James Riding

Joo Yeon Park on Beckett,
failure and ‘the Unword’


Joo Yeon Park is a London-based artist. She creates drawings, writings, moving images and sculptures, often incorporating mirrors, lights and shadows, that consider the poetical and political aspects of the self and ‘otherness’ in languages. Her works have been exhibited at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts Houston and National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.

I spoke to Joo Yeon about her latest work, Library of the Unword, currently exhibited at Southbank Centre’s National Poetry Library, which commemorates the 30th anniversary of Samuel Beckett’s death. The unword in the title, borrowed from Beckett’s German Letter of 1937, recalls Beckett’s goal as a writer to ‘bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing – begins to seep through’. The exhibition features the installation Twenty Times a Thousand (2019), a response to Beckett’s 1935 poem ‘Echo’s Bones’. We discussed her relationship with Beckett, how the installation came together, and why it is important in our own age to confront the strangeness and failures of language.

How did this exhibition come about?

I’ve been interested in Beckett for a very long time and I wanted to do an exhibition in relation to Beckett’s poem. Then Chris McCabe [the National Poetry Librarian] suggested I do it to mark the 30th anniversary of Beckett’s death. But I’ve known about the Poetry Library for quite a while — I first discovered it 10 years ago.

I actually studied poetry as well as visual art. I’m more of an admirer than a poet, but I’m interested in literature, poetry – any form of writing, really.

What was your first encounter with Beckett?

I first came across Waiting For Godot on one of those suggested reading lists for young adults, and I read it in Korean the first time. I was very confused that nothing happened in the story, and I didn’t think much of it then — I was, I think, too young. Then, when I started exhibiting, Beckett re-entered my life and I then re-read Waiting For Godot, in English this time. I was still perplexed — but mesmerised by the bare and minimal aesthetic of his writing, and my interest grew from that point on.

I think a lot of people have that experience the first time they encounter Waiting For Godot – it’s perplexing, frustrating. But it’s interesting that it came back into your life in a different language. Why do you identify with Beckett in particular?

I think, as my interest grew, I came to realise that he was very interested and challenged by the impossibility of understanding language itself, and that really touched me. Possibly because, having studied and still living in Europe, I understand how challenging it is to navigate between different social, cultural and linguistic systems. Issues around the impossibility of understanding language are something that I had been struggling to address myself.

Also, the fact that he extensively self-translated between French and English really fascinated me, because after having read Waiting For Godot in English I realised that the first version was actually written in French. I questioned: ‘Why would an author go through the trouble of writing in one language and then self-translate into another language so extensively?’ So there are a number of aspects in his work that really interest me.

Although he is best known for his dramatic works, I am more drawn to his prose pieces and poems that are more musical, in a way. Reading his prose pieces frees me from the burden of having to understand or interpret meanings.

Obviously Beckett was a native English speaker, but he was Irish so the relationship is complicated, given that it wasn’t the true native language of Ireland. Turning to your installation, Twenty Times a Thousand, it is the sort of work, I think, that’s worth admiring from a distance and up-close. How did you go about assembling it?

I had to do it on the floor first, because of the dimensions of the work, and I was very lucky because the person who helped me to install it was so technically brilliant. But it took quite a long time to work out where the pieces had to go.

‘Twenty Times a Thousand’ incorporates several mirrors. Image credit: Dan Weill

There are lots of really interesting elements: the mirrors, the fact that some of the frames are red; when you get up close and look at the circles, they’re all different colours or drawn with different pens – it’s like you’ve created a new sort of language, and I was wondering, is there an internal logic to it? Does everything have a decipherable meaning?

It’s more like a form of memoir. To explain that, I have to explain the background, the story of it. This work was produced in relation to Beckett’s poem ‘Echo’s Bones’, and Echo is, in a way, a mediator between his poem and my work, Twenty Times a Thousand. Echo is a mythological figure from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Whereas Beckett’s ‘Echo’s Bones’ focuses on the transformation of her body that turns into a rock, my work focuses more on the disembodied voice, the voice that remains after Echo’s bones deteriorate, in a space that’s neither fully life or death. When I say a voice, I mean a voice itself, without any meanings that it’s carrying.

