Yeondoo Jung: One Hundred Years of Travels

Jung Yeondoo, One Hundred Years of Travels ‒ Prologue (still), 2022, single-channel HD digital video, colour, sound, video, stage installation, lights, photographs, tufting, mixed media, 35 min 14 sec. Courtesy the artist

ArtReview caught up with the artist to discuss the latest iteration of the annual MMCA Hyundai Motor Series

Initiated in 2014, the MMCA Hyundai Motor Series is an annual programme hosted by the MMCA in Seoul, that offers Korean artists a major platform on which to showcase ambitious, and often challenging new work. This year’s awardee is Yeondoo Jung, whose work spans photography, video, installation and performance, and has previously featured in both the Taipei, Venice, Gwangju, Istanbul and Liverpool Biennials, as well as numerous solo exhibitions wordwide. His project for the Hyundai programme focuses on a particular story of the often-overlooked Korean diaspora, relating to indentured labourers who set sail for Yucatán, Mexico during the early twentieth century. The exhibition features five works focusing on connection, separation and adaptation that provides a narrative that talks about the past, the present, and what might be to come. ArtReview caught up with the artist to discuss the show.

Imaginary Song, 2023, super-directional speakers, sub-woofer, amplifiers, audio interface, sound absorbing material sculptures, wires. Photo: sonongji

ArtReview What first drew you to work in the visual arts? What does being an artist mean for you?

Yeondoo Jung When I told my father that I wanted to study art, I was in high school. He threw a crystal ashtray at me. He wanted me to follow in his footsteps to become a herbal-medicine doctor, or at least to become someone who cured others. I have a relentless hand whenever I focus on something. I carved a sculpture (more precisely a torso) on chalk with a sharp pencil under the table during class. As a result, I had drawers full of torso sculptures at the end of each semester. 

As an artist I do not wish to put a special meaning at the start of something. It has always to do with how the work evolves. Ultimately, I was lucky or unlucky to dodge that ashtray and become an artist.

AR What artists influenced you as a student and are they the same as those who influence you now?

YJ Cornelia Parker once tutored me when I was a Goldsmiths College student during the 1990s. She said: “Your understanding something is only as much as your misunderstanding something.” That was a puzzle for me initially, but eventually I understood that she wanted me to approach the same ideas with different mediums. Because I studied sculpture, all my ideas don’t need to be expressed in a sculptural format only. But she also knew it is difficult to change what you learned: if you studied sculpture, it is much easier to express the idea with what you know or are good at. I understood later that new knowledge could refine ideas. 

I love countless artists and their artworks, but the poetic expression of Felix Gonzalez-Torres hugely influenced me when I was a student. 

AR You worked with VR in 2014 for Blind Perspective, you studied sculpture, you are known for working with photography and moving image. How do new media and technologies inform or transform your work? Do you think the concept of the work is more key than the medium?

YJ Cornelia Parker gave me good advice on this matter too. I try to approach the subject without thinking about what I am good at. When I created Blind Perspective, I had to show artwork at the museum [Art Tower Mito] 100km from Fukushima nuclear power station two years after the disaster. VR was a perfect medium for dealing with visible/invisible worries. 

Wall of Blades, 2023, sugar, honeycomb board, sound-absorbing material, Courtesy of artist.

AR Can you describe the four new works you are showing? Both individually and how they work collectively as an exhibition?

YJ The One Hundred Years of Travels exhibition starts with a sound installation called Imaginary Song in the basement lobby [Seoul Box] of the MMCA. It consists of five large leaves and six fruits made out of a sound-absorbent material called melanin foam. They are hanging high, and each fruit contains subwoofers and ultrasonic-sound speakers. The audience can hear a ship’s whistlelike sound in various bass tones at the beginning. As they walk into the space, they can listen to six voices of people with different linguistic backgrounds, among them Spanish, Polish, Indonesian and Arabic. These are the voices of people who came to live in Korea and who talk about their feelings about being an alien. I want to invite the audience to the exhibition space, walking under the exotic plants and voices as if this were an auditory hallucination. The leaves function to absorb the bouncing sound of the voices from the ultrasonic speakers.

The following work, One Hundred Years of Travels – Prologue, is a miniature theatrical stage resembling the ‘Hacienda’, a large plantation farm in Yucatán, Mexico. I found a naturally growing prickly pear colony on Jeju Island in southern Korea. There it is a natural heritage protected by the local government, whereas you can find them in the supermarket in Mexico. It was the starting point for me to imagine the travel of a prickly pear’s (called nopal in Mexico) seed crossing the Pacific Ocean to follow the Kuroshio current at some point in history. In 1905, 1,033 Koreans boarded a cargo ship bound for Mexico where they were promised riches and a better life. The ended up as indentured labourers sold to work on sugar-cane and henequen plantations. Most have since never returned to their home country and have rooted their lives in Mexico. Subsequently I realised the imaginary of the immigration of both the plants and people as a hand-mime performance on the miniature theatrical stage. 

