An Inaudible Chorus of Howls

Anxiety (1894) by Edvard Munch

Anxiety (1894) by Edvard Munch

Robin woke up from a five-year slumber in the body normally occupied by its host personality, a cold and strait-laced company director who swore that he would have killed him had they not been one and the same person. As an alter that formed part of their dissociative identity disorder though, he was a bubbly and free-spirited webtoon artist who went to great lengths to rescue people the host personality abandoned or would have abandoned. Exhilarated at his reawakening, he took a deep breath of the air for the first time in years, revisited the spaces and memories he left behind, and learnt that his webtoon was picked up for a drama adaptation during his absence. Then, he saw his (and the host personality’s) kindly mother and quickened his steps towards her in delight, but she, having caught news about his re-emergence, shuddered at the sight of him and took a step backwards half-apologetically instead, such that he could only stop in his tracks and greet her silently with a resigned bow. His father, whom he met next, was blunter, stating that he was not his son, his son’s twin or even the “Robin” he called himself but a mere parasite and illusion created by his true son. Throwing a bottle of pills at Robin, he ordered him to lie down as if he were dead and sleep it off.

For several nights to come, Robin strung together a blithe but tenuous life from post-evening hours begrudgingly allocated to him by the host personality, not seeing the daylight, not having a real name or identification, not being able to share his personal background freely, not comprehending the psychological threat looming ahead of him and not knowing whether he would ever wake up as himself again when he lay down to sleep. In this mirage-like existence, the one thing that kept him feeling real and alive was his palpable love for a girl.

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Her Many Faces

Mona Lisa Studio in Kami no Shizuku (2009 Japanese Drama)

“Evaporated like smoke”—that is one of the original meanings of the Italian word sfumato, which in the context of art refers to the gradual, imperceptible transition from one color to another in a composition, a technique that generates soft outlines in paintings. Producing an appearance that feels as if “a veil of smoke had drifted between the subject of the painting and the viewer,” this method is most prominently associated with Leonardo da Vinci and the artwork that enjoys the greatest fanfare over the world, Mona Lisa. Not unsurprisingly, the mystery surrounding the identity of the sitter, the meaning of her enigmatic smile and the relationship between the painting and its many replicas adds to this layer of smoke in a figurative sense. The most fundamental puzzle, though, must be why a yellowing portrait of a plainly dressed woman who meets neither the beauty standards of her time (1400s) nor those of the 21st century continues to captivate people in spite of the intense competition. While publicity, mystique and pure admiration for the painterly techniques employed probably contribute to a very large part of its appeal, genuine beauty may yet be found in the lady.

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Pinocchio (2014 Korean drama)

We live in a world inundated with half-truths and outright lies. The thirst for honesty should surely be as deep as a stranded desert trekker’s yearning for water.

The heroine of drama Pinocchio is encumbered with a curious, magical disorder afflicting one in 43 people that sends her into hiccups whenever she lies. These hiccups persist until she divulges the truth. To her exasperation, she can barely find a line of work she can survive in without lying. Whether it is lawyering, politics, book authoring or acting, hardly any profession tolerates people who cannot lie. So she takes up reporting—a job which mission is (supposedly) to reveal truths.

Obligatory lies, however, are not the reserve of the sphere of business relations or dramaland. A husband may find it hard not to answer in the negative when his wife of 25 years asks if she has not aged, however physically impossible that is. A potential employee, on the other hand, may feel obliged to answer in the affirmative when queried on his passion for the job, never mind that he needs it solely because it is his only viable source of income. People with stigmatized sexual orientations are sometimes forced to disguise their true natures even in front of peers and relatives to avoid social repercussions. Those with mental disorders face a moral dilemma whenever they reach the questionnaire section of insurance or college application forms. The pressure to lie, it seems, lurks in every corner of society.

Yet gems of beauty lie in many of those concealed truths. A man may be loving a woman even as time leaves its mark on her—his is a timeless love that transcends physical attraction. The pursuit of money may come across as shallow in contrast, but money can support a family and giving up one’s true dreams for his family is surely an act of nobility, which in turn suggests a spirit of selflessness certainly of value in the workplace. Similarly salutary are college-bound young adults who struggle against their inner demons to stake out a future for themselves instead of holing up in their homes and waiting for welfare payouts. A dedicated gay lover, meanwhile, may fight tooth and nail for the man he loves whereas a heterosexual philanderer leaves one woman after another in tears. Society, unfortunately, does not always have the patience to understand such meaningful complexities and nuances of human life. To cope with a way of life that thrives on instincts, stereotypes and simplistic conclusions, which warp the meaning of the truths, these gems of beauty are buried by their possessors under the slime of lies.

