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2019 Venice Biennale: Korean Pavilion Artist Interview – siren eun young jung

posted 02 July 2019

A Performing by Flash, Afterimage, Velocity, and Noise – siren eun young jung

Artist siren eun young jung. Photoⓒ Kim Heunggyu

Artist siren eun young jung. Photo ⓒKim Heunggyu

siren eun young jung (b.1974) studied visual arts and feminism at Ewha Womans University in Korea and University of Leeds in the UK. Since 2008, she’s led the Yeoseong Gukgeuk Project (a project dedicated to a disappearing genre of Korean traditional theater performed by an all-female cast), highlighting the works and lives of the male-role actors to question gender stereotypes and producing videos and performances critical of selective compilations of history. Active mainly around Asia, Jung has partaken in events such as the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (2015), the Gwangju Biennale (2016), the Taipei Biennial (2017), the Shanghai Biennale (2018), and the Serendipity Arts Festival(2018) and has been named winner at the 2013 Hermès Foundation Missulsang, the 2015 Sindoh Art Prize, and the 2018 Korea Artist Prize.

siren eun young jung, 〈A Performing by Flash, Afterimage, Velocity, and Noise〉, 2019. audiovisual installation, dimensions variable. ©siren eun young jung.

siren eun young jung, 〈A Performing by Flash, Afterimage, Velocity, and Noise〉, 2019. audiovisual installation, dimensions variable. ©siren eun young jung.

What were your initial thoughts on the Korean Pavilion exhibition title, 《History Has Failed Us, but No Matter》, and what do you think about the novel 『Pachinko』 from which the quote was pulled?

The participating artists and director Kim Hyunjin had already held several discussions about the exhibition theme, long before the title was even brought up. Upon our preliminary visit to Venice, director Kim told us that she was considering the opening sentence of 『Pachinko』 as the exhibition title. As soon as I returned to Korea, I read the book from start to finish and became more convicted about the title. The characters in the novel each have their moments of realization when they learn of their own statuses, and these transitions in their lives are amazingly written out. The overall weave of the book was rather rough due to the vast history it covers, but I was mesmerized by the moments when the characters realize exactly who they are, and moreover, figure out their subjective relationship with history and politics.

Which aspect of the installation did you pay the most attention to, and what kind of synergy does the installation create with the streamlined structure of the Korean pavilion as emphasized by director Kim Hyunjin?

As you know, the Korean Pavilion is rather remotely located and the shape of the building isn’t quite suited for an exhibition, which has always been an issue. From the façade of the pavilion, there’s a round-shaped space visible through the glass, where the audience encounters the first work of the exhibition. My work goes in this space. People usually hang out and talk, or line up to enter in the front yard of the building, and this is where the exhibition actually begins. When they enter the pavilion, they’re led to the back room where my main piece is installed. But because the spaces allotted to the three artists are in an organic relationship, the audience could just as well be drawn towards Jane Jin Kaisen’s work or to the curved fixture created by Nam Hwayeon. The exhibition is laid out so that it’s hard to imagine the inside from the outside, and the audience will only begin to experience the layout and structure of the space after they enter the building.

When asked about this exhibition at the time of the 2018 Korea Artist Prize, you said you were planning something “entirely different” in direction. My understanding was that you were going to cook a whole new dish using the same ingredient of yeoseong gukgeuk.

Yeoseong gukgeuk (all-female opera) has always been the basis of my works, but I’ve avoided reviving or recreating it. Instead of incorporating it into my work as a way of revisiting the genre or my discoveries about the genre, I’ve adopted it as a perspective from which to reconsider the present. This time, my work deals with “transmission and succession,” the most important and inherent objectives of traditional art forms. This work reviews the history of yeoseong gukgeuk, which has “stopped being handed down,” as a way to evoke imaginations of a “queer genealogy.” I wanted to discover in the contemporary queer performers the same spectacle, the same gender execution, the same glamourous and campy elements of yeoseong gukgeuk.

siren eun young jung, 〈A Performing by Flash, Afterimage, Velocity, and Noise〉, 2019. audiovisual installation, dimensions variable. ©siren eun young jung.

siren eun young jung, 〈A Performing by Flash, Afterimage, Velocity, and Noise〉, 2019. audiovisual installation, dimensions variable. ©siren eun young jung.

