We all tell stories. It is in our nature as human beings to share our stories. In fact, the tradition of storytelling and narration has been passed down through generations, in the vernacular and through literature and text as well as through visual means including theatre and dance. Artists are also master storytellers, giving life to ideas, emotions, thoughts and beliefs through visual media.
In Asia, the art of storytelling has always been in abundance; a geographical tapestry of colourful cultures and languages has given birth to distinct art forms over centuries of tradition and legacy. Strong oral literary traditions that gradually developed into a multitude of expressions can be witnessed throughout Asia as theatrical traditions that involve puppetry, dance and music, which can be seen from the Javanese wayang kulit shadow puppet theatre to Thailand’s khon mask theatre to the Japanese bunraku puppet theatre. Similarly, in Korea, oral and theatrical traditions have always been a lively part of the peninsula’s heritage. The famous p’ansori, or Korean ‘story singing’, which originated from the late 17th century during the Choson Dynasty, has been declared a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage. P’ansori is a form of sung folk narrative that involves performance and shamanistic chants, and it became a platform for discourse on everyday life and popular customs.
For Sunsook Roh, an international Korean artist, narration is an integral part of her practice; through her installation sculptures and performance art, Roh gives expression to the multitude of life experiences that have shaped her existence and her outlook on the world. As a young Korean woman, Roh migrated to America in the 1970s, and following an 18-year career as a nurse, Roh listened to her burning desire to be an artist, returning to art school in New York. Being in one of the most vibrant art centres around the world, Roh’s intellectual curiosities and creative expressions were broadened and challenged to the limits. With this strong artistic and conceptual foundation, Roh creates a striking visual language that is individual and undeniably energetic. She has an impeccable eye to detail and a tremendous zest in her practice, fueling the artistic process in creating both small and large scale works, as it requires much labour and intensity.
Over the last 27 years of her artistic career, Roh has proven to be an artist who is unafraid to explore challenging mediums and find dynamic ways to express her complex ideas and beliefs. Her works continuously examine and re-examine recurring themes that encompass the transient nature of time, the inevitable cycle of life along with her preoccupation with mortality, as well as her spirituality that firmly grounds her practice. For Roh, the human spirit and the understanding of what it means to be human have been a constant enquiry and persistent intellectual, spiritual and emotional pursuit throughout her artistic career. Roh’s sensibility and ingenuous ability to visually manifest her subtle emotions and intricate philosophical outlooks on life, speaks volumes of her natural gifts as an artist and creator. Roh’s practice is pure and raw; her works tell stories that are as personal as they are universal, touching her audience on multiple levels to probe, enlighten, inspire and heal.
The concept of the tree has been an important root of Roh’s work, and the starting point to her storytelling. An inspiration that began over two decades ago as an art student has sustained Roh’s practice, even after she left New York to live and practice in Japan and Singapore. For Roh, the tree is the symbol of life that connects every corner of the earth, from continent to continent, from generation to generation—the life force that connects past and present to future as well as future to present and past. Moreover, for the artist, the tree is versatile as it also refers to growth and history building as well as overcoming external environmental pressures. As much as the world turns and changes, the tree binds the human race throughout history, providing us with the essential oxygen that we breathe, anchoring the entire ecosystem and natural world.
The prolonged interest in the interconnection between nature and human life has allowed Roh to evolve her practice in sophisticated ways, and yet served her to also remain rooted to a singular concept. The genesis of Tree of Life began with large installations made as microcosms of nature and the animal world. Furthermore, Roh’s concept development was influenced in part by Roh’s deep fascination with biblical imagery of the tree, in particular the Tree of Jesse, a depiction of Jesus Christ’s ancestors, or a symbolic representation of Christ’s genealogy. Having seen three of the famous medieval stained glass windows depicting the Tree of Jesse, Roh was in awe of the beauty of the rich colours and patterns along with the quality of the light that shines through these ancient works of art.
