The Passacaglia of Heaven, Earth, and Man
- The World of Moosan Huh Hwe-tae’s Emography
By Kim Bok-young, President of Korean Society for Science of Art and Design & Former Professor of Hongik University

“I am looking at a calligraphic work written or drawn in a curious form. It is Huh Hwe-tae’s Thousands of Inner Thought. I reminded of the Chinese characters, 千,丁,下,干, and 十. Did Huh write 千 by mistake?”

Above are the words of art critic Ryu Byung-hak who wrote about Huh Hwe-tae’s art and first coined the term ‘emography’ to refer to the calligraphic world of Huh Hwe-tae, an artist who has extensive experience in five calligraphic styles and has been well versed in these styles for last 40 years. Huh’s recent pieces appear more like drawings, as opposed to characters, but are not completely pictorial as they still maintain some calligraphic traces. When viewing this new work, the viewer is confronted with some particular emotions. As Huh still maintains some styles of calligraphy in his recent attempts, we need to make note of and take a further look into his ‘emography’. The act of writing, as in Huh’s ‘emography,’ has considerable meaning as it connotes ideas of culture and civilization that go beyond mere lettering.

If putting more emphasis on ‘emo’ rather than ‘-graphy,’ we are better able to embrace the true meaning of his work. In this case, the focus is on emotion, not calligraphy. In other words, calligraphy is not central in his ‘emography’ or as significant as emotion. Etymologically, calligraphy is a compound word of the Greek ‘kalos’ meaning beauty and ‘graphein’ referring to the drawing of strokes or writing. As the word calligraphy is translated into Korean as ‘서예’ meaning beautiful characters, it is no longer adequate to fully signify Huh’s ‘emography’. This being so, do we have to see his ‘emography’ as an equal combination of emotion and calligraphy? Surely this does not make sense.

This essay intends to interpret Moosan’s ‘emography’ as a combination of emotion and graphism and tries to describe the truth of calligraphic archeology. I find the roots of his ‘emography’ in the concept of the calligram, which literally refers to something that creates a picture (-gram) by rearranging the forms of a word or words (calli-). Michel Foucault appropriates the notion of a calligram when he wrote his description on Rene Magritte’s This Is Not a Pipe. Magritte’s calligram is of course not the same as that of Moosan, but it is still worthwhile to examine the usage of the calligram in his work.

In The Archaeology of Knowledge(1969), Michel Foucault intends to investigate the archeological truth behind Magritte’s work, describing the fact that the picture consists of a compound and a dual medium of both characters and images. To do this, he appropriates the calligram which has long been in the archeological legacy of humankind. If we reverse Foucault’s examination, replacing characters with pictures and vice versa is also possible and thus we may unveil one’s inner intentions by creating discrete calligrams through the juxtaposition of characters and pictures. Perhaps we can discover different ways to understand what Magritte intended to say through these calligrams.

When appreciating Moosan’s ‘emography’, we may divert our attention to Foucault’s approach to calligrams for a while. Any calligram reminds us of an action that matches the lines expressing an object’s form with the lines representing characters. If quoting what Foucault asserted, what a picture is intended to show can be represented by letters and vice versa by allowing discourse or a locutionary act to dwell in the space of form. By doing it, something impossible to convey only by letters and pictures can be efficiently captured. By offering the picture of an object indicated by words to the words commended by a calligraphic style, the absence of existence can be relieved. It is quite nature to deconstruct an original calligraphic style and summon what we intend to say from the outside.

Huh Hwe-tae begins his art from an attempt to possess the nature of the calligram. Huh, with his calligraphic skill and dexterity, makes an ambitious attempt to bring about emotions through his brush strokes, which transcend any type of calligraphic style. As shown in his early emographic pieces such as Thousands of Inner Thought, Being Clear and Evident, and Genesis in 2005, Huh bases his emography on horizontal, vertical, and opaque lines, while additionally employing curves. He thus disseminates the signifiers of Chinese characters into simple letters such as 十,千,天,and 人 and gathers them again. He draws them all into the center of gravity, thereby creating a new order. As part of this process, Huh non-figuratively re-signifies some natural objects such as the earth and trees, employing simple symbols like 十,千,天, and 人. He also goes through the process of giving birth to the re-signified. In You I Love and Miss, what was originally signified disappears and dispersed brush strokes implying the earth and trees are born into new signifiers. He undoubtedly was making an attempt to re-signify the heart as something equivalent to You I Love.

