Han Ho’s Luminous Consciousness and Path to Liberation
By Thalia Vrachopoulos, Ph.D.
Korean Buddhism embraces the idea that upon hearing, or reciting the Nirvana Sutra can remove bad karma that binds people to samsara (cycle of rebirth). By producing such works as Eternal Light-Different Dreams in the Same Place, 2015 Ho Han helps us bypass this state of suffering or samsara transporting us to nirvana while still in this life as opposed to that which involves material death. This path is an extinction of sorts wherein the individual becomes subsumed by the whole or universal surrendering the ego-self. In sub-entitling his installation Different Dreams in the Same Place he is referencing the state of union of the individual with this collective consciousness thus overcoming desire, individual consciousness and averting suffering on the way to nirvana or yeolban. This is the place where everything converges and where beatitude is to be found.
Even while dreaming different dreams the individual is part of the whole without adhering to the selfish desires that keep him from attaining a higher consciousness. This doctrine of ‘non-self’ or ‘impermanence’ is analogous to nirvana’s idea of transcending the self to a place of deathlessness, timelessness, and universality.
Mahayana Buddhism, the form mostly practiced in Korea, distinguishes between a nirvana arrived at during life in which the acolyte feels light and part of the universe, and one that ends with physical death, with a continued spiritual life but without rebirth. The goal of this tradition is to reach Buddhahood where a Buddha re-enters life to do good works for all humans. What Han calls Eternal Light is similar to the idea of luminous consciousness or nirvana like the eternal void and supersedes the ego. In this state all is one and there are no distinctions between long, short, big, small, earth, fire, water, as they all disappear. Buddha-nature is light in four dimensions like Han’s installation that is filled with light and shine.
In the Mahayana tradition this is the result of meditation and ethical living that brings about a release from these finite considerations to become total awareness with light all around. In likening this philosophy to Han’s installation Eternal Light-Different Dreams in the Same Place it is possible to see that this idea is inherent in his concept of the four dimensional space that is lit from within. Han has used black mirrors on the ceiling and floor of the gallery while setting up landscape scenery interspersed with human figures on the three walls to give the effect of reflections on water. When the viewer enters the interactive installation it becomes day akin to the space of reality. 15 seconds later, it changes to night like the world of dreams. Consequently, Han has created a dream world within a four dimensional space that can be read as Nirvana.
Han’s Eternal Light in which space is depicted endless, can also be discussed in terms of the fourth dimension or non-Euclidian space which is infinite. Linda Dalrymple Henderson wrote about the space beyond our immediate perception and a higher, fourth dimension and their relationship to modern art. This concept like that of Han’s suggests that there is another space beyond our normal physical perception and that what we perceive of our world, may be only a reflection or shadow of another higher realm. Along these lines, Han has made a computational modeling of space one with multidimensional perspective increasing the interaction of the arts. In the beginning of the 20th century, this idea influenced major artists like Kazimir Malevich, Max Weber, Marcel Duchamp, and the Futurists and Surrealists, to undertake radical innovation in their works. In Han this concept couples with his spirituality to become an updated innovative work that is interactive and that breaks the barriers of art-making by incorporating the physical art, with the projected, the interactive and the imaginative. In a recent re-introduction to her text Henderson points to the return of the subject of higher dimensions in contemporary art after 1980 with the emerging string theories of physics and information technology.
Han’s Eternal Light on its walls, and floor, contains human figures in various positions that are also reflected on its sky dome. In the daylight scene the landscape consists fluffy clouds leading to a recessed background with a sun in the center, along with variously sized figures dotting the whole. These figures are variously dimensioned with a little girl crying while situated in the center under the sun. A little boy depicted on the left wall, wears a sailor’s hat perhaps as portent of things to come. He is reflected in color below in standing pose with hands in pockets, pants’ cuffs rolled up, mirroring a sailor stance. On the right wall a girl dressed in traditional Korean costume looks to the horizon in a dreamy stance that recalls 19th century romanticist notions. Behind her is a soldier who looks at us as we enter the installation. The separation
between these two people can also be associated with the division between South and North Korea which has left a bitter taste in the mouths of its people, one to which they refer as dongsangyimong that they liken to an endless yearning to reunite.
The night scene in its beautiful purple hues, shows people and an animal studded with points of light thus serving as correlations to Han’s idea of Eternal Light. The five surfaces are also dotted with reflections of light while the middle space contains a mountain range landscape with the moon at its center. The great divide at the horizon’s core is also correlative to the actual separation or the land, but is reconciled by the luminous quality of its sitters who have gone beyond physical desire to perhaps reach the state of nirvana. Han’s imagery offers us a paradisiacal plane that for the layman is hard to imagine but that for the socially responsible artist is possible to create.
This site-specific installation at the Palazzo Bembo is part of the 56th International Biennale at Venice taking up the whole gallery in which Han has installed an interactive piece that incorporates fine art, projection, mirrors, and sound. This multi-dimensional and multi-sensorial installation is on par with the Wagnerian Gesamptkunstwerk or total work of art in which there is a synthesis of the arts.
The interest in using light is not new for Han Ho who has been dealing with the medium for years. He created his Garden of Light series exhibited in the United States, which included paintings and a centerpiece installation comprised of rounded bricks formed into the shape of a boat with oars. In 2011, he worked with recycled paper to create an installation for the Sofia Paper Biennale at the National Museum of Art in which he incorporated paper, light and projection. His interest in working with paper and light, continued when in 2013 he created an entire installation for Tenri Cultural Institute’s Gallery in New York. Hung from the ceiling this massive installation reminiscent of the dome of heaven, sought to embrace the viewer in its soft paper tentacles. However, in the Venice Biennale work, Han takes his artistic and conceptual development further seeking maturity not only in his style but also as an ethical entity who is socially responsible.
 Henderson, Linda Dalrymple, The Fourth Dimension and Non Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art, Princeton University Press, 1983. Introduction