— Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002)
Nature figures prominently in Jin-me Yoon’s installation of four single-channel videos, entitled Unbidden (2004), as a site of captivity, adventure, tranquility and death. The natural location of Unbidden does not appear to be identified with any particular place —it could be California or parts of Korea. But, considering Yoon’s past work—especially in relation to the Group of Seven— it would be sensible to think about Canada and its immutable link to wilderness and emptiness. The Group, who perceived landscape as a salvation from the excesses of war and industrialism, aesthetically promoted Canada as a place of escape and refuge. Such a view was reinforced and institutionally supported by the National Gallery of Canada, solidifying the Group’s historical place in imagining Canada as a nation that, ironically, embraced its nationhood for "its lack of fixity,"2 or, in the words of writer Margaret Atwood, “a nebulosity, a blank. . . ."3 As such, the Group imagined a Canada reminiscent of Johannes Fabian’s conception of a temporal fortress, a timeless place of escape.
Jin-me Yoon shattered such romantic notions by postulating that such detachment from history hides the presence of marginalized individuals — their migration, displacement, and disenfranchisement—and the muted violence that underlies Canada’s postcolonial history.4
Extending this engagement with the relationship of myth and community, Yoon deploys nature in Unbidden as a disjunctive and suspended territory in order to imagine what it would be like to experience certain aspects of war—fear, trauma, loss, and death. Her endeavours pose the following question: How can we empathize with or relate psychically to those who experienced something like the Korean War, now 51 years ago, or to those who are experiencing trauma now, in Iraq, for instance, a place that is geographically “over there”?
Yoon’s work has always been “performative” in the sense in which Judith Butler defines it: “not as a singular or deliberate ‘act,’ but, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names.”5 She has consistently addressed the relationship between identity and place, the myth-image-symbol archetypes (the Asian tourist, the Canadian citizen), in order to highlight concerns of nationalism, identity politics, and geography.6 In Unbidden, she turns to video—an artistic move away from her main medium, conceptual photography—to propose an alternative way of seeing and thinking about art and identity. This in contrast to her previous body of work that focused on the vexing problems of mis/identification with whiteness or Canadianness or vice versa, and on the inability of the mainstream to identify with cultural productions by and about Asian Canadians.7
Yoon’s prior political and artistic practices lead us to assume that the four videos take place somewhere in Canada where the landscape, similar to the immigration and assimilation experience, connotes a sense of perpetual loss, of melancholy. In each of the four videos, a female figure, acted out by the artist, embarks on a physical activity that echoes childhood games of war— hide and seek or cops and robbers— set against a background of distant mountains, shrubs and forest vegetation. In Jungle-Swamp and Underbrush, we see a figure dressed in black pants and a long-sleeved shirt scurrying behind and around tall blades of grass or large boulders. With clenched fists, perhaps holding a weapon, she appears to be a fugitive or a predator on the run. In Grassland, the sound of chirping birds amidst the off-screen white noise of planes and sirens cuts a sharp contrast to the same figure, now crawling around a grassy corral. In contrast to Grassland’s rather disorienting experience, Channel is serene and calm as we see the same protagonist, now dressed in a pink hanbok (traditional Korean dress), floating down an almost motionless river.
There is no dialogue or voice-over in any of the videos. Instead, the various sounds of wind, of scraping crushed grass, quick breathing, water splashing, and the persistent, muffled, but sometimes loud, distant noise of gunshots, mortar fire, airplanes, and police sirens fill the room. In Channel, the “white noise” in the other videos is replaced by the rhythmic ebb and flow of the river where the body remains in repose. Yet despite this “repose,” the movements of Yoon’s body are physically taxing. The long takes and never-ending video loop of each installment elicit a sense of Sisyphean endurance and futility. Precisely because there is a minimum of narrative elements, Yoon invites us to impose a story, to be attentive to its details, to engage the specificities of her chosen medium, and to experience the installation physically and psychologically.
