Jiwon Park’s Leviathans

Leviathan. The title of the philosophical treaty that laid the foundations of the modern theory of social contract contains an apparent paradox. For his 1651 volume that “sought to discover rational principles for the construction of a civil polity that would not be subject to destruction from within,” Thomas Hobbes employed the name of the biblical monster Leviathan. (1) How come his model of an ideal government came under the moniker of an out-of-this-world beast? Is there something inherently monstrous to the very idea of a commonwealth?

Drawing upon Hobbesian paradoxes, in her installation for the Courtyard Gallery, Jiwon Park explores promises and discontents of the contemporary nation-states. She starts by investigating the flags of 206 existing sovereign nations, whether recognized by the United Nations or not. Park defamiliarizes these common, usually rectangular, symbols by turning them into pie-chart-like objects. She disrupts their colors’ order and dislodges significant markers from their customary places. Each color field becomes a wedge occupying a percentage a circle’s area, emphasizing the standardized character of the flags’ designs.

There are processes of codification and agreed-upon, rational language beyond these color-coded symbols of the utopian aspirations to national cohesion. At their core, they are made up of abstract, geometric and arbitrary forms. So how do these artificial, cool constructions rally and unite certain people? How do they engender perceptions of shared values and histories? How can they incite fervor to the degree that “flag waving” has become a synonym for the populist, excessive or chauvinistic expressions of patriotism?

As a hyperbole of its imagined ability to summon “all” in Park’s standardized presentation, each nation is shown as an independent unit designed to amount to a total, cohesive whole. All these entities appear analogous and equal, regardless of the size of their territory and population; their economic prowess and actual status on the world stage, including official recognition. As an immaterial, ideational body, every single one of them aspires to wield ultimate power, internally and externally—to be the Leviathan. This terrific being lures its members with the promise of peace and order. Only in practice some promises are more alluring than the others: Not all beasts were created equal.

The issues embedded in Park’s installation resonate strongly—especially today, when volatile national politics and global conflict have resulted in the greatest number of migrants ever recorded in history. (2) The presence of the migrants shakes up traditional criteria used to define a nation-state; most notably, a permanent population and defined territory. At the same time, vulnerability of many migrant populations highlights the fact that many seemingly “universal human” rights are only practically available within the realm of a functioning nation-state. However, regardless of the models with hegemonic ambitions, the definition, form and means of constitution of a commonwealth are as elusive as ever.

(1)  Sharon A. Lloyd and Susanne Sreedhar, “Hobbes’s Moral and Political Philosophy,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, ed.

(2)  See: Thomas Nail, The Figure of the Migrant, (Stanford, CA: University of Stanford Press, 2015).

Dorota Biczel is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History whose research focuses on modern and contemporary Latin American art in the global context. She served as the 2015–2016 Curatorial Fellow at the Department of Art and Art History’s Visual Arts Center.