The imaginal and shamanic paintings of Youjin Yi (a South Korean Germany based artist) #1


Youjin Yi, Untitled,, 2021, oil pastel, charcoal on Korean paper (Hanji) 200 x 138 cm, image Courtesy of the artist

I came across Youjin Yi’s work at “Drawing Now Art Fair, le salon du dessin contemporain” (Paris) in the Wooson Gallery booth (Daegu, Korea). I chatted a bit with the artist, who is of South Korean origin, and expressed my interest. A few days later, when I looked at these works again on the Internet, I opened my mind and waited for a clue… And then, without knowing why, the adjective ‘imaginal’ came to me. I’m not quite sure about this intrusion of the word, so I have to look up its source. And here I am with Henri Corbin, whom I quote:    

“Between the world of pure spiritual Lights (Luces victoria/es, the world of the ‘Mothers’, in the terminology of the lshrâq) and the sensible universe, extends to the limit of the Ninth Sphere (the Sphere of Spheres) a mundus imaginalis [‘alām al-mithāl] which is a concrete spiritual world of archetypal Figures, apparitional Forms, Angels of species and individuals ; philosophical dialectic deduces its necessity and locates its plan; effective vision of it is given to the visionary apperception of the active imagination.” [The Mundus imaginalis is the literal equivalent of the Arabic ‘alām al-mithāl, al-‘alām al-mithālī, in French le ‘monde imaginal’, i.e. imaginal world].” 

It is not out of cutishness that I seek out the source and quote it, it constitutes an altruistic habit, it’s a question of intellectual honesty, and, of course, and above all, of the Desire (eros/Ἔρως) to acknowleedge/know, well put forward by Aristotle from the very first lines of his (grandiose) Metaphysics.

Well, now we have the term ‘imaginal’, linked, as we understand it, to the register of the ‘visionary glimpse of the active’, and therefore, to the mundus imaginalis. By this we mean a universe populated by creatures (apparitional forms, as Corbin puts it) such as those found in Raphaëlle Ricol, Anya Belyat-Giunta, Eleonora Carrington, Lekio Ikemura and (last but not least) Youjin Yi! (And, of course, in the Bestiaire Imaginal, which goes all the way back to the Early Middle Ages and the magi of the Italian Renaissance, for example).

We’ve always loved monsters (Where the Wild Things Are). What I love about Imaginary Creatures is that you can understand something and nothing at all! It’s dyadically oxymoronic, a soluble clue. 

In Korean mythology, as in the Greek, there are monsters, hybrids and strange divine louts. Youjin, even though she’s been living in Germany for 20 years, probably has this embedded mythology in her mental baggage, but she produces a parallel one, according to her time, and perhaps these are graphic omens… (Who could have a single mental image of the Great Mutagenesis that awaits us, and that is certain to happen? Let’s take these figures as opportunistic monsters, in the sense of why not? like the Pourquoi Pas? I, II, III, and IV of Commandant Charcot (1867-1936), polar exploration ships. We are sailing, of course, without knowing exactly where we are going — it’s totally unpredictable, for the first time in the history of mankind… and that’s no mean feat (das ist immerhin etwas). Well, here we are in the world of Youjin.

We don’t know what mutant creature is at work here, whether it’s consigning eggs to the back of its skull, or vomiting a tentacle out of its mouth; in short, we don’t know very much. Next! 다음 !

Youjin Yi, “Tiger Mask”, 2019, acrylic, oil on canvas, 190 x 240 cm, image Courtesy of the artist

I quite like this empty and full/full and empty landscape, and this masked figure at the back. Scaring the followers. But perhaps they are two figures, one, like a child, attached to the taller, an older figure moving forward.

But where does this white figure start? Does he emerge from the frozen ground (supposedly)? Is a part of it?

I also like this landscape, which seems to telescope the distant and the near, like a mountain under glass, linked directly by a mauve branch to the foreground when it’s impossible; but that’s what’s nice about it. And also the risk, because it is one, of leaving the last third of the top almost white, which illuminates in this detail. And the presence of this white, I hypothesise, comes from Yi’s Asian origins, whose continental art has never been afraid of white, of the ‘void’ that is not white. For example, during the Song dynasty (960-1279), a painting theorist wrote that “the white of paper left empty constituted a network of veins that ensured the circulation of the vital breath” (Vandier Nicolas, see Ref). I bet that Yi is quite well aware of this heritage.

