Artist and choreographer Geumhyung Jeong’s exhibition 《Homemade RC Toy》, curated by Elena Filipovic at Kunsthalle Basel, evoked the sterile laboratory of an amateur roboticist. Spare parts - batteries, wheels, cables - were arranged almost fetishistically on top of the stepped plinths by the walls, along with informational videos that document the production process of the artist-turned-mechanical engineer. In the center of the space, on top of a black rubber mat, five of the artist’s robotic creations lay dormant, their outstretched limbs seductively suggesting potential for movement.
These are not the prosaic, functional appliances - smartphones, baby monitors, automated kiosks - that have become as invisible as they are ubiquitous in today’s digitally connected society. The torsos of Jeong’s robots consist of the mechanical bodies of large remote-controlled cars, the four wheels serving as contact points, or sockets, for life-size plastic arms and legs. Attached to each contraption is a mannequin’s head, whose jaw is held open in a seemingly tortuous position by a small roller. With pins and bolts jutting out from the elbows and other joints, and joysticks appended to their crotches, Jeong’s robots represent a crude, Frankensteinian machinery.
On select dates throughout the run of the exhibition, Jeong activated the robots in what Kunsthalle Basel called a “mechanical ballet.” The performance recalls the man-machine hybrids of Francis Picabia, in particular from his 1914 painting 〈I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie〉, inspired by the sensuous movement of a dancer. Similar to Picabia’s abstract representation, wherein monumental shapes clutter the canvas’s vertical axis in a static, upward spiral, eschewing the lithe movement one might associate with a dancer’s body, Jeong’s “toys” extend Picabia’s painterly gestures in real space. The robots go even further to reject the light feet and upright posture associated with such dance forms as ballet: the clumsy figures seem content to crawl on their stomachs, advancing forward and backward on their rolling chins.
During a live interaction in June, Jeong cleared the plinths of the various parts and tools covering their surfaces, moving around the room with a choreographed precision that signalled the performance had already begun before the audience filled the room. The artist carefully undressed, walked toward the black mat, and positioned herself on top of a limbless medical torso, merging human and machine, bodily flesh and cold metal. Jeong controlled the crude joysticks positioned on the mannequin’s chest and crotch, variously using her hands and mouth to stimulate them, which, in turn, mobilized two of the robots so that they began to inch forward into the center of the mat. Over the next 45 minutes, Jeong moved from one robot to another, the joystick of each setting the body of another into motion. Though the performance might have been construed as erotic—a nude female dancer gently stroking and sucking the penises of her technological collaborators—it was just as mechanical as it was sensual; Jeong’s movements at once measured and feral. It became difficult to distinguish between performer and prop, controller and controlled.
The manual nature of the robots’ activation, and the slow movement that resulted, stood in stark contrast to the high-tech imaginary espoused by innovations such as Boston Dynamics’s scarily agile robot dog. Even in relation to the wide array of “smart” products currently available on the market (many of which are produced in the artist’s native South Korea), Jeong’s robots are notably clunky. Yet, as the title “Homemade RC Toy” implies, this conspicuous quality is precisely the point. Today, with increasingly advanced technologies blending seamlessly into our daily lives, the ease of using their digital interfaces masks the degree to which we depend on our nonhuman counterparts. At Kunsthalle Basel, Jeong forced viewers to confront the excruciating pas de deux between human being and machine, the true nature of which was revealed to be repetitive, laborious, pathetic, and absurd.