The Dust That We Become
In our lives, sometimes we will cross a calm sea and sometimes we will encounter storms. Dark memories are part of us. We have to accept that and continue to move forward.
– JeeYoung Lee
Held up beside the great extending history of the world, the depth of human memory is a humble thing. The world is over 4.5 billion years old, but we can’t fathom much beyond the time covered by three generations in front or behind us. As adults, our earliest individual memories start at around two and a half (as children we can remember further back, but those memories are left behind.) Like archaeological scraps, early recollections are open to interpretation: they seldom offer a full story. Instead, we grab at a cloud of sensations: feelings, qualities of light, a sense of place.
Ambassadors from the far reaches of Earth’s history still live among us. One is the Ginkgo Biloba, an ancient tree species considered a ‘living fossil’ by botanists. The lone surviving member of what was once a great family, a linking point between conifers and ferns, close relatives of the modern ginkgo have lived on earth for over 200 million years. Although they outlived the dinosaurs, they may not outlive us. Bright autumn foliage has made the ginkgo a popular ornamental tree for city streets and gardens, but wild populations are dying out.
In JeeYoung Lee’s Maiden Voyage, a giant paper boat floats on a sea of golden ginkgo leaves, spectacular heralds of autumn made large as paper fans. These leaves played a role in the everyday magic of Lee’s memory, transforming familiar neighbourhoods in South Korea into yellow roads worthy of Oz. For Lee, the falling leaves punctuated the year, marking the passage of time. The ginkgo is thus emblematic of both individual human memory and the unfathomably deeper memory of our transforming planet.
Lee first created a version of Maiden Voyage in 2009 for Stage of Mind: a series of ephemeral installations constructed for her camera alone. Within her white-walled studio, the artist constructed fantastical landscapes, dream spaces and scenes worthy of fairy tales. Some were heavenly: a lily pond seen from a frog’s eye view; a green bed surrounded by pink blooms and butterflies; a field of giant dandelion clocks. Others looked closer to nightmare: closing walls covered in thorns; a dripping, poison-toned room crawling with cockroaches; a party table beset by white rats. On completing each installation, Lee positioned herself within it as a character, suggesting an unfolding narrative.
Working with simple materials – often coloured paper – Lee summons elements from dreams and memories and gives them three-dimensional form. This is a landscape of her senses, these fantastical settings are not places that have existed in the physical world, but they represent Lee’s emotionally real.
After photographing herself, the artist dismantles the set, and transforms her studio back into a blank space. The long, physical process of set building then begins again. Lee describes this cycle of generating abundance then returning to a state of nothingness as one akin to a spiritual journey.
The eye is drawn to faces. Turning away from the camera, or obscuring her face behind props or hair, Lee performs as universal everywoman, allowing her body to become an integrated part of the installation rather than its focus. Photographing herself as a character within these sets, Lee relives her own reconstructed memories both as protagonist, and as witness. She invites us to blend the fragments our memories with her own: that toxic relationship that left us poisoned with grief; folding paper boats and sending them to float downstream; a dream of flying.
Reimagined as installations for public exhibition Lee’s theatrical sets allow visitors to construct a narrative around themselves – and to be photographed as the protagonists within their own drama. The expanded paper boat of her childhood is joined here by a flotilla of origami swans, each carrying an early memory bequeathed by a visitor. Lee’s own earliest memory blends the sensory experience of natural beauty with the emotional burden of shame. Visiting a relative in the countryside, she was captivated by the green barley in a neighbouring field, rippling like water in the wind. Playing amongst those waving stems one day, she ruined the field. It’s a good memory to have carried away on a paper swan.
Maiden Voyage is itself a gentle metaphor for our passage through life. Positioned on the banks of the Thames, it connects to a city full of memories, including, 35km upriver, London’s own great ginkgo tree, planted in Kew Gardens in 1759. This ginkgo is one of the few trees that survive from Kew’s original planting – a witness to over 250 years of city life. The garden’s venerable specimens have been dubbed the ‘Old Lions’, which seems particularly apt for the ginkgo’s shaggy mane of autumn gold.
Of all the sensory stimuli that can help us access memories, smell is the most powerful. My own ginkgo memory dates back twenty years to when I was living in Washington D.C. with my baby son. Our little street was lined with female ginkgo trees – an unusual choice for street trees, and for a very good reason. Unlike the male of the species, the female ginkgo grows fleshy seeds that drop in the autumn along with the yellow leaves. The sticky seeds emit a pungent and noxious stink as they age, like Parmesan cheese and vinegar, which lingers for weeks.
Oddly, the many poets who have hymned the ginkgo fail to mention its smell. Johann Goethe contemplated its bifurcated leaf, and beheld an emblem of divided one-ness. Howard Nemerov witnessed the simultaneous leaf-fall as a symbol of co-operation. For Julia Fierdorczuk, though, it becomes a tool to contemplate the passage of time. Surrounded by ephemeral loveliness – the bright faces, shining buildings and “fans/ of ginkgo, green right next to yellow” – who can grasp the enormity of Earth time, and their own mortality, the thoughts “about the dust that we become?”