Might we view Grassland, Underbrush and Jungle-Swamp as Yoon’s attempt to evoke a psychic space or landscape in which one could imagine what it would be like to experience war? In other words, to what degree and to what end do we need to set the stage in order to go beyond our safe existence and the familiar experience of what we already know? Or might we perceive her efforts to be in nature as a deliberate attempt to imagine otherwise? The staging of every scene looks almost purposely flawed, acted out in an amateurish way. At the same time, in counterpoint to the Group of Seven, Yoon uses nature as a point of departure to evoke a fictional battleground that indirectly comments on the status of Canada’s landscape as pure and untouched. Being mindful of this motivation may help us to explain all the noise in Grassland and Underbrush. The sounds of heavy construction and urban development (the persistent intrusion and presence of industrialism intertwined with nature) can be conjured as mortar fire and bombs exploding. Grassland critically reveals the tension and fine line between fiction and reality, which is exemplified by the fact that it is the only time that Yoon acknowledges the camera and when the camera’s gaze is noticeably mobile rather than stationary.
Instead of being uneasily calm or filled with the chaotic mayhem usually associated with scenes of war, the battle that unfolds in Unbidden seems a solitary one. It unfolds as a story of the production of a psychic space, anchored in the real solid landscape of Canada. Yoon’s re-imagining of war or the production of a fictional reality is less a surrealist dream than an attempt to externalize the psyche, to extend the interior into a physical environment. For example, if understood within the context of her attempt to make a psychic landscape, the repetitious action of crawling in circles leads not only to physical duress, but can be read metaphorically as a “hypnotic” way to reach a certain state of mind. The four videos give us a partial view of a fantasy in the making, where we see her outer body and psychic experience concurrently.
In an attempt to retrace metaphorically some kind of past experience, we see, for example, in Jungle-Swamp, the figure splashing in the shallow water, going from left to right and vice versa, intercut on the screen with her spectral presence as she fades in and out without a sound, destabilizing any sense of time and history. The use of the fade-in in Jungle-Swamp and Underbrush traces inscriptions of Yoon’s body on the landscape, a montage of “memory traces,” or what Sigmund Freud would describe as effects of a toned experience repressed into the unconscious.
Reading her work in such a way provides a kind of order or chronology in which to see the videos, where Channel serves as a coda, but not necessarily a resolution, of Yoon’s attempt to experience war and its relationship with trauma. In Channel, the stillness of the floating figure dressed in a hanbok (perhaps referring to the Korean conflict) among the lapping waves suggests repose, death and passing. The ambient calm of the video is accentuated by the glistening ebb and flow of the green river water. After the manic and repeated motions of the figure in Grassland, Underbrush and Jungle-Swamp, Channel’s wide open landscape of quietude is a pleasant reprieve. Here, the body is no longer in friction with the land, but is in harmony with it as it floats down the river with no resistance. In Channel, Yoon seems to allude to a way out, a passing through, but to an unknown destination.
To brush up against Yoon’s video screen is perhaps to brush, metaphorically, with death. Yoon’s embodied vulnerability in Channel provokes an interesting tension in watching publicly an instance of death, an experience that is most radically singular. Kaja Silverman, following Heidegger, broadly describes this experience as “being thrown into the world,” as a being-towards-death. In World Spectators, Silverman observes that death is the event of which we “live our entire lives in radical disavowal.”8 Paraphrasing Heidegger, she writes, “Death . . . is something that happens only to other people.”9 But this disavowal, as Silverman explains, is fatal, as death is one of the arenas within which our limited capacity for freedom can be exercised. The approach to death is an authentic moment of solitude, of singularity.
