Gathering Being: On Collecting and Making. Part 4 of 5: Sculpting the Self

Published: 04.08.2021
Pravu Mazumdar
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In March/April 2020, an exhibition of works by ten artists was hosted by Gallery Meme in Seoul, seven of them from Korea and three from Denmark. The exhibition was curated by Bogki Min, Professor at the Seoul National University College of Fine Arts, who was also one of the participating artists. The curatorial concept was to reveal the role of collecting in the process of making. In the following, I would like to unfold some thoughts on collecting as an inherently human practice and explore, how such an ancient practice, which persists unabated in contemporary societies, is interpreted in this rather exceptional curatorial experiment.

The text is presented in five successive parts, starting out with a few theoretical observations in the first two sections: Part I and Part II, and proceeding to discuss the exhibits and their makers in Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

At this point, I would like to thank Amador Bertomeu and Leo Caballero of Klimt02 for their unwavering generosity and support throughout the years of our cooperation. Working with them has been practically indistinguishable from friendship.
Part IV: Sculpting the Self

8. Technologies of the self

Every action generates effects in two directions: forwards and backwards. An action obviously unfolds its effects in the sphere of its target. But it also causes an impact backwards, transforming the actor behind the action. Boycotting a product, for instance, involves not only an act of political protest directed toward the market, but also the personal experience of breaking the habitual cycle of consuming the product. Every action includes possibilities of self-transformation. One can apply this theorem to the act of collecting, understood as applying a set of criteria to give a diversity of things the identity of a collection of objects. But in doing so, the identity of the collection is transferred to the person of the collector. It is through the act of collecting stamps that the actor becomes a stamp collector.

In this specific sense, the practice of collecting can be considered an “ascetic” practice: not in the Christian sense of withdrawal from the world of the senses, repudiated famously by Nietzsche and Max Weber, but in the sense of the original Greek term askēsis, which signifies an art and craft of self-transformation through techniques such as fasting, writing, gymnastics, dream-analysis, accompanied by introspection in general. Michel Foucault characterised such ascetic practices, prevalent in the pre-Christian societies of Graeco-Roman antiquity, as technologies of the self (1), distinguishing them from technologies of production or technologies of discourse and power, and depicting them as techniques of modifying one’s body, soul, thoughts, behaviour as part of a comprehensive process of self-transformation (2). In many of these practices, as in the case of jewellery or sculpture or even something as elementary as keeping a journal, one can modify a more external and more tangible substance like one’s own skin or a piece of wood or a sheet of paper to effect transformations in the less external and less tangible substances in the deeper strata of one’s existence, like thoughts, emotions or consciousness in general.

Collecting can therefore be characterised as a technology of the self. As we gather things, we gather ourselves. As we gather things, we gather our minds, and meaning gathers in our minds. In this vein, I would like to draw attention to three of the objects groups displayed in FROM COLLECT: Rows of Holes by Gavy Jo, From Collect 1 by Bogki Min and Patience Bottle by Sehee Um. All three groups of objects are based on concepts and experiences that reveal the dual process of collecting and making as a technology of the self.

9. A document of self-transformation: Gavy Jo

Rows of Holes documents a past obsession with collecting stamps, motivated originally by the possibility of reselling them at a higher price at some future point in time. However, stamps are not only something that can be resold and transformed into money but are also a kind of currency in themselves. Just as money enables the circulation of commodities in the space of the market, stamps enable the circulation of matter and information in geographical space. Seen from the perspective of their materiality, stamps are in fact not much different from banknotes if one regards both as the outcome of an aesthetic practice of inscribing a limited rectangular surface with the information necessary to circulation (3).

Gavy Jo’s piece, shaped like a flat, oblong tablet, is perforated with rows of holes reminiscent of the perforations that segment units of postal value by separating stamps from each other. The materials used for the piece are wood and paper. Wood designates the starting point for the manufacture of paper, and paper the starting point for the manufacture of stamps, which in their turn serve as the prototype and starting point for the creation of the piece. The combination of wood and paper as the material basis of Rows of Holes reproduces the vector of transformation that regulates the manufacture of paper from wood for the production of stamps.

