Kim Namsoo

Korea’s Whale Myths

The Pacific Rim consists of the curves formed by the landmasses surrounding the Pacific Ocean. Connecting areas and countries including Indonesia, Philippines, Mariana Islands, Japan, Alaska, North American coast, California, Mexico, and Chile, the sphere encircled by these immense curves is famous for the Ring of Fire (circum-Pacific belt), where volcanic activities and earthquakes are frequent. The odd thing is that the curves shown by this Ring of Fire almost perfectly match whales’ migration routes. As if whale-Leviathan were behind it all, in the center of the zone where these two curves overlap lies the Korean Peninsula.

In fact, Korea lies beyond Japan, which is on the contour of the Pacific Rim, and is located in the back line, as if being protected by the neighboring archipelago. Nevertheless, petroglyphs (rock engravings) near the southern seashore of this land feature whales’ leaps and association with terrestrial animals, which are difficult to find anywhere else around the globe, thus meriting attention. In the Bangudae Petroglyphs in Ulju County, over 30 whales jump upward, and the joy of those leaps is simple and sacred. What, however, is the purpose of such jumps? The closest interpretation of the engravings to this date is one that takes into consideration whales’ auditory network.

In his monumental work, Among Whales, cetologist Roger Payne notes that whales have formed a global auditory network since 55 million years ago. In other words, when a whale sings at the ice shelves of the Antarctica, that melody is heard by its peers near the Aleutian Islands in the North Pacific, near Ceylon in the Indian Ocean, and near the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. Whales’ sounds fall in a vocal register ranging from the ultra-low pitch of 20 Hz to the ultra-high pitch of 200,000 Hz, and songs sung in the ultra-low pitch of 20 Hz echo throughout the ocean worldwide instead of dissolving in seawater. Waves that thus remain intact in the process are called “solitons.”

None other than the Bangudae Petroglyphs illustrate how the global auditory network of these solitons is possible and how whales’ musical contacts with humans occurred. This is because a human flutist lurking at the very top seems to perform his or her instrument and the whales seem to leap in response to that music. Lying in the center of those jumps is a perfect triangle―which looks like Wassily Kandinsky’s “spiritual triangle”―in which is tucked a single whale, as if placed under topological conditions making possible metamorphosis into another being, as with a Stargate. Indeed, engraved to the left of this triangle is the biological sign of a two-headed cosmic serpent, and to the right are concrete, overlapping images of birds and whales and deer and whales. In other words, in a triangular crystal structure within the arrangement of both figurative and abstract images, whales reign as if they were the heart of sanctity. Below them are three humpback whales dancing the twist, which seem to emit auditory hallucinations as if they were the chorus in classical Greek drama.

“Leviathan: On Sunspots and Whales,” artist Shezad Dawood’s exhibition, features a painting created based on the legend of Yeono and Seo, which is one of Korea’s whale myths. Yeono traverses the sea to another country on a rock that has floated up by the seashore. While awaiting her missing husband, Seo likewise goes across in the same way. Worshipped as “deities” in the unfamiliar neighboring country of Japan, the couple becomes tricksters building a new civilization.

In fact, the flutist in the uppermost part of the Bangudae Petroglyphs is identical to the whale-riding boy engraved in a coin from the Roman Empire along the Mediterranean. The whale rider of New Zealand, the whale rider of the Inuit, and the whale rider found, unexpectedly, in the petroglyphs of the Yakut in Siberia all constitute association among disparate kinds that takes place amidst musical resonances. Yeono and Seo are a kind of a pipe-playing Kokopelli―for some of the native peoples of North America, a flutist connecting heaven and earth with a ladder. Japan is a land that directly faces great splashes from immense ocean currents of the Pacific Rim, especially “black” waves such as the Kuroshio Current. Having reached here, what would have toraijin (Chinese and Korean migrants) been thinking?

In his lectures during the 1970s, philosopher Michel Foucault often likens himself to a whale: “For my part, it has struck me that I might have seemed a bit like a whale that leaps to the surface of the water disturbing it momentarily with a tiny jet of spray and lets it be believed, or pretends to believe, or wants to believe, or himself does in fact believe…” (from “Society Must Be Defended”). He is probably pointing out that the waves of those immense splashes are so dark as to seem black because of the great depths and that it is directly linked to whales’ performances of swimming upward from those very depths. In this respect, the Kuroshio Current is a medium guiding whales in their trajectories, moving from the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Rim right below via Japan to the North American coast. Foucault seems to be gazing into this “black” current.

