The Power Of Meditation: Sook Jin Jo's Art
by Donald Kuspit 2004

In conversation in her living room, Sook Jin Jo emphasizes her Oriental sensibility: she points outside the window, calling
attention to the lack of harmony between the geometry of the buildings and the surrounding environment. With a slicing
gesture, she remarks that in New York City—in hypermodernized Western society in general--space is arbitrarily divided
into standard geometrical units. Tokens of nature--trees, sometimes shrubbery, rarely flowers--acknowledge another kind
of space: organic space. Marginalized--not to say trivialized--nature loses the evocative power the romantics accorded it.
Geometrical indifference dominates, symbolizing the lack of harmony between the inert manufactured buildings and the
organic, emotionally flexible human beings who live and work in them. Nature symbolizes and mediates that harmony, but
there is no nature in sight. New York City is hardly the facilitating, harmonious environment the psychoanalyst Donald
Winnicott thought was necessary for emotional growth, whatever isolated spaces of nurture--spaces devoted to art as well
as manicured nature--are scattered throughout it.

The Oriental sensibility is more respectful of nature, conceived as a nurturing environment, which is why Oriental art subtly
integrates it with the social environment without denying it a space of its own. Thus traditional Oriental structures tend to be
"informed" by natural materials, giving them a more organic feel--they seem inherently alive, alive on the inside as well as
externally expressive of life--than modern Western structures. No doubt this is why the former seem more emotionally
supportive than the latter. It is the difference between the aesthetics of care and the aesthetics of indifference.

We then go into Jo's windowless studio, where she points out her Meditation Space, 2000 (originally installed in Art Park in
upstate New York). It is a loosely knit geometrical construction made of logs, branches, and old barn flooring, seasoned by
the life that has marked it. The structure is completely organic with no loss of geometrical clarity. It seems to breathe in and
out, perhaps because of its found natural materials--all raw, or ironically returned to rawness by being discarded--but more
subtly because of its irregular open weave. The materials are not packed together tightly, but rather piled upwards so that
they interact with the space left between them. Jo may be a Minimalist, but she is an organic Minimalist, making works that
accept and incorporate what seems like natural imperfection and vitality from the point of view of sterile geometrical

One imagines oneself meditating inside Jo's Meditation Space--a Space Between inside and outside, to refer to the title of
another such space built in 1998-99. The title of the latter work instantly reminded me of Winnicott's concept of the
"transitional object," which he also considers a "space between"--between internal and external space, paradoxically
incorporating features of both while effecting a transition from the former to the latter. As Winnicott famously said, the
transitional object is at once created and found: invested with subjective meaning while remaining objectively the case
(it belongs to external space however internally dynamic). Jo's meditation space, created out of found objects, is clearly a
transitional object: but it is transitional from public to private space rather than the other way round, like Winnicott's
transitional object.

All of Jo's works are concerned to put one in a meditative state of mind, as distinct from a contemplative state of mind.
Where Occidental art tends to be contemplative--its implicit goal is detached perception of external reality (even when,
as in Symbolism and Surrealism, it uses external reality to articulate internal states)--Oriental art tends to be meditative,
where meditation means withdrawal from the world disclosed by the outer senses toward "realization of the Self" through
the inner sense, which is the way the Orientalist Heinrich Zimmer describes the Hindu concept of meditation (dhyana ).
Meditation aims at subjective rather than objective clarity and precision, that is, it focuses as directly as possible on internal
rather than external states of being. As Zimmer notes, meditation is the state of consciousness that occurs immediately
before consummate consciousness of the Self. The Self must be visualized, that is, brought into sharp focus so that it
becomes unmistakable (no longer confused with the world)--this is what is achieved in the "concentration of the inner sense"
that is meditation (clearly a more exacting, demanding process than contemplation of externals)--before one can realize it
completely by becoming totally absorbed in it (samadhi). This is the "supreme achievement": absolute union with "the

One enters Jo's meditation space in order to detach "the sense functions from their field of objects to the interior, so that they
may be put at rest" (pratyahara, which involves "firmly fixing the inner sense"). Even when Jo offers us a field of objects, as
her 300 Wishes, 2004 does—a seemingly infinite variety of found material objects, some natural, some manufactured--they
have a meditative rather than contemplative function. That is, they exist to turn one toward the Self rather than to explore the
world. One can examine their features with one's outer senses--Jo's arrangement gives them a certain formal elegance--but
they exist to awaken one's inner sense. They compel one to concentrate; each is in fact concentrated in itself. It is a fragment
of one's own concentration, as it were--a seemingly casually given external object with profound internal import. Jo's
fragments of external reality acquire internal depth—they are in fact a highly personal collection of artifacts--by becoming art.
Indeed, incorporated in her work of art, they are no longer ordinary objects but become emotionally extraordinary--no
longer everyday mediocre objects but mysteriously meaningful.

