‘Unbidden’: An identity disappears into the woodwork

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‘Unbidden’: An identity disappears into the woodwork

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Entering the dark gallery space where Yoon Jin-me’s “Unbidden” is exhibited, one might feel an overwhelming sense of emptiness in the artist’s large video image. The monotonous landscape ― the weed swamp, quiet stream, fenced glade, or thin bush ― bears little sign of civilization or dramatic tension and imposes no sense of urgency on the viewer.
As if reluctantly offering a minimal reward for our patience, a woman enters the frame, cautiously crawling and hopping like a hunter chasing her prey. Her careful movement, dagger in hand, and rather unusual tight black outfit suggest some kind of strange and dangerous secret operation in the wilderness, as if bidding us to witness an important action unfolding. On the contrary, she only ends up obscuring the unidentifiable geographic and historical context of the space as she quietly lingers for a while and then quietly leaves behind the same stillness as before. The viewer wishes to witness some mysterious incident or unusual spectacle, but only sees the same woman make her entrance and exit, again and again. Her simple performance being repeated, we learn nearly nothing about the person, let alone her environment. If she succeeds in any task at all, it is the task of veiling her identity; she appears on screen precisely to conceal herself.
Ambiguous identities are the ongoing theme in Yoon’s photographic and video works. As a Korean-born and Vancouver-based female artist, the question of identity must have been central not only in her art but in her everyday life. The experiences of immigration and living as an Asian in an European settlement erected over the destruction of a native culture seem to have inspired her to look at history as critically as she looks at herself.
Her works have addressed how our identities are constructed and how our visual perception is conditioned by history. It is in this sense that space and time become important elements in her works. The questions of who we are and what we are, of course, always have to do with where we are and when we are. The places shown in “Unbidden”, for example, are near Kamloops, British Columbia, where the Shuswap tribe of the Interior Salish Nation once resided until its culture was destroyed by settlers who came for the area’s gold. The obscure identity and secretive transit that Yoon displays evokes historical memories of trauma. The geographical terrain that she occupies is one that has been historically conditioned.
What makes Yoon’s works more intriguing is the fact that the spectral personas that she assumes or interrogates through photographic or video imagery are not necessarily restricted to people of political significance. She explores and reveals the duality of presence and absence as an inherent property of photography. The human bodies that appear on her images are often nameless, but their identities seem deceivingly simple and clear.
“The subjects are there in the photograph, but at the same time not there,” she once said of her work.
Even when she photographs herself, as in “Souvenirs of the Self” (1991) or “Welcome Stranger Welcome Home” (2002), for instance, the “true” self of the artist evades viewers. What appears to be a trite photo, casually taken at a monumental tourist site, is an image of the artist disguised as a tourist. Even when we recognize the person in the picture as Yoon, we secure no means of understanding who she really is and what this recognition means; our voyeurism only notices her authenticity as it slips away. Perhaps this slippage, “unbidden” like relived memories of a trauma, not only characterizes our relationship to the image, but also haunts the artist herself. In any case, it is this evasion that forces us to question the ways our identities and history are constructed.
This is to say that her works are not only political, but also deeply contemplative of the basic properties of the medium itself; the more political her work gets, the more formatively engaging it is. Politics and form are fused in her photographic imagery. The photographic apparatus, we are reminded, documented the European expansion across the globe to begin with. The integration of politics and form releases fundamental and perhaps overtly violent questions: Who is the subject of this gaze these nameless spaces imposed or offered to us? Who is the ultimate subject in the act of bidding?
The title of the exhibit poetically connotes Freud’s account of the involuntary reenactment of traumatic experiences, implying that the repetition of her futile tasks may involve memories of violence, pain and fear. Perhaps the most important clues to resolve these questions lie in the disquieting stillness that is sustained or repeated in the moving images. The good news is that for those who look very closely at the works, Yoon’s images are full of sharp wit and subtle humor. As long as the unbidden memories of violence are relived through her wit, we are not oblivious to their violent history.


by Seo Hyun-suk

Seo Hyun-suk is an assistant professor at Yonsei Graduate School of Communication and Arts.
Unbidden, a solo exhibition by Yoon Jin-me, runs through May 31 at Ssamzie Space. For more information, call (02) 3142-1693.
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