Decolonizing the Invisible & Visible: Artists Illuminate the Potent Presence of Spirit in their Creative Practices

Poet 신 선 영 辛善英 Sun Yung Shin, Mn Artists' next guest editor, introduces a series of writings on the relation of art practice, body, and spirit.

Korean stone sculptures from the Joseon Dynasty, in an outdoor exhibit at the Korean Stone Art Museum. Eight light stone sculptures, in the form of human figures with hands clasped, stand in a grove of gravel, bushes, and trees.
1Photo by the author, May 2019.

Everything has a spirit. 

In my home country of Korea, the 5,000-year-old indigenous spiritual practice is animism, which is a system in which our existence is not only a physical or material reality, but one full of spirits. 

In May 2019, my two children and I went on what was my fifth trip back to the Korean peninsula, and one day while I was on a break from the conference at which I was presenting (“A Platform for Peace and Communication” hosted by the Korean Literature Translation Institute), I was able to visit the Korean Stone Art Museum in Seoul for the first time. Korean stone art dates back to the Joseon Dynasty, which began in 1392, and was replaced by the Korean Empire in October 1897.

One of my favorite types of sculptures at the museum are the tomb guardians, the 장군석 Janggunseok (animal-shaped stone sculptures), and the 문인석Muninseok (stone statue of a civil official). As with many cultural heritage artifacts, the story of Munineok is one partially of colonization. In the case of Korea, it contended with colonization by the neighboring imperial state of Japan, which annexed the peninsular empire of Korea officially beginning in 1910 and ending in 1945, at which time Japan surrendered to the Allies of World War II. 

The 문인석Muninseok, or tomb guardians, served to drive evil spirits away from tombs and their inhabitants. According to the Korean Stone Museum’s exhibit description, during the colonial period, these guardians were smuggled by Japanese colonizers. After the new millennium beginning in 2000, through the efforts of the chairman of the Korean Stone Museum and others, these precious cultural assets were sought and recovered from Kusaka Mamoru, a Japanese citizen.  

For me, my own artistic practice of poetry and related multidisciplinary collaborations is always infused with this idea of spirit, the belief that all things have a kind of life that is no lesser than our own in some fundamental way, and that when we respect the other what I’ll call presences (not objects) in this world, it is a way of respecting and caring for ourselves, as fellow presences

I believe engaging in others’ art work is a practice of radical equality, of practicing, in a Buddhist way, seeing reality, seeing what is, and not what we wish things to be. Art rearranges the atoms of the world, but does not create or destroy energy. Spirits stay with the material, the matter, the object, with the presence. The object has subject. 

Spirit is another word for something clarified or purified. In fact, Koreans pour spirits, usually soju, an indigenous alcoholic drink, onto the graves of our ancestors. When drinking together with the living, the Korean etiquette for drinking, pouring drinks, etc. is called 향음주례 Hyangeumjurye. The youngest pours for the oldest first, you pour with two hands, your left goes under your right wrist, you receive with two hands, and so on. 

Like 200,000 other Korean citizen minors in the past 70+ years, I was part of a population deemed surplus and unabsorbable into the general South Korean post-war populace. Most likely I was the child of a harshly stigmatized “unwed mother” in a young nation with a Confucian monarchic past. In its post-war masculinist military dictatorship, South Korea was transitioning, at the cost of great citizen suffering and sacrifice, to an industrial economy, and was little invested in maternal support and childcare. I was adopted out of (South) Korea to the West, specifically the United States, through the Holt Agency of Oregon, which was founded in the early 1950s after the cessation of active hostilities on the peninsula. Korean diasporic writers often take pains to emphasize the fact that what America calls the Korean War is not over; a civil war has never been officially ended by a treaty, only paused by an armistice signed by the Russian and U.S. governments. The Holt Agency was founded not by bilateral international agreement, or by social workers or child welfare experts, but by Christian farmer and informal missionary Harry Holt. This humanitarian project was underpinned and later sold to American couples by what scholar Arissa Oh named “Christian Americanism,” a special blend of Cold War Orientalism and Christian evangelism inextricable from U.S. white nationalism.

I was raised in a practicing Roman Catholic family in a suburb of Chicago, descended from Catholic families in Ireland and Poland. In that tradition, the blessed red wine is the literal blood of Christ and the blessed host wafer is the literal body of Christ. The deity is tripartite: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost or the Holy Spirit. Christianity is considered monotheistic, but it’s not really. Not only are there three aspects to the god, three faces of the god, but the Virgin Mary acts as a high goddess, and the saints act as minor gods and goddesses for the people, acting as intercessionaries, confessors, and helpers. 

Aramaic. Hebrew. Greek. Latin. English. Italian. The music and voices lifted as one in song. The charged language and poetry of the Book (“bible” comes from the word for “book”, byblos, in Greek). The stained glass: storytelling in light. The holy water. Sacred gestures and postures of the body. The proximity of humility and glory. The visible and invisible. Mortal and eternal. Sacred and profane.  

Art and spirit were inseparable in my spiritual training. There is much to be said about the Catholic church, the Vatican, the priesthood, nuns, etc., but elsewhere (thank God). 

Now I consider myself more or less an animist, Buddhist, and someone very interested in Korean shamanism, or muism. But I feel I am also still a Catholic regardless of my will, though I don’t practice. It’s not something you can really shrug off. It’s too integrated with my entire childhood and my relationship to language. “The word made flesh.” “And God said let there be light, and there was light.” Words, language, are inseparable from spirit, and spirit is inseparable from everything, including art, which is simply “making” or “doing.” Poetry comes from the Greek word poeisis, which means to make

Poetry is like the afterlife of the alphabet. It contains, holds, circles back to the living to offer visions of what we can barely glimpse in our earthly lives. 

The division of “secular” and “devout” can dissolve–beautifully, ecstatically, pleasurably–in the case of poetry. What is a prayer but a poem? What is a poem but a plea, to pay attention? To listen to the world, the visible and the invisible, the past, present, and future-to-be? 

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A poem is form. Art is form. Spirit inhabits form, animates form, elevates matter to a kind of personhood, a radical equality between a mountain and a cricket. What is art but a practice of the spirit? In this editorial series, I invited several Native artists and artists of color to write about the relationship between their spirituality and their artistic practice, and as a corollary concern, to consider writing about how their spirituality was embodied. 

I couldn’t be more thrilled with the results, and am not surprised at the richness, nuance, strength, and variety of responses, because each of these artists is an extraordinary human and member of our commons. I wanted to be surprised in the particulars, and I was, and am. I hope that you will likewise be enlivened by their pieces in this series, and we will continue collectively to heal, imagine, and make a better world in which we all find safety, security, care, and beauty to feed our spirits. 

Thank you for your communion. 

신 선 영 辛善英 Sun Yung Shin

Minneapolis, 2020 C.E.