Jun’s exhibition at Atelier Hermès, Seoul, considers the psycho-geography of modern cities
Amid the dimly lit environs of the underground exhibition hall at Atelier Hermès, Jun Sojung’s compact exhibition takes shape around a central video that traverses time and space in jumps and skips. Jun is the current recipient of the biennial Hermès Foundation Missulsang, which ranks among the nation’s most prestigious art prizes and is awarded to a promising Korean artist whose work reflects the contemporary condition. Her narrative videos typically deconstruct storytelling conventions and thematise the transference of individual agency; in recent years, Jun’s works have presented character studies of a range of individuals in specialised skill-based occupations, including a tightrope walker, a piano tuner, a sign painter and a shellfish diver.
Despair to be reborn (2020) is a 25-minute single-channel video that considers the psycho-geography of modern cities by tracing literal passageways and routes that link distinct physical sites in the urban landscape as well as the cognitive shortcuts and detours that collectively map the cosmopolitan consciousness. In so doing, Jun interweaves imagery and voices from Korea, Japan and France in a fragmented trajectory that alternates between archival footage from the 1930s and present-day scenes in each country’s capital city.
Looming large in all this is the complex figure of early modernist author Yi Sang, enfant terrible of the nascent avant-garde scene of the 1930s, when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule. Yi’s presence here can be traced to his 1932 poem ‘au magasin de nouveautes’, which serves as an index of visual motifs for the videowork. The poem is composed as a linguistic collage that contains montages of grotesque modernity and capitalist spectacle as experienced by the author during his visits to the recently built Mitsukoshi department store in downtown Seoul. In Jun’s video, the iconic form of the Graf Zeppelin serves a similar purpose, recalling its circumnavigation of the globe in 1929, when it became an instant sensation in Tokyo en route to transiting the Pacific Ocean. Symbolising the overwhelming dominance of Western technology and the shortening of the perceived distance between opposite sides of the planet, the Graf Zeppelin is an apt archetype manifesting the modernist attributes of mechanisation, mobility and multiple perspectives at the heart of Despair to be reborn.
Published to coincide with Jun’s exhibition is an ambitious and wide-ranging editorial project that presents diverse writings by 11 international contributors from various fields – including science, mathematics, music, film, architecture and literature – who reflect on Yi’s legacy and the historical context that gave rise to his radical vision. Jun’s own contribution to this volume emulates Yi’s surrealist propensity to subvert literary conventions, resulting in a work of experimental fiction that operates as a set of footnotes to Despair to be reborn. Less germane to the exhibition’s theme are supplementary sculptures from Jun’s Organ series (2020), a new body of work consisting of amorphous illuminated masses of translucent melted plastics. While aesthetically intriguing, their primary function seems to be as lighting elements in the otherwise darkened gallery, and they never quite succeed in asserting themselves as integrated additions to the self-contained universe of Jun’s video and publishing work. Notwithstanding, Au Magasin de Nouveautés triumphs in linking radical sensibilities that define generations separated by decades and distance, channelling Yi’s voice to engage modern perceptions of place critically.
Jun Sojung: Au Magasin de Nouveautés at Atelier Hermès, Seoul, 8 May – 5 July
Andy St. Louis is a writer and editor based in Seoul