Segments of Time, or a Net of Time




Though we can perceive time it is quite difficult to present it visually. As time is invisible by nature it may be expressed as a potential possibility, but cannot be represented in concrete form. Thus, in order to express time, which is real but only perceived abstractly, one must receive the help of space. The time Lee Sang-eun paints can be understood by this perspective. First, if we look at Rings, inspired by taegeuk, we can discover lines that increase in movement as they approach the center and straighten out into vertical lines towards the edges. This shape looks like an expression of the process of the gradual spreading out of taegeuk, which is a diagram of the principle of yin and yang. But at the same time, it reminds us of the oval vortex of a galaxy, seen through a telescope. Perhaps such structure and shape could be achieved if one were to express Robert Morris's sculpture, of flexible form made by the weight of strips of felt pressing down and the pressure from below, as a two-dimensional plane. But if we use our imagination, could we not see the accumulation of these curved lines as a "documentation of time" overturning the notion that time moves in a straight line. If we were to stack time would the accumulated layers transform into soft curves due to the weight and kinetic energy? Even if such thoughts are unscientific, for sure it is something that provides a chance to transcend our fixed notions about time and broaden our horizon of imagination. One outstanding characteristic of this work is fluidity. In Time x Time, which was aided by digital media, the grain of time expressed by color and lines forms a certain volume. The flow made by repeated bands bear the nature of time. But besides these works, the element forming most of Lee's works is the straight line. Her works, networks of colors made by countless overlapping and intersecting lines, are traces left by arrows of time. In other words, the numerous accumulated lines make let us imagine that arrows of time passed by. There we become aware of the "flow." The flow, however, is a fragment of the imagination, and the lines, the arrows of time are stationary in the actual picture-plane. The short or long lines begin at a certain point and end at a certain point. Thus the fluidity decreases while the immobility increases, and it is not difficult to discover lines floating in the space.

Considering that flowing time is a continuity of immobility, we are reminded of the famous paradox by Zenon that "a flying arrow in motionless." That is because an arrow in rapid flight is in a specific space, at that moment it is stationary. We cannot merely consider Zenon's reasoning that even the quick Achilles cannot catch up with a turtle that started before him as sophistry, which denies the principles of mathematics and the existence of motion. Contemporary science has developed to a state that recognizes that by increasing gravity and velocity one can stop time. If we are to look at a photograph taken by a super high-speed camera, the traces of movement are visible, but sometimes we get an illusion that the arrow had stopped at a certain moment. Of course if we look at footage of an arrow shot by an archer in super high-speed, we can see that the arrow that left the bowstring does not fly in a straight line and land in the target, but makes repeated gentle parabolas in the space like the body of an advancing swimmer going under the surface and rising above. It is this vibration created by the velocity of the arrow and resistance of the air that makes archery so intriguing. The lines drawn between the spaces in Lee's works, however, are not representations of images of arrows captured in high speed. The lines repeatedly drawn in her works are not a lack of the flow of time, but rather a latent revelation of it.

History of Accumulation, Time

As the time experienced by an individual was repeatedly and accumulatively painted in a space through abstraction, her works do not symbolize time but gather the flow of time. Lee refers to this as "time stacking." When using the expression "accumulation of time" to explain Lee Sang-eun's works, one may raise the question whether time has volume or mass. If time had volume or mass, one could stack it up or visually confirm the result of accumulation. But other than metaphoric expression of history, one cannot present concrete visual evidence before our eyes. Could photography play the role? No, photography is merely documentation of a certain time in the past, not accumulated time. Thus it is memories that are evoked by faded old photographs. Photographs are nostalgia and comfort that capture the hearts of people longing for time that is long dead, and moreover painful recollections. Hence, stacked time means accumulation of experience and memory, and has nothing ot do with the physical properties of time. The orderly arrangement of the lines are a structure made by dividing daily repetitious time into further simplified units. Inside, there is the history of time experienced by the artist.

Meanwhile, spatial perception of time enables the stacking of time. Though in fact, time is not stacked but spent. The stacked-up lines of time intersect horizontally and vertically, forming a closely woven net, and sometimes form a complex structure by innumerable perspectives. So the as the lines become thicker, the picture-plane reveals its nature of wanting to return to the plane, while having spatial depth at the same time. Since there are overlapping thin layers made by numerous brush strokes on the surface, there is no problem calling them stacked-up time. The picture-plane, formed through the repetition and continuation of simple actions, is not only brilliant and beautiful like a rainbow, but reminds viewers of an urban landscape, where numerous straight lines are intersecting. But this grid is not clear as if it were measured by a ruler, but has a very delicate vibration caused by the pressure of the hand and the speed of the brushwork. The artists compares this variation of lines and color to a diary. She stacks up lines and color as if she were writing a journal. In that sense, her works can be called screens on which memories are projected. Events do not happen on the flat screen. One good example is cinema. A screen without a projected image is just a void. But the moment the projection begins, time and space intervene in what used to be a mere screen on the wall. In a strict sense, it is nothing but an illusion made by 24 or 30 frames of images per second, nevertheless, we experience an event made by continuous motion, action and time. Memories are events recorded in our brains. At the same time, memories are traces of individual habits, tastes, experiences, social relations, perceptions of the world and powerful impacts from special events; they are crystallizations of self-identity and values. Even if people experience the same time and space surrounding one event, according to the interest of the person retrieving the memory, the memory comes in a different appearance. Thus memory sometimes has dramatic characteristics. But if we could restore memories into simple forms, could we not be able to express them as a few units or shapes? It would be similar to the structure of DNA, which is the basic unit of life consisting each human with different appearances and personalities. Perhaps it would be easier to understand if we take digital for example. If we drastically magnify the commonly viewed screen, we can see the structure of pixels. Of course the basic structure of information is a combination of the digits 0 and 1, but these small particles gather to re-compose not only shape, but also events that represent the flow of time. Therefore, in Lee's works, a single line can be a pixel-like unit, and the space where they are accumulated can be seen as an event where time is compressed. Moreover, the space formed by the intersecting lines is a field where an event is structuralized, and a net to store memories. Though it is woven closely, time resides in the spaces, wherever it can be penetrated.