Youjin Yi, Youjin Yi, “entwined”, 2020, charcoal, acrylic on korean paper (Hanji), 200 x 138 cm, image Courtesy of the artist

This is a charcoal and acrylic drawing on Korean paper. First of all, it holds. The verb ‘to hold’ has a special place in my Lexicon. There is no explanation why an artwork ‘holds’ or not, unless it is obviously bad, very bad. In other cases, it remains qui a mystery. All for the better. That said, what is this creature? Let’s get closer, cautiously, like a hedgehog.

It is indeed an imaginary creature. I come back to this, because you should know that Youjin’s aunt is a shaman… She adds (in the two answers that readers can read if they wish in the « Q&A » article), that « Korean is a language that allows for multiple interpretations, it has contributed to the ambiguity and complexity present in my artistic motifs. » I have to say that I had used the adjective « imaginal » long before reading Youjin’s answers, but I see that my intuition, as quite often concerning certain things of the mind, corresponds, and you have to take the meaning of the verb ‘correspond’ in the Baudelairian sense, i.e. weaving footbridges that are parallel, but not necessarily isomorphic, just like, literarily speaking, a DNA chain.

But don’t think that Youjin Yi is afraid of the all-over 

Youjin Yi, “Migratory Being”, 2023, oil pastel on canvas, 190 x 240 cm, image Courtesy of the artist

Here, I would say, it is a tableau-fable; a fable, for that matter, contemporary and beyond (but perhaps not towards infinity…). A bird, presumably a resident of the cold zones of the North Pole, sees its ground literally recede beneath its feet, which doesn’t happen every day. Ask yourself: if I no longer have firm ground under my feet, where am I going to live? Answer: into nothingness ; therefore death. And Yi does not forget the humans in the catastrophic chain — see the desperate sinking arms in the melting permafrost…  

In this complex landscape, there also seems to be a palm tree (can you see it on the left?), well withered and half dead at the top. But what is a palm tree doing in this area? Since ‘Painter’ category is ultra-hyper-extensible, it’s a good idea sometimes to try and classify, which doesn’t have the effect of ‘neutralizing’ the subject, but of finding one’s way through the (veridic) jungle of contemporary art. So, in this genre, Yi would certainly be characterised as an illustrator. Mind you, there’s nothing objectionable or degrading here, because the truth is that many painters are illustrators, they just don’t generally have anything to say, and, to underpin my point, I would have to compare with Germany based painters, because comparing with French illustrators-painters could be quite easy, but it would be geographically incongruous, but this will not be for now, since it requires a large knowledge of Germany based painters, a knowledge which, I must admit, I don’t have. I invite the reader to be patient for the next episode, where Yi will answer some questions, and for which she gave generous answers. 

PS. last words, Corbin : “In north-western Iran, Sohravardî (ob. 1191) carried out the great project of resurrecting the wisdom or theosophy of ancient pre-Islamic Zoroastrian Iran; and this achievement he sealed by his martyr’s death in Aleppo, in his youth, falling victim to the vindictiveness of the Doctors of the Law. He called his theosophical system lshrâq, because it originated in the East and in the illumination of an East that was not the geographical East. It is true that the Wise Men of ancient Persia were the quintessential representatives and repositories of this wisdom, but their qualification as ‘Orientals’, in the true sense, derives from their orientation towards the Orient-origin of pure Light. Three centuries before the Byzantine philosopher Gémiste Pléthon, the work of Sohravardî brings together Plato and Zarathoustra, in a doctrine in which, alongside these two names, the name and wisdom of Hermes dominate ».

Ref. Nicole Vandier-Nicolas, “La peinture chinoise à l’époque Song”, Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, 9e année (n°36), Octobre- décembre 1966 // Henri Corbin, L’homme de lumière dans le soufisme iranien, Éditions Présence, 1971

Léon Mychkine,

writer, Doctor in Philosophy, independent researcher, art-critic, member of AICA-France




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