Everything is Moving
A nesting place can be considered one of the necessities of life along with food and clothing but it is also a shelter, a shield which protects us from outside, as well as a place for daydreams about the future. Therefore this place can be somewhere under a roof or beside a wall or in the corner of an attic. It can be where we are living or the homeland that we left; or it can be some place we look forward to moving to. The artist, Soyung Lee, stayed outside of Korea often and quite long from her youth, and now it looks certain that she has situated herself in Seoul. But she is still contemplating the idea of home as a shelter, a shield, and a nesting place while asking these questions: “Where should we live? Is it all right here now? Where should we die?” Actually, we think a lot about home as well. When we live in a big city, we cannot help worrying about housing, and we dream of escaping from a tough situation to live in a better environment. But this consideration can be expanded to a larger scale in the matter of nations and races as we can see in the problems of the civil war in Syria and refugees in the Middle East and Europe. History creates continuous migrations of refugees and at the same time, the lives of refugees are dissolved into history. However people living in Korea cannot disregard the matter of migrations since we face changes in different levels of social conditions such as the housing crisis and city redevelopments. In her statement, Lee says, “In the near future, small social groups, communities, and diasporas may be harbingers of a new society, where national identity is no longer the main ideology and where the free choice of place of residence is quite common.” Looking at the pathway of the artist, she has long considered the subject of migration and the idea of a nesting place. In this article this consideration will be examined by following her journey as an artist.
From the early to the mid 2000s, Soyung Lee’s major projects were video works based on performances. In the works, Mermaid Project 1 (2002), Crossbreeds (2004), and Dreamers’ Lovers (2005), she continuously created fairy tale-like narratives. The fairy tales – which we encounter in early stages of life – are the guides that lead us to a fantasy world and present fantasies through various elements and apparatus including characters, background, and stories. However when we become adults, although we feel sad about the deprivation of childhood fantasies, most people live in cold reality clearly separated from the fairy tales. Nevertheless, in her work, Dreamers’ Lovers, Lee portrayed herself as Blink Bird who travels from the world where time only goes forward and climbs onto the roof in search of pausing moments. She also portrayed herself as Else who climbs onto the roof to forget his gloomy self even though he owns many splendid and fabulous masks. During this period, Lee’s work presented reality and fantasy that do not meet, anxieties about these two parallel worlds, and the fantasies that we, nevertheless, always desire.
In the mid 2000s, Soyung Lee began to approach the concept of parallel worlds of reality and fantasy differently. She approached reality from the perspective of a deprivation of fantasy and examined deprivation of various aspects: physical and mental, personal and social, and active and passive. Another Day (2012) is a video work, in the style of a cruel fairy tale, that uses gummy bear jellies, and presents the idea of weak individuals under physical abuse. In this video, the gummy bears are helplessly killed by being swept away by water and falling from a rock. Some are pinned down for surgery in which their bodies are to be cut with scissors and reassembled with different color body parts. Someone may suggest that this surgery recreates the gummy bear as a more powerful being. But if we understand that this action means a manipulation of the spirit and the consciousness instead of a mere physical operation, it represents the idea of becoming, by discarding and assembling, lethargic beings who have neither free will nor judgment.
From 2008, the artist’s interest in deprivation is expressed in the form of interviews rather than in the fable-like format; stepping closer to reality. In her work, Being Deprived (2008-2009), produced in Finland and Korea, she interviews people by asking the following questions: “Someone or something is trying to take something from you (your body, your characteristics, personality, your world, society, etc.). What would it be? Who or what is taking something from you? Why? How do you let it happen? How does it make you feel?” There were various answers from people such as their minds, parts of their bodies, family, love, soul, time, censorship, their roles, choices, human rights, fingerprints, and toys. Some of the answers were Internet addiction, the government taking their time by rejecting an application for a passport, and a babysitter taking a doll away. What they answered seems trivial to others but for the people who are having problems, it is the most irritating thing or the greatest conflict. Some of the interviewees showed inverted ideas that the artist never expected. Soyung Lee didn’t choose or edit their answers even when there were some illogical contradictions; she tried to show the intention of the interviewees. The artist’s basic attitude towards the interview method was revealed by a written interview with an art magazine in 2014: she said “During the conversation, some people may talk out of context, speak ungrammatically, or choose wrong words. But sometimes, it is better than silence.”
After this series, the foundation of her work shifted from the performance base to the interview form. In her two projects, one in Kazakhstan in 2012 and the other in Myanmar in 2014, the artist interviewed Korean-Kazakh descendants and the residents in Myanmar. In Being Deprived-Myanmar (2014), she asks the question of deprivation again after a long time since 2009 and shows a great change in style and attitude as an interviewer. The interviews in Finland (2008) and Seoul (2009) show that the artist worked carefully on the subsidiary apparatus of video of background images and cross cutting, instead of focusing only on the interviewees. But in the work filmed in Myanmar, she created an atmosphere in which the interviewees could tell their stories more comfortably as she focused on the interviewees’ stories. Unlike Finland, a country known for the best welfare, or the familiar city of Seoul, she was afraid that in Myanmar her perspectives might be similar to that of tourists, but she didn’t deny being an outsider with a different gaze. Hence, she listened to the interviewees allowing enough time for them to relax, and at the same time, filmed the passing landscapes, surrounding noises and the local people.
