TheArtro introduces young Korean artists who have attracted international attention at Gwangju Biennale, Busan Biennale, and MediacitySeoul. This time it’s Jun Sojung, winner of the Noon Award for promising young artist at the 2016 Gwangju Biennale. Her works explore the meaning of life and art and the relationship between the two. Her videos include one that shows her repeatedly performing seemingly meaningless acts and others that capture the experiences of people engaged in disappearing trades.
Water being poured into a broken jar. A tower of matchsticks being painstakingly assembled with one hand before collapsing. The moon reflected in water, and attempts to catch it. A person walking on a narrow balance beam holding a cup full of water.
These are all scenes that appear in ‘The Habit of Art,’ a work by Jun Sojung, who won the Noon Award for promising young artist at the 2016 Gwangju Biennale. They depict actions that, in a society driven by efficiency, might invite criticism. But the relentless exploration of the impossible is a unique value of art, central to its very existence, as well as one of its distinctive virtues. Jun is an artist who has relentlessly explored the subject of the “artistic attitude.”
Jun’s “artists on the borderline” series is a collection of works that looks at people who aren’t artists by vocation but nevertheless put the spirit of art into action in their lives. Featured are masters of various trades: a haenyeo, or female diver (‘Treasure Island’), a fisherman (‘The Old Man and the Sea’), a worker in a kimchi factory (‘Something Red’), a piano tuner (‘The Twelve Rooms’), a tightrope walker (‘Last Pleasure’), and a sign painter (‘Time Regained’). All of these individuals hold to personal philosophies and ideals that they seek to realize. From Jun’s video portraits of them, it is clear to see that they have internalized the values of art, in their minds and with their bodies, over long periods of time. Their attitudes, though neither all-knowing nor absolute, enkindle an appreciation of the values, dazzling like flares of light, that are truly precious.
How do art and life meet? What is art, and what meaning does it have? These are the questions Jun poses in ‘The Habit of Art.’ This writer talked with the artist about her way of “doing” art and about her works.
It wasn’t something I was expecting, so I’m pleased. As an artist, though, I’m always hoping to bring new works to exhibit, so in that sense I was slightly disappointed that I wasn’t able to. While preparing for the biennale, I was able to exchange a lot of ideas with the planners. We especially talked a lot together about the questions of how art can be connected to life where it’s actually lived, as with my projects to get portraits, documented on video, of the people I meet. The piece I presented at the Gwangju Biennale, ‘The Habit of Art,’ is an account of my trying to answer questions about the “doing” of art—questions that came up over the course of my interactions with these subjects—by my own “doing” of the act.
A lot of people, for convenience’s sake, refer to this group of works as the “artists on the borderline” series or the “experts in daily life” series. But I see them more as individual works, each of which takes a different approach. There is in fact a story behind how I came to focus on these kinds of people. While traveling in Finland, I happened to hear about a dancer who had built a house in the woods and lived there fifty years, dancing and living the life he wanted. I interviewed the people who had known him and tried to reconstruct his life that way; and in this way, I created my work. The people around this dancer had viewed him as someone crazy, someone eccentric; at the same time, he was also seen as a creative adventurer. His attitude to life, and the ways in which he was both misunderstood and understood by the people around him, reminded me in many ways of the life of the artist. Like in Kafka’s story, “A Hunger Artist,” where the performer, obsessed with the art of starvation, eventually dies, marveled at but also ignored by the public. After this really unforgettable encounter, I returned to Korea and found myself wanting to meet with people who were doing art in unique ways in the context of their everyday lives. This was the starting point for the series. On the surface, it might have looked like I was trying to bring craftsmen, or certain trades, to the fore, but for me it was a way of documenting my journey of meeting with and talking to these distinct individuals.
That’s right. As an artist living in these times, I’m constantly feeling as if I’m walking a precarious tightrope over not only temporal but also cultural, political, and geographical boundaries. Through subjects inhabiting this reality, I was able to shed some light on these concerns and reflect on them.
