❉ Blog number 17 on diagrams in art and culture covers some of the ideas, images and research projects I discovered during a spring-time residency on the island of Jeju in South Korea. The two new drawings I developed following my stay there were on show in a group exhibition at the Chusa Memorial Museum from Oct 15th - Nov 17th, 2019.
figure 1: NASA image of Jeju Island
( United States Geological Survey Landsat data, Robert Simmon, Google Earth, 2000 )
In the spring of 2019, I travelled to Jeju island, an eye-shaped volcanic landmass staring upwards off the southern coast of the Korean peninsula. I'd been invited by the Korean artist Mikyung Oh and her husband, the sculptor Do il, to take part in a group residency in connection with the Chusa Memorial Museum, during which time the selected artists were asked to respond to the works of the legendary Korean scholar and calligrapher after whom the museum is named (fig. 2).
Mikyung and Do il's main studios are in Yongin city just south of Seoul, but they travel regularly with their daughter Yule to Mikyung's hometown on Jeju to maintain the family tangerine orchard. The residency program is run from Mikyung's family home there, alongside a barn converted by Do il in to studio space.
Once all the artists had arrived at the orchard we were welcomed by a Kayagum concert held beneath the heavy bows of one of Jeju's ancient Hackberry trees. Afterwards, we set about exploring the island and learning more about it's most famous historical resident Chusa Kim Jeong-hui, exiled scholar and man with two hundred names.
figure 3: Chusa Kim Jeong-hui’s masterpiece Sehando (A Winter scene),
1844, National Treasure #180 ( public domain )
Geology and the molten roots of an island
figure 6: Diagrams of Lithospheric Structures Beneath Jeju Island
Image courtesy of Jung-Hun Song (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
Between 2013 and 2015, a team of Geologists from Seoul and Busan used 20 seismographic stations across the island to record waves passing through the earth from the 484 different earthquakes that had occurred in neighboring regions during that period.
Earthquake waves are known to travel at different speeds through different types of rock. By carefully comparing the arrival times of the waves at each station against which routes they had taken through the earth, (a process known as 'Teleseismic Traveltime Tomography'), the scientists were able to model the enormous bodies of magma beneath Jeju, giving us our first look at the vast molten roots of the island and a clearer understanding of how these systems develop (fig. 6).
Biology and the genetic roots the orchid
Chusa's brush of choice was made of rat’s whiskers, a material which he found combined strength with sensitivity, and also allowed him to abruptly change the direction of his stroke whilst painting. With each new painting he would often coin a new 'Ho' or pen-name when signing the piece, to suggest a particular persona in association with the image.
figure 8: Orchid painting, Chusa
(unknown date, public domain)
Over his life time Chusa created over 200 different pen-names for his calligraphy, poems and paintings, and according to his own accounts, in his 70 years he wore down 10 ink stones and 1,000 brushes whilst developing the distinctive Chusa style or 'Chusache'.
His most famous orchid masterpiece is said to have been made after not having painted a single orchid for 20 years, created in an absent minded moment as a gift for his young servant (figure 8).
It's unlikely that his servant appreciated what he'd been given, but a local artisan certainly knew it's worth and continued to beg and pester Chusa for the scroll until it suddenly one day disappeared.
Later, Chusa wryly added this tale to the painting itself in his unique 'Chusache' script (fig. 8).
Around 10% of all flowering plants species are now known to be orchids, with somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 species and over 70,000 hybrids and cultivars. Scientists are currently in the process of mapping out the extensive evolutionary lineage of orchids and in 2017, a study published in Nature Magazine announced that an international consortium of researchers had sequenced the genome of Apostasia shenzhenica, a primitive 'Grass Orchid' whose appearance is only barely recognisable as an orchid.
By comparing it's genome with known sequences in other species, they were able to estimate the time at which it diverged or 'split off' from other orchids. Their study also gives us a better idea of when the 'Most Recent Common Ancestor' (MRCA) of all orchids existed, now believed to be around 200 million years ago at the dawn of the age of the dinosaurs (figure 9).
figure 9: Phylogenetic tree diagram of MADS-box genes involved in orchid morphological evolution.
Image courtesy of Jie-Yu Wang and Rolf Lohaus (CC BY 4.0)
In developing the two new drawings for the residency on Jeju, I was interested in the notion of absence within an image - what an artist chooses to show and chooses not to, but also in terms of what can be said to lie hidden behind the surface appearance of the things which surround us.
Written within the fabric of nature is evidence of innumerable events that occurred in deep geological and evolutionary time in order for the volcanoes and orchids to exist, and it's only by means of years of collaborative investigation and ingenious new techniques, that we have come to be able to detect and decipher them.
As geologists diagram the molten roots beneath the rock on which Chusa wandered, and geneticists piece together the genetic roots which underlie each of Chusa's orchids, we have come to realise that these structures stretch backwards through space and time in ways that Chusa could never have imagined.
Below are high resolution images of each finished drawing, which can be viewed in detail using the control icons to the right of each image. Beneath these are a collection of Chusa's own orchid paintings, which now comprise a digitized collection available online here as part of Google's Arts and Culture Project.
Tear glands, tear ducts, tear drops
(Lacrimal gland and ducts with Lithospheric anomalies)
Michael Whittle, 2019, Ink pencil and watercolour on paper, 111.2 x 78.9 cm
Jung-Hun Song et.al., 2018, Imaging of Lithospheric Structure Beneath Jeju Volcanic Island by Teleseismic Traveltime Tomography, Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, 10.1029.
The roots of the Orchid
(Divergent phylogenetic tree with common ancestor and desiccation)
Michel Whittle, 2019, Ink pencil and watercolour on paper, 111.2 x 78.9 cm
Guo-Qiang Zhang et.al., 2017, The Apostasia genome and the evolution of orchids. Nature 549: 379-383
Dr. Michael Whittle
British artist and
researcher in Kyoto
and Hong Kong
Arakawa And Gins
Leonardo Da Vinci