Name Against the Same Sound
BAXTER STREET AT THE CAMERA CLUB OF NEW YORK
MARCH 14 – APRIL 14, 2018
Conceptual artist Jesse Chun plays with the social attributes and political implications of the English language. Having lived in Seoul, Hong Kong, New York (where she is currently based), and Toronto, Chun investigates how ESL texts not only educate the non-English speaker in a language of empire, she also abstracts and resources and makes use of the sounds of English itself in an attempt to demystify the way these sounds—in combination with the submissive attitude needed to learn them—tacitly articulate a world order. The exhibition, Name against the Same Sound curated by Howie Chen, presents a group of highly sophisticated sculptures and wall works that question the influence of English as an agent of imperial design. But the political reality implicit in the pieces is not overt; instead, it is mutely communicated by inference and context. This means that Chun is implicating a social reality, adumbrated by language, that is now worldwide. Words are the means by which we communicate ideas, which define and mediate a political stance. So, by fracturing and abstracting the English language, Chun makes it clear that language itself is never a free ride; it can also be a tool for cultural control.
On entry into the gallery, the viewer immediately comes across Sound Natural (all works considered in the review date from 2018), a low-set black orb speaker connected to the ceiling by a wire. This is a two-minute-long sound sculpture consists of English vowel pronounciations that originated in a language tutorial clip taken from You Tube. The idea was to “sound natural,” hopefully achieved by mimicking the sounds as they were given to the viewer. The first reaction might well be to see the work as comically surreal—noises making no sense issuing from an airport speaker. But, as happens almost always in this show, the work suggests a political reality lying just beyond the visual reality of the object. In this case, the implied criticism has to do with the question, what does it mean to sound natural? Is the accented English of a recent immigrant to America less correct less legitimate than the unaccented language of someone whose family has been here for generations? The query is up for discussion—and such a discussion is the goal, generally speaking, of the show.
The concrete sculpture Neither Nor was constructed from a group of plastic shapes used to build English letters—an educational toy Chun purchased on the Internet. The artist then cast these fragments of letters into concrete and fashioned a work of art that wasn’t quite a letter, nor was it quite an abstract sculpture. This piece relates to the eye of the art world as a nonobjective work of art, even though its fragments are part of a system designed to generate actual—denotative—reading. Standing as it does in a linguistic and sculptural no man’s land, Neither Nor makes it clear that language itself can be reduced to or measured by visual abstraction, which by itself is a form of knowledge, even if that knowledge is not accessible in a literary sense. In a way, too, the title suggests a biographical reading not only for the artist but for all the world—but especially in New York, where so many come from somewhere else. Although Neither Nor works with language, its implications move beyond the concept of literacy to the abstraction of place itself. This work, despite its seeming simplicity, is actually moving because of the complexity of its intimations.
For Armo(u)r, Chun purchased watermarks from sites distributing them for certificates and diplomas. Digitally arranging the watermarks and creating a painting from them, in which the marks are repeated and establish an arabesque design, the artist has indicated in notes her interest in “the technological aesthetics of pedagogy.” But even more than the aesthetics of degree-granting certificates, this piece indicates to me the industrialized nature of education, which now offers doctorates for purchase to adorn and strengthen resumes—a sad but true condition of the presently commercialized world of the university. As supposedly official determinations of knowledge attained, the degrees are of course meaningless—it is interesting to see that the abstract design formed by the watermarks takes over the image, so that we are given nothing that demonstrates genuine intellectual achievement—or, even more important, its official recognition in academia.
If a doctorate can be had simply by paying for it, as is possible to do on the Internet, how are we to trust the American educational system, which is still held in high regard in objective evaluations of education? In this highly interesting, if a bit visually dry, exhibition, Chun presents works that raise questions more than they answer them. Perhaps the interrogatory ambience of the show arises because of its social implications. It looks like politics is imperative in the elucidation of Chun’s visual intelligence, which tends to serve rather than evade abstract ideas. As a result, intellectual considerations are as important as visual experience. Because certain modes of contemporary art remains so heavily concerned with identity, it is easy to fit this exhibition into a wider contemporary exploration of language and identity, as well as the use of English as a social control. Chun’s show does this amazingly well.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.