The two completed pieces filmed in Myanmar include four traditional folk tales. These stories are more about the sacrifice and loss than deprivation. The way Lee recorded these stories shows quite a lot of difference in approach from her previous work, Cloud-Cuckoo-Land (2009), an ideal chicken farm she created as a fantasy world. At the time, she found some chickens living peacefully on a farm in Finland. The elements of blue skies, clear weather, the land covered with grass, and a reliable supply of food for the chickens, seem to give prosperity to the chickens in the farm. This farm looked similar to Finland, a country with perfect welfare policies where even the artists can get unemployment benefits. But Lee didn’t call this farm an ideal chicken farm. She made a fake chicken farm with artificial grass and chicken models that looked as good as those in a real chicken farm and called it an ideal chicken farm. There are fake sky and pinwheels spinning with fake wind. But because of the juxtaposed images of chickens in Finland, viewers might not notice that the farm on the screen is fake. It looks like the real chickens in Finland were brought into a fictitious farm.
Until this time, in Lee’s work, ideas about the relationship between groups and individuals were stronger than the concept of ‘others.’ The reasons can be traced back to her school years. As a teenager, she moved to LA in the US where she lived for more than ten years and met various people including Korean Americans, international students, and immigrants from different countries of different races who came to the US to follow their California dreams. She experienced and witnessed big and small incidents that happened in LA in the 1990s including car accidents, an earthquake, and events that showed racial discrimination. The writing, “There, Then, That Day,” which is partly shown in this exhibition as texts on a tile work, is a memo written on an April morning in 2015 about her days in California. In the writing, various events – the artist’s own experiences such as car accidents – are overlapped and her still vivid thoughts and ideas are entangled. Up to now, she hasn’t revealed her life in the US in any of her work but while working on a Kazakhstan project, she left a memo remembering her adolescence in the US: “It was a time I didn’t even have the concept that becoming a citizen of a country means settling in the protection (or surveillance) of that nation.” She was tired of questions and misunderstandings about nationality or identity, and once said, “I’m just an individual.” When she came back to Korea she found her childhood house, a place of her dreams and imaginations, was gone and she felt stifled by the fast changing city of Seoul. So whenever she had the time, she would wander around to artist residencies in England, the US, and Finland.
Here or There, There or Here
In the spring of 2013, Lee had an exhibition, The Future is Coming From All Directions, in Gallery 175. This exhibition was a collaborative project with the artist Alexander Ugay, a fourth generation Korean-Kazakh. They met at the artist residency in the National Art Studio Changdong in Seoul in 2010. In 2011, Ugay suggested a collaborative project to Lee. At the time, she was thinking about the factors for choosing a place to live and settling down in the boundaries of a nation. She thought the differences in cultures and the ways of thinking between her and Ugay, who was raised in the Russian and Soviet culture, would be interesting elements in the project. Their first research was about the present and future of the Korean Diaspora. They proceeded to collect data and have interviews with Korean-Kazakhs living in South Korea but they finally fixed the direction of their project when they visited Ushtobe in Kazakhstan, a town where the first Korean-Kazakh arrivers lived.
In Ushtobe, Lee realized that “to deal with the present and the future in our interest, paradoxically we have to start from the past.” They visited an early settlement site of the Korean Diaspora with local guides who were also Korean-Kazakh. In Ushtobe and Almaty, she met the fifth generation of Korean Diaspora and asked them questions under the subject of Take Your Place: what their survival strategy will be when they live in a completely different environment and how they portray themselves in independent situations. Their answers about this conception of the future were not very different from the answers from Korean youth. They were worried about independence from their parents and concerned about their relationships with others. But Lee says that we cannot identify them with Korean youth as the same type of members of the young generation in globalization. She also asked them where they would like to live if they can choose a country. Some of them answered that they wanted to go to Korea because of their curiosity about Korea, some people answered that they didn’t want to leave Kazakhstan, and some of them answered that they wanted to go to Western countries such as the US or countries in Europe. These various answers seemed closer to a personal hope than the hope of a minority. Instead of being concerned about the possibility of becoming ‘others’ again in a new place, the young Korean-Kazakhs thought that migration and settlement were real possibilities in their future. Presumably from this point of view, Soyung Lee said, “In the near future, small social groups, communities and diasporas may be harbingers of a new society, where national identity is no longer the main ideology and where the free choice of place of residence is quite common.”
