People / Critic

Spring Up Beyond the Gardener’s Control

posted 06 Oct 2022

White structure and red lighting. Here and there are cream-colored mats of easy-to-wipe material and infrared devices beaming warm light. These may be found mostly in hospitals or sanatoriums, but they transform into somewhat sculpture-like figures when gathered in various forms here in the exhibition hall. Like the diverse objects in the exhibition, people visiting also enjoy the works in their own various ways, such as by standing with their arms crossed, by lying down on them, and by directly enjoying the warmth of the light.

This place is Youngjoo Cho's installation called Humangarten, a stage performance called Human Beings Don't Spring Up Like Mushrooms, and the location of the video piece called Com pani. Each piece shares the same space and overlaps in many areas, but has distinctly different phases. This plays an important role in Youngjoo Cho's work. Delicately sensing that one thing is never one in itself and the same things can be twisted and complicated or overlap with each other seems to be more and more important in her work.

Feathers on Lips, 2020, single-channel video, color, sound, 10 min 30 sec.

Feathers on Lips, 2020, single-channel video, color, sound, 10 min 30 sec.
Choreography & Co-direction: MinKyoung Lee. Performers: Hyeeun Kwak, JiHye Myeong, SeulKee Jang, Eunjoung Im. Filming & Editing: Sunyoung Lee. Sound: Garam Heo. Sound Assistant: ShinWon Park.
Courtesy of the artist

Feathers on Lips, first performed in 2020, dealt with this issue. With people tussling in the art piece, it shows the ambivalence of touch in a complex way. Gestures in Feathers on Lips appear as physical fights with rules such as wrestling or Jiu-jitsu, but they slowly calm down at the latter part of the performance and become like lovers lying on top of each other. The situation in which it is impossible to distinguish between people attempting to touch others and people being touched continues. With female bodies intertwined with social and historical depth, bodies and gestures in Feathers on Lips go beyond being symbols that are widely thought of as having single meanings. Subjects and objects. Gestures to kill and gestures to save. Unexplained hatred and unexplained love. These overlap with such complexity.

Human Beings Don't Spring Up Like Mushrooms, 2021, live performance, 25 min.

Human Beings Don't Spring Up Like Mushrooms, 2021, live performance, 25 min.
Choreography & Co-direction: Min Kyoung Lee. Performers: Taekki Kwon, JiHye Myeong, Eunjoung Im, Jungi Hong. Installation: Youngjoo Cho. Stage: Humangarten, 2021, polyurethane, sponge, infrared lamps, dimensions variable. (Costume: Eunsil Jo.)
Courtesy of the artist

The study of ambivalence continues with Human Beings Don't Spring Up Like Mushrooms staged at Humangarten. This performance is based on fiction where four performers present various restrictions to their bodies, move around the sculpture of Humangarten, and stop moving when falling on the ground. It starts with the performers cooperating, but discord gradually appears within the community. Whether they help each other or just bring in other's bodies to survive, the hard-to-define situation repeats itself. Within it, cooperation and struggle are profoundly and mysteriously intertwined. Moreover, the tension caused by the unexplained events leading to the performers dying after falling off the sculpture, whether unintentionally or planned, also brings out the unique sense of ambivalence from the audience.

Eyes closed, hands attached, feet tied, and back unbendable. Four bodies with different restrictions have different motility. As soon as the performance begins, they become entangled and set off somewhere. Then, because of relative easiness in mobility, the performer with a straight back moves ahead energetically using a piece of the installation like a boat. Because their bodies are placed in complex ways on the structures of Humangarten, which provide extremely limited space, they may look like they are fighting with each other to go ahead of the others. But the performer who went on first soon looks back and assists the others. When people are about to think that, after all, human beings can never go through life alone, the performer soon has to reach for a hanging object from a higher place to advance to the next area. Whether they assist each other out of pure cooperation or survival instinct is not said.

The performance continues showing a mixture of cooperation and struggle. Using someone else's body to survive. For example, one with their eyes closed cannot move alone easily but their free hands and feet are definitely useful for picking up things. This shows that human relationships are not the goal in itself, but necessary means for survival. Fundamental ethical issues. Therefore, cooperation may seem like a utilitarian choice rather than an ethical choice. Also, the performers in Human Beings Don't Spring Up Like Mushrooms dress like nurses and caregivers. Thinking about the movements of the care workers as we watch the performers, the situation becomes more complex. The movements of care workers are to help others but also to earn money. The relativity of ethical dilemmas and care between the means and purposes, and the issues that arise from labor, these are all complicatedly intertwined in their bodies and gestures.