Generational Portraits are a pair of portraits showing parents and their children. I place the two figures in pairs facing each other on five-metre-long LED displays placed on opposite sides of a space so that the audience is forced to walk between these personal relationships, as if by chance. The subjects are Korean-Mexican families whose lives I followed for one day. 1/500 frames per second of captured images transform the brief moment into a long, barely moving picture. I wanted to portray the image of a rebellious son (myself) against a father, but found myself instead when look at the resemblance to myself in these portraits of other people.

One Hundred Years of Travels consists of a four-channel video and white Styrofoam sculptures that resemble plants I found in the Mexican landscape. The set housing the TV-LED displays is like a musical stage, where three musicians from three countries (Korea, Mexico and Japan) are positioned underneath the main stage, which also houses a large LED display. There are the mariachis in the centre TV, Gidayu singers from Japanese Bunraku on the right and the Pansori singers on the left. Although they were shot in three different locations, each set of musicians waited until the part that they needed to sing and play as if the whole were one live performance. The lyrics of the songs are from a history book called History of Korean Immigrants in Mexico. There is also a newspaper advertisement, setting out. How wonderful it would be to work in Mexico, images of the travels in 1905 and an interview with Maria Victoria Lee Garcia, a second-generation Korean immigrant.

The different musical rhythms are the key elements of the main display, which was taken mainly in Mexico, Korea and Japan during the course of a year. 

The last work in the show is called Wall of Blade. It consists of over 300 machetes from various cultures in 165 paper frames. As the title suggests, they are installed like a wall. The blades are made out of sugar, which will eventually melt during the six-month exhibition period. I wanted to create a wall of bittersweet histories with ephemeral materials.

Overall, the exhibition starts with light and soft whispering and moves to dark, heavy sweetness. I want the audience to feel like they were on a journey, where you can find a mixture of the familiar and the exotic throughout. 

Generational Portraits (still), 2023, two-channel HD digital video, LED screen, colour, 22 min. Courtesy of artist.

AR Do you think of your works as having messages? Or are they more like provocations?

YJ An artwork, especially a time-based one, cannot avoid carrying a message, whether I want it to or not. 

AR As you have said, One Hundred Years of Travels deals in part with South Korean migrant workers in Mexico during the early twentieth century. On that level it seems like a simple narrative, but the story also involves Japan (which once colonised Korea) and other parties. In short, it’s more complex. Can you speak more to how complexity informs the work?

YJ I am not a historian dealing with these issues in depth. As I progress with my thoughts, and the more I visit Mexico, I cannot help but include the stories from the history books, because this episode needs to be better acknowledged by the majority of people in Korea and Mexico. But most of all, connecting the seemingly distanced elements – physical distance and time – became a challenge for me as an artist.

I do not wish to deal with binary perspectives or jump to conclusions (like showing the similarities or differences between the diasporic and Korean or Mexican communities). I know the danger of seeing history from one perspective or another or giving a message. The last can be easily manipulated through the visualisation. But no one can be free from looking at history without their perspective being shaped by current intentions or interests. I had to find my balance to use the musical elements from the three countries. 

One Hundred Years of Travels (still), 2023, video installation, four channel HD digital video, colour, sound, mixed media, 48 min. Courtesy the artist.

AR Do you think that the Korea that diasporic communities of the type mentioned above relate to is the same as the Korea that exists in reality today? Is the effect of diasporic communities to create multiple versions of Korea (one, for example, might be the Korea that they or their ancestors left behind, unchanged from that point on)?

YJ The variety of society reflects how international they are. Anglo-Saxon-Roman-French-Nordic-Indian-Chinese, for instance, in the United Kingdom. But Korean history always emphasises homogenisation because it gives a reason why the South and North need to be unified. We are the same race and the same country. The same word ‘united’ refers to the opposite in Korea. That’s the danger of looking at history from the current necessity. As a result, the change in contemporary society in Korea has been easily ignored, especially people turning their eyes away from the diasporic communities. 

One Hundred Years of Travels ‒ Prologue (still), 2022, single-channel HD digital video, colour, sound, video, stage installation, lights, photographs, tufting, mixed media, 35 min 14 sec. Courtesy the artist

AR Do you think the past is a help or a burden when it comes to understanding our present?

YJ It has more to do with how we look at the past. Normally, we are, as a matter of fact, only interested if it is a story about us, our family or our society. Also, if it is not about yesterday, this month or this year, you need imagination to reach things that are further from you. I am interested in that imagination and how sympathy works for people through art.

AR You’ve studied, worked and shown around the world. Do you think there is something particular (beyond the nationality of the maker) about Korean art? And what might that be?

YJ Korea is, they say, Far East. My studio is far south of Seoul. So I am in boundaries. Korean art has never been near the centre of the artworld, perhaps until recently. I do not wish to be considered as like K-Pop. I like to carry the feeling of being at the borderline because I can see things better.

AR Do you feel positive about the future?

YJ I always try to be positive, because things usually do not flow in a positive direction. 

MMCA Hyundai Motor Series 2023: Jung Yeondoo – One Hundred Years of Travels is on show at the MMCA Seoul Box through 25 February

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