Until more of us take time to appreciate those truths for what they are, and until holders of the truths speak out for their value instead of debasing them through disgraceful acts of deception, we may have to content ourselves with a made-up world in wait of the proliferation of a made-up disorder to set things straight.

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Whispering Volumes

Kami no Shizuku

A grayish museum room, empty except for two lone men gazing at an old painting. Within the painting, the sun sinks towards the horizon in the distance. A flock of birds scurry on their way to their resting place before its light extinguishes. Against the desolate landscape, a man and a woman stop work to bend their heads in prayer, their farming tools and potato harvest strewn around them. It is a quiet moment within a quiet moment, no doubt.

Yet an unseen bell, suggested by the art title (L’Angelus), rings from a church tower in the distant background through the vast landscape, conferring an air of monumentality on the scene. Traditionally recited at 6 am, noon and 6 pm, the Angelus prayer recalls the conception of Jesus. Each time, the church bell is tolled in nine strokes, with a pause between every three rings. Jean-François Millet, whose inspiration for the painting came from his childhood memories, reminisced about how his grandmother would always made sure they paused their work in the fields upon the tolling of the bell to say the prayer for the departed.

The Angelus

This element of sound, enchantingly, intensifies the silence of the scene. As the significance of the prayer grows upon the viewers, the peasant woman’s bowed figure takes on a more profound meaning—a deep feeling of meditation comes between her lowered head and tightly clasped hands while her tilted body bears the weight of religious devotion. Her male counterpart now bares his head and holds his hat not for casual reasons but out of sincere respect for the moment. Their items lie haphazardly on the ground not as a representation of mundane farm life but out of deference to the solemn task called upon them. With life in a sacred standstill and thoughts lost in pious contemplation, we feel the Earth, the skies and the people underneath settle down in an atmosphere of serenity and calm, inside and possibly outwith the picture.

Remarkably, this enhancement of quietude through sound also occurs on a meta level. To present the tranquil sight, the artist did not sit back to savor his soothing memories. Rather, he took to work at his canvas, scratching away at the fabric and layering on paint after paint to recreate the peaceful atmosphere for anyone who would look at his artwork. Herein beckons another moment for contemplation: although tranquility is readily associated with passiveness and inactivity, the reality is probably that deliberate action is often necessary to introduce and maintain calm and quiet. In many cases, the sources of disturbance and noise in everyday life do not go away by themselves or just because we will them to. Instead, active efforts are frequently needed to rein in chaos, halt the natural flow of life and carve out a time and place for repose and introspection.

This insight into the relationship between action and stasis holds lessons for environmental conservation as well. Ecosystems are not saved by renouncing all forms of modern life and artificial systems. In fact, even as human activity has catalyzed the deterioration of many natural habitats, some of the biodiversity currently around might have succumbed to the age-old forces of natural selection if not for the extraordinary feats of engineering and other human interventions. An instinctive, “yuk“-based rejection of all biotechnological innovations, in particular, regardless of their restorative potential, may really be at odds with the preservation of nature. As advances in genetic modification and nanotechnology meet with social resistance, a nuanced approach to the conflict is perhaps most appropriate, lest the curative wonders of our rural landscapes become distant memories revisited with sighs and longing as museum relics.

The Angelus

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Chasing Light

Flower Boys Next Door

Light plays a heavy role in a preponderance of classical paintings. Renaissance and Baroque artists employed light to create atmosphere and dramatic effects. Realists depicted the interactions between object colors and light from the environment. Impressionists, no less, captured fleeting effects of light on their subject matter. Vincent van Gogh, however, practically worshiped the very sources of light themselves.

His starry night paintings, most famously, were awash with his fervent adoration of the celestial bodies. Starlight spiraled on his canvas next to a brightly blazing moon, their radiance swirled around the wide skies by rolling clouds. Thick dollops of paint piled onto the center of his orbs, while intense brush strokes dabbed feverishly away at their exploding rays. As he remarked in a letter to his sister, he was inspired by free-spirited poet Walt Whitman, who saw “under the great starlit vault of heaven a something which after all one can only call God—and eternity in its place above the world.”

The Starry Night (1889)

The Starry Night (1889)

Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888)

Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888)

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The Art of Fate

Youk Shim Won's art in Fated to Love You

It was a beautiful moment in the drama. In a room bathed in the warm afternoon light, Mi-young sketched intently on her canvas with her graceful and deft pencil strokes while Geon, her once estranged husband, gazed at her from a distance, mesmerized. The book he was pretending to read rested upside down on his lap for an hour, without him noticing it.