When toraijin such as Yeono and Seo arrived in Japan, the Pacific that they faced was the “deep sea.” The whale-Leviathan that they had ridden endowed Japan with the governmentality of a new civilization, and would not this have been connected to none other than the mythic imagination with which toraijin dealt with the “deep sea”? This is because the cosmic stories that astronomer Carl Sagan unfolds via cetologist Roger Payne can intervene here. In other words, he states, whales are beings that sing under conditions where the heart is crushed, the head is pressed, and the consciousness is in a state close to suspended animation (apparent death) due to the tremendous water pressure, living 5 miles down the “deep sea” and performing melodies in the ultra-low pitch of 20 Hz. According to Sagan, these songs are based on a language consisting of segmental sounds―a language made of two segmental sounds and resembling a kind of a non-human Morse code―and created with that language-song are tunes with lengths of epic poems second only to the Iliad and the Odyssey. In other words, these songs, which have rhymes as do William Shakespeare’s sonnets and resonances as do chants, constitute a kind of “thought” on the part of whales. That is, the whale as a vehicle ridden by Yeono and Seo to cross the sea was a “thinking being.”

Foucault has marveled at the conditions of whales as “thinking beings,” thus stating: “Whales think in the deep sea in a state of complete freedom without any hindrance and without any influence.” Envy! Jealousy! This may very well be called the condition for thought in philosophy. In other words, “deep-sea thinking” thus has implemented biopolitics since 55 million years ago, through governmentality that does not ruin the Earth-Mother. Whales’ eco-politics is especially significant in an age ruled by the human species, which has ruined the Earth’s health in merely 3 million years and therefore brought about the current Anthropocene epoch.

In fact, the source of this “deep-sea thinking” is none other than a letter written by Herman Melville, the author of Moby-Dick. Alluding to the North American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, he states that “Thought-Divers” have existed since the beginning under this condition of the “deep sea”: “…thought-divers… have been… coming up again with bloodshot eyes since the world began.”

In other words, the eyes of beings that make immense splashes are bloodshot. However, these eyes are bloodshot because of not only the water pressure but also profound “deep-sea thinking.” According to Melville, whales can go down 5 miles or more, which nearly amount to 8 kilometers. This means that, in the Earth’s oceans, whales reach all the way to the abysses of the deepest oceanic trenches. Those deep, bottomless pits, the deep sea inhabited by the diving Leviathan, and leaps outside the water, full of pure elation, are magnificent performances that cannot easily be combined by animals other than whales. In this way, whales perform songs of thought proving that the Solaris-like vision that the seas of the globe are “one”―this may be termed “the One” in the Plotinian sense as well―and hear those tunes no matter where they are in the world, in a state of auditory ubiquity―like the “permanent presence… of [a]… fleet… no matter where,” to borrow Paul Virilio’s expression. The world system of “deep-sea thinking,” “global auditory network,” and “whales’ governance of the Earth” are the core of what Sagan marvels at.

The exhibition “Leviathan: On Sunspots and Whales” must reenact whales’ performances, which make huge splashes, through the Korean myth of Yeono and Seo. And someone will do so. Through the image of an unknowable monster called “Leviathan,” Shezad Dawood seems to be focusing on the dual nature of savage gods, to put it in an East Asian way. That duality, perhaps, is borne of a state where it becomes increasingly difficult to think about problems between democracy and neoliberal capitalism, much less resolve them. How would whales have responded to these problems? What we must be aware of under the condition of “deep-sea thinking” is that the deep sea is a “site of imaginary images” (from Izutsu Toshihiko, Consciousness and Essence) where myths are born. In other words, the tremendous water pressure of the deep sea may itself be Leviathan. In human terms, in the mind-heart theory of East Asia, several things are added to the conscious and the unconscious, or the two instance systems of psychoanalytic theory. In other words, as the third instance that is mixed and transformed between the conscious and the unconscious, there is the “site of imaginary images.” In other words, not the unconscious repressed by the daytime conscious, capitalism, and systems but the “unrepressed unconscious” (Ignacio Matte Blanco) neither hindered nor affected by pressure from them actively intervenes. Because of this intervention, the deep sea becomes a kind of a “subliminal” sphere of the mind-heart―a threshold of consciousness that is subliminal and where images can be transformed and connected freely―for whales.

