Seo Young Chang sparked public interest through her solo exhibition 《Black Hole Body》 (2017). As implied by the exhibition’s title, her work is reminiscent of the inescapable pull of a black hole’s gravity. Her work inspires anxiety, emptiness, and sarcasm, as well as pity and empathy. The majority of her work appears powerless at first but then makes you think it can hold its own. This article will explore how Chang’s work combines superficial media such as video, narration, and installations with the internal media of space and time.
Chang’s work contains a certain sentiment of repetition that repeatedly reveals itself. I suppose it’s comparable to the feeling you get when riding a really long swing, at the point where you reach the apex, just before you start to swing back down. That point when the swing reaches its climax, that brief moment of stillness along with the anxious pull of gravity slightly tugging on your skin, the velocity of the wind against the back of your neck as you swing forward and backward again and again, that strange sensation of your body moving like a giant pendulum—this is what’s present in Chang’s work. The sensation of infinite orbiting—whether it’s a slowly revolving person or image of an object, a car racing along an elliptical track, or a line of sight that continually flows down a spiral staircase—likely appears often in her videos because her work depicts situations in which something has neither a beginning nor end.
In that case, what is Chang trying to get at through such repetition? Her work separates life and death into states of presence and absence, and seems to constantly go back and forth between the two. In other words, she maintains that miniscule distance between birth and death, touching neither side, all while continually focusing on physical sensations of biological change such as disease and aging, as well as the processes of genetic transmission. Through this distance management, Chang’s work travels to the point of nearly touching the conclusion, but then helplessly reverts to where it first started. And as the viewer always returns to the “self,” which is continually aging every second, it seems natural to feel a sense of emptiness or powerlessness.
By dealing with subjects like aging, dying, and disappearing, Chang’s works use time itself as a medium while gathering various elements containing other timeframes, and mixing them all together. Her 2019 video 〈Your Delivery〉 places a Dutch-speaking girl’s narration over developing Polaroids. The bluish photos that fill the dim screen reveal indiscernible images that look like a hole in field of snow or a lump on someone’s body, while the narration goes on in a mundane tone. Adopting a letter format, it informs viewer that the ancestor’s (my) genes will one day be delivered to the subject (Angelina). As this affectionate warning from an ancestor is played in a gallery, the time it takes for a tiny part of one’s body in genetic code to be transmitted to an individual interacts with the time during which the video is played as well as the real time that passes in the gallery, and thereby arrives in front of the viewer.
On the other hand, the artist views the concept of aging as a combination of the deteriorated body and the sensation of time that feels different as it ages. The pieces in her most recent exhibition 《beginning to end at the beginning》 (November 20–December 21, 2019, Doosan Gallery Seoul) display this interest of hers in a relatively clear way. In her three-channel video 〈Velocity〉 (2019), she directs a dancer to performs tasks like looking at a clock or crossing the street as if they were in an elderly body. In one video, the dancer performs the same movements at a standard pace. In the other two videos, she then speeds up the slow movements and slows down the quick ones, displays all side by side. The result reveals the compression and stretching of speed within the performer’s movements, which are just slightly off, like an untuned second hand on a watch.
Her voice becomes a bit more direct in 〈Slipstream〉 (2019). The video dryly depicts a driver heading to a retirement home according to a navigation app’s directions. This two-channel project has two videos facing each other; the first shows the view from the front windshield and the view in the rearview mirror, while the other shows the view through the rear windshield, giving the viewer the impression of being in the driver’s seat. Despite the errors and emotional outbursts of the navigation app, the car calmly makes its way on the irreversible line from basement parking lot to highway to tunnel to retirement home, ultimately arriving at death, and she highlights the time of the driver (viewer), sitting in the car like a set of coordinate points. Thus, she creates layers of time through the viewer, who passes through a different portion of time every second, with the view of the future in front and the bygone past in the rear.
As equally worthy of discussion as Chang’s handling of time is her use of space. Her videos don’t focus on cinematic aesthetics of directing, instead using the space where the video played as a medium for her artworks, which makes it difficult to categorize her as a video artist. She places numerous videos and objects in the same space, using objects to support the piece’s central video. For instance, in the exhibition 《Young Korean Artists 2019: Liquid, Glass, Sea》 (June 20–September 15, 2019, MMCA Gwacheon), Chang exhibited four videos: 〈Your Delivery〉, 〈As if to Touch〉 (2019), 〈Lens-Tower〉 (2019), and 〈Mountain View〉 (2019), as well as one sculpture, 〈Full of Holes〉 (2019). Each video was independent, yet certain scenes, overall composition, and atmosphere served to emphasize the message of 〈Your Delivery〉. As it’s a sculpture made out of styrofoam, it establishes its presence as a white and fragile mass while serving as a connection between the videos’ miscellaneous imagery.
At the risk of introducing the intrusions of sound and light, Chang always brings space into her work. This environmental layout actually makes it easier to impede on the viewer’s experience rather than aid it. This inability to completely immerse oneself complements the concepts of orbiting, repetition, and turning back right before the finish that are consistently present throughout Chang’s work. This also reveals why, although she deals in space, her methods don’t focus excessively on the space itself. No matter what, she tries to prevent her works from getting too flat or too thick. If the time in her videos symbolize infinity, her sculptures are reminiscent of the limits of a set timeframe. Her aforementioned videos are set on a loop that continues endlessly, but her sculptures and objects reflect the time of the current reality. In her Doosan Gallery exhibition, 〈Velocity〉, 〈Slipstream〉, and 〈Hamburger〉 (2019) were exhibited in the same space as her sculptures 〈Silver〉 (2019) and 〈Passing the Hayflick Limit〉 (2019). 〈Silver〉 is basically modeled on medical assistive devices for the elderly; the latter is a physical manifestation of a scene in 〈Slipstream〉 in curtain format, presenting compressed space-time as a series of folds. In this way, her videos and sculptures complement each other, one smoothing out the other’s coarse nuances into something finer and detailed, delivering this finished version back to the other and thereby expanding it.
This is how Chang simultaneously utilizes external media such as videos, narration, and objects alongside internalized ones such as time and space. Through this method, her images are partitioned and connected, sharpening the sensation the artist wishes to convey. Her works have smell of death but aren’t death. They exhibit the potential of the distance yet to be traveled. They repeatedly play back a presence that’s vague yet distinct. Like slipstreaming in racing, where a racer tails a car in front to lessen wind drag as they prepare to pass it, Chang’s work waits for the opportunity to drift amid repetition. More importantly, her language is constantly changing, like the ticking movements of 〈Velocity〉. But just as we can’t see the changes of aging in a day, her daily evolution isn’t immediately apparent. We just need to watch her subtle accelerations more slowly, more carefully.