Huh’s ‘emography’ is the outcome of the repossession of some of the dispersed calligrams that Foucault asserted. The signifier he tries to address has been replaced with the signified in this context. In the system of his ‘emography’, a chain of depaysement in which the signifier turns into the signified and vice versa is made. The original signified that he keeps in his ‘emography’ is found in his calligraphic style. He often reads and enjoys the Li Bo verses “Sing a long poem, recite the wind from pine trees, and gesture together for good liquor.”(長歌吟松風 美酒聊共揮) and “Enjoy the natural space of life, living in a deep mountain.”(山居幽曠 永保天年). If expanding their meanings even further, these verses can be seen as being identical with “As the heavens help, all are auspicious and benevolent.”(自天祐之 吉無不利)

He converts such small meanings into bigger meaning as revealed in the following: “I got up at 1:00 a.m. When reading some phrases, the desire to write arose unexpectedly. I thus wrote, throwing away the mind to write well. When day broke, I looked over them again. They were not fully satisfactory, but they showed no sign of worldliness. So, I framed and completed them.” From Huh’s remarks we can see why he names his creation ‘emography’.

There are three reasons: to write unintentionally, to write after throwing away a mind to write well, and to write with a worldly mind. These three elements can be abridged as no intention, no desire, and no worldliness and should be regarded as the canons of Huh’s calligraphy. This suggests that his ‘emo-‘ does not directly refer to emotion in Western language, but connotes the intelligent mind in Oriental philosophy. By following these cannons, Huh may achieve the incarnation of his mind to comprise not only himself, but also the whole universe, adding strokes (-graphy) to such a mind.

In this chapter, I intend to discuss what the source of his ‘emography’, which refers to the mind, is based on. As part of this attempt, I would like to appropriate the assertions made by Yang Xiong, a distinguished Chinese scholar in the late Xihan period around 18 AD, and Michel Foucault, the French post-Structuralist. Yang Xiong was a sage in a difficult age when the slavery of the Han dynasty collapsed. He was a figure who re-evaluated Confucianism in a time of darkness, deception, and pervasive skepticism about what the truth really is, dreaming of subjugating the whole world. Michel Foucault was the one who spearheaded the May 1969 French Revolution, striving to set up a base for a new century when Western modernism was losing its strength and was about to begin a nuclear breakdown. The two lived in chaotic ages similar to our current situation.

Why do I try to relate Huh’s ‘emography’ to these two great figures? It is not to praise Huh’s art, but to point out that the refinement of his ‘emography’ is analogous to what these two great thinkers were concerned with. We have to interpret the three canons mentioned above, considering Yang Xiong’s statement, “A word is the sound of the mind, while writing is the picture of the mind.” It is obvious that, as opposed to bad men who often argued, Yang Xiong intended to assert that all must be reborn into great men by re-describing the maxim that to write something is to draw a picture. Moosan also has the mind to become a great man, emphasizing that words become the mind and that writings must be deepened. Moosan seems to expect the strokes of his ‘emography’ to flow like a river and glitter like the broad daylight. He probably never neglected Yang’s aphorism that small men are distinguished from gracious men through the appearance of pictures and sound.

The impulse for calligram found in his ‘emography’ is thus rooted in Yang Xiongs’ statement. His ‘emo-‘ is not for a small man, but for the true gentleman or saint and that of a saint is the true nature of the universe, or Taehyun(太玄). Like Yang Xiong, Moosan embraces the state in which words and quality become apparent and ten thousand things appear radiant, as yin results in quality and yang spreads words, at the apex of his calligraphy. In other words, he accepts the state where, as great writings are not governed by any law and the law of the mind is like flowing water, they are not excessive, yet beautiful and do not deviate from the law to be the highest level of his calligraphy. Moosan seems to see the state of no intention, no desire, and no worldliness as the right paths for his calligraphic art, which is precisely the mind to achieve such an ideal, the highest state of his ‘emography’.