Fateful encounters are imbued with such ephemeral qualities. A girl was ready to give herself to a perfidious guy when Destiny brought her to one who would come to treasure and keep her in the most delicate corner of his heart. Accident and illness wiped out her new-found happiness but another man who crossed paths with her took her to a land where she got to create a rosier future from scratch.

Fate is also when life parallels fiction. Just as Mi-young transformed herself from a doormat into a confident artist successful in love and in career, real-life artist Youk Shim Won, whose works populate the later half of the drama and the runway, adapted traditional oriental painting techniques and materials to produce modern designs celebrating self-assured and exuberant women. One of those sets of works which feel like a breath of fresh air in East Asian art, Youk’s commercial paintings reject the often unquestioning reverence for subtlety in oriental art traditions and the all-enveloping angst prevalent in many contemporary artworks. Instead, vibrant hues and pastel colors blossom across the canvas while gentle lines glide and flow freewheelingly alongside them to generate close-ups of females unafraid of indulging in and exhibiting their joy and content with themselves.

Yet, according to Youk’s philosophy, the seeds of change have always been around. In her words, “every woman is a princess […] who possesses inner beauty and dreams, from which she envisions new happiness.” The fact of being female alone is enough to inspire change. In her designs, ladies and girls of all natures – gamine, wild, sophisticated, peasantly, mysterious alike – embrace themselves for what they are. In a sense, Mi-young embodied this idea. Even though the events that turned her life for the better happened by serendipity, she always had the qualities that allowed her to actually reap from them. She was thoughtful and had a heart of gold, traits that attracted the devoted love of Geon and her benefactor and got projected into the inviting warmth of her (or rather, Youk’s) drawings. Away from her regular life as an overwhelmed and underrecognized post-it girl, she had found simple joy in mug painting. Fate merely nudged her to pursue what she deserved and truly loved to the fullest extent.

Beauty is channeled when you take the leap of faith to be in your element. Such is the way Fate concocts its magic.

Youk Shim Won's art

© Youk Shim Won

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Alice/Joo-won: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

Cheshire Cat/Ra-im: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice/Joo-won: I don’t much care where –

Cheshire Cat/Ra-im: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.

Alice/Joo-won: – so long as I get somewhere.

Cheshire Cat/Ra-im: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if you only walk long enough.


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Love as Machine and Machine as Love

Love as Machine and Machine as Love

Oska: Do you think the human heart is some sort of vending machine, by which you can command a can of soda to pop out at the press of a button?

Is it right to program yourself to love someone?

Is it wrong to program yourself to love something?

Is it right to program yourself to love someone for the sake of something and wrong to program yourself to love something for the sake of someone? Or how about persons for persons and things for things?

But there are many kinds of love, a number of which every warm-blooded being and many an entity deserve unconditionally and a smaller quantity of which is owed to the more noble of souls and objects. Yet there are some types of love, of the most beautiful and spotless nature, that cannot be reduced to trading currency and that call for a commensurately dignified form of affection and care. Like art, such love can be replicated, but irrespective of the quality of craftsmanship applied to their reproduction, their doppelgangers are rarely deemed to hold a candle to them. In counterfeiting love in the name of true love, would one not risk tainting even the genuine love he pledges to the object of his heart’s desire? In other words, is not the employment of unscrupulous means to achieve an honorable end possibly a form of disrespect to the end itself? No less outrageous, obviously, would be the conversion of love of that esteemed quality into such instruments of deceit and delusion.



Another Superpower

Do Min-joon (Kim Soo-hyun) and Cheon Song-yi (Jeon Ji-hyun / Gianna Jun) discussing the meaning of superpower in 2013-2014 Korean fantasy drama My Love From the Star 별에서 온 그대

Song-yi: I’m freezing. Hey, can you perform that trick? You know, lighting up a fire with your palm, making objects you point at burst into flames?

Min-joon: That will cause a forest fire.

Song-yi: Oh, right. Do you know how to do it anyway?

Min-joon: I’m not Vectorman.

Song-yi: (Smirks) Ah, so you don’t. I’m terribly cold, though. Don’t you have a superpower that can warm me up a little?

Min-joon: (Wraps his arm around her)

Song-yi: (Smiles and leans against his shoulder)

Do Min-joon (Kim Soo-hyun) and Cheon Song-yi (Jeon Ji-hyun / Gianna Jun) discussing the meaning of superpower in 2013-2014 Korean fantasy drama My Love From the Star 별에서 온 그대

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