In other words, the piece incorporates the two levels of magic mentioned earlier: the magic of the material based on the act of gathering and assembling the material stages (wood and paper) of the manufacturing process that starts with a tree and ends with a stamp; and the magic of the form based on the act of imitating the perforations that demarcate units of postal value, effecting thereby a metaphoric replication of the stamp form. The piece results from the gathering of such material and formal ingredients, and documents two distinct states of mind of the former stamp collector: her past obsession for collecting stamps and her change of mind from originally wanting to transform the stamps into money to wanting to transform them into art. But beyond the processes of inscribing a bygone obsession and an attitudinal transformation into these pieces, the third and probably most important process is the technology of the self, associated with the emergence of the piece. In a manner similar to that of keeping a journal, the piece documents the self-transformation of its maker through the process of making, which unfolds as an act of reflection on the past. 

Gavy Jo Stamps collection.

Gavy Jo. Rows of Holes, Brooch. Wood, Paper, Paint, 5.7 x 9 x 2.1 cm, 2020.

Gavy Jo. Rows of Holes, Brooch. Wood, Paper, Paint, 5.7 x 9 x 2.1 cm, 2020.

Gavy Jo. Rows of Holes, Brooches. Wood, Paper, Paint, 5.7 x 9 x 2.1 cm, 2020.

10. The skin and the self: Bogki Min

Bogki Min’s piece, From Collect 1, is a brooch and sculptural structure derived from sheepskin. It consists of two bright, cream-coloured pieces of Napa leather with a texture like that of the human skin and stretched out with the aid of wires. With all its minimalism, the piece evokes a swarm of associations like sails, winds, the flapping of wings, endlessness. However, despite its simplicity and pneumatic splendour, the piece emerges from a traumatic gloom of loss and injury and the ensuing process of search, sacrifice, gathering, processing, stretching of animal skins and discovering a correlation between the increasing tension of a skin and the receding tension of a mind.

The piece positions itself at the heart of the exhibition to reveal the phenomenotechnical drift in all collecting and making, gathering itself as it were from the night of dispersal and exploding into appearance like a bundle of light. The visibility at the end of the trajectory from darkness to light is a necessary stage in the process of transforming the invisible. In all technologies of the self, an invisible interior has to be externalised as something tangible and visible like a surface or skin, which is then subjected to modifications capable of unleashing transformations in the sphere of the self. It is in this sense that jewellery and tattoo can be experienced as technologies of the self, consisting in acts of inscribing the skin with symbols of what the self aspires to be, or of draping one’s skin with a second layer of aesthetically wrought materials like metals or stones and imparting to it the glamour desired by the self. However, the surface, which needs to be modified in order to transform the self, can also be a substitute like the skin of another being, the skin of an Other, to be ripped open in the process of sacrificing the Other to display, as if in a Greek tragedy, the possibilities of Dionysian dissolution that has to precede any transformation of the self. One is reminded of the archaic world of effigies and fetish: visible and tangible things that need to be modified in order to create changes in invisible and intangible things.

In Bogki Min’s account, the process of making From Collect 1 issued from an inner crisis triggered by the experience of trying to help someone, not to self-inflict and suffering thereby a physical injury, a trauma and a radical loss of trust. The process of recovery entailed a transference of attention from the self to its externalisation in a stretch of soft Napa leather that was smooth like the human skin and could be tanned to attain elasticity. Was sacrificing the sheep and dispersing the life gathered within its skin necessary for the regathering and healing of the mind? There is certainly something like a logic of compensation at work in the technology of the self involved in making these pieces. Trying to avert the loss of human life through self-infliction is compensated by the loss of smoothness and elasticity in the mind of the helper, which becomes stiff like a corpse in response to the traumatic experience. In the process of healing, the loss of balance of the mind is counteracted by the loss of life of the sacrificed animal and the creation of smoothness and elasticity in its leather. As the skin is tautened, the inner tension of the maker recedes, balance is regained and the self is transformed.

