1998 A Woman’s Testimony on the Twentieth Century : The Recent Works of Jeong SoYoun _ Yun, NanJie (Art History)

A Woman’s Testimony on the Twentieth Century : The Recent Works of Jeong SoYoun

Yun, NanJie (Art History)

Consistent with the manifesto of Maurice Denis, which states that “Painting is essentially a plain surface covered with colors of arranged order,” modern art has sought to obey the cannon law of “pure form.” Modernist painting, whose main concern was to preserve the identity of art, has endeavored to purge everything inartistic out of the world of art. Its main target became “language”, which, according to Clement Greenberg, is closely related with the reality of life. Michael Fried insisted that language exist between the genres of art. On this view, the influence of language on art is only to contaminate art’s pure form. This argument worked for Modernist critics, because what they advocated in abstract art was its silent form. However, we cannot deny the fact that art speaks and art tells a story. There is no art that does not contain some element of religious content, historical fact, or personal story relating to the individual artist. Even abstract art cannot exist as completely empty form devoid of story. Strong religious messages are read even in the painting of Ad Reinhardt, a self-professed ardent formalist. Abstract art conceals language behind its form. Whether literary, narrative, or discursive, no art can exist without “subject matter”. The voices of the varied artists who have employed language-artists who appeared after Modernism-did not emerge out of nowhere; theirs was a resurrection of sleeping voices. These artists are just following their strong impulse to revive language within the context of art, the language concealed behind the face of pure art. “The Hammering Men” by Borfsky is one example in tune with this effort. In the relatively short career of Jeong SoYoun, this contemporary inclination to resurrect language within art is evident.
True to her modernist education, her first exhibition was devoted exclusively to abstraction, but now she is engage with telling specific stories of life via her work.
Her story begins with the memory of her own engagement and marriage. The engagement and marriage gowns in which Jeong dresses enlarged pictures of Barbie dolls are her own. These images represent the ideal longing of many Korean women. But this ideal is not chosen by women themselves; rather, it is a longing projected by the gaze of others, especially by the desiring gaze of men. In Jeong’s work, a Barbie doll, a typical icon of western beauty, wears both western and Korean style dresses: this reveals the westerner’s gaze superimposed on the male gaze. While looking at the Barbie wearing the Korean traditional costume (Hanbok), the viewer comes to realize how many gazes are passed across on the self-image of a woman. The dress becomes empty space where woman’s self is exhausted and where other’s gazes converge, contaminating her with the logic of power. In addition, the dress functions as a device for exposing the fragmentation caused by the distribution structure of capitalism in a society based on consumption. The standardized image of Barbie acts as an icon of the trends shaping relationships between men and women; the male shopping for the female image, which is wrapped and distributed like a commodity.
This narrative of engagement and marriage leads to the story of a middle-class woman. A bathtub knitted in pink yarns speaks about the futility of the rosy dream contained in the image of Barbie. This dream of the future turns out to be as void as a meticulously knitted bathtub uselessly dripping and oozing the water it is incapable of holding. Since the process of its fabrication has demanded so much time and patience, the futility of the empty dream is that much more marked.
Using photography and video installation, Jeong SoYoun tells a woman’s story in the context of sexuality. Her work starts out from the interesting discovery that a picture of an eye, if vertically displayed, resembles a female sexual organ. In the vertically arranged pictures of eyes, the beholder encounters the sexualized images of numerous women, including the artist’s herself. Focusing on the fact that an object is viewed differently depending on the viewer’s particular point of view, Jeong shows that an image is not merely passively objective, but acts subjectively according to the viewer’s gaze. However, Jeong’s main interest lies not in this visual game but in its content. She has discovered a peculiar condition of female “sexuality” in the irony that an eye, which usually symbolizes contemplation and insight, can be transformed into the object of desire and lust. A constantly moving video screen with crossed images seems to speak to us. But its voice is not heard; it is a “silent cry”. Here we confront the tension between the desire to uncover deeply buried stories and the frustration of realizing that they cannot be told.
The experience of giving birth to, and raising a child is fundamental in a woman’s life. Inspired by the toys of her own child, Jeong exhibits models of animation characters in ways reminiscent of insect specimens displayed in a natural history museum. Her approach is unique in that she observes everyday features common to the lives of children, instead of relying on a banal theme like “maternity”. Her child, raised in urban conditions, may have never encountered real mice; nevertheless, he is quite familiar with the image of Mickey Mouse. This is a “hyper-real” experience in the age of mass media, while in the society of consumption “simulacrum” replaces “the real”. The simulacrum of Disney Land, evoked as an exemplary model by Jean Baudrillard, affects the mentality of Korean children heavily. As the simulacrum spreads all over the world unchecked by national borders, Mickey, Minnie, Goofy Donald will one day act exactly as “the fossils of the twentieth century”-just as Jeong’s title suggests.
In addition to Jeong’s serial stories on woman-marriage-sexuality-modern people, we can read another story embedded in her work: a story about art itself. Customized dolls, pink woolen yarns, coarse plastic, photography and video, all her primary media belong to the realm of kitsch, which threatens the scared place of art. What is more, her method of producing works-reproduction and enlargement-is the rule in the realm of kitsch. Toying with “kitsch”, Jeong aims not only to free and reincarnate the language confined in modernism, but also, with the aid of this rehabilitated language, to break the codes of “art” set by modernists. A work of original art by a genius artist does not exist anymore; instead art becomes the product of the collection and appropriation of commodities carrying the profane imagery surrounding us. What Jeong intends to expose in her work is the “colonialization” of the entirety of everyday life. While the male gaze’s colonialization of the female subject, the western gaze’s of Korean identity, and the simulacrum’s of reality are being accomplished, art itself is being devoured by the empire of kitsch. The only way to stop this devouring process from turning everything into a dismal, depressing, and colorless landscape is in the hand of an artist observing it. Jeong SoYoun is a newcomer who has just begun to open her eyes. From now on, her eyes can be expected to grow more mature and scrutinizing, her voice to speak in ever more persuasive and refined language.