SEAN SHIM-BOYLE: Jackby Swagato Chakravorty
JANE LOMBARD GALLERY | APRIL 5 – MAY 12, 2018
To walk into Jack, Sean Shim-Boyle’s first exhibition at Jane Lombard Gallery, is to walk into a space where things are off-kilter, amiss, just slightly wrong. The gallery’s main space is taken up by Mother! Mother! (2018), a large textual display made out of blue wooden letters that covers one whole wall. Further down the gallery, a mechanized installation, Fee Fi Fo Fum (2018), endlessly repeats a movement that never quite completes itself. Off to one side, a gleaming golden egg rests upon a plinth. This is, somewhat archly, titled Golden Egg (2018)––but a closer approach discloses an accusatory “THIEF” engraved thickly into the egg’s resinous surface. Beyond this, animated in a continuous paroxysm of movement, a long rubber tube swings about wildly in the air: Beanstalk (2018). These are the disparate works that make up Shim-Boyle’s idiosyncratic take upon “Jack and the Beanstalk,” one of the world’s oldest and most widely-known fairytales. It’s an exhibition built out of sparse materials (just four works altogether) but the strength of Shim-Boyle’s convictions, and his willingness to wear his ambitions lightly, make for an experience that lingers well after one makes one’s way back down 19th Street.
Of South Korean-Canadian ancestry, Sean Shim-Boyle (b. 1986, Vancouver, Canada) is based in Los Angeles, California. Having earned a BFA in graphic design (California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA, 2008) and an MFA in sculpture (UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, 2012), he approaches questions of site-specificity and materials with a critical background. Mother! Mother! is perhaps the simplest work in the show, but it is also arguably the most arresting precisely because of the ways in which it both mediates and troubles the source of the work (i.e. the familiar fairytale) and renders it newly strange. The phrase “Mother, bring me the axe!” (from the fable) is rendered in large wooden letters—the kind seen commonly in kindergarten classrooms—but repeated horizontally across the wall in such a way as to introduce an element of stuttering or glitching within language itself. Each word in the phrase is repeated, but the repetitions are not equal in number. Consequently, a jittery quality emerges as you scan the wall, moving left to right, passing over the manic repetitions of “axe” to culminate in a flat, emphatically final “. . . Thud!” An insane child? A broken automaton? What’s startling here is how Shim-Boyle’s strategy magnifies the physicality of violence contained, even minimized, within the source text.
Fee Fi Fo Fum, comprising a set of motion-activated doors and a two-way mirror, takes the stutters and jitters initiated in Mother! Mother! and translates them into another context, using wholly different materials. The work, comprising motion-activated doors and two-way mirrors, recalls Dan Graham’s play with transparency and elements of architectonic form, but there is no entry possible here. More to the point, the doors come to a hesitant stop halfway through each cycle, pausing for a moment before beginning again. Where Graham’s installations invite participatory play and movement that interweaves defined spaces, Shim-Boyle’s work wards off any such entry by virtue of its seeming mechanical errors. You do not want to get caught between these doors.
Golden Egg (2018) is a J’accuse! of sorts, but its address is not immediately apparent. Jack is, of course, the thief in the fable. But Jack is not a straightforward rehearsal of the fable. Throughout this show, Shim-Boyle has focused closely on a few recurring concerns: visibility, (un-)interrupted motion, points of access, and ways of negotiating these. By relying on a source text so widely known, he is able to initiate a strategic play between the knowledge audiences bring and his specific intervention into that text—namely, how that knowledge, and access to that knowledge, and the forms of cultural access implied thereby, circulate differently across cultures. Here, language falters, and access—to cultural memory, to the childhood stories one may call one’s own, and by extension to the forms of belonging one forges through adolescence—is fraught with risk. The iconography of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” so familiar to so many, is refracted through the prism of life under the conditions of globalization. Who, in other words, gets to access seeming universals of fact and fiction? Who tells these stories, and how are they told? Whose sensibilities translate the fairytales cherished within a specific cultural tradition for another audience? Golden Egg echoes the themes of inhibited or hindered access traced across Mother! Mother! and Fee Fi Fo Fum by both re-presenting the famous golden egg Jack steals in the fable and marking the object itself with its ultimate fate. But is every “theft” necessarily the action of a thief, with the pejorative connotations thereof? Is it somehow thievery to navigate multiple formal systems of identity? What of the baser forms of thievery such as appropriation?
Perhaps no other work in Jack announces itself as the ultimate accretion of these concerns as Beanstalk does. Installed at the end of a passage that begins with Golden Egg, and illuminated by a single naked lightbulb, Beanstalk consists of an EMT conduit, air compressor, and a long rubber tube. This rubber tube remains in constant motion, defeating attempts at photography. In the fable, the beanstalk is a conduit to cultural belonging. It provides Jack access to wealth and knowledge, even if they are unethically earned (after all, “Jack and the Beanstalk” does involve Jack committing theft thrice over). The beanstalk, in short, allows Jack to realize his aspirations of upward class mobility. Returning to, and extending from, the logic of repetition and stutters that mark both Mother! Mother! and Fee Fi Fo Fum, the frantic motion of Beanstalk collapses the desire signified within the tale’s narrative (you want Jack to climb the beanstalk, with its promises of great wealth and opportunity) with a forceful physicality that resists all contact.
What’s so fascinating about most of the works in this show, is that if we find something foreboding in them, it is because the works riff on the iconography of childlike play: Mother! Mother! is made out of the brightly painted blue woodblock lettering familiar to so many of us from our earliest childhood memories. And yet its manic stutter (and that implication of a shattering climax!) introduces distinctly unsettling elements. Shim-Boyle distorts the circuitry of memory, and from within the jitters of semantic hesitation emerge the lived uncertainties of negotiating identity and difference. Shim-Boyle is reluctant to make his work “about” being biracial, but the consequences of that heritage show up unbidden throughout.
Sean Shim-Boyle’s second New York exhibition (his first was at Brooklyn’s SIGNAL Gallery four years ago) showcases an artist calling upon form and materiality to think through cultural questions at stake today. When everything is “global,” it is easy to flatten experience, to claim identity with the Other. In Shim-Boyle’s consistent focus on the difficulties of articulating forms and modes of cultural belonging, and the ways in which language and cultural origins construct forms of being, it is not identity but rather difference that counts. It is this difference that gives texture to the increasingly migratory, nomadic circuits traced by artists and cultural workers the world over. One sees this in the show’s diversity of materials and strategies of installation, all of which participate in a shared conversation. Shim-Boyle clearly wants his work to show us something of who he is, but not reduce the complexities of that work to a simple matter of tracing originary routes. That is an ambition the show fulfills with impressive clarity.
Swagato Chakravorty is a Ph.D. candidate in History of Art, combined with Film and Media Studies, at Yale University. His research explores moving-image art and expanded cinema since 1989, focusing on the work of artists from the global South that intersect with documentary, archival, and performance-based practices. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.