Another Approach to Equality

Hye Jin Mun, Art Critic

According to Young In Hong, her work is about seeking ways in which the concept of ‘equality’ can be questioned and putting them into practice through art. These words might remind one of sociopolitical activist art, which dominated the art scene of the 1980s and 1990s. In terms of subject matter, most of her works deal with those people whom society regards as minorities, and in terms of medium she often uses methods that are not usually associated with high art such as sewing and embroidery. Hong’s approach to the idea of equality is, however, considerably different from the familiar and typical modes of tackling sociopolitical issues. The voices that speak of what is marginal are easily subject to the danger of falling prey to an oppositional dichotomy. The label or category of minority itself is an obvious sign of approving the existing hierarchy between the central and the marginal, and the efforts to defend the rights of the marginal frequently turns into the struggle for recognition to replace the central with the marginal. How can we pay attention to those who are marginalized without categorizing them as a specific group or embrace the marginal without differentiating or objectifying them? Hong’s practice presents us with a small suggestion as to a possible answer to this difficult question.
There are two points for an artist to consider if he/she intends to embody equality in a visual language: one is a content-oriented embodiment using it as a subject; the other is to incorporate it into the production process or form. The former is the relatively easier and general approach, but it has an unavoidable limitation in that content and medium work separately. It is at this very point that Hong’s method stands out: in her work, not only the content but the process and the resulting body (form) likewise defy the established hierarchy, quietly but clearly. Consequently, equality operates and is achieved with respect to both content and form, namely, both internally and externally.
The most conspicuous feature is the use of needlework or a sewing machine. The low-wage labor of sewing, which is done largely by female factory workers in the region of Asia, is a good referent for otherness in terms of both gender and class. In fact, the artist learned this skill from the seamstresses working at Dongdaemun Clothing Market. Yet in Hong’s work sewing is employed to reflect neither femininity or Asianness nor a subcultural identity. The intent behind her utilization of sewing is not targeted on the portrayal of otherness itself but is to reveal the boundaries of which we have never been aware. An example would be the criteria for the category of high art. By adopting the element of needlework, which is excluded from the realm of fine arts as craftwork, in realizing the conceptual and intellectual content of the work, the artist blurs the divisions within the genre of high art and brings together differences. The fact that it not only criticizes the institution internal to art but also that it necessarily corresponds to the content of the work attests to the very depth of Hong’s work. For instance, Burning Love (2014) is an embroidery work of the spectacular scene of the candlelight vigil protesting against the import of U. S. beef in May 2008, which deals with the affections of ordinary citizens (especially teenage girls) who are not the protagonists of the official history of the event. The form of embroidery that requires the honest labor of making one stich at a time is an adequate medium to cast light on every individual who gathered in the streets voluntarily. Here, a large number of people participating in the protests are referred to not as members of a group like a race or a nationality but an assembly of different individuals, that is, a multitude. The small but passionate aspirations of each participant are stitched with much care, manifesting themselves as proud pages of history as a galaxy with a plethora of stars.
On the other hand, in her performance work, another medium for the investigation of the keyword of equality, social issues and fine art elements are more actively interlaced with one another. Owing to its attributes of chance and immateriality, performance can easily cast off the limitations of originality and uniqueness that works in the object format have difficulty escaping from—even when using unconventional means such as sewing. Furthermore, the control of the work can be more impeded by the voluntary participation of the general public than when carried out by performers that have been cast. 5100: Pentagon (2014), premiered at the Gwangju Biennale, is a performance piece where the volunteer audience performs the choreography inspired by the May 18 Gwangju Uprising. Participants vary every time, and so does the performance. As various groups of people from outside of the art scene act as subjects in creating a work of art, the performance opens up a small interstice in the closed category of the museum. As each of today’s different others ruminates on the painful history of Gwangju in his/her own way, they form a small temporary and loose solidarity. These ripples wipe out the border between art and non-art and what is experienced here lingers on in the minds of the participants.
In her recent work, Prayers (2017), embroidery and performance integrate. Hong transcribed a part of a news photo of a landscape of postwar Korea onto fabric in embroidery and played this like a “graphic score.” Her work of this method—also called “photo-score”—is the act of rewriting the mainstream history of Korea, which is South Korea-oriented and male-dominated. The trivial details irrelevant to the imparting of the message of the news photo are part of the unrecorded history. By erasing the center and slightly raising the details, the artist transposes the center of gravity of the historical narrative. The history, primarily rewritten through the artist’s embroidery, becomes a music score and once again undergoes a reversal. Even if there is just one score, its interpretation divides into as many as the number of the players. Each performer plays differently and each performance is thereupon a version of history written by an individual. As my experience and yours are different, the year 2019 as I remember it is inevitably different from the way you remember 2019. Accordingly, how inadequate must the mainstream history be that leaves aside all of these countless memories. Its interpretation varies depending on the performer, and those interpretations split into ceaseless derivative versions, muddling up you and me, man and woman, and Korea and other nations. In the middle of this, the boundaries between the artist and the audience and between art and society are blurred. A cheerful stage of hybridity where the history I wrote and the history you wrote coexist and harmonize; this is the way Hong sees difference, as it is the hope that she harbors.
In the Korean Artist Prize 2019 exhibition, Hong extends the concept of equality beyond humans to apply to non-human agents. Comprised of three new works, Sadang B (2019) attempts to rethink the dominant (human)-oriented viewpoint by positioning birds and animals as subjects. Here, one is driven to be confronted with a strange unfamiliarity: the ironic situation in which viewers are placed inside the birdcage looking out to the space where birds are normally kept; the improvisational performance by the musicians who are trying hard to become animals; the dance where performers mimic how females labor and how animals move. This discomfort is, in fact, a necessary emotion. For it allows one to realize how difficult it is to become the other on the one hand and on the other points out the value of the attempt to try to walk in the shoes of the weak, even though it would never come to pass. Hong pursues a delicate quest for a certain balance that is very particular and yet universal and individual and yet collective, and it is hoped that this quest of the artist is shared with many more people. In South Korea where dichotomous stances and loud voices are dominant, aimless resistance, non-group identified subjects, and non-divisive coexistence are such rare and scarce values. It is hoped that this exhibition will be an opportunity to witness the quiet permeation of its genuine radicality into the mind of each viewer.