Meanwhile, the main work in this exhibition, Fortress (2015), is a video work filmed in the previous summer with five actors at Boan Art Space. In the video, they were portrayed as a close community of people with the same destiny although they come from different places. The old building of Boan Art Space (former Boan Inn) was a fortress for them and they train themselves to be ready for unknown dangers, have a conversation about their dream homes, and have a meeting to prepare to leave for some other place. The artist asks these questions to the actors: “Where should we live? Is it all right here now? Where should we die?” and have them think about a home as a nesting place. The answers they give in the video about where they want to live and die are the unscripted lines from themselves. So the answers have personal meanings. When the question, “What are the things that no longer exist when we return home?” is given to Robin, an expatriate who left home ten years ago, he sadly answered, “friends in my neighbourhood, my uncle, my grandmother, the big yard where I played as a child, and the trees at the house.” The contents of his answer are close to his identity as much as they can be identified with Robin himself, but he thought that they would not exist anymore. In the video, people’s hopes for home and where they want to live are all different since the backgrounds where they grew up and the desires they pursued were all different. Robin gave an outstanding answer to this question as well: “I want to be far away from the city and live quietly on an island. I don’t want to face the city.” Other people answered that they wanted to keep a proper distance from the city or wanted to live inside the city. But Robin chose isolation and revealed his hope of escaping from being the ‘other’ in the life in a city.
In this video, Soyung Lee quoted the expression, “pin a badge over a beating heart,” from the film The Marine Never Returned (1963) directed by Manhee Lee. It seems that this movie took a motif from the Korean War but didn’t identify any specific battles in the movie. Rather, from the beginning of the movie, it shows a conflict among people who do inhumane things in order to survive. They only fight to go back home to their families, not for an ideology or for their nation. By citing this movie in her work, Soyung Lee seems to be stressing home, the nesting place, as the place where the family is, instead of defining home by nation and ideology. In the work, Fortress, it seems that the characters arrived at the new place but they were still preparing for an invisible danger. It shows what we are afraid of regarding the future.
Your Territory (2014) is a video work of wandering dogs on the streets in Yangon, Myanmar. These dogs are not tamed but they occupy a part of the city and endlessly wander around without leaving their territory. They don’t show any interest in the people passing by. It seems that they don’t have any intention of associating with people. Actually they just occupy vacant space in the city. By watching untamed street dogs which keep to their own space, the artist thought of the coexistence of different beings. The idea she mentioned of ‘sharing space but not threatening each other’ is about parallel relationships that presume to keep a certain distance. In Korea, we don’t acknowledge their territory and move them into our territory by making cages. The place where lethargic animals change into beasts is a zoo.
The other work introduced in this exhibition is A Nation of the Hairless (2015). It was filmed at the Buddha Park in Vientiane, Laos. Various Buddhist and Hindu statues portray smooth hairless bodies seemingly after evolution. The story of the video is “in a nation of hairless people, a hair was found on a person’s body and because of it he felt ashamed and thought he had become inferior.” In this short fable, hair is a symbol of regression and a criterion of separating inhomogeneous members from the group. On the screen eccentric shapes of deity statues with animal motifs are shown. This odd feeling is doubled because of the English narration spoken by a computer reading application. The artist put the subtitles in the middle of the screen. Presumably the artist intended to stress the linguistic flow and the meanings between the lines by considering the scenes as background images. Therefore the subtitles, which are generally supportive in video and narration, play the main role in leading the story, while the images of the video fill in the voids within the subtitles.
After making video works of fable formats, interviews, and dual structured screens, Lee presents another experimental video work. In most of her previous works, the artist didn’t want the eyes of viewers fixed on one screen. In the work, Being Deprived - Finland (2008), the artist showed a dual structured screen with running water behind the interviewees; also in the work, Take Your Place (2013), the artist showed three-channel video installation. One screen showed the interview, the other screen was a view of the whole theatre where these interviews took place, and the third screen showed the life of Korean Diaspora in Kazakhstan and the places where they settled. Even in the video with gummy bears, two screens are juxtaposed. These two screens are complementary and the story is not led by any single image. The audience should see several screens simultaneously and follow the context. Even when watching a single-channel video, the audience should try to understand the subtitles of what interviewees say as well as watching the changing images. The stories that Lee tells don’t flow linearly with a clear causal relationship but they vibrate, moving constantly among the past, the present, and the future. In these stories, different from the hairless smooth skin, there is hair growing here and there and the meme has been spreading. Everything is moving.
The ending song of the video starts like this “Let’s leave, let’s go here or there, let’s leave, let’s go there or here.” In a memo written after visiting Kazakhstan, Lee said that she would refer to the first settlement site of Korean-Kazakhs as “somewhere there” or “there with a soft horizon,” instead of saying, “that place.” She realized that we cannot consider diaspora “others” anymore since we are all wandering beings now, apart from the difference in the beginning. Three years have passed since Lee was in Kazakhstan, and she has also been to Laos and Myanmar afterwards. Myanmar is one of the places she often mentioned as a place she wants to live. In the middle of this endless journey she tells us more universal ideas about a nesting place. To us (or to her) migration is a thing that has always happened and is expected to happen in the future. Already the future is coming from all directions, and we repeat the continuous move to here or there, there or here.