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Beautiful Instruments III (Breaking Wheel), 2014 Mixed media, Installation, Dimension variable
Image Credit National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea
Artwork of Chang Jia: Alchemy of the Body and the Abject Being an Artist and Being a Crazy Woman In Chang Jia’s video The Physical Requirements for Being an Artist (2000), she stands against a wall and stares straight ahead, as if she is posing for a mug shot. Her blank stare suddenly becomes a target, as someone off-screen throws an egg at her. The egg smashes into her face and drips down her cheek, leading to a surprising reaction: she smiles. The egg thrower seems to be displeased by this reaction, because another egg is tossed, resulting in another smashed yolk and another smile. More eggs are thrown, and each is received with a smile until the thrower seemingly cannot bear it any longer. The person’s hand enters the frame and roughly shakes Chang’s head, which is now completely coated with sticky yolk and pieces of eggshell. Despite this harsh treatment, Chang dutifully maintains her smile. Based on the title of the work, Chang seems to be suggesting that an artist must be prepared to endure any form of violence, humiliation, taunting, or absurdity. This work is reminiscent of another artist’s work in which a man and woman stand facing one another and slap each other repeatedly. At first, the couple is laughing impishly, but by the end of the video, both of their faces are red from being beaten. Of course, there is one significant difference between these two works: in the latter video, the violence is mutual, but in Chang’s video, it is completely onesided and directed against her. In her video and photography of self-portrait series, Chang portrays herself as a crazy woman. She is drawing in her studio at night, when she suddenly strips off her clothes. Only wearing zebra-striped pants, she wanders out into the night streets, an act of lunacy by today’s social standards. Perhaps she can be seen as a contemporary version of a witch, venturing out for a nefarious gathering with her coven. While most of Chang’s works deal with other people, these two pieces—The Physical Requirements for Being an Artist and Self-Portrait—focus on the artist herself. As such, they may be seen as a statement about her artwork and art in general. On the surface, they might be interpreted to mean that an artist has to be able to put up with a lot of sheer nonsense and must never be afraid of acting like a lunatic. They may also represent comments on the society that forces prospective artists to endure such absurdity and insanity in order to be initiated and accepted by the art system.
Kho Chunghwan Art Critic Park Myoungsook, Philip Mahe Translation This text was originally published in the exhibition catalog Korea Artist Prize 2014 edited by National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea
I Confess My Sins,2011 Variable Installation
Chang’s works may also be interpreted in the context of ‘becoming’ (e.g., ‘becoming a woman’, ‘becoming other) as expressed in the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze. According to Deleuze, ‘becoming’ is a moment of change and movement that is necessary to maintaining any intermediary or impending position. As a primary stage in the formation of differences, Deleuze’s concept of ‘becoming’ is a crucial aspect of any response to the inertia of the system, as well as the reshaping of identity logic according to the logic of difference. Perhaps Chang as the artist or Chang as the crazy woman represents this moment of change and intermediary stage. The gap (i.e., the difference) between the common notion of art and the reality of art is semantic and non-traversable, as is the gap between the social conception of insane behavior and the actual behaviors themselves. As such, perhaps both art and the activities of a lunatic may be equated, for both represent the need to redress difference by narrowing the gap. Confess Your Sins! The Night of Bones and Flesh in Fire. According to Michel Foucault, mental institutions were created to serve a dual purpose: to keep tabs on psychiatric patients, while at the same time keeping them isolated from the society that they might potentially disrupt. Notably, this concept invokes the notion of the impending: people who could potentially disturb society; who could potentially disseminate seditious thoughts; who could potentially distribute ethical desensitization; who are potentially anti-social; who are potentially psychotic. But of course, the potential is neither fact