So-Rim Lee examines how two emerging feminist artists stage and politicise a hair salon and a cosmetics store.
In its magical capacity to reconstrue the processes of life and the material bodies inhabiting it, performance politicises the everyday, turning the mundane radical. Performance, defined by Richard Schechner as a “twice-behaved behaviour,” promises a citationality: that it has been performed in the past, and that it will be reiterated in the future. Erving Goffman theorised how life itself can be understood as a “dramaturgical” presentation, in which people live by performing their everyday social selves through “clothing; sex, age, and racial characteristics; size and looks; posture; speech patterns; facial expressions; bodily gestures; and the like.” To see gender as performance, then, is to understand it as “a stylised repetitions of acts” that have been sedimented over time, rather than a seamless and monolithic identity. Performance reminds us of the radical power of embodiment itself—our state of “being in a body”—animating the feminist credo, “The personal is political."
”Reflecting such inherent politics of life itself, performance art and feminism have been inseparable from the medium’s European and American forms since the mid-1960s. Ever since South Korea’s first-generation feminist performance artists Kang Kuk-jin, Jung Kang-ja, and Jung Chang-seung staged “Transparent Balloon and Nude Happening”in 1968, the past six decades have also witnessed various Korean women artists explore the power of performance to politicise our ways of seeing. From the late 1980s to the 1990s, Lee Bul dressed up in tentacular sculptural costumes and waded through the streets of Seoul and Tokyo; in 1998, she delineated her experience with abortion by suspending her naked body from the ceiling tied to a rope. Reclaiming “the grotesque” and uncontrollable femininity by refusing to be managed by the patriarchal State, Lee Bul’s performances resonate to this day—especially considering this past April saw the Constitutional Court of Korea decide to lift the nation’s sixty-six-year abortion ban.
In this new millennia inundated with neoliberal, “postfeminist” modes of living, the struggles for gender equality have become co-opted by a mode of cultural consumption, and the globalisation of American media by the early 2000s has ordained Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City as the desirable image of the “liberated” white American woman. This new age also saw a proliferation of user-generated internet and social media, correspondingly mobilising new forms of feminist acts among the so-called hashtag generation. Resisting the societal “corset” that pressures women to properly curate and feminise their looks through beauty routines, 2018 saw South Korean beauty YouTubers—Lina Bae, among others—participating in the #EscapeTheCorset movement, destroying their treasured cosmetics products on camera and going makeup free. Since 2018, K-pop idol Sulli has vocally participated in the #FreeTheNipple movement through fashion statements on Instagram and on TV; and in June 2019, Fireworks Femi-Action hosted their fourth annual Matchless Armpit Hair Competition encouraging women to flaunt their armpit hairs in public.
In the white-walled gallery, emerging feminist artists Ga Ram Kim and Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin explore new ways of “setting the stage” for performance art to take place, re-presenting the everyday acts of visiting the hair salon or shopping for skincare products into social commentaries on the nexus of beauty and capitalist consumption. Transforming exhibition sites into the familiar settings of a hair salon and a cosmetics store, respectively, each artist turns these spaces into a performative site that challenges how one sees bodily self-care, reinterpreting what it means to groom oneself a certain way, and how one performs “the notion of self” in so doing.
In re-presenting the processes of getting a haircut or sampling skincare products as performances, the artists draw attention to the mechanical actions of each routine, bringing to vision the gestures and mannerisms in quotidian scenarios otherwise unseen. In so doing, they expand the possibilities of the performance medium to question: How does performance address the interwoven ideologies of beauty and capitalism? What is being performed, to what affective end? How does each artist set the stage to transform the exhibition space into a nonconventional site where the audience becomes synonymous with the performer?
So-Rim Lee is the 2019–20 Moon Family Postdoctoral Fellow in Korean Studies in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania. So-Rim’s research investigates the intersections of embodiment, everyday performance, and visual culture in contemporary Korea. Her doctoral dissertation, Performing the Self: Cosmetic Surgery and the Political Economy of Beauty in Korea, explores how cosmetic surgery became a mode of performing the self and subjectivity in South Korea post-1997 Asian Financial Crisis.