An artist is kneeling with his hands in the earth. Kang Seung Lee has come to Namsan Park in Seoul. Somewhere along the mountain paths, with their Joseon gardens and restored 14th-century houses and their long trail of cherry trees, he digs a hole, as though he is planting a sapling, and then he cuts a drawing in half and buries one part in the ground.
He is here to remember the Korean writer Joon-soo Oh, who used to walk here, and I am watching him in Garden, one of his works in the new group show Close to You that opened on Sunday at Mass MoCA. It’s a show about contact and care, and after all these isolated months, I’m finding that theme powerful.
Before this year, would it ever have felt so rare to see places where people feel safe, and to see people touch familiarly? Here across the way, in Clifford Prince King’s photographs, three friends are sitting together, one braiding another’s hair. One is reading, and seeing them now, close up, I realize the book is James Baldwin. To hear Giovanni’s Room or Notes from a Native Son read aloud, to feel someone’s hands touch your hair … there’s a power in people thinking together and holding each other.
On the walking paths around Nam mountain, Joon-soo Oh could have talked with his friends. Lee imagines him from five thousand miles away, as he walks onto a shingle beach in Kent. In the garden of Prospect Cottage, on the coast in Dungeness, he buries another half of a drawing in another memorial.
The filmmaker Derek Jarman lived here in the last years of his life. He and Oh did not know each other, the show tells me, but Lee is thinking of them together. They were both writers and activists and lovers of gardens, and they both died in the 1990s of illnesses related to AIDS.
Lee makes an art practice from tending to invisible lives and and neglected stories of queer people of color, curator Nolan Jimbo told me, when we talked about the show. Lee wants people to remember and honor these people, and when I try to see the men he imagines in his two gardens, I think I understand.
When I try to look up Joon-soo Oh, to find his writing, if any has been translated into English, I can’t find him anywhere. I can only think that a man who loved the clean curves of Joseon houses in a place called the land of the blue cranes, and fought for the same freedoms Jarman fought for, might have sat on the shore with him at night and talked into the small hours.
Jarman’s garden is still growing. When he was sick and in pain and losing his sight, he came here to a fisherman’s cottage and made a garden in the shingle. The plants are mostly native wildflowers and shrubs, valerian and poppies, salvia and lavendar … They grow naturally on the rough pebbled coast, around sculptures he made of driftwood standing like weathered pillars.
The cottage has yellow windows and dark walls waterproofed with tar, and John Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’ written across an outside wall — ‘love, all alike, no season knows‘ …
Next to his Garden images Lee sets a gentle breaking wave. As I look for the plants growing here, I learn that one of Jarman’s last films, Blue, is made from one long shot of color. Maybe that’s why Lee has created a film of the ocean on a clear day — and here, next to Lee’s tribute, the New York artist Chlöe Bass draws together images of the sky.