The ingrained belief that space includes memories no longer corresponds to our common experiences in this era. Space no longer serves as a “fossil of continuity”, as the French philosopher of science Gaston Bachelard metaphorized, but rather as a catalyst for a change that makes our ordinary life always unstable. Do we still have a home in our contemporary society in which we can continuously abide? Can our scattered, aimlessly wandering memories be recognized in the field of national or world history, or at least in the mother nature of our hometowns which the souls of our ancestors inhabit?
Artist CHUNG Jaeyeon attempts to solve the puzzle of space that continuously slips over memories. Since she does not empathize with an official message that so-called “public place” manifests and institutionalized. she “retraces” fragments of lost memories in order to find her own identity. The artist intends to search for and represent the traces of the past inscribed in her five senses, which in other words, refers to the memories of the body to become honest to herself. If her corporal works are classified as a “site-specific art”, it is not because of her observance of the public value of a certain place, but because of her focus on the experience of the materiality that breaks this value with her own body. A phrase she writes in the artist’s notes alludes to: “a sense of shame that I do not empathize with ideological symbols and signs or a fear that the absence of my historical consciousness may be revealed” is not a confession of her artistic incompetence, but rather an indication that she reappropriates spatial motifs in a totally different manner. Space is a catalyst for a concrete experience and its result rather than being a fixed substance. Space finally gets its status as space in the course of differentiating itself from other spaces by specific memories or ideas and ideologies. For example, the status of the “Western civilization” is recognized by a gap between the progressive West and the underdeveloped East, while South Korea is differentiated from the backward North. Likewise uprose Gangnam away from less-developed Gangbuk. In this way, space is both a relative and independent concept. A conflict often occurs because space, which is required to change in accordance with the change of memory, does not respond to the call for change in favor of its own inertia. In other words, space obtains its sovereignty by disrupting memories and disturbing their rearrangement. Through its own materiality, it inversely stimulates new memories. In this sense, the idea that space is pregiven and that it holds our memory is a product of modern history and is no longer valid.
CHUNG Jaeyeon’s installations that slyly privatize public places, as if it were her own house, revive the vitality of the space itself by removing an ideological curtain that has dropped down and enveloped the space. If we bracket the witty aspects of her work, her early creations, 〈A Piercing Gaze〉 (2002) and 〈Love Letters in Hyde Park〉 (2009), demonstrate a new approach to space, foreshadowing her later works. Personal engagement in a public space transforms a coercive and cold space into an intimate space that my five senses can feel immediately. Of course, the place is not only mine. The space she shows is located on the boundary, where public and private areas meet and looks out so-to-speak and pays attention to the reaction of the viewer. Her collaboration work 〈Opening Project〉 (2013) that she performed after her return from studying abroad is, in light of the artist progress, an example of physical substantialization in an attempt to break down the wall between public and private realms.
As indicated in her artist’s note, CHUNG’s installations are in pursuit of space for communication by bringing down social barriers. What she has created is indeed, however, close to a space of division, rather than that of communication. A series of works in which the artist displaced cement blocks here and there, like every day labor, seem to be far from an act of communication. The bricks floating around the space without becoming organic structures bring up the image of ruins. Although not intended, it is read as an allegory of history. A dark shadow of history, wandering without finding an anchorage like an unavoidable labor roaming around the remains of the ruins, namely, the allegory of “posthistoire” is the cast on her work.
In such global circumstances, with the collapse of socialism that once touched the hearts of the intellectuals, with the dictatorship that is more vicious than colonization of the past in most of newly emerging countries that wished for independence, and with the crisis of representativeness in representative democracy that seemed the most reasonable, all the systems of official ideologies and legitimacy lost a historical glory. The glorious past ensures no meaning any more.
The performance titled 〈Way in & out〉 (2009) presented in front of the gate of the Royal College of Art, a historied college in London, reenacts such a collapse and an accompanying crisis of representation. CHUNG describes the difficulties of the artists of our times as follows: “It is not easy to get a convenient shell that can represent oneself.” Her attempt to ‘retrace’ a widely known public space based on the memories of an individual body in such an unprecedented situation seems convincing. The memories of the old Seoul Capitol that the artist represented in her works 〈Retrace〉 (2017) and 〈Lost Corner〉 (2018) reveal the chasm between official history and extremely personal distant memories. More accurately, it is a chasm of history itself that is exposed between the Japanese General Government Building and the Seoul Capitol (National Museum of Korea). In fact, the memories of the place couldn’t be completely personal. The senses of my body were already refracted by the Western historicity that the building had already embodied historicist architecture(!). It destroyed the memories of the palace of the old dynasty that had “originally” occupied that space. In this regard, my memory is not “originally” mine. Unlike the title of the work, one’s memory is based on the forgetting of something absent, not something “lost.” The images of the space created by CHUNG Jaeyeon are highly “post-historical.”
While space provides the categorical condition of history, it also maintains its own historicity in the process of mediating social and political changes continuously. Space can be regarded as an active agent of history in that it coordinates diverse situations and different contexts into a network of synchronic-structural relations. Then, the space within the boundary of our relations is always a humanized one, meaning that it’s a space that has experienced historical changes while being embraced and reorganized by political power, to say more pregnantly a “nomos.” Human being takes back their position in a harmonious cosmos created in the middle of the chaos. “Topophilia” is a fundamental mode of human existence. And yet, all these stories are outdated already. We find ourselves lost in the “non-place.” Today’s global phenomena, including unequal development, based on spatial division of labor and the resulting movement of capital and labor, border disputes, immigration and tourism made us regard space as a multi-layered and frequently conflicting social and political process, instead of a cozy nest or a place of memory. In the so-called “space of flows” that sociologist Manuel Castells mentioned, it is very difficult for us to keep our historical identity.
Ultimately, the body, the most primal “place”, will be the only exit from this chaos. According to philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the body is a “place” where our ego resides, a “birthplace of the soul and the model of all other spaces. In reality, however, this body does not find a steadfast place. In contemporary art, the relation between body and space has been a subject of exploration for a long time. There are works that disclose the reality of the “post-historic” era, in which even our body has difficulty securing its own place: 〈House〉 (1993) by Rachel WHITEREAD, who has focused on the body deprived of the physical link to the house, usually casting the empty spaces of the house, such as a bathtub, floor or room; 〈Angel of the North〉 (1998) by Antony CORMLEY, who sculpted traces of the body by wrapping himself in cling-film, covered in plaster and almost buried alive.
The works of space artist CHUNG Jaeyeon reflect deep contemplation on the post-historical space and the memory of body in line with the universal question of contemporary art. Her thoughts and concerns are probably deepened due to the weight of her own country’s history repressing her past and future. The Marronier Park designed by architect KIM Swoo-geun, which the artist wanted to take back by tearing down the wall of a museum, is not in fact “original”. A vague nostalgia is only an extension of the memory of the Japanese colonial period. In the end, we have no choice but to find the exit from the “outside” of history that used to offer the standard of solid identity and representation. The only choice left for the artist is to escape from the bad infinity of the sameness in which the present becomes an inevitable consequence of the past, and then to become a vanishing mediator who is qualified to reveal the division and contradiction between space and memory.