We met in so many different ways, as different as they are from each other, and a range of research methods was necessary. As a rule, I’m always observing what’s around me very carefully, pursued the stories that pique my curiosity or asking the same questions. Earlier on in my work, the people I would naturally cross paths with, the people who were close, became my subjects. The machine embroiderer Jeon Taechun, for example—I visited his shop from time to time to request embroidery. It was in an area that was undergoing redevelopment, and with one glance you knew that the winds of redevelopment were howling at his doorstep. Yet he would show up, unconcerned, to that same space, which couldn’t have been much more than 4 about 13 square meters, at the same time every day, and I sensed something like a strong energy from him. As I gradually began to create more works that looked at individuals, and more people saw them, I would sometimes get people wanting to introduce me to someone they had met. That’s how I met the haenyeo and the type designer.
The works are usually based primarily on the interviews with the subjects, but aside from this, I also consult a wide range of references and also get ideas from literature and from music. For example, with ‘Treasure Island,’ I was inspired greatly by the work song the haenyeo sing: “Ieodosana.” Through research on the mythology of Jeju Island and the stories the haenyeo pass on, I was able to flesh out my ideas more concretely. With ‘The Twelve Rooms,’ I paid attention to how the piano tuner Lee Jong-ryeol would describe pitch as a tactile sensation. I was reminded of synesthesia and went about creating a work in which the pitch he played while tuning would produce a response in the form of a specific color.
The person in the work is me. To be more precise, only two of the actions were carried out by someone else. I wanted to do all of the performances myself, but some things weren’t possible for me to do just then, and there were other things that I would need more time and training to do. In my portraits of subjects, as I’ve explained, a lot of questions came to my mind about the life and attitude of an artist, and about art itself. I wanted to reflect on these questions through ‘The Habit of Art,’ through a process of “doing” certain assigned actions. The seven short video segments show actions that originate from habitual, everyday actions but are only possible through sustained and repeated training and practice, or by enduring an experience of time in all of its fullness.
Art once appeared magical, or salvific, but it is nothing more than an illusion at times. Works that seemed like they would last forever are altered in meaning with the passing of time. The zeal with which artists throw themselves into their art, their dedication, sometimes looks like recklessness and foolishness, with no voice to sound in an irredeemable world. In the simple and short yet powerful repetitions, I experienced all of this being flipped upside down, in an instant. But the actions would continue to be repeated, and I became aware of the gaps they revealed, and the documentation of this on video became ‘The Habit of Art.’ Rather than pointing to any absolute power in art or the attitude of art, I wanted to focus on bringing to mind the gaps, the slipping and sliding—this is what art is for me.
I felt that multichannel video would be effective for repeatedly showing the elements of the work. The quality of connectedness is completely different with multichannel video than when the actions appear in sequence. What I envisioned was these actions going on forever, or being repeated without end, regardless of whether their result was success or failure. This was given form through the multiple channels and the horizontal movement on the screen. The circular images, like the flames, moon, jar, and matchstick tower, were arranged to move together with the contours of the horizontal movement.
The works I’ve created up to this point have always been pointing at me as an artist. My subjects have spurred me to reflect and served as mirrors prompting rumination on myself an artist. With ‘The Habit of Art,’ I was documenting the process of my carrying out a self-assigned mission. The journey of this work’s creation and my journey as an artist are one and the same. The life I want to live as an artist is one in which life and art are harmonized and balanced; this aspiration shows in my work. It can’t be like this continuously, of course. Sometimes the situation will fracture or fragment, and this too will be reflected in my work. The meaning and forms of art also will continue to change within me.
I became interested in this subject while working on ‘The Twelve Rooms,’ which I mentioned earlier. I wanted to study a wider variety of synesthesia, beyond the relationship between sound and touch. My interest in this is rooted in the question of how such unique, individual experiences can be shared with other people. I’m less interested in the phenomenon as limited to two different senses and more, increasingly, in the cultural and social aspects. I’m working on two, three pieces at the moment that will be presented at a solo exhibition in June 2017.