〈A Performing by Flash, Afterimage, Velocity, and Noise〉 features transgender electronic musician Kirara, lesbian actor Yii Lee, director and actor Seo Ji Won from the disabled women’s theater group Dancing Waist, and drag king Azangman. Why did you decide to cast each of these four performers?

Kirara is open and expressive about her transgender identity and she constantly questions if the presence of “transgender musicians” is actually recognized in Korea. For a long time, she and I have talked about her work, her attitude as a musician, and her life as a transgender woman, and I was impressed by her methodology of making music—experimenting with formal disciplines by breaking them down into pieces and reassembling them to make music. I thought it was similar to the way I work—deconstructing tradition and norms and rearranging them to create an assemblage—and I wanted to actively incorporate the queer attitude found in her formative process. Yii Lee is a rare actor in the drama scene in that she almost never plays her gender. She came out about her lesbian identity through a performance, but she also creates this exquisite critical distance between her role and the actor that she is. Yet she never makes the mistake of getting trapped in the role or herself. I thought that she’s an actor who knows best how to use elements of performance and execution as a queer statement. I had some doubts about casting drag king Azangman, whom I’d already worked with once before, because I was afraid that our collaboration may yield images too similar to the last time. But she showed me a completely new persona in the new piece. As a drag king performer, she’s performed and parodied masculinity, but in this work, she reclaims ownership of the role of a genius/mad artist, which has historically been granted exclusively to men. There was a moment when I felt that, as a performer, she was strongly identifying with the role. Seo Ji Won is the leader of the disabled women’s theater group Dancing Waist and an actor with ten years of experience. She wanted to overcome the fact that she’s always recognized for her disability despite her ten-year professional career. What was memorable about my interview with her was the fact that she’s never found her physical disability to be uncomfortable or atypical. On the contrary, she told me that as a child, the movements and gestures of her non-disabled sister seemed strange to her. This was a moment when it became clear to me that disability is a concept forged by social standards and pursuit of “normality,” that it’s a concept constructed in a very similar way to the concept of “gender.” I thought that these four people, their inquiries, challenges, and daily practices could become important sources of experience for proposing queer aesthetics.

Are the performers related in any way to the four elements mentioned in the title of the piece: flash, afterimage, velocity, and noise?

Flash, afterimage, velocity, and noise are key elements and also discouraged elements in video art—people generally believe that a high-quality video is achieved when these elements are used moderately to standards. My work uses excessive levels of each as an active betrayal of that discipline—the belief that only standardized videos are “presentable.” Video art is basically an art of light and time, and such standards construct a naïve attitude in people who consume the media and its properties. The title of the piece also says that it’s “a performing by” and not “a performing with,” which was an attempt to endow the overload of senses with a status of an agent.

〈Anomalous Fantasy〉 presented at the 2018 Korea Artist Prize was a visual materialization of the idea that “performing is queering.”

The question “Could performing be queering?” has often served as a leap for my projects. Yeoseong gukgeuk relies on Korean traditional music, which is why its education takes the form of oral transmission. The system is time-consuming, conservative, and strict, so there are few who are willing to learn. Oral transmission is both a strange and mystical methodology. I did a few sit-ins and shoots during the lesson sessions of second-generation yeoseong gukgeuk actor Lee Deungwoo featured in my work. And I noticed how she used a lot of gendered expressions while teaching, like “The voice should sound more manly,” instead of “lower” or “thicker.” I realized that the traditional method of oral transmission is actually not very purebred or formal, that it already embodies variegated languages of initiation, and that there is room for different interpretations. Based on that idea, I decided to envision a mutual transfer between the performers, between two bodies, to expand and conceptualize oral transmission into “inter-body transmission.” While the four performers put on their individual shows, the performances were edited in the video so that they collide and intersect ceaselessly with one another. This was an attempt to visualize the concept of inter-body transmission occurring in between the bodies. And of course, I imagined the audience’s bodies intervening onto the image as well. I wanted to imagine the queer genealogy occurring amid the dynamic and mutual interactions of the bodies.

siren eun young jung, installed view of 〈A Performing by Flash, Afterimage, Velocity, and Noise〉. ⓒKorean Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019.

siren eun young jung, installed view of 〈A Performing by Flash, Afterimage, Velocity, and Noise〉. ⓒKorean Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019.

What was your main focus in terms of directing?