Jo's Work for Meditation (Being and Non-Being Create Each Other), 1997 anticipates 300 Wishes in both its use of the
"non-being" of the wall and the "being" of the objects exhibited on it. The Way Things Are: Resistance and Transformation,
1999-2003 is the next step leading to 300 Wishes: the frame used in the latter first appears in the former. The collected
objects are arranged within the frame like the modules of a grid. Leaning against the wall, the work is simultaneously a relief
sculpture and a panoramic picture--a kind of landscape of the soul. Framing--a symbol of self-containment [suggesting that
her found objects are what psychoanalysts call internal objects, which are in effect ancestral objects]--becomes more or
less constant in Jo's work, whether implicitly, as in Tombstone Landscape(Being Is Born of Non-being), 2000 or explicitly,
as in Memory Dresser of Itaparica, 2002. Wishing Worlds: We Are All in One, 2004 [Jo's collaborative project with the
students at the University of Texas in El Paso], which is based on 300 Wishes, is clearly the grand climax of Jo's meditation
works. A Meditation Space--and I am suggesting that all her works are meditation spaces--is clearly a frame, that is, a
means of separating and sheltering the self from the world, thus allowing for "self-realization." The interactive Color of Life,
1999 makes the point explicitly: the seventy barrels become meditation spaces for the people who dare to crawl into them.)

Jo may be a Duchampian, but she is a Duchampian with a "mystical" flair--and a healing purpose. She in effect rescues the
found objects she uses--heals the hurt implicit in their abandonment--by bringing them together in her work of art. Their
integration in a work of art, where they form a kind of family--an ideal community, as it were--gives them a new identity.
No longer isolated, they seem radically individual, even as they remain fragments of an abstract mosaic. Rescued from
oblivion--a fate worse than death--Jo redeems them by giving them spiritual life. Her found objects are clearly symbols of
suffering and the vicissitudes of chance, but each also represents the wish for a self that has come true, however idiosyncratic
that self looks on the surface.

Jo's most dramatic meditation space is her project for Los Angeles (to be realized in 2006). Wishing Bells/To Protect and
To Serve is a public plaza near the entrance of the new Los Angeles Metro Jail. The jail occupies a space between Los
Angeles' Little Tokyo Historic District, which includes the Japanese American National Museum, and a district which
includes the Parker Center, City Hall, and the Federal building. The Metro Jail Project has been controversial from the
beginning, not only because it involves a prison for criminals, but because Little Tokyo represents Los Angeles's spiritual
heritage. Metro Jail represents its secular reality, and that crude, violent reality seems to be encroaching on, and even
usurping, what is left of Los Angeles's spiritual significance, embodied in Little Tokyo. How is one to acknowledge and
mark what is both the spiritual-traditional and vulgar-contemporary center of Los Angeles?: that is the problem—all the
more difficult because Los Angeles is not usually thought of in traditional let alone spiritual terms--Jo's pivotal work
brilliantly solves.

She gives Metro Jail spiritual resonance by installing what is in effect a monumental Zen garden in front of it. She softens its
image without diminishing its sense of purpose--"to protect and serve," which is the motto of the Los Angeles Police
Department. Jo gives Metro Jail an emotional dignity which not only makes it less intimidating--it is a rather formidable
building, physically and in principle--but almost inviting: Metro Jail is subtly humanized by Jo's installation. However
different, Wishing Bells is anticipated by Zen Garden, 1998. Like Zen Garden, Wishing Bells spreads over the ground
rather than climbs the wall, as her other meditation works do. The solar turbines and window frame of Zen Garden become
the wooden columns and square grid of Wishing Bells. Wishing Bells is Zen Garden transformed into a monumental temple.
Its openness to the world stands in sharp contrast to the tightly closed, security conscious jail. Jails are the places where
those who have wronged society are punished by being removed from it. They are grim, serious places--perhaps the
ultimately serious social places, for they show society's determination to preserve itself by removing the cancer in its midst.
Jails acknowledge the inevitability of social and individual pathology while attempting to contain, isolate, and even eliminate it.
Wishing Bells is a beautiful alternative environment to the emotionally ugly prison environment. It is as serious in its
acknowledgement of the possibility of goodness as the jail is in its acknowledgement of the reality of badness. More
crucially, Jo has sited Wishing Bells in such a way that it subtly integrates with Metro Jail while standing apart from it. If, as
Dante wrote, the entrance to hell is marked by the words "abandon hope, you who enter here," then Jo's work suggests
the hope that is still possible in the hell of prison-- hope for the social and personal rehabilitation of the prisoners, that is,
their reintegration into society and their self-reintegration.