nor reality; it is always merely potential. We must be alert to the scheme or routine of any system that surveils and controls not only reality, but even potential reality. For once a system seeks to control both actual and possible events; nothing can escape it or exits outside its boundaries. In the past, the system sought control over people’s physical bodies, but today, the system uses the threat of observation to control the potential area of people’s consciousness. The system provides standards to dictate what is normal and abnormal, and then causes people to internalize those standards within their consciousness. Society merely provides the tools for surveillance, such as the definitions of the normal, the reasonable, the rational, and the prudent; by absorbing these definitions, it is we the people who eventually surveil ourselves. In such system, there is nowhere to hide, even for the unconscious. In Chang’s piece I confess my sins (2011), the four words of the
title are spelled out with stripped wires on a wall. There is a pulley above the words, with a piece of meat attached to the end. When the cord is plugged in, electricity flows through the words and eventually reaches the meat, causing it to spark and hiss as the smell of burning flesh begins to waft through the air. Thus, the confession of sins causes the piece of meat to flinch and recoil. Notably, when this piece was actually installed, a sensor that responded to people’s presence was also activated, due to safety concerns. This work demonstrates that the confession of sins turns every person into a lump of meat. This tendency is so ingrained in our system that we now begin to flinch when someone merely implies a possible sin. Even the attempt to imagine the night of bones and flesh in fire causes us to helplessly flinch and recoil, as surely as putting our hand into a flame. It is as if we are being punished by our own imagination, as if our imagination was part of reality. We flinch because we have been trained to believe that nothing—not even imagination—can exist outside of reality. In another of Chang’s videos, entitled Pupils Adjust Light (2011), a group of people take turns confessing their sins: “I beat and tormented someone”; “I abused and killed an animal”; “I want to kill everyone”; “I have wished for the death of someone I know”; “I’m pleased by the failures of others”. Whenever someone utters a confession, a light is shone on the person’s pupils, as if attesting to the truth of the confession. The people eventually start to cry, but the source of the tears is ambiguous: are they crying due to the shame of their sins, or the shame of the confession itself, or simply because they have a bright light being pointed directly into their eyes? In these two works, Chang is accusing society of forcing people to confess. She reveals the irony of a reality in which individuals have no place to hide amidst the ubiquitous individualism, and the voyeurism of a society that forces people to confess everything, including the potential and unconscious imagination, and even those thoughts that are private or, more euphemistically, ‘unique’. The Body: Conduit for Urine, Saliva, and Blood Chang Jia’s series, Standing up Peeing (2011) consists of photos of a woman urinating while standing up. Of course, men usually stand to pee, but women, according to social convention and sheer practicality, are supposed to sit or squat. But Chang asks the viewers, why can’t women pee standing up? This simple question violates custom, habit, and common sense. The different postures
for urination can be attributed to the biological differences between women and men, but Chang is not so much interested in anatomy as she is in problematizing our conventions and preconceptions of gender. Indeed, to a certain degree, our notions of what women and men should be are based upon the natural features we are born with, but those notions are more determined by social custom and convention, which is the main target of Chang’s artwork. Her critical mind takes direct aim at social perceptions of sexuality, sexual (non) determinism, the pleasure of excretion, taboo and transgression, and normality vs. abnormality. In addition to photographing the woman standing and peeing, Chang collected urine and used it to create P-Tree (2007). The branches of the tree were formed by clear plastic tubes, the type commonly associated with IV injections or blood transfusions. However, Chang replaced the IV bag with a glass flask, and instead of blood or IV fluid, the liquid flowing through the flask and plastic tubes was urine. Medical science has