Lee Sang-eunb defines time, which she is trying to express, as "not physical time but an arrangement of non-continuous time that connects the past and present, and visualization of non-representational, unrealistic, illusional, symbolic and meditative time." Such perception of time transcends our common sense that accepts it as linear motion. Therefore, in Lee's works, memory is not a result of recalling the past, which exists on a straight line connecting the past-present-future, but something closer to "changing time," as described by Heri Bergson. Influenced by evolution, the time Bergson had in mind through his philosophy of life was continuation (la durée). Continuation is not time in which the past and present are disconnected and flow by, but time where the past and present flow together. In other words, the motion in time described by Bergson has already passed and does not remain in the past and present, but coexists in the soon-to-come future. Concerning this, Bergson presented pure continuation as something to replace the traditional concept of time projected in space, that is time that could not be divided from space. Since time of continuation cannot be reduced to language or units, it cannot be understood through analysis based on reason. The only way is the subject of perception himself to empathize by assimilating to time, in other words intuition. As intuition is "intellectual empathy," it does not mean dividing and separating the object, but becoming one with the object. Thus, Bergson could overcome modern mechanical theories of time, that is reductionism and causationism, which claimed that results emerged because of causes, and pioneer a philosophy of life, based on creative evolution.

If so, can time be separated from space? If time and space could be separated, perhaps we could observe the flow of time as if we were gazing at a flowing river from a hill-top. Through an interesting story told by Stephen Hawking, we can confirm that time cannot be thought of as only something absolute and sole. Let us assume that a twin took a space ship on a long journey through space at a velocity close to the speed of light. When he returns to Earth, his age will be much younger than his twin who remained on Earth. That is because inside a spaceship moving at the speed of light, time flows slowly. This is called the "paradox of the twins," and is something that only affects someone who has an absolute concept of time. In the relativity theory, there is no special absolute time, but only individual times, which rely on the position and movement of the observer. To a person who is looking into a space ship flying a little slower than the speed of light, it only seems that the time inside the ship is flowing slowly.

Before Einstein announced the special theory of relativity in 1915, space and time were considered as a fixed stage where events happened, and this stage was thought to not be influenced by the events that took place. Until then, Einstein is said to have thought the same way also. He also believed that objects move, pull or resist, but time and space remained unaffected, and just continued. Perhaps it is natural to think that time and space will continue forever. But it became a completely different story under the theory of special relativity. Space and time are not dynamic quantities. That is, when an object moves and a force is applied, it influences the curvature of space and time, and meanwhile the time-space structure influences the motion of the object and the action of the force. Time and space not only influence everything that happens in space, but are also influenced. As we cannot discuss events that take place in the universe without the concept of space and time, it is meaningless to discuss space beyond the boundary of the universe in the theory of general relativity. The old idea that the universe continued with little change from the past and will exist eternally in the future has been replaced by the concept that the universe began in a certain point of the past, and is a dynamic and expanding space, which may end in a limited period of time in the future.

As flowing time has a starting point, it must also have a finishing point. As time was born with the Big Bang, naturally time will die together with the collapse of the universe. Astro-physicists, however, think the expanding universe is the early stage of its evolution. One day it will destruct, but since that end will come after a time that is hard to even calculate, perhaps it would be meaningless to talk about it now. Thus, time is still a continuous flow.

As the human is a limited being, he/she has asked philosophical questions about time since a long time ago. Religion has taught us about the value of eternal life, as much as it has talked about the fear of the end. Time is life given to the limited beings called humans and something to be cherished, but at the same time it is like shackles or punishment. So I indulge in this sort of imagination. Does time exist in heaven? If time exists in heaven, what does eternal life mean? Perhaps the drama of life is diverse and abundant because there is time. Humans invented clocks to measure and conquer time, but as can be seen in the term "time-tech," which rigidly restricted company-workers' lives, time was also used as a tool to subordinate busy people of the modern world. The clock merely enables us to perceive time by dividing it into hours, minutes and seconds. It is not time itself.

Bergson said the essence of continuation is the flow, and continuation is not passed time but flowing time. Hence, to artist Lee Sang-eun, time-stacking is not an accumulation of the past, but an expression of movement where the past coexists and continues on with the present. In the process of stacking the fragments of such time fluidity is created, and margins exist between the network, in which the present can penetrate. The woven structure of the vertical and horizontal linesthis is her life and the net of time that we experience.



Choi Tae-man/Art Critic