The key to Wishing Bells is of course the bells. Visiting Northern Japan, Jo entered a huge old building--it once may have
been a palace—and heard "several small bells ringing beautifully," as she says. "It was a moment of transformation spiritually.
It soothed me and gave me comfort." Bells mark time, but they are also a call to worship and prayer, and thus signify eternity.
As Jo says, "when I started working on a design for this project, I wanted to share that experience with other people"
--the prisoners in Metro Jail. The bells remind them of passing time but soothe them by evoking eternity, thus giving them
hope of salvation in the future. Meditating on the bells, they transcend their condition, beginning an emotional healing process
that is the first step toward social rehabilitation.

As Jo acknowledges, her project is implicitly Buddhist (like her Zen Garden). "Throughout Japan, beginning on New Year's
Eve and continuing into New Year's Day, bells in Buddhist temples are rung 108 times to announce the passing of the old
year and the beginning of the new. Each toll, of the bell, dispels one desire that may be a cause of suffering." Clearly the
tolling of Jo's bells are meant to dispel the desires that caused the suffering of the prisoners in Metro Jail, thus promising
them a new beginning. The bells will be inscribed with such words as "integrity,dignity, openness, fairness, authority, justice,
reverence, responsibility, and honor," all representative of the "wishes of the community" as well as "the police department's
values." Every element in Jo's installation has symbolic meaning, especially the nine columns, representing the board of five
police commissioners and the four star insignia of the chief of police. In the geometrical language of Oriental spirituality, nine
is the sacred number that represents cosmic harmony. Five and four are harmonized or equilibrated in nine, suggesting the
triumph of stability and balance over instability and unbalance, represented by the difference between the seemingly
incommensurate five and four (odd and even numbers).

Like all her work, Jo's Wishing Bells--clearly her most complex, interactive installation--offers the listener-viewer inner
harmony without denying the difference and diversity, not to say conflict (between the individual and society as well as
within the individual), that obviously exists in the world. (Her collection of seemingly random objects, each symbolizing
a desire that causes suffering, makes this diversity and difference--implying disintegration of the self--clear.) The ringing
bells symbolize and evoke the inner sublime in defiance of worldly suffering. Wishing Bells convincingly demonstrates
that unless art becomes an integral part of the social system the healing process that prison is supposed to initiate is
unlikely to occur there. The bell tolls for thee, the poet John Dunne tells us, and if the prisoners hear no bell tolling for
them they are unlikely to become aware of the spiritual problems that brought them to prison in the first place. Nor will
those outside the prison realize that they also are in a spiritual prison--unless they hear Jo's bells tolling. Hers is a
genuinely public-spirited art.

(1)Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India (New York: Pantheon, 1951),
p. 435


Sook Jin Jo by Donald Kuspit 1996


Sook Jin Jo has a way with wood: she takes tired, old, abandoned pieces of it, often fragments of demolished building--old doors and shutters, and plywood panels--and assembles them in eloquent constructions, full of melancholy serenity. A fragment is emotionally uncanny, and Jo uses her fragments to great emotional effect. She is extraordinarily sensitive to irregularity: the grain in wood, the erratic shapes of fragments. In her hands, they become a kind of gestural nuance, full of unexpected grace and poignancy--a felicitous found "automatism." At the same time, Jo's constructions are ingeniously self-contained and regular--geometrically clear. Overall, they are carefully balanced harmonies. Inwardly asymmetrical, outwardly symmetrical, they show the occult in action. She has made, out of fragments, symbols of incompleteness and ruin, works of art that are complete and whole and absolute. She uses her primitive materials with great refinement. Art is a way of reclamation and renewal for Jo, even of redemptive transformation: she shows there is still esthetic life in dead things. She does not deny disintegration, but shows that it can lead, unexpectedly, to a new integrity.