advanced to the point of administering many of the body’s natural functions, and one of the by-products of those functions is urine. Thus, P-Tree resonates with ideas of pseudo-medicine. We know that excrement and urine can be used as natural fertilizer, but we have never heard of a peetree. The pee-tree is a creation of Chang’s pure imagination, but at the same time, it becomes real by mediating notions of sex and bodily functions. As such, Chang mobilizes her imagination to serve as a mediator. For example, in Fixed Object (2007), she created “pee flowers” by placing several objects in a fishbowl, and then filling the bowl with urine. As the urine evaporated, salt crystals bloomed on the sides of the bowl, resembling flowers. These flowers bloom through a combination of elements that would usually be considered incompatible. An abhorrent substance like urine is suddenly transformed into a beautiful flower. As such, Chang transgresses the boundary between attraction and aversion; like and dislike; beauty and ugliness. No substance or existence creates aversion or attraction in and of itself. Our feelings toward all forms of matter and existence are inherently relative and ambiguous. People who see Fixed Object without knowing the story behind it will most likely find pleasure in the visual beauty of the crystals, reminiscent of frost on a winter window. But will their feelings change when they find out that the flowers come from urine? Will their initial attraction suddenly transform into aversion? Chang challenges us to acknowledge the ambivalence and relativity of our feelings about matter and existence. In her video work Mouth to Mouth (2011), men and women kiss
in relay. Like many passionate kisses, this one seems to involve an exchange of tongues, but upon closer examination, it is not tongues being exchanged, but caramel. Caramel instead of tongues? The thought of another tongue in our mouth causes a mix of repulsive and excitement, but the idea of another person chewing caramel and delivering it into our mouth is purely disgusting. And that is the twist Chang wants to emphasize, as the audience’s enjoyment of an act of love transforms into aversion. Tongues are exchanged, saliva is exchanged, and then the saliva is joined by sticky, gooey caramel; is this a moment of romance, or a moment when our romantic fantasies disintegrate? A kiss for one can be violence to another, and one person’s pleasure may be another person’s pain. Here, both the kiss and the caramel serve as analogous expressions of ideology. To better understand this interpretation, we must look at the clothes of the kissing men and women, which are printed with six different English terms: ‘freedom’, ‘denial’, ‘equality’, ‘resistance’, ‘independence’, and ‘human’. Extracted from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these six terms represent core concepts of the dominant modernist paradigm. For the acting subject, the ideology might be revolution, meaning, and pleasure, but for the object that is acted upon, the same ideology might be manipulation, meaninglessness, and pain. Indeed, a woman wearing the words “human rights” spits out a caramel that resembles a beheaded naked man photographed as a victim of the Holocaust. Witnessing this collision between the sweet caramel, the ideology of human rights, and the Holocaust victim, we are forced to reconsider the prevalent paradigm of modernism. Normally, ideology is transferred one consciousness to another, but in this work, Chang hijacks and corporealizes the transference, so that it takes place from mouth to mouth, tongue to tongue, saliva to saliva, and body to body. Through this appropriation, she restores the politics of the body, which have previously been subjugated to consciousness. Hence, ideology evokes eroticism, which in turn evokes cannibalism, as the exchange of tongues elicits thoughts of devouring part of another person’s body. After utilizing urine and saliva in the aforementioned works, Chang dealt with blood in Objects made from the Blood of a Butchered Cow (2012). When first faced with the warm blood from a cow that had just been slaughtered, Chang was flustered, because she could still feel the warmth and life inhabiting the blood, which had been part of a living system mere moments ago. She had a difficult time rectifying her guilt, and it took her a while to get over the experience. When the memory of the warmth and life finally faded, Chang returned to blood, using it to cover
Physical Requirements for being an artist,2000 Single-Channel video, 3min 30sec. ^
Mouth to Mouth,2011 Single-channel video, 7min 2sec.
