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Embodied Collisions of Space and Time: The Evolving Work of Jin-me Yoon, Canadian Visual Artist11 min read

22 September, 2009 0 comment

By Joni Low

Jin-Me Yoon, 2008. Courtesy, Catriona Jefferies Gallery, Vancouver, 2008

Beppu, Japan: a non-descript, urban landscape of decrepit buildings, scattered rubble, deserted streets. There’s an odd, grating sound on the pavement cutting into distant industrial sounds. A black-clothed figure with a puffed body and bound hands—face obscured by balaclava and plastic cup as ear—crawls slowly into the frame of the video. With mechanical movements it begins a slow, laboured journey through city streets, walking past industrial buildings, the occasional by-stander, and thick clouds of steam. The camera circles back, tracing the same path, then slowly circles again, and again, picking up small details that, by the end, draw no satisfying conclusions.

The black-clothed figure is visual artist Jin-me Yoon, and the video, As it is becoming (Beppu, Japan): Ear to Ground (2008) is one in a series of recent video works that explore the inter-relationships between bodies, cities, and histories in an accelerated, global and contemporary era. In the series, As it is becoming (Beppu, Japan), Yoon invites a de-naturalization of the city, suggesting a more curious and conflicted history beneath the surface of its representations. Viewed singularly, each video provides no easy answers, creating frustration. In concert, however, they act as a call and response: the titles—Park (former U.S. Army base), and Atomic treatment centre onsen—provide clues and provoke curiosities, while the continuity of nonsensical movements suggests a more deliberate ritual. In each of these works, the lack of narrative structure and visual references to identity and place throw the production of meaning back onto the viewer.

Meaning bleeds and seeps outside the frame, uncontained like life, and this is the effect Yoon is striving for.

All this, in one video. Meaning bleeds and seeps outside the frame, uncontained like life, and this is the effect Yoon is striving for: a lateral expansion of her viewers’ imagination, as associational fields open up, subconsciously, as they experience her work.

Searching the Internet for clues, I learn that Beppu is Japan’s onsen (hot spring) capital, a popular tourist destination boasting the largest number of geothermal sites in Japan. Located on Kyushu Island, nearby Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Beppu became a site for therapeutic treatment of atomic bomb survivors. Formerly the site of a U.S. Army base, the rural Beppu has recently undergone considerable urban renewal—opening an international university and encouraging foreign visitors via education, tourism and contemporary art festivals—in efforts to engage with the global economy and thereby sustain the life of the local one[1].

Jin-me Yoon’s artistic practice—which spans over two decades and incorporates photography, video, installation and teaching—is recognized nationally and internationally for contributing to ongoing discussions about memory, history, and place and identity in a rapidly changing world. Through a continuous deconstruction and disruption of that which we perceive to be ‘real’, her work challenges the visual representations of our culture, and the ways in which meanings are imagined and conceived in constant negotiation with other social narratives.

Yoon describes her artistic strategy as “semiotic collisions”, a way of extracting something from one place and putting it in another context to spur a proliferation of meanings that disrupt the semiotic stasis of popular culture. For her, it’s a very intuitive sensibility towards collage and montage that began after immigrating to Canada from Korea at the age of eight. “When you come from one culture to another at a very early age, you’re still quite formed. You have a whole relationship to gesture, the body, culture and place. So in one plane ride, when everything gets denaturalized, it’s a semiotic collage.”[2]

Moving from a more literary culture (there was hardly any television in Korea at that time) to the image and advertisement-rich culture in Canada had a profound effect on Yoon. Her father, a physician, used to receive these slick lifestyle magazines in the mail, advertising romantic getaways and cultured places, all from a Western gaze. “I used to take these magazines, the Sears’ catalogues, and other newspapers and make collages as a child,” she recalls. “And put my own words over them. I did that chronically—I had no idea it was art. It was just the way I processed things.”