So when I thought about how I would write a voice on these manuscript papers, how I would visualise them, the shape of a circle came into my mind. I thought about how the voice is vocalised or produced through a mouth, the opened mouth. So when I started — some people might call them drawings, but I tend to say they’re writing — the logic of language was in my body, a memory of writing. When people ask me if there’s a logic, it’s a kind of logic that my body has already learned, physically but also visually. It’s something that I already know.

So it’s playing with that idea, then, that language is something that is imposed on us? We don’t tend to think about it as adults, but language is an artificial thing.

Something we are given at birth. We don’t choose the time or place where we’re born, we don’t choose our parents. Language is linked to a fundamental human condition.

Beckett was interested in this phenomenon. He loves to draw attention to the strangeness of language, and the fact that it is this artificial thing which has its flaws, its failures.

That’s why I thought the squared manuscript paper was an interesting element to bring into the project, because it visualises the linguistic system, the space of writing, and the amount of writing.

A framed page of Korean manuscript paper from ‘Twenty Times a Thousand’. Image Credit: Dan Weill

The materials you use – are they available to buy in stationary shops in Korea?

Yes, it’s still used by many people for all forms of writing.

Do I understand this correctly, that the squares are a way of visualising syllables?

It’s a one-syllable block for one square, and that’s how Koreans count the amount of writing. So each page, if you look closely it says ‘10 x 20’, so there are two hundred squares on one page. And the title Twenty Times a Thousand indicates how many squares there are in the work.

Is there anything in particular about the Korean language that makes it an interesting way of thinking about Beckett?

I was producing a work in response to his poem, but I also had to produce a work that made sense to me, and Korean is my first language. It wasn’t so much that it was important to reference the Korean language in the work — the work does not include a single letter of Korean. It was more the space of a linguistic system that is visualised on squared manuscript paper that interested me for the exhibition. And I thought this grid system could be applied not just to Korean but to any other language as well, since all languages are based on some form of grid. By excluding words in the work, I wanted to bring out what I think of as negative space of writing, like the time and the bodily movement involved in the writing and the physical materials of writing. I thought this endeavour might lead to alternative readings or even an alternative means of reading or looking.

When you were assembling the work, how did you arrive at this particular arrangement? Could the arrangement be changed further?

It’s a completed work for this particular project, but I envisioned it as a continuing work. So then, because I’ve taken the manuscript paper and the counting as a form of system for the work, it can be retitled and rearranged accordingly if I were to add and subtract elements from it; so it will grow and alternate. I could say it’s like a comma, and I don’t know the next sentence that will come out from this work. It’s complete, but it’s not completed, because it’s a draft.

So you can revise it, expand on it, change it. ‘Echo’s Bones’, as you say, is the title of the poem, but it was also the title of a long, dense and allusive short story that Beckett wrote prior to its completion. It’s as if he pared back the story to this tiny fragment, a poem of only five lines. This resonates with what you’re saying here, that this work might be larger or smaller, and has potential beyond its current state. With art in general, do you think less is more?

I think that really depends. But because we are talking about Beckett here, I am very much drawn to his way of paring down to the bones and just working with a skeleton of the language; that really gives me chills. I tend to be drawn to the minimal way of executing the work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s simple: it’s really dense and complex at the same time, but minimal in the way it’s executed or in the way it appears.

Several first editions of Beckett’s works from the National Poetry Library Collection, including ‘Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates’, are also on display at the exhibition. Image credit: Dan Weill

The circles in your piece are all hand-drawn, and I was wondering how you approached ordering them? Tell us about your process.

I picked up different colours square by square, as you’d write. It wasn’t, like, just write in red and then come back and fill in other squares. I was thinking that I was writing rather than drawing. But it’s OK for people to discuss it in terms of drawing as well because I am also fascinated by the questions around what is an image and what is a word. So it’s somewhere between where these two elements merge.

You mentioned in another interview that you’re inspired by all sorts of different texts – poetry, song lyrics, magazine articles, philosophy. What artists or writers, other than Beckett, were you thinking about when making this piece?