Her work is not "junk sculpture" in the ordinary sense. She is not just accumulating detritus to ironic effect, as though to mock society with its own waste. Rather, she is a formalist, using "deviant" materials. The play--simultaneity--of two and three dimensions in her pieces counts for more than the particularity of any material. The tension between line and painterly surface--axiomatic geometry and spontaneous gesture--matters more than the fact that her materials were found in the street. She is a modernist, overcoming ordinary esthetic differences, and always true to her medium, apart from its social meaning. She is "street smart," but, more than that, art smart. Thus the various Street Concertos of 1993 have more to do with music--they are an intimate chamber music--than the street. They belong to the grand modernist tradition--it began with Kandinsky--that insists that visual art must model itself on music, which is simultaneously logical and expressive, abstract and emotional, and above all with not the slightest hint of mimetic purpose. That same tradition argues that art is enigmatic, in that it articulates what is inherently enigmatic in existence. It regards wood grain as a sign of the enigmatic force of nature, and the fragment as an enigmatic form. Jo makes enigmatic music out of grainy fragments of natural material--material that has in effect been returned to a state of nature, for it is no longer useful to society. The street, for Jo, is a weird abandoned space of nature, full of its irrational remains--like an area of forest that has been ruthlessly cut down--rather than part of a rational city plan.

There is nothing arbitrary and vulgar about Jo's abstract compositions, as there is about the crude materials found on the street. André Breton once said that the dialectic of street and museum haunts modernist art: the point is to look at the street with a museum eye, that is, to see its transient things from the viewpoint of eternity--to see the potential eternity in them. While an artist like Alan Kaprow chose to emphasize the street at the expense of the museum--for him Forty Second Street was more vital than any museum--Jo strikes a judicious balance between them, recognizing that the museum is not so much a mausoleum and morgue, as Kaprow thought, but a symbol of transcendence. And to achieve transcendence is to heal a
wound: the fragments she finds in the streets are like injured birds, who are given new artistic wings in her works. For Jo. art is not just a faded repetition of life--in her case an echo of materials that are themselves echoes of life--but an esthetic transformation of it that points to a meaning beyond yet latent in it, and that makes it more meaningful than it ordinarily seems to be. Jo's works are thus both memento mori of the street and symbols of a higher consciousness that transcends it.

T. W. Adorno has argued that in modernity art oscillates between the poles of Constructivism and Expressionism, and that each is at its best when it has nothing to do with its opposite. But part of the point of postmodernity is that such purity has become empty; only the fusion of the traditional modernist opposites--a subtle, synergistic hybridism--can create a sense of esthetic resonance, that is, rich affect and symbolic pregnance, as Clement Greenberg called it. This is what Jo gives us: expressionistic constructions. Even more, she has used her wooden fragments to construct a kind of expressionistic still life. This seems especially true of her paper works; each part seems autonomous, and has its own flair and intensity. But the synergism between them is truly expressionistic: they seem about to erupt beyond their borders, even as the work as a whole remains stable. The paper works, as well as the ongoing series entitled Over There, are ostensibly static yet intensely fluid--even violently disrupted--inside. It as though Jo has trapped the dynamic latent in the fragments in the form of the works.

At the same time, her works have an inherent, brooding grandeur, enhanced no doubt by their tableau format, that invites meditation and self-communion. Indeed, the monumental horizontal works, such as Work for Meditation, are altarpieces in all but name. The free-standing pieces of wood that flank the giant central panel are like guardian saints at the entry to a sanctuary--the holy of holies. Works such as Cross and Resurrection, both 1994, and the especially marvellous The Windows of Heaven are Open, 1995, make the religious dimension of Jo's work clear. Jo remembers the Little Prince's statement that "The reason the desert is beautiful is because a well is hidden somewhere." In this piece, the window is simultaneously desert and life-giving well--debris from the desert of the street, and a window onto the wonder of heaven. The smaller works are like shrines one might come upon in the obscure alcoves of an ancient cathedral. They seem to at once veil and invoke an interior space, in which unnamable spirit lurks. Thus Jo has taken profane materials and created a sacred art, conveying a sense--indeed, affording an experience--of the numinous, as Rudolph Otto called it. She indeed takes us "over there," which in her case means into the depths of her interior life, where alone transcendence of the conditions of outer life--the street--is possible.

Donald Kuspit, an art critic, is a professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY, Stony Brook, at Cornell University, and a contributing editor of 'Artform'. He is the author of 'Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist'.