What about Foucault’s stance on this matter? In the writing mentioned above, he repetitively stresses that there exists some hidden objects that cannot be revealed by words. There are some points here that correspond with Yang’s universe. ”Symbols summon the objects they intend to represent from the outside to the inside of the frame as the sum of empty spaces,” he continues. This allusion, associated with the ‘emo-‘ in ‘emography’, implies that there is a world of absence that cannot be represented by words. The ‘emo-‘ thus is the world of originally non-existent things and is something to be summoned from the outside by appropriating the symbols of visual perception. According to Suzi Gablick, who wrote a critical biography of Rene Magritte, this is Hegel’s absolute idea and a dialectically transcendental world. Since such a world is found neither in pictures or writings, Huh either has to either appropriate the calligram or summon it from the outside.

Yang Xiong’s ‘universe’ and Foucault’s ‘world of absence’ can be paired with the world of no intention, no desire, and no worldliness that Huh has pursued. Foucault explains his substantial meaning as something identical to Yang’s ‘great profundity’ in the following passage: “Corresponding to the object itself, it deeply engraves visual form, christens the object through writing during the process, and generates a signifier network by confining that to the world of words.” The world to be demonstrated through an interaction between writing and drawing is the world Huh has to newly christen, namely the world of ‘emography’.

Applying this point to his recent pieces, they show the zenith of his ‘emo-‘ that was the result of his traveling throughout the nation beginning last year, as well as from his conception, seclusion, and contemplation. Huh sings for a freedom from all obstacles or an infinite freedom through which the heaven, earth, and man communicate and interact. This is why he titled one of his representative works as Whole, Boundless Freedom, an ambitiously large-scale work that measures six meters by two meters. Together with a few small-scale pieces, whose size is one tenth of the main work, form a set. Some smaller works such as No Two Hearts and The Mutually Same present his will to signify a communicable world. These small pieces are extremely delicately and demonstrate the condition of the signifier in symmetry and dynamism using brushstrokes. In these works, Huh aims to maximize the beauty of brevity by dealing with blank spaces, light and shade, strength and weakness, slowness and fastness, and properly adjusting the tension and relaxation of his brushstrokes based on the use of horizontal, vertical, and curved lines.

The following note refers to the use of the brush to attain a ‘great emptiness’: “In my depiction of all forms in nature such as widely unfolding, flowing clouds, swaying weeping willows, an eagle fluttering its wings and circling round a blue sky, a meandering river running through the earth, rain and wind, thunder and lightening, a running horse, a startling serpent, flying dragon and phoenix, and a lying tiger, I newly represent dynamism, deep taste, and profound meaning with my innate disposition in an extremely liberal atmosphere, attaining dignity and spirituality in my work.”

With his command of the brush, Huh carefully observes all the creatures of heaven and earth and space between them, including their form and even sounds. His ‘emo-‘ flows in this gaze. His ink brushwork never stops until he reaches a state of deep taste and profound meaning achieving a dignity and spirituality while soaring toward the universe. One of Huh’s recent works Whole, Boundless Freedom (2008) shows the formation of a typical signifier network by the use of one single brushstroke. In this work, Huh shows liveliness and vitality, condensing the forms of all creatures in heaven and earth based on his innate nature and mental attitude.

I consider this work to be a masterpiece reaffirming his desire to attain the universe in a single brushstroke. His brushwork starts at a point of symmetry and stops its breath at an extreme, using thick ink and homogenous lines. The breath of his ‘emo-‘ is at last completed in the concept of ‘-graphy’. A node heralding the onset of the work is made at a crossing point between a vertical line at the very right hand corner and an opaque curved line and continues to another node in the left hand corner. The process of termination is made between its middle and ending part. That is akin to a typical three-sectioned vein.

A signifier network is composed of the three nodes segmented into right and left and also three other nodes segmented above and below. The first node is at the almost zero vector stroke vertically running up from the upper right hand corner while the second node, forming a huge curvature gently running toward the bottom side, recalls an imaginary body raising its two arms. The third node is exposed by an elegantly, vigorously spreading curvature toward an imaginary surface. Reviving the taste and feeling evoked in ink painting by the drying brush painting technique, the tender curves of the strokes as a whole generate the harmony and condensation of the universe. By doing this, his Whole, Boundless Freedom presents humbleness and simplicity, condensing all creatures into one stroke. Huh eventually achieves the beauty of no laws and flowing water along with the principle of the beauty of brevity, employing brushwork that glitters like a daylight and flows like a river.