As I said, my primary goal was to abuse and overuse the major elements of performance or video. I wanted to call into question, all the elements of stability, and I tried to dodge every single habitual method of filming, directing, shooting, and lighting. Another goal was to reach beyond “visuality,” the absolute precondition for any visual form of art. Majority of the audience believe that what I do through my Yeoseong Gukgeuk Project is giving voice and visibility to the things unrecorded or eliminated by the history. That’s true to a certain degree, but rather than imbuing the invisible with visibility or reinstating the eliminated, I think it’s more important to dispute the structure of the reinstating authority. It’s not a matter of imbuing visibility to the invisible, but a matter of questioning how visibility has become an absolute requirement. By creating states in which something is visible but invisible, or audible but inaudible, I focused on unearthing queer methodologies and queer aesthetics. My belief is that none of our standards—history, ego, gender, media, art—are stable or fixed, and that a queer aesthetic is an aesthetic created on top of such unstable ground. So I tried to dissolve that sense of instability into the work.

I worry about the possibility of the exhibition theme being read only in terms of the queer code by Western viewers who are more familiar with the queer culture.

I’m often misunderstood as an Orientalist or a nationalist because of the image of the actor in hanbok in my works. This concerns me sometimes, but it doesn’t really matter if my works are misread. I don’t think there’s a reason for us to keep producing works that are conscious of the Western genealogy of discourses. I think it’s more productive to contemplate how to strategically arrange the clichés or stereotypes within different contexts than to avoid them entirely. That’s my way of thinking—I think we have to try over and over again and keep talking about it. If we were to eliminate clichés and trite imagery because they’re dangerous, we would live in the fear of having to keep producing something of the opposite, in which case we couldn’t have said “but no matter” as we did in the exhibition title.

siren eun young jung, installed view of 〈A Performing by Flash, Afterimage, Velocity, and Noise〉. ⓒKorean Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019.

siren eun young jung, installed view of 〈A Performing by Flash, Afterimage, Velocity, and Noise〉. ⓒKorean Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019.

The synesthetic experience, the captivating lights and sparkles that turn the screen into a stage, was impressive. You once said regarding the 2018 Korea Art Prize exhibition that you wanted the audience to instantly feel like they’re walking into a theater when they walk into the exhibition hall. What immediate sensation do you expect the audience to feel at the Venice Biennale exhibition?

I brought in a lot of the theatrical elements this time around as well: materials like curtains, stage-like design of the space, elements like lighting that command drama. On the other hand, I put a lot of effort into eliminating sensations reminiscent of a movie theater. I hope the space feels like a club or a concert hall, or at least nothing like a gallery or a movie theater. The dimensions of the space and the screens were also adjusted for the human body, so that they’re neither intimidating nor too tight. The viewing environment may be a little confusing, and it’s structured so that you can’t fully grasp everything at once. I wouldn’t mind if the audience just walked in and danced around a little before they left (laughs). Oh, and Kirara, one of the performers in the piece, wrote the music for 〈A Performing by Flash, Afterimage, Velocity, and Noise〉, and I like the music so much that I’m very excited.

What are some of the factors that will determine the future course of your works to follow this exhibition at the Venice Biennale?

It would be nice to think ahead, but I’ve been so caught up with my ongoing projects that I haven’t had a chance to think about what’s next. But I am constantly searching for different methodologies through which to challenge various media, and thematically, I’m interested in the Korean art scene: if such thing as “feminist art” really exists in the circulation structure of the Korean art scene, why some aesthetics seem to have a certain equation set for them, whether such aesthetics could harbor critical language. I am curious: is there a way to make it seem like I’m not utilizing the media such as film and performance while actually utilizing them, how could the standards of certain genres be rearranged, should I respect the existing standards and norms as there must be a reason why they survived over centuries? I’m also interested in things outside of the artistic boundary, things that art can’t hold within it, things that define art and create systems. Maybe I’m drawn to the boundary between artworks itself and external factors—thinking outside the box of an artwork-centric mentality. I think an artwork has a bigger chance at survival when there are richer outside sources to pull from.

Read this article

2019 Venice Biennale: Korean Pavilion Artist Interview – Nam Hwayeon, Misulsegye, June 2019

2019 Venice Biennale: Korean Pavilion Artist Interview – Jane Jin Kaisen, Misulsegye, June 2019

※ This content was first published in the June, 2019 release of Misulsegye Magazine and has been re-published on after a negotiation was reached between Korea Arts Management Service and Misulsegye Magazine.

Kim JeongAh

Editor, Art Magazine [Misulsegye]

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