“If I hadn’t run up against contemporary art in the 80s, with all the work being done around representation, with the conceptual practices of the 60s and 70s behind it, and the politics of identity, queer, feminist and post-colonial discussions going on at that time, I’m not sure I would have been an artist.”

This intuition guided her through many years of education and artistic training. After completing a degree in the humanities, Yoon was trained rigorously in conceptualism, feminist film, and critical theory, first at Emily Carr School of Art and Design and then Concordia University. Still, she thinks of her career as an artist as somewhat incidental, similar to the ways she sees identity as incidental: a coming together of socio-historical forces. “If I hadn’t run up against contemporary art in the 80s, with all the work being done around representation, with the conceptual practices of the 60s and 70s behind it, and the politics of identity, queer, feminist and post-colonial discussions going on at that time, I’m not sure I would have been an artist. It was just those things coming together and my own sensibility and background. I had access to a lot of ways to frame identity and history, and I found the best way to do it through contemporary practice.”

In early projects such as Souvenirs of the Self (1991), A Group of Sixty-Seven (1996), and Touring Home from Away (2002), Yoon utilized the medium of photography to bring attention to the constructed ‘nature’ of Canadian identity and mythology associated with the iconic landscapes found in tourist imagery and the genre of landscape painting. In Souvenirs of the Self, a series of postcards distributed internationally, Yoon collaged her body with landscapes of Banff, a symbolic Canadian location that carries colonial history and racist legacies. The resulting collision ‘denaturalizes’ constructs, raising questions about belonging, identity, memory and place; the viewer may enjoy the deadpan humour while simultaneously wrestling with aesthetic discomfort. By destabilizing any fixed notions of identity—for both people and places—in her earlier photographic works, Yoon gestures towards the current and limited narratives we encounter, opening them up for a wider discussion.

These artistic strategies are consistent throughout her body of work, as is her performative presence within it. Yet having addressed issues of racial and sexual difference by subverting dominant discourses in the 90s, Yoon felt it necessary to take into account different relations. Since 2000, her concerns have become more global and the identity questions have opened up. Imagination and reality are blurred, and references are tangential and indirect—an ambiguity that reflects the shifts in our contemporary experience. Yoon has moved from an interest in external representations to a more holistic embodiment: the ways in which identity, memory and alterity are expressed at more psychic, behavioural and emotional levels.

The Unbidden series (2001-2004) represents this turning point in her work, and a bridge to her most recent projects. Working almost entirely in video, Yoon created a psychic space where viewers can imagine and relate vicariously to the anxiety, fear and terror associated with, but not limited to, war and displacement. Place and identity still configure, but are left ambiguous. The natural landscapes of swamps and underbrush could represent an anywhere, while the absence of narrative structure, combined with Yoon’s anxious, repetitive physical activity—jumping into the water, crawling through grasslands, compulsively enacting what may be war drills or child’s play?—render her role difficult to pin down.[3]

The change in artistic medium is also significant. Yoon’s concentration in video[4] indicates a desire to explore more interior, psychic consciousness-forming structures. The moving image, in contrast to the static, creates what artist Judy Radul has described as “a togetherness in time that implicates the viewer in a durational relationship.”[5] Yoon’s physical embodiment of emotional states, and the viewer’s experience of these states, creates a self-reflexive awareness of our human sensitivity to motion and emotion, even across visual media. It also raises questions about how memories of war, violence and trauma resurface. These could be inherited, indirectly experienced via the Internet or television—here the amateur videos of recent demonstrations in Iran come to mind—or felt through a collective unconscious. Though Yoon did not directly experience the Korean War or Japanese colonization, she found herself having to deal with the unmanageability of emotions around it fifty years later, what she describes as memories still in her nervous system. In Unbidden, there is a noticeable empathy, an urgent desire for connection with others in light of these horrors, and in spite of the semiotic structures and Cartesian divisions that intellectually separate one thing from another.

