Aesthetic Violence


Lee Yong Baek, Broken Mirror. Photo by Daryl Goh


The sudden sound of a gunshot leads to a mesmerizing shattering of glass, captivating the viewer in a state between shock and amazement. Broken Mirror by Lee Yong Baek, which I stumbled upon at Art Stage Singapore, is a digital installation consisting of a mirror framed on a flat screen monitor. The images we see through this frame are real reflections of ourselves. The ‘magic’ starts when we see a bullet hit the glass mirror. Our image, our understanding and sense of connectivity are collapsed along with the glass. The amalgamation of perception and sensation is highly apparent in this work, the artist is able to eliminate the fine line between digital effects and a real mirror. Seeing the violence in a highly spectacular way brings us closer to a cinematic spectacle, which we do not expect from a framed mirror.

Lee Yong Baek has produced a few versions of Broken Mirror. From the earliest version in a wooden frame exhibited at the Busan Biennale 2008 to one at the Singapore Art Museum’s Collectors Show: Chimera, all of them render an assault in a sensational manner. The version exhibited at the Singapore Art Museum had the mirror cracking in a dramatically enhanced fashion. After the gunshot, the cracks appear in a very slow motion with a blue tint. Time freezes at this moment of exhilaration. Undoubtedly, the artist intended for us to know that we are watching a screen with visual effects instead of looking at a real mirror shatter. It is clear that we are not part of what is happening around us, even though we seem to be in the middle of the shooting. This refers to the aesthetics of violence commonly found in popular movies. It’s often been argued that superficial representations of violence lead us audiences to become desensitized to brutality. This artwork tacitly comments on this process, it has a knack for engaging the viewer in the chain of violence and causing us to want to continue being shot over and over.

The version showcased at Art Stage Singapore 2012 was different. Its cracks did not have the blue tint like the version at the Singapore Art Museum. The digital cracks were closer to reality. Also, there was no slowing down of time – it was much more realistic. Although the position of the speakers was too high, the mirror still appears to be cracking on impact from the loud bullet. Through an interactive experience Lee Yong Baek confronts us with real issues that we frequently avoid questioning. More often than not, we shun awkward moments of weakness and in some cases, deny them, as we do not like to see ourselves vulnerable. We scarcely get a chance to look at ourselves and challenge the way things appear and happen. Ironically, when we look at Broken Mirror, we delight in its artistic grandeur while anticipating the next moment of its unfolding – the disintegration of our own image.

Lee Yong Baek portrays violence from a highly stylized perspective. Famously, several artworks have explored violence by gunshot in a more realistic manner. Chris Burden’s Shoot (1971) was a performance piece that involved a participant shooting a bullet into the artist’s arm, while closer to home Lim Tzay Chuen’s unrealised piece Alter #11 (2002) Alter #11 proposed to have a bullet shot into an art gallery from long range. Both pieces involved having a real gunshot fired and associated that action with pain, risk and danger. Broken Mirror’s stylized violence helps to remove personal involvement, as the viewer is more likely to be stimulated by the energy brought to the screen without having to empathize with, and therefore, feel pain. The aforementioned works boast more realistic violence that potentially confront the viewer more convincingly. We actually see the bullet hit Chris Burden’s arm and (according to reports of the proposal) enter the art gallery in Alter #11. Reality is confronted in these pieces. They are stunning because we see things that we do not want to be involved in. In video documentation of Chris Burden’s Shoot, the tension leading up to the gunshot is filled with suspense, fear and anxiety. We are filled with the expectation of seeing pain inflicted onto a body that is not ours. However in Broken Mirror, the tension we feel as we hear the bullet being fired is a mixture of thrill and excitement. And we experience our own image being shattered in whirlpool of beautifully broken pieces. Lee Yong Baek creates an interactive space for viewers to experience such encounters without feeling the physical pain. Unlike Burden’s piece, viewers of the Broken Mirror want to be a part of the assault as they see others being ‘shot’. It may sound psychotic but this is what makes Broken Mirror so successful.

The continuous dynamic flux between the image in the mirror and ourselves apart from the mirror enables us to enter a process of self-reflection. As the viewer, our image is what we see through the mirror in classy rococo frames. Our environment and identity breaks into an abstraction once the bullet engages the mirror. Some visual fragments of our past remain while being augmented. We are forced to have a conversation with ourselves. Is it real or not? If it is real, is it the truth? We start our soul-searching journey within the confines of that installation space, only for the cracks to disappear into the darkness, revealing the image of who we were previously and in the present moment. Seconds later, the shot is fired again and the whole process repeats itself again.

Upon taking a step back from the whole interactive experience, a bigger question surrounding the intention of the artist starts to appear. Is Lee Yong Baek promoting the act of violence? Everything in this piece seems to point towards that. We are invited to participate in a shootout through the enticing and inviting rococo golden frame around the mirror. The shattering of the mirror mesmerizes instead of terrorizes. The disintegration of our image as a result of the gunshot is intriguing, and it makes us inclined towards the continuous rounds of shooting. There is a possibility that Lee Yong Baek’s use of aesthetics abstains us from the real event of shooting as seen in Chris Burden’s Shoot. However, the visual illusions merely serve as an enhancement and beautification of the violence. They seem to saturate every aspect of the shooting from the gunshot to the shattering of the mirror through the use of visual and aural aesthetics.

The multiple, chronological versions of this series indicate that Lee Yong Baek is attempting to achieve greater levels of verisimilitude. In the latest version real time sequencing is used while the visual effects used to render the cracks are highly realistic compared to the earlier versions. Would the artist consider placing the viewer in the role of the shooter instead of the victim? The role reversal could provide the viewer with the responsibility over the violence. Reversing the dynamism with regards to how one interacts with the mirror would relegate the topic of violence into passivity. In contrast to the current versions, it will appear more like a computer game that focuses more on the narrative as the ‘player’ contributes to his present and past state of being through a method of choice.

Although each version of Lee Yong Baek’s Broken Mirror never fails to ignite a relish for violence, the visual effects rendered are stunning. Apart from the aggressive content, I believe we might be in for a visual treat if he produces yet another version.