Young In Hong: The Moon’s Trick

Louise O'Kelly

Young In Hong’s latest exhibition, Young In Hong: The Moon’s Trick, and the accompanying performance, Looking Down from the Sky (2017), opened on the 20 November just after the new moon. This timing, whether intentional or coincidental, provides a serendipitous link to one of the connecting threads of Hong’s practice: her affinity with folk histories and customs. From the transformative fire of a Korean Lunar New Year, to the candles held in vigil protests as captured in her large-scale embroideries and more intimate abstractions, Hong brings elements of unsanctioned narratives back into public consciousness through an open-ended process of memorialisation.

Having grown up in South Korea at a time when political protests and demonstrations were common, such collective gatherings left a powerful impression on the artist. These communal experiences, and the emotional impact of witnessing the rush towards modernisation that occurred in the 1980’s and 1990’s following a darker period in South Korea’s history, form the core essence and material around which Hong weaves her practice.

All of the works on display in Young In Hong: The Moon’s Trick speak to key moments in South Korea’s post-war history, abstracted through multiple readings and diffractions of archival source material, comprised of photographs that represent the overwhelming scale of collective endeavour – of national displays of pride and trauma, from soldiers marching in formation, to mass demonstrations, rows of graves, lines of industrial workers and the architecture of modernity.

In Prayers 1-39 (2017), Hong responds intuitively to the formal elements in these photographs that struck an emotional chord, removing all identifying characteristics to create quiet, minimal line drawings. These linear abstractions are then embroidered to create 39 individual works, spread throughout the gallery space, with each one marking a moment in time. Rather than erasing history, Hong is seeking ways to keep these fires of memory alive and burning bright, and finding ways to capture extraordinary moments from times past in the present. As reverberations and echoes of powerful political imagery, these markings also operate as the score for an improvised sound piece for piano performed by the artist which haunts the physical space of the gallery, creating a melancholic intimacy.

Expanding upon this concept, Hong transforms the layers of inscription from her ‘photo-scores’ – a term she has coined to define this process of abstraction – into live performance. In Looking Down from the Sky (2017), which was performed on the opening night, a five-part photo-score was developed based on archival imagery of protests and demonstrations such as the Minjung (People’s) movement in South Korea that fought for democratic principles under the military government. In an attempt to maintain the emotional register of these images without the visual impact, an improvised set by four classical musicians and two vocalists was performed against the backdrop of the exhibition. An industrial sewing machine, operated by the artist herself, punctuated the improvised score, as if to disrupt any naturally occurring harmonies. Referencing the labour required to produce the wall-based works, the presence of the industrial machine also called to mind the process of accelerated industrialisation in South Korea that relied heavily on women’s labour.

The mechanical drone of the machine operated as a stark contrast to the poignancy of the free-form vocals and instrumentals. As the performers moved through the confines of the gallery, slowly disappearing and re-appearing from behind walls, the difficulty of independent voices ever fully being in unison became clear, and prompted the question of whether collective actions could ever speak as one. Through relinquishing control and delivering autonomy to the performers, Hong returns power from the authoritative voice of the artist to the individual, mirroring an unseating of power structures as recorded in her archival source material.

Unravelling conventional notions of authorship and questioning the relationship to control is reflected in a number of other works in this show, where collaborators of the artist are given agency though they are actually functioning as one element of an over-arching whole. For Hong’s Venice Agendas 2017 commission titled Echoes (2017), performers were given recordings of a compilation of political speeches and demonstrations that they were invited to respond to through musical improvisation. The entire process of realising this project relied on non-hierarchical modes of communication in an attempt to destabilise the inherent power structures of outsourcing labour, whilst each participant acted autonomously, giving the impression of individual, discrete expressions of performative dissent throughout the city. Further iterations also took place in Margate, Folkestone and Bristol.

In an earlier performative intervention – 5100: Pentagon (2014/2017), which was commissioned for the 2014 Gwangju Biennale – Hong worked with volunteers from the local community, many of whom would have witnessed or participated in the Gwangju Uprising on 18 May 1980. This was a seminal moment in the history of this nation, as this singular event is credited with leading to the eventual emergence of democracy in South Korea. The biennale itself was founded in 1995 as a cultural marker of the 15th anniversary of this momentous occasion.

5100: Pentagon (2014/2017) took place as a collaborative intervention in the space of the Biennale Halls, whereby members of the public would appear to come together spontaneously out of the crowd in a series of ritualised movements, accompanied by volunteer musicians. These movements, available for anyone to learn online, were a series of gestural interpretations of archival images of this violent protest, whilst the musical score was an adapted instrumental version of a popular Korean protest song, referred to colloquially as ‘A Song of May’ in reference to the uprising. This song was chosen by the artist due to its prevalence at demonstrations throughout the eighties in South Korea, as well as its trans-national origins. Having been originally re-purposed from a French pop tune, the melody was shared orally at rallies throughout this period, whilst the lyrics were continually adapted depending on who was singing the song and where.

As in many folk traditions originating from pre-literate or largely illiterate societies, the generational sharing of cultural information through song, dance, ritual and oral histories can be transferred directly through these shared activities, similar to the social adoption and adaptation that occurred with ‘A Song of May’. Hong taps into this tradition through the communal experience of performance, using movement, song and shared processes, whilst harnessing the energetic imprint of South Korea’s political background to forge a powerful embodied connection to the past. By re-actualising this event, Hong reintroduces the personal, lived experience into the public consciousness, disrupting official structures of memorialisation.

Hong then brings these folk practices of sharing cultural information into the 21st century, mediating the lived experience through new technologies to bridge the gaps in transmission across generations and nations. In much the same vein that online networks can bring individuals together today for protests, demonstrations and uprisings, the web-tutorial for the movements that constitute 5100: Pentagon (2014/2017) operates as an open-source choreography, accessible to anyone with an internet connection to create a democratic means of participation. As this work was subsequently re-enacted in London at the Royal Academy of Arts for Block Universe 2017, this mode of engagement formed an important link to the previous iteration, functioning as a means of inscribing history into new embodied archives by those who would not have witnessed or participated in the Gwangju Uprising firsthand. This process of re-mediation and re-purposing of the original score by the artist continues to give life to the common legacy of this powerful historical moment.

Through Hong’s process of critical questioning and methods of memorialisation, we begin to understand her capacity to capture the essence of a moment in time, share it and pass it on. Taking the form of embroidered wall-based works, choreographic, vocal and musical interventions that both record and produce affectivity, these performative acts speak to collective agency and an affective communality that crosses space and time. Filtered through Hong’s multilayered practice, a complex web of interactions and abstractions is woven that mimics the ongoing reverberations of significant political moments whilst subverting pre-existing power relations. In this way, Young In Hong: The Moon’s Trick acknowledges the depth and breadth of Hong’s practice, illustrating her unique method of drawing upon folk practices to create intricate connections between historical records and the lived experience.

Louise O’Kelly