Unbidden connotes death as well as a mobilization to join others, to bond socially and politically, in order to live. In Heidegger, the relationship to death involves the “call of conscience.”10 Despite the title of Unbidden, can we hear the “call of conscience” in Yoon’s installation? In Channel, the appearance of the floating woman “shouts” out this call of conscience, what Jean-Luc Nancy theorizes as a call that comes from within, of “being-with.”11 In other words, to anticipate death is to be conscious of the Other. The close encounter where one almost comes in contact, in touch with death, suggests a threshold of being, what Silverman describes as “registering our limitless and ontological responsibility for or indebtedness to other creatures and things.”12 Yoon’s floating body, both submerged and exposed, directed towards the expansive sky, now co-extensive with nature, promotes a persistence of being, of being seen, and gestures towards thinking through an “identification of the self as such, its subjectivization . . . [that] can only take place once the subject finds itself or poses itself originarily (sic) as other than itself . . . .”13
How can a community be framed as singularities that refuse any criteria of belonging?14 How can we still speak of a “we” or a plurality without transforming this “we” into a substantial and exclusive identity?15
Posed by Giorgio Agamben and Jean-Luc Nancy respectively, these two similarly formulated questions are consonant with a current rethinking of identity politics as exemplified by Kandice Chuh’s recent book entitled Imagine Otherwise. Chuh attempts to rethink the epistemological definition of “Asian American,” and in relation to Agamben and Nancy, she raises the question of how a community that refuses any criteria of belonging can be mobilized or organized. In a comparable vein, Yoon attempts in Unbidden to summon a politics of empathy and community, a mutual accommodation of difference, of caring about the other and the self that cuts through indifference and ignorance, especially in this age of global conflict.16 Similar to Yoon’s other works of art, Unbidden explores the limits of the self and the body in relation to the Other. It invites us to go beyond national borders and ethnicity to imagine a community that lays no claim to identity based on being Canadian or Asian, but rather, simply, being-with.
— Susette Min
Edited by Paddy O’Brien and reprinted with permission of the publisher, Kamloops Art Gallery and author, Susette Min.
The full essay by Susette Min and another by Curator Susan Edelstein appear in the exhibition catalogue, available for purchase at Oakville Galleries.
1 See Scott Watson’s essay “Disfigured Nature: The Origins of the Modern Canadian Landscape,” in Eye of Nature (Banff: Walter Phillips Gallery, 1991).
2 Brenda Lafleur provides a provocative reading of Yoon’s postcard series Souvenirs of the Self (1991) in relation to the Group of Seven in her essay “‘Resting’ in history: translating the art of Jin-me Yoon” in Generations and Geographies in the Visual Arts: Feminist Readings, edited by Griselda Pollock (London: Routledge, 1996) 217. Also see Lynda Jessup, “The Group of Seven and the Tourist Landscape in Western Canada, or The More Things Change…” Journal of Canadian Studies, vol.37, October 2002, 144-179, and Adrienne Lai, “Renegotiating the Terms of Inclusion: Institutional space, (dis)location, and A Group of Sixty-Seven,” Fuse vol. 23, No.1, 2000, 15-20.
3 Lafleur; Jessup; Lai.
4 See Grant Arnold’s insightful essay on Yoon’s project and its implications, “Purism, Heterogeneity and A Group of Sixty-Seven,” Collapse #3, December 1997, 146-153.
5 Judith Butler. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993) 2.
6 In her own words, Yoon describes her previous work as a “preoccupation with exteriority of the body as a sign marked by historical processes of racialization and gender.”
7 Unbidden is not her first use of video. Between, departure, and arrival (1996-97) was her first work to utilize video and audio. Germaine Koh’s catalogue essay “Welcome Stranger Welcome Home” (at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2003) provides a comprehensive summary of her photographic work and the artistic inspiration that motivated her move to video.
8 Kaja Silverman. World Spectators (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000) 33.
9 Silverman, 28.
10 Martin Heidegger. Being and Time (San Francisco: Harper, 1962).
11 Jean-Luc Nancy. Being Singular Plural (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).
12 Silverman, 34.
13 Nancy, 77, 81.
14 Giorgio Agamben. The Coming Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
16 In a phone conversation, Yoon referred me to Jean-Luc Nancy’s meditation on Being Singular Plural and in particular the “paradox of unsociable sociability.”