This work is kind of an extension of what I’ve already been doing, so I did not set out with new research for this project. It was influenced by a lot of things I was already looking at, for example Ovid’s Metamorphoses, especially the story of Echo and Narcissus. Also some philosophical texts, like Benjamin’s ‘The Task of the Translator’, which is a classic but still poignant, Barthes’s Neutral, Blanchot’s The Space of Literature. And Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other: or, The Prosthesis of Origin, self-reflective writing by him as an Algerian-French writer, questioning his predominantly working in French. So that relates to Beckett, self-translation. Another writer and artist is the Korean-American Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, I find her work very fascinating, and French sound poet Henri Chopin.

Lots more writers there than artists, but as you say, you’re thinking of it as writing.

Yes, for my visual art I’m really inspired by writers, and I think it’s because the language really has been a challenge for me and it’s really satisfying to read a really well-written text.

You once said that ‘there’s a voluntary failure that opens up a space for me’ — and that struck me as very Beckettian, very similar to his ideas on speech and language. In his words: ‘I could not have gone through the awful wretched mess of life without having left a stain upon the silence.’ There’s anxiety there: he had to make a mark, but it’s a ‘stain’, it’s imperfect, it’s impure, and maybe even doomed to fail — but still necessary. Could you tell me more about how  ‘voluntary failure’ influences your art? Do you see art as a stain?

In a sense, yes. I am very interested in his self-translation. I discovered in one of his prose pieces, ‘I gave up before birth’, in his Fizzles collection, that he does self-translation word to word — but if you pay really careful attention to his translation, he does what I call a ‘disjunctive self-translation’. He would write ‘poussière’ in French, which means dust, and then in English he would translate it as ‘bones’. And that’s what I call a ‘voluntary failure’: if you volunteer to fail, that’s not a disaster, because you have volunteered it. So there is an intention there, and it can become your artwork.

That can be discussed in relation to Echo as well, because when Echo repeats the words of Narcissus, she doesn’t merely repeat, if you read the poem carefully — she alternates. If you are to fail, you might as well, as Beckett put it, ‘fail better’; you might as well volunteer to fail. And failure is, possibly, a necessity in art-making, and it’s not necessarily a negative thing in art. It can prove to be a turning-point, to open up a space for discussion, for something that you haven’t expected to see or experience. So it can be a positive thing, so I think there’s a double-edged sword in what Beckett means by failure.

Would you say that there were steps you took to deliberately volunteer yourself for this type of failure, as it were, when you were making this? For example, hand-drawing the circles, creating opportunities for inconsistencies and error?

Yes, because there is an inevitable failure in trying to draw a circle. No matter how many times you try to perfect it, it will never be perfect-perfect.

They look pretty accurate to my eye, though I suppose you had a lot of practice.

Well, I excluded a lot of attempts from the final piece.

Beckett’s editor said of the ‘Echo’s Bones’ story that ‘people will shudder and be puzzled and confused.’ What do you want people to feel when they look at your installation?

Definitely not shuddering or confused! I am often told that people are puzzled by my work, and I don’t mind it as I like to be puzzled by art. When I thought about the whole exhibition, I considered the conceptual space between Beckett’s poem and my work, and Ovid’s story of Echo and Narcissus, so that viewers could ponder freely the space between the works and make up their own stories.

Often the experience I get from reading Beckett’s prose pieces gives me an experience of listening to quirky yet sophisticated music. And that musicality of his writing frees me. So without giving a conclusive message to my viewers, I hoped, by loosely weaving these three elements in my work, people would be free to roam around between these works and make up their own story.

Is it important in our own age, perhaps more than ever, to confront the strangeness and the failures of language?

I think it’s never been unimportant because, as we discussed, the issue of language is tied to the fundamental human condition, and in an era when we are connected online at our fingertips, and with the help of translation apps and software, we think we are much closer. But in reality, I think that geographical, and national, and racial and linguistic barriers actually have been erected. Often, prejudice towards others, or misunderstanding, or mistranslation of others, is manifested and performed through language as well. That’s why I think art is important, because in the space of art these issues can be reimagined and reconfigured and openly discussed, and failure of language can prove to be a turning point for something more positive.


                          Joo Yeon Park’s Library of the Unword is free to visit at National Poetry Library, Southbank Centre, until 29 March. More information can be found here.

For more information on Joo Yeon’s artwork, visit her website: jooyeonpark.info

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