bricks. Her thought was that, although each individual brick is insignificant, many bricks together can form the foundation of a house, a civilization, even the entire world. Likewise, blood itself might seem to be trifling, but it is truly the energy and foundation of life. Furthermore, she drew geometrical figures with blood, to represent our fear of the pure reason of mathematics, as well as the fear that arises from drawing lines on our flesh before surgery. In addition, she made various objects with blood, as if she were making toys. With these seemingly serious blood objects, she tries to offset something frightful with something playful, as if trying to heal a wound. In the course of making these things, Chang got completely covered with blood. Having added her own menstrual blood to the cow blood, she experienced a trance-like state in which she and her blood were united. Instead of feeling like she had the agency to create something, she became like a pure medium that was merely one link in the chain of creation. Such an experience might be associated with purgation or self-purification. That is, it may have been a way for her to atone for the guilt she felt when initially confronted with the fresh blood from the cow, and thus a way to be liberated from that guilt. From the guilt of blood to her redemption through blood, Chang offers the audience a fleeting glimpse of the archetypes behind human rituals, which are not unrelated to the origins of art. Tools of Love and Tools of Torture In Chang’s other works, such as her photos His Face Was Twisted with Pain, a tool of love becomes a tool of torture. A woman spanks a man with a paddle, but we can tell from the subtle contortions of her face that she feels sympathy for him and his swollen red buttocks. The posture of the subjects, with the man draped over the woman’s knees, is clearly reminiscent of a Pieta, as Chang combines the sacred and the profane. The man’s head is lowered and his face is hidden, so the viewer cannot tell if he is in actual pain. Perhaps he enjoys being spanked. In such works, Chang is clearly addressing the ambiguous boundaries between sadism and masochism, love and violence, pleasure and pain; more than that, she evinces the collusion that occurs between such binary poles. Such works might represent her admission that any ideas about how to heighten the sense of love, about how to get beneath the surface of love, or simply about the nature of love itself are futile.
The ambiguity and obscurity of signs of love have previously been highlighted in works such as That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Buñuel), A Lover’s Discourse (Roland Barthes), and Tales of Love ( Julia Kristeva). In Chang’s photo, the paddle that the woman is holding is carved with scenes of torture from a medieval painting. Thus, the tools and techniques of love meet and merge with the tools and techniques of torture. Tools of love should be elaborate, so that they can be enjoyed more deeply, but the same is true of tools of torture, so that they can inflict deeper pain. As such, one’s own pleasure is enhanced by the pain of the other. In Chang’s works, love and torture collude, and pleasure and pain are united. Participating in the Nomadic Program, Chang visited a region in China, where she acquired a set of ancient surgical instruments. Surgical instruments are always among the most aesthetically pleasing objects from any time period. They are highly elaborate, but they are also antiques with surfaces decorated with designs that no longer exist. Surgical instruments must be elaborate and precise to ensure a successful operation, but Chang transformed surgical instruments into instruments of torture. Again, we are reminded of her proclivity for mediation, an interest that becomes real via its foundation in the corporeal. Looking at the complex and sophisticated surgical instruments, Chang used her vivid imagination to detail how each item might be used for torture. Creating such a list might not be so difficult, given that both surgery and torture involve invasive actions against a person’s body. As Chang argues, we tend to differentiate the two, and thus fail to appreciate their relevance, because of our moral prejudice. While torture means pain to the one being tortured, it simultaneously brings some degree of pleasure to the torturer. The intensity or degree of that pleasure transgresses our moral principles, preventing us from clear perception. Hence, Chang’s works shatter the boundaries between the techniques and tools of pleasure and torture, of surgery and love. Furthermore, moving beyond the mere ambiguity of their boundaries, she demonstrates their active collusion. According to Foucault, as power becomes omnipresent, the boundary between the subject and the object collapses. Moreover, as power becomes refined, it burrows deeper into the unconscious of individuals. For Foucault, issues of sexuality and power are inseparable. Then can Foucault’s statements about power be transferred to apply to the descriptions of love? Perhaps partially, but not entirely. For example, mutual power relations are possible, as is mutual collusion for shared pleasure. But one important shared element of Foucault’s analysis of power and definitions of love is the