I have described the contours of the world of Moosan’s ‘emo-‘ and what is left is to connote how his brush can be subordinated to ‘emo-‘. That is a point I wish to underline as a conclusion. I would like to summarize his art world by appropriating the concept of ‘passacaglia,’ the theme of this essay. The term passacaglia, derived from the Spanish passar (to walk) and calle (street), is known as a three-count dance musical form of ancient Spain and Italy. When played as an instrumental music form, it is characterized by dazzling variations of slightly slow three-count bass and repetitive melodies that are mainly played by the guitar. The term used in this theme is to signify Huh’s pursuit of a calligraphic system made up of three counts.

As I have described the contours of the world of Moosan’s ‘emo-‘, what is left is to denote is how his brush is subordinated to the concept of ‘emo-‘. This is the point I wish to underline as my conclusion. I would like to summarize his art world by appropriating the concept of ‘passacaglia’, the theme of this essay. The term ‘passacaglia’, derived from the Spanish passar (to walk) and calle (street), is known as a three-count musical dance from ancient Spain and Italy. When played in an instrumental music form, it is characterized by dazzling variations of slightly slow, three-count bass and repetitive melodies that are mainly played on the guitar. The term used in this context to signify Huh’s pursuit of a calligraphic system consisting of three counts.

I conceived of this term after reviewing his oeuvre. I came to know that his three-count strokes represent the universe composed of heaven, earth, and man. The strokes of his brush are distinguished from Yang Xiong’s principle of the yin and yang. I consider the term ‘passacaglia’ to properly accentuate this fact. It reveals and emphasizes that Moosan has embraced Samjae-ron or the principle of the three primary elements of the universe as his own philosophy and cosmos. The strokes of his brushes are not working with the principle of two contrasting elements, yin and yang, but develop the concept of Samjae-ron asserted in Chonbu-gyeong and Samil-singo, the main scriptures of Daejong-gyo, a traditional Korean religion. Founded on the conception that one begins from nothing, in this school of thought, the initiated one has no changes in its true nature even if it is divided into three, as Huh allots for heaven (1), earth (2), and man (3).

The calligraphic symbols that appear in his early emographic pieces such as Thousands of Inner Thoughts, Being Clear and Evident, and Genesis and recent large-scale works including Whole, Boundless Freedom, No Two Hearts and The Mutually Same achieve a sense of the universe, based on Samjae-ron. At a glance, his recent pieces seem to focus on man, but that is not the case. As in the connotations of Samjok-o, three-legged crow, and Sam-Taegeuk, three-colored Taegeuk, that our ancient people used to suggest the nothingness of the universe or nature, Huh’s recent work structuralizes a signifier network in which heaven, earth, and man are three equal elements. In his work, the signifier for sky becomes a group of horizontal lines as opposed to the concept of heaven. Similarly, it is a combination of horizontal and vertical lines, not earth itself, which signifies the earth and a combination of opaque lines and curves acts as the signifier for man as opposed to just man.

This signifier network forms the fundamental framework of his recent work, which demonstrates the harmony of horizontal, vertical, opaque lines with curvature. In Whole, Boundless Freedom curvature is added to horizontal and vertical lines at the first stage while other strokes summon sub-signifiers as the second step, also inducing other curvature that has different stress but is in harmony with strokes. In other recent pieces such as Childlike Innocence, The Gaze, and Seating in Solitude, curvature itself forms a signifier network and One Stroke is created only by the first stage of rendering three horizontal lines, abridging other phases. In the structure of one body and three strokes, his emography does not pursue Yang Xiong’s principle that yin is quality while yang is letters and letters and quality splendidly glitter in harmony.

In summary, Huhs’ emography is meaningful in that it recreates the structure of Samjae, or heaven, earth, and man, which appears in our ancient bone-and-shell scripts and primitive rock paintings, in his own unique sensibility. Huh’s emography is of great significance in that he intends to embody an integrated work of poetry, calligraphy, and painting and strives to attain something uniquely Korean, centered on the be-all and end-all of his calligraphic methods such as Jungbong (Technique of using the end of the brush to pass through the center. This technique makes brushstrokes look vigorous.), Ilkwa-samjeol (Technique of using an elastic quality of the brush. This brush contacts the ground as closely as possible.) and Palmyeon-chulbong (The use of the brush’s eight sides to evoke the rhythm of ink and brushstrokes. This technique is possible in bringing about diverse changes in lines.).