REFLECTION: On Helen Cho's Space Silence


On the sentience of things: I cannot speak for what the mulberry would have to say or indeed the stone. They do not speak in utterances that my body can dictate despite them being luscious and sensible. I listen instead, deeply and intently, as a sensor with my whole body, to their modes of attention to others, their cares and desires, and I make sense of them through their yearnings, articulated on soft joints.

Our introduction to Space Silence is marked by the trappings of Helen Cho's studio. A collection of tools elegantly slung, hung and perched on thin shelving adorn the entrance to the exhibition: books, curvaceous cutting patterns and hand-formed paper moulds of rocks collected from the streets of Toronto. These compositions are inspired by the rich painting tradition of chaekgeori: still-life scenes that document shelved collections of objects that are otherwise obscured within the private rooms of the home, notably the study or library. Chaekgeori paintings developed in Korea in the 18th century and are recognizable for their depictions of complex, wall-mounted shelving that would often house collections of books, writing implements, antiquities, and floral arrangements. These arrangements expressed their owners socio-economic and political standing, as well as their ideals, aspirations and cross-cultural interactions. As such, chaekgeori featured in the homes of prominent public figures and officials, but over time, they were reproduced in common households in an isolated or floating folk-style: objects favoured for their symbolic associations were depicted in overlapping arrangements.

Helen Cho, Space Silence. Installation view at Audain Gallery, 2020. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

Space Silence functions at the edge-limits of chaekgeori's folk-style, dispersing gatherings of floor-based sculptures and floating video projections throughout the gallery's central space. The flat, rectangular surfaces of the low slung pyung-sangs — a Korean architectural form that variously functions as benches or tables — mirror that of the upright, hanging screens onto which Cho's works are projected. In the low light, their moving images bask the room and its occupants in amorphous plains of green, blue, yellow, and red. Slick petal-like cuts of vinyl pool over the patterned and gold surfaces of the pyung-sangs, mingling around their legs and gathering nearby. As we move through the gallery, these groupings are joined by hand-sized, moulded rock formations and potted plants in stark white, repurposed food containers. Elongating and unfurling vinyl formations also sprout from these, gathering as if in bloom. They tower upwards, some on the concrete floor, others rooted to a pyung-sang. These sculptural compositions speak to the alluring vibrancy of common objects as their materials are obviously gathered from households, gardens, streets, and places of work. 

Helen Cho, Space Silence. Installation view at Audain Gallery, 2020. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

Space Silence holds to chaekgeori traditions by creating space to consider Cho's interests — her desires and modes of attentions — by gathering together tools she uses in observing, translating and navigating her environment. Subversive to chaekgeori tradition, however, is Cho's treatment of objects, both collected and made, that hold her attention: they are not utilized as empty holders for symbolic meanings, nor are they captured and bound to the laws of cause and effect. They are instead treated as active producers of potentialities, wrapped up as they are in the messy, muddled precarity of the vital, material indeterminacy we share in with them.

At the heart of Cho's practice is her cultivation of a sensitivity to the ecologies of affect that manifest in everyday encounters with objects, which encourages an attention to matter and forces that we might not otherwise ascribe ubiquitous agential potentials to. In this she joins with others within the nonhuman turn who, as new media scholar Richard Grusin introduces, "argue (in one way or another) against human exceptionalism, expressed most often in the form of conceptual or rhetorical dualisms that separates the human from the nonhuman."1 To shift our attention towards the "sentience of things" — in Cho's words — is bold work, situated as her exhibition is within the halls of an institutions built from western ideals, often enforcing hierarchies that seek to determine or limit the capacities of human and nonhuman bodies. The hard graft of discovery, of witnessing, means handling mere things with care, even while brutalities operate to enclose and obscure from view the stories these objects carry with them. 

For Cho to bring stories of her encounters with the sentience of things to the fore is no easy task — the human and nonhuman bodies, and the elemental forces she seeks to make along-side of, operate at the edges of our perceptual fields, and more often than not, on time scales that interpenetrate our life ways, yet exceed us. Despite these challenges, her work entices through visual seduction, using bold yellowing golds, pigeon greys, crab pinks, poppy reds, and chalk creams in her floor-based sculptures, pyung-sang architectures and video projections. Palpable too is her work to meditate contact between observers and the subjects of her affection by creating multisensory lures, opening up modes of attention that work through less dominant senses.

In Explorers and Adventures: send back your ships (2020) Cho's self-dubbed urban suseok — collections of rocks from the streets of Toronto that reference Korean traditions of valuing rock forms for their beauty and assumed auspicious powers — join curving patches of vinyl to form little islands in a sea of concrete floor. Repetition works here like a feeler on skin, breeding attunement to the rocks she collects and then recreates by her hands in celadon, bone china and dough. Taken in turn, one can smell them: ferrous, cold, yeasty. Complex formations of undulating, manipulated vinyl sculptures join them, held together by bold lines stitched with precision. They find robustness, their uprightness by perching and gripping smooth surfaces of crafted stoneware to adorn them like flaring crowns. Cho is adamant about the vinyl's sentience, her treatment of it a practice of attention to the ways the material holds its own weight, moves and puts up resistance. 

Helen Cho, Space Silence. Installation view at Audain Gallery, 2020. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

These structures have the voluptuousness of flora exposed above ground and the feel of earth-dwelling beings with rooting systems at work out of sight. They appear on the look-out for the lure of elemental forces (heat, light, water, and complexes of nutrients), and at attention to the distances they have breached. An invitation is extended through the gold, red and blue emblazoned pyung-sangs to pause and listen. Filtering through the landscape are murmurs: of birds, of dough being cut, of alleyways, of the radio, of bells, of words for the departed. Articulated amongst these melodic, tender sounds we hear Tai Lam speak, the central character of the video So Many Wind (2018), as he recounts the violence of a journey towards refuge. The images vibrate with the stuttered force of his telling, in fractious English, as pain and dispossession seek to close his mouth.

Inside the folds of vinyl, white mulberry that was hand-transported from sidewalk cracks in Toronto join infant branches of blackberry cuttings from Vancouver. These are no garden plants: they survive in conditions where others might not dwell so readily and are capable of doing so with amazing dexterity and resilience. They attempt to make roots here, reaching out, bending towards — as with all things that gather here — that which works at the cracks and gaps of what is sensible. Cho's work, wrestling at the edges of palpability, does not declare a distant, innocent form of contact with objects and the world around us. Observations of, and contact with, the world produces tenderness, sometimes abominable other times nourishing, and we are always changed by this touch as we make our way and make way for others. Space Silence calls attention to our limits, celebrating the ways presences call, gather, take root, and bear witness to one another as they move in response.

Helen Cho, Space Silence. Installation view at Audain Gallery, 2020. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

Amy Wilson is a visual artist, educator and poet from Glasgow, Scotland. She currently lives and works on the unceded, ancestral and traditional territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm, Skwxwú7mesh, and Səl̓ílwətaɬ Nations.


[1] Richard Grusin, ed., “Introduction,” The Nonhuman Turn (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), x.

For more information on Helen Cho's Space Silence, click here.