P-tree,2007 Mixed media Installation, 300 x 270 x 300cm
ambiguous, multifaceted, ambivalent, and obscure nature of the boundaries. Any statements that express emotion must be tightly linked with the unconscious, psychoanalysis, and image politics. Indeed, all statements inevitably stem from love, and are inextricably intertwined with love; this is most true of statements that express emotion, and often true of statements related to values and ideology. Beautiful Tools, Breaking Wheel Chang Jia recently produced an installation entitled, Beautiful Instruments III (Breaking Wheel) (2014), which includes an opening performance. The installation consisted of a large circular curtain (11 m radius) made from two layers of waving white fabric, reminiscent of a womanâ€™s underskirt, which effectively divided the interior and exterior of the exhibition space. Different cultures around the world have long considered circles to be sacred sites. In the past, criminals were known to seek refuge inside such sites, which are thought to be beyond the reach of secular law. Such spaces can be regarded as a type of boundary between gods and humans, and they are often shaped as geometric forms. Among these, places shaped like circular labyrinths and mandalas retain traces of symbolic and iconographic sanctity. In this installation, Chang constructs a type of sacred place. Of course, in order to become sacred, sites usually must be ordained through some aesthetic or religious apparatus or ritual, such as sprinkling with holy water. The apparatus for this particular installation is the circle of white curtain, which symbolizes purity or virginity. Costumed performers open the round curtain and enter into the sacred space inside the circle, in an act that may be read to symbolize the tearing of the hymen and entrance into a womanâ€™s sexual organs. Arranged around the inside of the circular curtain, the performers find twelve large structures (1.2 m wide and 2.4 m tall) consisting of a copper stand and a wheel. The wheels resemble the old-fashioned wheels of a coach, with wooden spokes and a steel frame decorated with feathers. Each of the copper stands is topped by a saddle where the performers sit (increasing the height of the structures to 3.5 m). Seated atop the structure, the performers pump the pedals to turn the wheel, which causes the feathers to brush against their pubic region. Meanwhile, the upper surface of each saddle has a word engraved in crystals; sitting on the saddle and working the pedals causes
the words to get impressed into the flesh of each performer’s rear end. These English words are rather puzzling and allusive: ‘elaborate space’; ‘punishment’; ‘(white) bone’; ‘sweat’; ‘dark and empty’; ‘ritual (festival)’; ‘insult’; ‘circulation (cycle)’; ‘universe’; ‘followers’; ‘crinkling’. Notably, these terms may be used in the context of discussing love, but they all have meanings beyond such interpretation. Thus, like statements about love, the words represent the vague, impending, multifaceted, ambiguous, and ambivalent. In a broader sense, these words may serve as both descriptions of love and statements about healing. While pedaling, the performers sing a strange song that combines a Korean traditional work song with the sound of a Gregorian chant. The song is sung as a round, so that the melody and simple rhythm flows continuously, constantly overlapping. The song may represent a dimension or level where celestial and terrestrial sounds respond to one another, and where the boundary between the sacred and the earthly dissolves. The lyrics come from a song traditionally sung by villagers (usually women) engaged in the labor-intensive process of manually milling grains, recorded in Eumseong, North Chungcheong Province in Korea. The lyrics may be roughly translated as follows: Stomp, stomp/the person digging over here stomp/stomp, stomp/ and the person digging over there stomp/ flower blooming, flower blooming/head of the mill blooming/ Stomp on the mill/stomp on the mill/the person digging over here stomp/ and the person digging over there stomp/press down hard/ flower blooming, flower blooming/head of the mill blooming/ (Music directed by Yi Narime) Like most folk songs involving a mill, the song has obvious sexual connotations. The function of this and many other traditional work songs is to distract the workers from their arduous labor through sexual innuendo and humor. Chang recognized and sought to emphasize the potent energy embedded in the sexual innuendo in order to subvert the binary logic of our history and civilization, which deifies labor while demonizing sex. At the same time, she addresses the dual standard of capitalism, which relies heavily on sexual allusion for commercial purposes while simultaneously reinforcing the social suppression of sexuality. The performers pedal faster and faster, bringing the feathers into near constant contact with their pubic area. The singing also accelerates to a frenetic pace, until suddenly, everything stops.
