Visible Sound, Audible Color

Lee Sun-Young 
Art Critic 

          Music arouses an image, and some images seem to have music playing. Image and sound are mutually interpreted, while stimulating each other. Baik Soon Shil’s solo exhibition, starting from classical music, is a venue for response and reaction among the senses. As the term “visual and auditory senses” indicates, the sense of sight and the sense of hearing are closely associated with each other. As space-time is one, music as temporal art and painting as spatial art may imply each other. Baik has over decades painted about 200 pictures pertaining to music including prints and large-scale paintings, and this exhibition is an extension of her work addressing music. Any interaction between the visual and aural senses is more than her adoption of music as her subject matter. Their mutual reaction is more profound. Although her works have titles such as “Ode to Music-“ with the title of music added, its interpretation is limitless as long as music itself is abstract. A link between music and painting in this exhibition is strict yet liberal. Her work is not a reproduction of music in painting but something inspired and engendered by music.


          Baik is not bound by music as her painting is not restricted by the object. After listening to pearls of classical music subjectively she responds to them. When sound arising and vanishing in time dwells in a painting regarded as a form of space, any movement to abstraction takes place but she shuns reduction to decoration through her inquiring attitude vis-à-vis each piece of music. A musical piece brings about another interpretation when it passes through the artist’s body. The same piece of music is heard different in accordance with the state of players or listeners. Music is an arresting genre as a departure point of another where a minute differenced is sensed – like in nature. Music makes listeners seep into space-time, enabling them to reach a stage we cannot arrive at with our dulled senses, by rearranging their sensibility. Any interpretation will be mechanical and commonsense without an initial allure, and any inspiration deriving from this allure will disappear in vain without any other language familiar to us.


          Baik’s artistic motive derives from the musical environment of her everyday space. In her studio in Heyri, Paju, there is a room for tea and music from which bamboo she planted is visible. She was exposed to classical music from her father’s phonograph as a child, and appreciated classical music at legendary classical music halls such as Baroque, Renaissance, and also Philharmonie, and music teashops such as Dolce and Hakrim when living near her college in the 1970s. She traveled around the world for 10 years in her late forties with the theme of classical music.


          Baik still visits the sites where new music is composed and played. Classical music was part of her everyday life but she went through a period when she explored them extensively. In the 2000s she painted 200 pictures that paired with poet Lee In Hye’s essays for a magazine specializing in music, and continued this project after the publication terminated the ongoing series. In the 1990s, prior to this serial publication, she also published 70 pieces under the title The Sound of Korea. We cannot identify sound with music – sound is “an unrefined music and unperceived music” (Victor Zucherkandl). This exhibition showcases the results of her constant work addressing sound with melody and refined music.


          Unlike typical classical music and audio mania, Baik has occupied herself with painting. Those who can recreate what arrests them in a meaningful, dense language are only artists of the same feather who are able to give new life to appealing things beyond blind possession and passive admiration. The artist says her working style is like “meticulously embroidering in women’s quarters”. Unlike music that is usually in an atmosphere of freedom, she occupies herself with the effects of materials and tools, concentrating on meticulous work that puts stress on her body. It is worth savoring the work’s audacious composition and diverse effects arising from scraping, wiping, dying, and imprinting details. While the scenes portrayed do not appear complicated, many layers created over time bring forth interacting textures. Her color and form stemming from sound or music forms many layers, but it is unknown which element will be more actively adopted.  


          The texture that becomes thick with many layers evokes an effect akin to that of her other series Dongdasong. Unlike the colorful works on show at the exhibition, her previous series used earth tones like the hue from brewing tea or the earth where tea trees grow. This reflects her childhood experience of drawing on the soft wet earth after the rain. An earthy smell radiating with geothermal heat is the remainder of tea-related sound, color, and smell. This overall synesthesia can be applied to music. Innate in Dongdasong, the serial work she has worked on since her first solo show in 1988 under the theme of tea, are the sounds of rain, wind, and pouring tea water. This “spiritual sound of the universe” heard from the series is applied to classical music, the most refined sound in the world.


          Baik painted a few works on display at the exhibition including Ode to Music 0717, Hindemith Symphony_Painter Matisse on a square canvas similar to a record or CD case. The square canvas seems to symbolize complete order recollecting the world of Ideas by Plato. A work of art giving form to music is abstract. In Baik’s work, the music of Tchaikovsky, her first love, the “genius of melodies” is represented with lineal elements such as clusters of red flowers and people’s legs. The line is a primary element determining dynamism on her canvases. Details on the planes divided by lines are alive in this work filled with starkly contrasting colors. Many pieces of Beethoven’s music included in the show display her preference for classical music. In Ode to Music 1404, Beethoven Symphony No.7 has a vitality sensed in the colors swirling and filling the background, and points that look like tiny petals scattered over this give dynamic form to music.


