Sung Hoon Kim: the Cultural mutation of Zen Buddhism: Zen Aesthetic for Contemporary Art


Advisor/tutor: Rachel O’Reilly
Arnhem, June 2018


The following thesis offers a contemporary philosophy of performance art, based on research I have conducted on Zen Buddhism. As an artist growing up in South Korea, with a Protestant background, I became interested in Zen Buddhism – especially the Buddhist dialogue between monk and fellow – in terms of its particular pedagogical approach towards self-knowledge and trans-individual becoming. In Zen practice, the approach toward personal realization is distinct from other forms of Buddhism in its focus on the individual and the rejection of typical religious emphasis on belief, the afterlife, and the moral good. Although in many respects it also diverges from Western philosophical trajectories one may find various exchanges and commonalities between the approaches.

The model subject in Zen, like that of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, does not model themselves on the image or thought of the ‘One’ and neither a ‘two’; personhood is paradoxically based on emptiness and nothingness. The subject comes into its purer properties through abstract conversation, linguistic play, and nonsensical constructions of situations, such as: binary thought structures, signs, anecdote and non-rational meanings; are used to reorganize the subject/spectator status. On these grounds, I believe Zen philosophy, as a form of pedagogy, offers ample resources for artistic practice. The exploration of these under-utilized methods and their translation into the artistic frame, is hence the central problematic of this work.

The first half of the thesis begins with a re-appraisal of commonly held notions about Buddhism through a truncated historical analysis of its divergent historical genealogies. Through such an analysis key concepts are emphasized on the basis of their relevance for contemporary art practices. Secondly, the thesis attempts to examine two works, of historical figures, who were influenced by Zen techniques: Nam June Paik's "TV Buddha" (1976) and John Cage's "4"33’." In these work one finds an emphasis on the deployment of disruptive, illogical, gestures as to allow for contingent encounter and personal awakening. Further developing the core Zen concept of the contingent, I turn toward Louis Pierre Althusser's text, The Materialism of the Encounter, which positively affirms contingency as a subversive ground for knowledge production and exchange. This affirmation is thus paralelled with Zen buddhist cosmology.

In the final chapter, I return to Paik and Cage, further analyzing the problems their works raise in relation to the previous conceptual developments. Here I address Paik's "One for Violin Solo" (1962), and Cage in Cage (1996). Going beyond the conceptual parameters of the contingent these works articulate ontological questions about the contents of a subject who has found their inner void. The concept of nirvana as non-self and emptiness are considered as zones of autonomous agency. Building on this system, I conclude with some reflections on the relation between Nietzsche’s Übermensch and the figure of Nirvana. While these ontological states have great emancipatory potential they do risk – in their at times forceful calls for self-elimination – falling into the hands of fascists ideology.