Com pani, 2021, single-channel video, color, sound, 18 min 6 sec.
Com pani, 2021, single-channel video, color, sound, 18 min 6 sec.

Com pani, 2021, single-channel video, color, sound, 18 min 6 sec. Courtesy of the artist

Capturing such a stage on video, Youngjoo Cho renamed it Com pani instead of leaving it as a video recording of Human Beings Don't Spring Up Like Mushrooms, and screened it in an online solo exhibition called And Another Witness. Watching the performance through Com pani, a video re-edited with delicate mise-en-scene and camera cuts, we notice something completely different from when watching Human Beings Don't Spring Up Like Mushrooms. When someone stops moving after falling, for instance, the camera turns at first to show the surprised looks on the other performers' faces, creating a little time for mourning. However, the more the people stop moving, the less time the camera lingers on the grieving faces. Eventually, the camera shows the remaining performers just going on ahead without looking back. And the most noticeable thing in Com pani is the audience.

Though the context of the exhibition clearly states that it "shows the performers who perform, the audiences who watch the performance, and the viewers who see the distance between the performers and the audiences through the digital interface," Com pani makes the role of the audience quite complex. People introduced as "appearing audiences" in the exhibition introduction are credited as "supporting performers" at the end. The audiences and performers are of various identities and life stages, such as young women, middle-aged men, and young men. These supporting performers playing as audiences are then watched by other audiences of this video in this online exhibition, which creates a tension between watching and being watched. People who are struggling ahead blindly as they crash into each other's sweaty bodies. And other people watching the desperate struggle in front of them with impassive faces. In other words, there are performers playing as audiences. Through this structure where people watch others watching, the final audience is forced to continuously sense that such a situation is mediated by a rather specific work of art. Moreover, another layer is superimposed on the bodies and gestures of the performers who pretend to be unaware of the situation. That is the bodies of art laborers called performers watched by the audience as they continue their movements mediated by art.

By superimposing the issue of care on the formalized state of multi-layered labor, a couple of fundamental issues are derived. What does care mean in capitalism? Why does capital care for people? It can be said with optimism about humanity, but the main reason for institutionalizing care in capitalism is, nonetheless, to maintain the population and reproduce the labor force. Care labor in and of itself is labor with unavoidable exploitation. But at the same time, it is a meta-labor that stabilizes the yokes of exploitation. Here, we need to think about the title, Humangarten. The title reminds us of "kindergarten," the German word for preschool. It means a garden for children. The name was suggested by Friedrich Fröbel, a German early childhood educator, in the 19th century, and is still used universally. This word means that educators must establish an environment where children can grow according to their unique characteristics, with a sense of respect for the nature of children, just like in gardens where gardeners water, fertilize, and prune plants as they think about sunlight and temperature according to the nature of the plants.

However, a garden is a highly controlled space that does not reflect true nature itself. Now, there is a garden of extremely humanized nature. There, it is pointless to differentiate between artificial and natural. Once the performance starts, performers dash about if they know where to go. Without speaking to each other, they move in their roles, and commit to their restrictions even though they are not actually restricted. It looks like they are struggling to survive but all of that is controlled in fiction. Furthermore, they return to the very first place they started from, the human garden, after all the sacrifices they perform. It seems to show the yoke of perpetuated labor and reproduction as mentioned above.

Nevertheless, let us return to the time and space of Human Beings Don't Spring Up Like Mushrooms. This is a completely staged performance, yet there is tension between the materials and performers' gestures. What if the bent pillar connecting the ground and the ceiling collapses unexpectedly or a performer falls out of their order? Of course, the audience may have no clue. We never know if a real accident may have occurred at the very performance we watched. But perhaps the potential of the garden is veiled under such a possibility. Mushrooms continuously spring up at the corners of the garden that is beyond the gardener's control. Just like a daisy still blossoming after a seed flies in from somewhere, despite the weeding every day. A small but uncontrollable power. The small instantaneous escape from the yokes.

#####※ This content was first published in 『2021 MMCA Changdong Residency Program Catalogue』, and re-published here with the consent of MMCA Changdong Residency.

Taehyun Kwon

Taehyun Kwon writes critiques and curates various art projects. He explores how to think of the most common events as practices of art. Kwon continues research with the view of identifying the political as the aesthetic.

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