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

posted 09 July 2019

Community of Parting – Jane Jin Kaisen

Artist Jane Jin Kaisen. Photoⓒ Kim Heunggyu

Artist Jane Jin Kaisen. Photoⓒ Kim Heunggyu

Jane Jin Kaisen (b.1980) was born in Korea and adopted by a family in Denmark to become a visual artist and filmmaker. Her artistic practices, ranging from film and video to installation, photo, and performance, rely on extensive interdisciplinary research and interactions with various communities. She positions herself at the intersection of personal and collective histories to probe the themes of memory, migration, and translation. Kaisen has studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (KADK) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and has participated in exhibitions such as 《Zero Gravity World》 (SeMA, Nam-Seoul Museum of Art, 2019), 《Gaeseong Industrial Complex》 (Culture Station Seoul 284, 2018), the Jeju Biennale (2017), 《2 or 3 Tigers》 (HKW, 2017), and 《Asian Diva: The Muse and the Monster》 (SeMa, Buk-Seoul Museum of Art, 2017).

Jane Jin Kaisen, 〈Community of Parting〉, 2019. 2-channel video installation. ©Jane Jin Kaisen.

Jane Jin Kaisen, 〈Community of Parting〉, 2019. 2-channel video installation. ©Jane Jin Kaisen.

How did you come to produce your new work in the Korean Pavilion exhibition? Was it produced specifically to suit the purpose of this exhibition?

My work begins with collecting, filming, and gathering archive footage based on ongoing research. This process continues, every day and everywhere. In case of this exhibition, the detailed methodology was devised according to the context of the Pavilion's theme, but I had constantly been studying the topics discussed in the works since 2015. The most interesting about this piece was the process of working together with various people from different parts of the world. I stayed on Jeju Island for about a year for this piece, and I’m now living in Berlin since last summer. I traveled back and forth between Korea and Germany to produce the work. My studio was in Berlin throughout the post-production stages, but most of the people I worked with over there weren’t from Germany. The many people involved in this project came together each with their own time lags. In a sense, the work process itself was diasporic (laughs).

Let’s address the title 〈Community of Parting〉 first. The use of the word “community” stands out because it comes with the notion of “sharing a single identity” and therefore is often avoided in discussions on diaspora or otherness.

The phrase “community of parting” is from 『Women, Do Poetry』 by poet Kim Hyesoon. Kim is also one of the many protagonists making appearances in this work. The reason I used the phrase as the title of my work was because I thought it addressed the overall sentiment of the work. 『Women, Do Poetry』 is a compilation of texts on the poetics written by Kim Hyesoon in 2017, which was where I found the inspiration for the central theme of the work: the ancient female Korean shamanic myth of the abandoned princess Bari. People who’ve seen my previous works would know, but I’ve always been deeply interested in shamanism. Princess Bari is an ancestral figure to mudang (Korean shaman). If you examine the myth and the ancestral rites of mudangs, you can see what kinds of meaning a “community of parting” can hold. Gut, a Korean shamanic ritual, is an act of summoning the dead or the spirits of the dead to the communal territory of the living, and in that open territory, the living and the dead, the spiritual and the physical come together. So the shamanic ritual enables things of different natures to intertwine and create a sort of community—a finite, momentary community that’ll soon disperse. This is why the phrase “community of parting” holds a dual meaning of both meeting and parting. We use the word “parting” to describe not only the simple act of going separate ways, but also to describe death. My understanding is that a similar expression is used in Korean as well. This word overlaps with other-worldly relationships and boundaries, and I wanted to say that there are multiple levels to the meaning of “parting.”

Jane Jin Kaisen, installed view of 〈Community of Parting〉. ⓒKorean Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019.

Jane Jin Kaisen, installed view of 〈Community of Parting〉. ⓒKorean Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019.

Your mention of gut as a temporary community is interesting because Korean guts are almost like village feasts. It also reminds me of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who witnessed a gut by mudang Kim Keumhwa in Korea and said that Korean shamanic rituals are fascinating in that they’re very communal.

Gut makes up the core structure of my new work. Simbang (another word for mudang used in Jeju) Koh Sunahn makes a personal appearance in the work. In a way, 〈Community of Parting〉 can be seen as a form of a gut in itself in that it summons different voices and creates a community soon to part. This becomes an active reinterpretation of the myth of Princess Bari because people from different origins with different voices and beliefs retell the myth in their own ways. That’s why “Bari” doesn’t refer to one specific figure in this piece, but to the very phenomenon of being told in different voices: my voice and the voices of Kim Hyesoon, another poet, a shaman, women of Korean heritage living in Central Asia and in Japan, and an anthropologist. The diasporas retelling the myth that originates from pre-textual history in their own voices are the essential subjects of the work.