          In Ode to Music 1410, Beethoven Triple Concerto C major Op. 56, three colors of same density in the form of jogakbo, traditional Korean patchwork cloth, are symbolic of three instruments played at the same intensity. As most of her works are products of her feeling about a particular piece of music rather than an analysis, it is of no significance to make any one-to-one correspondence between the music’s title and her work. However, these works suggest what initiated each work. Baik has represented even music pieces she had no preference greatly. This attitude of opening up to and exploring the new enables her to clarify any difference, even in repetition. Baik uses musical pieces by Mahler, Brahms, Chopin, and Mozart for works on show in the exhibition. Those works are characterized by a division of large planes in which pictorial composition is identical with musical composition and heterogeneous details applied to each work differently. Works suggestive of the direction of power, such as Ode to Music 1416, Chopin Nocturne No. 27-1 C# minor, featuring an image that looks like heavy rain or spouting water, and Ode to Music 1407, Brahms Symphony No. 3 featuring an image like a seagull crossing the middle of a scene, are distinguishable from the Dongdasong series marked by serenity.


          Both music and art are abstract but they have sense of space and gravity in nature. In Ode to Music 1414, Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola K364 a lozenge at the bottom of an abstract scene seems to showcase an entrance to the music world. As in the Dongdasong series reminding the viewer of tea’s deep taste and the land where tea grows, the multi-layered scene growing thick through an application of diverse materials lends a sense of presence to abstract music. A shift from potentiality to practicality depends on those who see her painting and listen to music inherent in her painting. In his book Sound and Symbol Victor Zuckerkandl sees dynamism in the nature of musical sound, deriving from its relation with something that is not there. It means we open to the direction where sound is to come. Baik’s scenes created with diverse materials and tools are something subtle that cannot be reduced to specific color and form, as a three-dimensional representation of music heard differently whenever listened to.


          Many elements moving in her work are for the immediate representation of the body and sensibility as a prior or trans-linguistic language not defined by symbol. A new order different from the order of universal symbols widely accepted in society is formed by trans-heterogeneity, which only those plunging into the abyss of art can secure. Baik’s work displays a coexistence of a restrained structure and a sense of composition, departing form the unconscious world. This sense is represented by a vigorous division of the scene, enabling her work to proceed somewhere else. Victor Zuckerkandl says that a new dimension of music enriching an unknown world is not trans-emotional, transcendental, or dreamlike, which romanticists denote. It is time, everything described, and all that flows, forms, changes, and moves. Time with music has entered the world of the image. We can see time under the aegis of music. Time here is of the order and form of experience. A principal temporal sign in music is rhythm.


          According to Sound and Symbol, each sound is not a temporal continuation but a system depending on rhythmical structure and effect. Rhythm appears as one of the general principles governing the universe. The sense of rhythm in painting is associated with something accumulated and growing. Such organic totality found in her work reminds us that classical music is the product of an age of nature when all was intact. Rhythm is also created by time, and an experience of rhythm is an experience of time. Such experience of time activates not only the vision of the viewer but also their body. Music in Baik’s painting changes pictorial space into the venue of resonance, deviating from the mores of visual perception arousing uniformity and conventionality. As the Dongdasong series is even for the senses of smell and taste, Baik’s painting is a stage for synesthesia: the tactile sense integrates the five senses. A tactile canvas redolent of a primal material or the earth becomes a medium for such integration.


          The five senses – touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight – are hierarchized. The more we rely on the senses in their own right, the more we are gradually removed from the natural body. Quoting Aristotle, who put emphasis on the tactile sense as a crucial medium to integrate all other senses, in The Gutenberg Galaxy, Marshall McLuhan sees a perception by the sense of touch as the sense verging on the perfect. How fantastic might it be if we can touch sound and color? In Baik’s work a tactile quality deriving from discontinuous multilayered scenes gives an impetus to synesthesia.


          Synesthesia is not only psychological but also physical: color waves go hand in hand with sound vibrations. In Das Rätsel Farbe: Materie und Mythos, Magarete Bruns points out that although counting colors depends on our sensibility, Isaac Newton defined a rainbow with seven colors in his Optics since he considered a similarity between the rainbow’s seven colors with the heptatonic scale in Western music. Baik’s work represents a psychological, symbolic response among diverse senses and an objectification of transferal among the senses through experiment with materials and tools. These are the senses in an age of consilience after modernist efforts to separate the inseparable.