An Outsider Looks for Answers Inside Her Art

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An Outsider Looks for Answers Inside Her Art

From a distance, Shon Jung-eun's latex installation, "Forest," seems like some abstract expressionist watercolor. The sublime waves of beige latex on the gallery wall are soft and poetic - until suddenly the outline of human legs and feet becomes perceptible to the viewer's eyes and the entire wall resembles some ghastly melted-skin image from the Holocaust.

This contrasting reality is typical of the way Shon approaches her work, and it shows in the title of the recent group exhibition she participated in at the Posco Art Museum - "Softness Crossing Over Solidness."

"Forest," which is part of Shon's continuing project "Moon Garden," won the Audience's Award at last year's Pusan International Contemporary Art Festival.

Shon, 33, likes to talk about the ironies in life. Sitting in her quiet basement studio near Hongik University, she recalls one time she came upon her 90-year-old grandmother busy in the family's dining room. "She was indulging herself in a plate of steamed pork," Shon says. Seeing grandma devouring dead flesh gave her a sudden holistic understanding of how life and death intersect, she says.

"I thought it is interesting that my old grandma stayed alive by eating heaps of dead meat," she says while describing her installation "Dinner Party," which was based on the pork incident. The work consisted of a wooden table tipped vertically and crammed with plaster casts of foods and small statuettes of fragmented body parts, including a woman's face with eyes shut tight and lips slightly parted. The table, decorated also with strands of beads and scattered roses, suggested both celebration and contemplation.

Shon selects her words carefully; perhaps she's acutely aware that language is an unstable way to communicate, based on her experience of having to write an artist statement every time she exhibits. "I think it would be less painful to write them if I just criticized my works," she says. Indeed, as a visual artist who humbly explains that she began creating art "to share my intimate feelings with others," the failure to communicate seems to be one of her worst fears.

Shon understands, though, the danger of trapping herself in escapism when she uses words like "instinct" and "feeling." Such words are often used by artists who are inept at communicating with the public but want to remain in the lofty altitude of high art. Accepting that risk, however, Shon says her work relies on personal experiences and coincidences from her everyday life, and sometimes have no theoretical explanations at all. Perhaps this has hurt her standing in Korea's contemporary art world, which favors art with explicit socio-political content. In that sense, she considers herself an outsider in terms of the domestic art scene.

"When I had my show at the Fine Art Center, only two people from the industry came," she explains, but with a tinge of pride. "One of them was my thesis adviser and the other was an art critic who wrote a foreword for my catalogue. The others were storeowners near the gallery or passersby."

As a self-proclaimed outsider, Shon also talks about the difficulties of being excluded from both sides of what she calls Korea's art world division between the "proletariat circles and the bourgeois." One group, she explains, comprises the "activist artists" whose works are charged with political themes, while the others make "art for art's sake." As an example, Shon relates an episode she faced during her interview for the artist-in-residency program at the Ilju Art House, which later accepted her as a member. The Art House was known for featuring artists whose works deal with socio-political issues. A selection committee member, she says, told her that they had planned to remove her from the short list because her works looked too "bourgeois." They were referring to Shon's performances which incorporate objects like food, wine glasses and colorful jewelry.

"They told me at the interview that they were looking for artists who couldn't afford to pay for their editing facilities, so I said 'look at me I'm very poor!'" she says with a cackle.

Backtracking to her grandmother and the plate of pork, Shon says that ever since that incident she has trouble eating meat "whenever it starts to feel like flesh" in her mouth. "I'm O.K. with hamburgers and deep-fried chicken," she says with a sigh. But pork chops and bacon? "No way." But as she readily acknowledges, life is full of such contradictions.

by Park Soo-mee

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