The idea of reinterpreting the myth of Princess Bari is notable. But why Princess Bari, and how is the story reinterpreted?

In my work, Bari is not a figure but a certain sentiment. Tracing back to the original meaning of the name Bari, it isn’t really a name; it means “abandoned.” It’s significant that Bari symbolizes the “abandoned, erased, and excluded.” Abandonment determines whether or not something belongs to a community, hence Bari has to do with the mechanism of exclusion, with creating boundaries. By boundaries, I’m not only referring to geopolitical ones, but divisions among people as well. We could think about gender divisions for example: the myth of Bari is generally understood as a story of filial piety, a devoted daughter who brought her father back to life. But interpreted from a feminist viewpoint, Bari is someone who chose to become a shaman instead of following her father’s wishes. She is abandoned by the family and led to death, only to resurrect and become a potential heir to the kingdom. But she refuses. We have to see Bari as someone who makes a independent choice of becoming a mediator between this life and the afterlife. In this sense, the myth of Bari is not just another story—it embodies different memories of different space-times, which makes it a sort of an epistemological moral philosophy, or an aesthetic. And these aspects indwell in the women’s shamanic rituals.

Jane Jin Kaisen, 〈Community of Parting〉, 2019. 2-channel video installation. ©Jane Jin Kaisen.

Jane Jin Kaisen, 〈Community of Parting〉, 2019. 2-channel video installation. ©Jane Jin Kaisen.

You seem to be highlighting the point on which shamanism, women, and diasporas intersect.

The relationship and the boundaries between disparate things are the most important factors in my work. There’s the relationship between the living and the dead, the relationship between the speakers and the listeners, and a medium that mediates the situation. In terms of the work we’re discussing, a shaman would be in that mediating position. The disparate realms are connected through the medium of a shaman. A shaman’s role is to create temporary sense of communal solidarity between the two. But it’s also important that, paradoxically, the community is only temporal and evanescent. A community created by a shamanic ritual is therefore a community that’s unstable and changeable, not permanent. That’s why the ritual of gut is repeated. Every time a gut is held, there forms a new community.

The myth of Princess Bari is like a sacred mother myth. From there, we can begin to question the meaning of feminine creation. There is masculine creation, that is, the modernist narrative of one artist creating something completely new from scratch, and then there there’s feminine, or shamanistic creation on the opposite end of the spectrum. The shamanistic approach is relational. Another important thing is that the myth of Bari is a folktale, that it doesn’t have a distinct point of origin. Bari is not a myth set in stone; there exist countless variations of the story. This is why my work dismantles masculine and modernistic mythology. Many artists and poets including myself have already retold the Bari myth. I don’t create, but mediate and deliver their voices. In that sense, feminine and shamanistic creation is rooted in mutual contact, and this becomes a methodology for radically questioning artistic creation itself. Also, we must not overlook the fact that producing a video is fundamentally a collective creation process.

There seems to be a connection between your emphasis of shamanism and your original interest in translation, probably because a shaman can be seen as a translator.

I’m glad you saw it that way, because I think there’s a line as well. As you said, the theme of “translation” is at the heart of all my research work, so much so that I’ve been studying translation since 2015 for a doctoral degree. A shaman is a person who translates in between the living and the dead or the divine and the worldly, often depicted as someone like Bari, who can travel back and forth between the two realms.

Before written history, history had been told orally, and a shaman was a key translator in those days. Recalling that legacy is essential. If you pick apart the word “translation,” it harbors the meaning of “carrying across.” Carrying something across is a spatial act—going from here to there. But from a shamanistic perspective, it can be seen as more than spatial translation and even as a temporal translation—bringing then to now. A shaman also translates time, and in that sense, the act of translating comes back around the full circle to reconnect with the idea of memory. A shaman is a carrier and deliverer of memories, and also a translator. And again, memory itself is a method of translation. A shaman summons and gathers fragments of memories that have never been written down as history. And this is why “remembering” is a form of action or practice. Memories embrace the spoken and bodily logics that contradict the written ones. Spoken history and shamans exist as contrasts to written history. This relates back to the practices of feminism in that it’s all about reclaiming the body and memories and not about textual and logical history.

Jane Jin Kaisen, 〈Community of Parting〉, 2019. 2-channel video installation. © Jane Jin Kaisen.

Jane Jin Kaisen, 〈Community of Parting〉, 2019. 2-channel video installation. © Jane Jin Kaisen.

I feel like we should discuss the aspect of translation a little more. I think this work can be seen as a contemporary translation of the Princess Bari myth. But from a critical point of view, we can’t help but think about the colonialistic nature of translation. In fact, we’re communicating in English, the imperial language, at the moment. Maybe we can discuss this in the context of your solo exhibition 《Dissident Translations》 held at Århaus in 2011.

I think there are multiple layers to translation. Like you said, translation is a colonialistic endeavor. The very act of translating something foreign is like creating inner and outer circles, sometimes resulting in exclusions, which is why there are colonialistic and violent aspects to translation. But the reason I’m invested in translation is because it embodies the possibility of something being translated into something else, and that kind of discrepancy in translation occurs around the borders, not in the imperial centers. Translation, or different translations, would be unnecessary and uncommon in the central areas. It’s at the frontiers and borderlines that possibilities for a different translation open up. This is where my artistic interest in translation derives from.

What kinds of voices are featured in 〈Community of Parting〉, and is there a reason you emphasize the aspect of voice?

Because Jeju Island is the key region in the video, the voice of simbang Koh Sunahn takes up a significant portion of the work. Her voice overlaps with stories of the Jeju 4.3 Incident as the screen portrays beautiful Jeju landscapes. Ethnic Korean Koryo-saram women living in Kazakhstan also make appearances, and they speak in Russian. There are also Zainichi women who live in Japan, who speak in Japanese. This way, we can hear the voices of women from various regions and generations, speaking in different languages. I must refer back to Bari to talk about the voices. The Bari myth is an age-old tale. It began long before Korea was a nation, so it’s a story far distant from colonialism or modernism. I repeat: it’s a story orally transmitted long before “History with a capital H” was written. What also intrigued me was that there are different versions of the myth exiting in different regions. My work not only features simbang Koh Sunahn in Jeju, but also a North Korean defector mudang, who once lived near the Dumangang River (Tumen River) but crossed over to South Korea through China with the help of a broker. Through the voices of these diasporic beings, I wanted to rethink the orally-transmitted tale or the myth as what it has now become: something trans-regional and transnational.

I must point out that the video is over an hour long. Wouldn’t it be difficult to present the full length to the audience as part of an exhibition, especially a biennale?

It would be great if the audience could watch the full length but I edited it so that it wouldn’t matter if they walked in midway. Even if they miss out on some parts, they will take away a certain experience with them. Figuratively speaking, you can think of it as jumping into a flowing stream. You won’t know where the stream began, but you’ll experience the flow. Also, the structure of the video follows that of a gut. When I met Ko in Jeju, I sat through several different rituals, and some of them would last over 10 hours, even days. And during the ritual, there come moments of trance when you alternate between your conscious and subconscious. A gut isn’t necessarily a series of ritualistic moments; there are secular and social moments as well. My work also incorporates delicate, sensuous, and ritualistic scenes as well as dry and dull scenes that just provide information. And like that, the format of the video takes the format of a gut.

Lastly, if I may ask a rather personal question, what do you think about moving back to Korea to work?

I was born in Korea and adopted three months after birth. After that, I visited Korea for the first time in 2011, mainly because I wanted to see what Korea was like. That visit had a huge impact on me both personally and artistically. It made me question all the things I thought I knew, and the questions were fundamental ones related to my identity. Questioning where I belonged was an act of creating cracks in my self-identity. I think that I’m discovering the answers one by one through my work. It was around then, when I first visited Korea, that diasporic communities around the world were beginning to have presence. I met other adopted artists and activists through the communities. That experience was materialized into my work 〈The Woman, the Orphan, and the Tiger〉. My projects on the Jeju 4.3 Incident enabled me to intervene in my personal and historical traumas and renew my understanding of Jeju Island. These works have provided answers to some of my fundamental questions, but not all of them. Perhaps my new work, which reinterprets the myth of Princess Bari from a postcolonial perspective, could serve as an answer to one of those questions.

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※ 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.

Kwon Tae Hyun

Editor, Art Magazine [Misulsegye]

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