For Foucault, the mechanism of such a threshold of consciousness is none other than Jorge Luis Borges’ account of a “Chinese encyclopedia,” which he quotes in the preface to The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences and which is the pure laughter that bursts out of Foucault himself at the absurd classification of the fictive encyclopedia. In other words, along with the laughter, the mythic imagination has begun to operate. Here, the mythic imagination starts to open up insights on a global scale and, furthermore, a third perspective that views the Earth from outer space.

In Korea, this is expressed as tales about whales and shrimps that must invariably undergo the “subliminal” sphere. In Folktales of Korea (1945), Korean historian Son Jin-tae recounts two stories that mythically demonstrate the proposition that “The sum of the parts does not amount to the whole” and the proposition that “The parts already contain the whole.” One is a kind of a “whale theater.” After being swallowed by a whale, a man takes a walk in the creature’s abdomen. He then witnesses villagers engaged in a game using tujeon, traditional Korean playing cards, in the inner part of the whale’s belly. As a one of the players makes a clean sweep, he is embroiled in a skirmish with another member who seeks to annul the game. In the process, the jige (A-shaped carrier frame) of an onggi (earthenware) seller falls, and the whale is pierced to death by shards of earthen vessels. Then, each ripping open the dead animal’s abdomen with a potsherd, the villagers leisurely return home.

In the other story, a swallow soars from a branch of a tree on one side in the morning, flies all day across the Pacific, and perches on a branch of another tree on the other side. When the audience zooms out, as in a track-back shot in cinema, those two branches turn out to have been none other than the two antennae of a shrimp. Quite odd is this topology that the space called the Pacific, where countless whales dive and swim, is located between a shrimp’s antennae. In addition, are shrimps not whales’ prey?

The abdomens of whales are theaters in which people’s lives are at stake; the Pacific, through which those whales have governed the entire globe, is located between a shrimp’s antennae; and such shrimps are diligently eaten by whales. Nip and tuck! The parts are the whole, and the whole feeds on the parts. In Korea, this is thus expressed as well, in the sense of savage gods: “Haneullim [Korean sky deity] eats Haneullim.”

Anyhow, this relationship between the parts and the whole, which bends and feeds back inward again like the Klein bottle, is the most important part of the whale myths of Korea. The task of opening up the conditions for a new perspective within an existing perspective, the task of seeking after the elasticity of a new possible world within the existing world―this, perhaps, is both why the “deep-sea thinking” implied by the whales’ leaps and musical-auditory network in the Bangudae Petroglyphs invariably must be the mythic imagination and what Yeono and Seo of the legend, having crossed the sea to Japan and now faced with the Pacific, witnessed at that utmost limit of imagination. It is meaningful that Shezad Dawood should stand on the edge of that utmost limit―in the position of diving into the “deep sea,” that is.

The center of such a possibility still lies wholly dormant although the waters of the Pacific Rim suffer from sonar sounds and electronic signals emitted by the US Navy’s submarines and massive signals intelligence satellites such as “Classic Wizard” and whales consequently are committing landing suicide even now. Especially because, at a point like the present, when the environment of the Earth-Gaia is undergoing changes due to the Anthropocene, a return to eco-governance by whales, no, the fact that “whales have been the original governors of the Earth”―according to Sagan―in the past 55 million years may come to be recorded in the non-human, cosmic history book.

About the Author

Kim Namsoo (born in 1969) is a choreography critic, researcher, and planner. His career in criticism began in 2002 when his work “Hong Sung-yop: The Ideas of a Reflective Modernist” was selected in the dance criticism category of the 9th Dance Art Awards held by the dance monthly Body. He has been involved in various activities spanning the fields of dance, theater, fine arts, academia, and multidisciplinary art including a period as an inaugural editorial board member for the 2006 launching of the performing arts magazine Pan, a three-year stint as a curatorial researcher for the Nam June Paik Art Center in 2008, one year as a senior researcher for the National Theater of Korea in 2011, one year as an Asian Cultural Archive team leader and dramaturge for the Asia Culture Center’s Asian Culture Development Institute in 2013, and two years as a participant in the Antler Library project for the G-HUB Pangyo in 2014. He has coauthored the book The Return of Nam June Paik and served as a planner and editor for Nam June Paik: From Horse to Christo.