Into the Seven Jeweled Mountain: Immersive, Restrained, and Refined

Installation view of 10-panel ink-and-color-on-silk folding screen, late 1800s, collection of the Cleveland Museum or Art.

A simple, well-told story is worth its weight in gold in this era of overwrought content creation. I’m sure there were prehistoric humans who wished the raconteur du jour would just get to the point already in his insufferably self-aggrandizing and lengthy tale about the big Sabertooth tiger he took down. As a writer I can fall into excess description traps myself and loving the sound of stuff so much I lean too far into it and get off balance. But I try to never lose sight of graceful simplicity, and certainly celebrate it when I see it. An example of such is on display now through September 29th in the Textile Gallery (#234) at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Detail from 10-panel ink-and-color-on-silk folding screen, late 1800s, collection of the Cleveland Museum or Art.

Into the Seven Jeweled Mountain is billed as an immersive video experience, complete with a solid international twist. Inspired by a 10-panel ink-and-color-on-silk folding screen from the late 1800s that is part of the CMA collection, the video is running simultaneously at the National Palace Museum of Korea in Seoul. Visitors there are a lot closer to the actual mountain (Mt. Chilbo), though the fact that it is now in Hamgyong Province, North Korea means relatively few can set foot on it anymore. The artist is anonymous, but it is an example of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) era landscape painting style.

The legend goes that the name comes from the presence of seven different kinds of jewels buried in the mountain (gold, silver, pearls, coral, seashells, agate, and crystal). The elevation of seashells into “jewels” makes sense to me: I’ve always thought of them as sanctified, sandy treasures.

Into the Seven Jeweled Mountain, video still

The roughly 6 by 13 ft. screen is on display just outside the room where the video of animated characters hiking in the mountains and responding to the beauty plays on a 10-minute loop with a meditative soundtrack by composer Yang Bang-ean. Narration is based on a 16th century travelogue written by Im Hyeong-soo and voiced by acclaimed South Korean actor and activist Ryu Jun-yeol.

The experience of the virtual hike takes place via three ceiling-mounted projectors blending images across three gallery walls. If you sit in the middle of the room, you’ll get a good experience of “in the midst-ness” sight and sound-wise. It’s less glitzy and more substantial than those full-room, “immersive” extravaganzas (remember Immersive van Gogh?). This is more restrained and refined.

Into the Seven Jeweled Mountain, video still

The simple narration based on a centuries old travelogue provides accents and emphasis that grounds the flowing images and fits in perfectly with the soothing and spare music. Im Hyeong-soo’s observations include a wide range of affect to distinct effect.

There is straight reporting: “I could see all around me, and the ground below appeared very distant.” … “Just before dawn, I was awakened by sudden chills.” And, “Out of nowhere, a gloomy mist and rain covered the mountain again.” This allows for direct connection to the animated action.

Layered within the establishing orientation are the more emotive comments: “These peaks stand like stacks of jade pillars, enchanting and bizarre, unlike anything we had seen before,” and, “It really felt as if the clouds and rain had conspired to obscure our way.”

Into the Seven Jeweled Mountain, video still

The payoff happens when the skies clear and more is revealed: “I’ve named it Hoesangdae, meaning ‘the place where everything comes together.’” This leads to the rhetorical question, “How could heaven have hidden this incredible natural wonder from people for so many years?”

Credit must be given to CMA’s digital innovations team and Curator of Korean Art Sooa McCormick for putting this exhibit together in such a rewarding way. Looking at a static screen is one thing, being able to launch into a mountain-scape is quite another. I had no trouble buying into the passion expressed by Im Hyeong-soo’s poignant reflection near the end of the video, “I too felt sorry I couldn’t spend the rest of my life here.”

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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