Sunsook Roh has come full circle as the works in this current exhibition, Originally and Truthfully (Tree of Life VI), are reminiscent of the exquisite stained glass windows and the light illuminating the colourful window panels. The towering 7-foot work titled Grace Project appears as a contemporary stained glass window. Each square panel is individually created cast resin pieces that have been coloured and lit up with LED lights. An arduous process and a labour of love, the panels are windows into abstracted representations of the interior of our human brain. The circular patterns and marks made in this work are inspired by a church conductor who Roh encountered—his passionate and spirit-filled hand and arm movements brought about the most beautiful and harmonious tune sung by a boy choir. This heartfelt moment sparked the artist’s soul, perhaps igniting the journey of spiritual liberation and healing.
Going back to Tree of Life V: Landscape of the Psychology of the Mind (2010), the fifth evolution and pinnacle of this series, Roh’s life-size tree made of polyester resin, fiberglass and wood, is a poetic replication of the blood vessels and neurons inside the human brain. For Tree of Life V, Roh extensively researched and sketched the anatomy of the brain—a reflection of Roh’s background as a nurse and interest in anatomy and biology. Roh, dealing with the transience of time, is concerned with the process of aging and how over time, memories are created and naturally lost.
In making Tree of Life V, Roh takes the “journey inward, into the psychological landscape of the mind” as she delves into how humans “cope, code and recollect” experiences. Referencing Carl Jung, Roh recognizes that in order to ‘go out’, or understand the world outside of ourselves, one must ‘go inward’, in another words into one’s own mind; to quote Jung, “Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” Roh sincerely hopes that by encountering this monumental work, her audience can reflect on their lives and take the journey inward to heal and confront their inner beings. Each branch of Tree of Life V represents the neurons that store individual memories as much as the human race’s memories, creating a universal symbol for the experiences made and forgotten throughout history.
Tree of Life V is a window into our minds as well as a mirror into our souls; this is poignantly encapsulated in a video projection work contained in a re-purposed antique Oriental cabinet—perhaps a cabinet of curiosities of our memories and experiences. Roh has placed mirrors inside the box that narrow into the small projection of the video documenting the installation of Tree of Life V. While Tree of Life V seeks a psychological reflection, the re-born Tree of Life VI has transformed into a symbol of spiritual liberation and purification of the soul.
Having re-purposed parts of the old branches of Tree of Life V and by turning the stump upside down, Roh gives life to a new tree—to the roots of the tree. By returning to the roots of the tree, Roh is emblematically going back to the origins, of her origins, to come to terms with past traumas, to be spiritually cleansed and reborn. In this way, Tree of Life VI has been wrapped in gauze; bandaging each root suggests healing and repairing. Wrapping up the psychological and emotional wounds, allowing time to do its job, Roh is reawakened into a renewed being with a soul cleansed and liberated.
The act of healing and the journey of spiritual liberation is a personal endeavor for Sunsook Roh. While the other iterations of Tree of Life may have been an outward statement, Tree of Life VI is one of personal resolve. Perhaps this may be the final evolution of Roh’s tree, and it comes at a timely moment as the artist has returned to her home in New York, commencing a new chapter of her life. Having extensively contemplated the transience of time, pertaining to life and death, Roh has reached a point of spiritual maturity in her artistic practice. Through the creation of this exhibition, Roh is able to meditate on the past 11 years in Asia, in turn culminating in a singular time and space of spiritual release.
Moreover, Roh takes a step further to present and visually manifest her spiritual journey; the story of purification and liberation is told through a performance. On the opening night of Originally and Truthfully (Tree of Life VI), Sunsook Roh performed a traditional Korean dance, the Sal’puri dance. The Sal’puri dance is a Koren folk dance that has roots in shamanistic rituals. Although this dance is traditional and used to have a functional purpose, nowadays it appears to be avant-garde in its creative expression and abstract sensibility. Sal’puri is performed to express beauty and melancholy in relationships, or anguish experienced in dealing with mortality and separating from the spirits of the dead.
In Roh’s performance of the Sal’puri dance, her restrained movements express the subdued tensions in finding stillness and peace within constant flux. The act of the Sal’puri dance is one of finding inner peace, purification and spiritual liberation. As such, for Roh performing the Sal’puri dance is lyrical yet cathartic; it is the climax of her story. Originally and truthfully, Roh withdraws into the depths of her soul, allowing herself to be vulnerable—as an artist, as a woman, as a human being—surrendering to God, to the universe, to be spiritually reborn.
 From artist’s statement, 2010.
Roh's performance of the Sal'puri dance can be viewed below: