People / Critic

Yi Yunyi : To keep speaking about you, to resist growing

posted 06 Aug 2020

The title of Yi Yunyi’s solo exhibition, 《A Round Turn and Two Half-Hitches》 (2014) summarizes the attempt to encompass the entire work of the artist, who is now in her mid 30s. Combining ‘two half,’ the number of the rope knots that tie an anchored boat, stone/metal pillar of the harbor, and ‘hitches,’ the term that implies the passivity (heteronomy) of human relationships, the artist foregrounds her erratic background of roaming around foreign countries until her homecoming in 2014. To the artist, the contemporary ‘meaning’ of sojourn and nomadic life, the lifestyle against settling down, was like an aspiration for freedom and newness, transcending beyond one’s possession and being; this has been analyzed by the artist as an important issue. Yi’s sojourn oscillates between the vulnerability of relationships implied by the number 2+½ and the solidity of the rope as visualized through the knots. Being aware of the tenacious, vulnerable, coincident, drifting, and never-breaking nature of human relationships and of the reciprocity between the subject and the other — which allows "you" to be recognized anywhere and ‘I’ can only be identified through your recognition — Yi portrays her ceaseless desire for building relationships. Through her desire, we come to see our own relationships from unfamiliar and fresh perspectives. For Yi, life is something that one can never get used to; constantly producing ‘you.’ Therefore, it is to admit that ‘I’ am only a half of ‘us’ in the separation of ‘you and I.’ Through the life of the nomad, the substitutability of relationships and the changeability of the self are inscribed as ‘truth’ in human existence. The prosaic and conventional ‘I’ in here and ‘you’ from there tell each other stories in order to form ‘us,’ and breathes new life through Yi’s storytelling.

〈Meet me at the Eagle〉, Installation view of 《A Round Turn and Two Half-Hitches》 at Insa Art Space, Seoul, Korea, 2014. Image Courtesy Artist

〈Meet me at the Eagle〉, Installation view of 《A Round Turn and Two Half-Hitches》 at Insa Art Space, Seoul, Korea, 2014. Image Courtesy Artist

Yi majored in poetry in college. She was a member of the three-man band ‘TweedleDumb’ in which she was a singer, keyboardist, composer, and songwriter. Currently, she played keyboard in the band ‘Byul. Org.’ Sophisticated poetic language and music, which faithfully keeps the tone of 'amateurism', is the basis of Yi’s video works. However, the first talent (or a genre) Yi acquired was making up children’s stories, or storytelling. The girl who made up stories with imaginary figures and objects in her alone time grew up to write poetry and make music with people in her 20s. Working across diverse media, such as children’s stories, poetry, music, and video, Yi became a video artist later in her career and created her own images. All the narrators in Yi’s videos speak from a first-person point of view. Taking the form of a monologue, they speak in a polyphonic voice. The narrators describe themselves, but these descriptions do not thicken and deepen the characters in the plot. The figures are there to tell the story, but instead of accumulating information and giving details, the story conveys the feelings, memories, impressions, and certain nuances that have passed by or been engraved in the character. The character is not a fixed nor identifiable person. The character plays his/her role like a ‘screen,’ where stories gather and disperse. Therefore, the character is a flat image, text, voice, or rhythm.

The figures in Yi’s works are confessional, but they are unlike the confessions that separate one’s inside from the outside and thereby setup boundaries. They aim to expand rather than converge, unpacking their bundles full of stories. In Yi’s video, the first-person narrator, ‘I’, is a name or a place to which whoever comes in and goes out. While the places can expand to two and three, they also increasingly combine with each other. She goes between the solipsistic narcissist and the intersubjectivity of two or three persons. Therefore, her work does not tell the stories of a mundane world and the story of people who grow apart due to misunderstandings and sorrow after certain incidents. A number of artists who are in intimate relationship with Yi — including school colleagues, fellow artists, and her boyfriend — have unique personalities as proper nouns as well as characteristics as an artist, and appear in Yi’s work. Yi’s videos are from daily life, capturing wherever she was at the moment, but it is not important to discern who the figures are exactly, or what relationship they have to the artist. Yi attempts to tell stories of people who maintain their uniqueness as artists while coexisting ‘together,’ and who tell stories ‘together’ while rejecting to be subsumed or intruded in each others’ stories. Even though their relationships are based on intimacy not competition, we can still see a lot of tension in here because it is the intimacy of the artists who came together to form a collaboration. It is a story about friendship and love, as well as new people mixing with each other and releasing tension. Yi’s videos are not a form of explanation, representation, or communication, but the narratives are compressed for a ‘situation’ that invokes poetics and feelings. Fairytale-like, poetic, and involving narrative, Yi’s videos convey minimal information through ambiguous images. Her images are distracting rather than stable, intermittent rather than linear, and divergent rather than intensive.

The artist is ideologically an outsider and a traveler in any places. The artist traverses between the inside and the outside with the rights of an outsider who can observe the world from the outside while remaining aloof. Yi is a traveler, but one who tries to stay inside. This might be an attitude of an immature and unskilled foreigner because she always sees herself as a part of a collaboration with two or three others. In the work where there is always another person who appears as her pair, Yi becomes an artist outside of the lens, or the subject of the video. The sophisticated style or technique of the video is not heavy-handed because who is behind the camera is not important. In Yi’s work, she is the character, the protagonist, and the director, as are her artist friends. She is the inside as well as the outside, and the object as well as the subject. Modern theories on relationships that divide ‘I’ and ‘you,’ and presume ‘I’ approaches ‘you’ are disempowering for Yi. Yi has ‘not’ completely matured yet; she is a transitive being who has not gone through the separation between the subject and the object, or the ‘I’ and the ‘you.’ That is why she is able to find ‘you’ from anywhere, and identify (a part of) the ‘I’ from that ‘you.’ We might be able to say that this is because she has arrived to video through the undivided world of fairytale, the bodily language of poetry, and the collaborative process of music. This is because this passage is her life, and the personal history is manifested through the body and the senses.

〈The Secular Trinity (Man is Boat Woman is Port)〉, Installation view of 《A Round Turn and Two Half-Hitches》 at Insa Art Space, Seoul, Korea, 2014. Image Courtesy Artist

〈The Secular Trinity (Man is Boat Woman is Port)〉, Installation view of 《A Round Turn and Two Half-Hitches》 at Insa Art Space, Seoul, Korea, 2014. Image Courtesy Artist

Yi has utilized one of the hallways of the Macy’s department store where the world’s biggest pipe organ is played two times a day as a stage for her fairytale, confession, and experimentation. In the work, the transition between the scenes is based on free associations, confessions about her childhood piano lessons, and the place where her feelings were hurt are hermetic, the video and the narrative are dissociated. The amateurs’ ‘movements reject professionalism and the figures gaze at the camera with gestures lacking empathy. The experimental video 〈Meet me at the Eagle〉, 2012 filled the department store with memories, storytelling, and movements performed by inexperienced amateurs. Children are serious beings, but adults often forget about it or miss it. The place of commerce becomes a children’s playground, and the viewers wonder ‘who’ are the figures dancing in paper dresses, and when will we become like them? Borrowing from the title of a pop song, the work 〈The Secular Trinity (Man is Boat. Woman is Port)〉 shows the different sounds of drums that are played by a woman who cannot leave one place and a man who is bound to another place. At a port where an anchored battleship appears far away, the artist plays the drum and is spinning in every direction, and a ‘boy’ on the right side of the video plays the drum while rotating around the spinning door on an axis. The boy whose body is tied up to the spinning door is spinning all the way around in order to keep himself from falling. The banal and conventional idiom ‘Man is boat. Woman is port’ is deconstructed by giving a woman the active role of “do not leave,” and giving a man the passive one “cannot leave.” The artist's interpretation that everyone is bounded and stays (in different ways) seems to be expressed further through the rhythms of the drum sound. Regardless of whether the person is passive or active, one's existence in such transient sound announces one's being. 〈Wetland, Greencard, Trio〉 is a record of the artist’s sorrow and pain followed by the abrupt departure of her boyfriend, whom she lived together for three years, back to Korea. It unfolds with the artist’s confessional statement that assumes herself as a vulnerable deer. Wearing a mask of a deer that often appeared in the neighborhood and was killed on the road, Yi enacts her ‘unhappiness’. The artist who ‘became’ a deer walks on four feet, licks on a piece of salt hanging on the tree, and moves a Benjamin tree, which she nurtured with her boyfriend at home, to the forest. Yi’s confessional statements are recited in an ‘amateur’ voice of a middle-aged Korean immigrant woman who the artist had known of, imparting an alien feeling. Multiple layers in the video are created with the voice of a middle-aged woman, the artist’s childlike gestures that embody her sadness by becoming an animal, and the dreamy image of the deer appearing in the end. The artist’s persistence in rewriting the simple story and unpacking it into many layers allow the humanistic metaphor of pain and sorrow to become loose and vague. The artist might be utilizing her narrative as an opportunity to present many people, various scenes, and different metaphors. She uses the first person ‘strategy’ to expose herself in order to constantly tell, intervene, and negotiate these stories.

〈Wetland, Greencard, Trio〉, Installation view of Courage and Poem at ONE AND J. Gallery, Seoul, Korea, 2019. Image Courtesy Artist

〈Wetland, Greencard, Trio〉, Installation view of 《Courage and Poem》 at ONE AND J. Gallery, Seoul, Korea, 2019. Image Courtesy Artist

Wandering inside the times that cannot be explained without you — or the times that I must recall you — in order to explain myself, we finally reach this place, speaking, singing, and dancing like actors on the stage. We face each other, and even solitude is a state right before speaking, a condition during speech, and a part of myself that I forget in the process of speaking. Therefore, going between silence and speech, we call you and find, you. Not a gaze of an isolated artist aloof from the world, nor a text, in which the artist, who is open to the responsiveness of the audience’s reception, Yi’s video explores the aesthetic opening of the world through herself. Her videos develop while she discovers familiar and intimate relationships everywhere, while stories wait for her in any places. Her works are full of curiosity and embody the survival strategy of a beginner's mind. Pulling herself back, both from the interiority of the self-conscious artist and the public manifestation of the social self, Yi’s confessional, relational, fairytale-like and poetic videos allow us to experience how these crude beings speak, communicate and share in order to live while refusing to mature.

※ This article was originally written under the support of SeMA Nanji Residency, and re-published here with the consent of SeMA Nanji Residency and the copyright holder.

YANG Hyosil

Aesthetics / Art critic

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