Bogki Min. Lamb Napa leather study for From Collect brooches, 2020.

Bogki Min. From Collect brooch, Lamb Napa leather, wire, 14 x 16 x 45. cm, 2020.

Bogki Min. From Collect brooch, Lamb Napa leather, wire, 14 x 16 x 4.5 cm, 2020.

Bogki Min. From Collect brooch, Lamb Napa leather, wire, 14 x 16 x 4.5 cm, 2020.

11. The protective shell: Sehee Um

The Empedoclean observation does not only apply to the reality around us, but also to our own social, economic and cultural existence, which oscillates between gathering and dispersal like our habitual biological activities such as gathering nourishment (ingestion), air (respiration), rest (sleep) etc.  Modern life compels us often to lead nomadic lives, being born in one place, growing up in another place and then migrating in search of a livelihood. In the thick of the challenges posed by unfamiliar and alien environments, we retain a deep-seated sense of dispersal owing to our work-related nomadism and a correlative need to gather ourselves, which finds expression in practices of gathering things or, more specifically, gathering the life of living things. It is in this vein, that Sehee Um gathers seedlings and buds, places them in a protective bulb of blown Pyrex glass and lets them grow or bloom, creating in the process her Patience Bottles.

Sehee Um. Patience Bottles series.

Sehee Um. Pyrex glass, 925 silver, stainless steel, dandelion, lacquer, cocklebur, 5 x 5 x 9 mm, 2020.

Sehee Um. Pyrex glass, 925 silver, stainless steel, dandelion, lacquer, cocklebur, 5 x 5 x 9 mm, 2020.

Sehee Um. 925 silver, keumboo, sponge, 4 x 2.8 x 6.5 cm, 2020.

The seeds that she gathers for herself or receives as a gift, are also nomads like us, blown away easily by the wind to land on a foreign soil far from the mother plant and strike roots there. However, in the context of works like the Patience Bottles, they are arrested in their fateful journey to distant soils and channelled towards the studio of an artist. Things have a destiny of their own, if one considers the laws of chance and physics dictating their translational and transformational trajectories between their emergence and their demise. The interruption of the fateful journeys of things is common to all collected objects and occurs at the threshold of a collection, where a new object arrives to share a common space and a common identity with other objects. Like Sehee Um’s seeds and buds, the objects flourish within the shelter of a collection, where they grow a new kind of value, generated through their membership in the collection. The glass bulb encasing the seedlings and buds thus fulfils the three functions of a collection: It arrests any further movement of the objects it shelters; it breeds value in the form of growth and flowering; it designates the ownership of its objects by virtue of its function as a physical and protective barrier. One can regard it as a physical metaphor for the dual practice of gathering and collecting, of creating collections as protective shells to our belongings and ourselves as we drift along our pathways through life.


(1) See Foucault, Michel, „Technologies of the Self” in Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, Patrick H. Hutton (eds.), Technologies of the Self. A Seminar with Michel Foucault, Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.
(2) See ibid., pp. 18-19.
(3) One of the curiosities associated with the young history of the postage stamp, which goes back to a proposal made in 1837 by Rowland Hill, a British teacher and reformer, is that early stamps were manufactured by national mints.


About the author

Pravu Mazumdar
 studied physics in New Delhi and Munich and has a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Stuttgart. He writes in German and English, and his books, which use themes like migration and consumerism to unfold a diagnosis of modernity, are closely connected to French Postmodernism, in particular, the philosophy of Michel Foucault. His book on jewellery was published in 2015 under the title: "Gold und Geist: Prolegomena zu einer Philosophie des Schmucks" (“Gold and Mind: Prolegomena towards a Philosophy of Jewellery”), Berlin: Matthes & Seitz.