Her circular, non-linear movements, combined with the circular movements of the video itself, create a temporal difference: an experience of time that expresses stasis and suggests a compression of past, present and future.

In As it is becoming (2008) and The dreaming collective knows no history (2006), Yoon continues to deconstruct, disrupt, and subvert these divisions, yet in more formal and conceptual ways. In both projects, Yoon returns to Asia as other, crawling—a horizontality that contrasts with the verticality of the cities and other humans around her—which articulates a spatial type of difference, one that offers alternative ways of being and seeing.

Her circular, non-linear movements, combined with the circular movements of the video itself, create a temporal difference: an experience of time that expresses stasis and suggests a compression of past, present and future. Yet similar to earlier strategies, Yoon inserts her body into a given context—in this case, busy urban environments—disrupting the narratives of capitalism, the seemingly smooth flow of progress, and the accelerated pace of production and consumption that have interfered with basic human relationships.

This recent work is also concerned with the ways that history exists in the present, like phantasms calling up illusion, imagination, and the subconscious[6]. Yoon’s performance is like that of a ghost, there yet not there, ritualizing and marking sites of memory in ways that evade the creation of a static monument, a grand gesture. “Monuments mark history, but they also crystallize meaning, statically locking it in the past. I want to offer something more ephemeral, a transformative kind of memory that theorist Kaja Silverman has argued for, one that is perpetually re-written and rethought. It’s a temporal co-existence of the past and the present and what is yet to come. It’s the way I’ve always thought about time.”

She is interested in the transitions, the in-betweens, and the pluralities that are so often flattened by human representation, language, and other structures that become too static.

Yoon wants to convey the world as she experiences it: in its fluid, unresolved, and contradictory nature. She is interested in the transitions, the in-betweens, and the pluralities that are so often flattened by human representation, language, and other structures that become too static. While she acknowledges that an artwork can never escape structure and representation, her interest is not in dispensing with the structure once the idea has been grasped, but understanding the co-existence of these things.

In Yoon’s work, the conceptual structure is very carefully thought out, and each formal choice is rich with meaning: from the placement of the body, to the choice of medium as well as the physical installation itself. Yoon describes this as daily mind practice—a process of reading and researching, allowing ideas to form and shift, while keeping ear to ground on changes in the world and the way they affect art. It is a rigorous, steady process: the cultivation of one project usually spans three to five years.

The resulting ideas, however, seem to move freely. “I like to work between structure and randomness,” she explains of the artistic process. “It’s where the work can really live, the way we live life. I really believe that’s where we feel alive, in that zone between serendipity, randomness, chance and structure.” Her work is a relationship between these things, where formal aspects address the conceptual and the political, and where form and ideas merge. The blurring of boundaries in her work seems to be blurring her process.  “More and more, I feel like the work is taking me, and I just follow. It doesn’t sound very analytical, but that’s just how it is.”


Sources:

[1]  http://www.city.beppu.oita.jp/51englishpage/index.html; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beppu; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomic_bombings_of_Hiroshima_and_Nagasaki

[2] Interview with Jin-me Yoon on June 7, 2009. All subsequent quotes are from this conversation.

[3] Susan Edelstein and Susette Min have written stunning essays about the video installation of Unbidden, exhibited at Kamloops Art Gallery from October 17 – November 28, 2004. For more information, see the catalogue, Unbidden (Kamloops: Kamloops Art Gallery, 2004).

[4] Previous works that incorporated video include between departure and arrival (1997) and Intersection 4 (2001).

[5] Judy Radul, “At the Station: Notes on between departure and arrival,” in Jin-me Yoon: between departure and arrival (Vancouver: Western Front, 1998), a catalogue for a solo exhibition of Yoon’s work.

[6] Jin-me Yoon’s work makes references to Walter Benjamin’s suggestion that modernity and the flows of history are phantasmagoric. For more information, see Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project.

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