Beautiful Instruments III (Breaking Wheel), 2014, Performance Still cut
Beautiful Instruments III (Breaking Wheel), 2014, Mixed media, Installation, Dimension variable
All that can be heard is the exhausted panting of the performers, lingering in the silence like an afterglow. The overall effect is heavily reminiscent of the build, climax, and repose of sexual intercourse. Chang excavates and intensifies the latent sexual energy of the song, condensing it into a single moment of climax. The maximal intensity of this condensed energy directly represents the ecstasy of orgasm, which Georges Bataille memorably called ‘la petite mort’, or ‘the little death’. Indeed, the performance suggests the moment of the highest bliss, pleasure, and jouissance, which restores the continuity between life and death; the sacred and secular; heaven and earth. Thus, the energy can only be the energy of healing, which is directly connected to the sanctity of the site, where the energy and its significance are rejuvenated and reborn. After the opening performance, a video of the performance is projected in the exhibition space. The shadow of the twelve structures is projected onto the circular curtain that marks the edge of the space. According to Chang’s original design of the artist, sage herb should be burned as the performance begins. The aromatic herb symbolizes the purification ritual by which the site becomes sanctified, just as the white curtain represents purity and virginity, separating the domain of the sacred from that of the secular. Today, the site is associated with an artist, but back in the days when criminals sought refuge at sacred sites, that role was filled by a shaman or priest. In the contemporary vocabulary, artists are peripheral entities who dwell in the in-between. As such, they serve as messengers who can cross the most hallowed boundaries, between the sacred and secular, life and death, the conscious and unconscious, meaning and meaninglessness. Artists are the agents who enable mutual communication and transmission. All of Chang’s works, and especially the installation, Beautiful Instruments III (Breaking Wheel) conform to the works of a messenger. As such, her art is imbued with contemporary elements of shamanism. After all, a shaman is destined to live not for herself, but for others. Do Chang’s works provide us with meaning? Or do they cause us to dwell on the meaning? The art of Chang Jia encompasses a wide spectrum of grand discourse and micro-discourses: sexuality and madness; sexuality and power; normality and abnormality; profanity and transgression; prohibition and taboo; excretion and desire; eros and thanatos; eroticism and ecstasy; pleasure and pain; sadism and masochism; medical science and torture; violence and sanctity; obscure objects of desire. While she appropriates the points of the grand discourse into layers of micro-discourse, she also combines
subjective experiences and the separate layers of micro-discourse to form the grand discourse. She violates the politics of body and the politics of transgression, wherein existence is engraved upon the body. Her works highlight the sheer physicality of the body through sexuality, which has been somewhat eclipsed by the perspective of gender. Her works summon each point of those discourses, represent and interpret them as vivid, actual incidents occurring at the level of sensation. By invoking such reality, her works acquire great powers of persuasion. In particular, her art enables us to contemplate the sincerity of the art of the abject.
Chang Jia Chang Jia was born in Seoul in 1973. She received a BFA from the Korean National University of the Art in 2001 and a MA from the same university in 2004. Since her first solo exhibition, she has been featured in 8 solo exhibitions in and out of the country including the Doosan Gallery, New York in 2014 and Walsh Gallery, Chicago in 2008. And she also participated in about 150 group exhibitions in Korea and abroad, of those are the ‘Resonance Green Korea: Climate Change in the Bosom of Culture‘, Frederiksberg Townhall Copenhagen in 2009, ‘Out of touch’- Kunsthalle Wien ursula blickle videolounge, Wien in 2008, ‘Seoul now’, Charlottenborg Exhibition Hall, Copenhagen and ‘Enclosed’, CONTEMPORARY MEDIA ART SCREENING, British Museum, UK in 2005 respectively. She has received the Doosan Yonkang Artist Award in 2012 and nominated for the 2014 Korea Artist Prize. Her works are collected at the Seoul Museum of Art, Daejeon Museum of Art, Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art, The Netherlands Media Art Institute.
Kho Chunghwan (Art Critic) Kho Chunghwan(1961) is an art critic, and curator. In the past he curated shows like “The Issue of Criticism” at the Posco Art Museum (2005) or more recently “The Shell or Skin of Sculpture” at the Moran Museum of Art in Seoul. He is currently teaching art history at the Sungshin Women’s University and Chung-Ang University in Seoul, Korea.
K. NOTe is a monthly digital publication that aims to introduce Korean artists and curators to overseas audiences. Much like an exquisitely interwoven Korean ‘Knot’, K.NOTe hopes to become a medium that creates strong ties and solid knots within the contemporary arts scene by publishing e-notebooks of Korean artists and events that are worthy of ‘Note’.