For example, there is the notion of oppositions held in suspension, the interplay and overlay between one force and another, the subtle reversals of power, the course of nature as a way of understanding the present in relation to the past and future—these are ideas related phenomenologically to the way one may approach an experience.
Jo works with wooden forms in the context of an installation or an environment. While the parts make up the whole, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. I am attracted to the deliberate lack of precision in her work, the way things come together in a crude, unfinished way. This concept of the unfinished in her magnificent wooden constructions is intentional. As she has explained in a written statement, her work intends to express “the essence of materials” as belonging to “the order of the cosmos: the ultimate revelation of why things exist.”2
This is another way of saying that being and non-being are inseparable. But the focus on non-being is what allows being to emerge. This comes close to the spirit of Zen, a philosophy with a strong historical and philosophical affinity to the thoughts of Lao-tzu. In the West, the author Alan Watts has been particularly important in clarifying the relationship of Zen to the creative arts: “Although profoundly ‘inconsequential,’ the Zen experience has consequences in the sense that it may be applied in any direction, to the conceivable human activity, and that wherever it is so applied it lends an unmistakable quality to the work.”3
The spirit of Zen is applicable not only to the way we think about Jo’s sculpture, but also to the process by which her sculpture is made. The process evolves through the application of found objects—things from the everyday world, eroded objects that have washed up on the beach or have been deposited in a junkyard, subjected to rain, wind, heat, and snow. As our post-industrial world becomes infested with worn-out machinery and discarded gadgets piling up in our global dumping grounds, Jo has discovered in these “waste products” numerous possibilities for sculpture.
Cathedral: Korean Ex-Votos (2002) was constructed from 500 wooden objects suspended in a highly congested arrangement from the ceiling of a corridor-like gallery space. The impact of this impressive installation implied a kind of excessive fusion between Jo’s indigenous Korean culture and what she acculturated from her Brazilian experience a year earlier in Itaparica (Bahia). During the two-month residency in Brazil, the artist worked on an exterior mural, collaborating with young students from the João Ubaldo Ribeiro school in a small village close to the seashore. As with previous works constructed in wood and found materials, the mural incorporated colorful objects collected by the artist each morning along the shoreline. The students were asked to creatively place the objects into wet cement, thus covering the wall with a composition of related shapes based on the indeterminate forms and colors of the diverse objects. Upon completion, the work was collectively titled Vamos a Escola (Let’s go to School). Upon reflection, Jo discovered that the two cultures—Korean and Brazilian—share a fascination with the sea, with a fluid state of mind in which objects are transformed over time and transcend the limits of their materiality in their elevated lightness.
On a visit to Brooklyn three years earlier, she discovered several discarded solar turbines, made of steel, all rusted and bent. She had them delivered to her studio in Chelsea, where she placed them in an indeterminate visual field directly on the floor. Jo became interested in the space between the rusted turbines, how they commanded the space and, in a certain way, defined it. She decided to place an old window frame around one of the turbines, thus setting off a singular space in relation to the whole. This Zen Garden (1998) refers to the famous gardens in Kyoto, such as the Ryoanji, and to the isolated mountain temples north of Gwangju in South Korea. What is startling about this installation is how accurate these elements appear—like the weathered stones at Ryoanji—asymmetrically placed and irregular according to any logical standard of taste. The question is—whose taste? From the point of view of the Zen practitioner, taste is irrelevant. The unevenness in the placement allows the spirit of the form to reveal itself, to exist in planar terms, without elaboration or accessories. From a Zen perspective, unevenness represents an aesthetic that is never new, but a reinvigoration of old materials, an energized space. The success of Zen Garden is based precisely on the premise that indeterminacy is the basis of thought, at least, in terms of Zen thought, which according to the sutras is without deliberation or forethought. The form simply reveals itself in time and space without an afterthought, yet is potent with inspiration and illumination—a true witness to the status of the chance encounter over predetermined ideas.
In keeping with her sculptural aesthetic, Jo was commissioned to build Meditation Space (2000), a work using tree trucks, branches, and old floorboards from a former Zen Center in upstate New York. It was conceived in such a way that the structure becomes virtually transparent by optically disappearing into its forested surroundings. Meditation Space appears nearly as a mirage, a specter, a dissemblance of material reality within the scope of nature’s force and intrinsic power—a parallel statement to the force of the Tao itself—a compelling work of art that reclaims peace and reconciliation in a chaotic and desperate world.
In a work such as Meditation Space that coincides with its environmental habitat so completely—as, on a grander scale, Frank Lloyd’s Wright’s Falling Water does in Bear Run, Pennsylvania—the consciousness of non-being comes alive and is transformed into consciousness. Here the wheel of harmony and the unity of oppositions begin to turn. In the forest, amid the growth of plant and animal life, and its concomitant decay, the inner-spirit of Jo’s work may be felt. This kind of overlay between physicality and dematerialization is precisely what the art of Sook Jin Jo is hoping to achieve—an essence of objecthood that exists concurrently between two worlds, the material and its unknown spiritual counterpart.
Robert C. Morgan’s recent books include The End of the Art World (1998) and Bruce Nauman (2002).
Notes: 1. Lao-tzu, Tao Te Ching. Translated by Stephen Mitchell. (New York: Harper Collins, 1988), Verse 11. 2. Sook Jin Jo, untitled statement, 2002. 3. Alan W. Watts, The Way of Zen. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1957), p. 146.