Jesse Chun and Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin: stain begins to absorb the material spilled on
New York CityDOOSAN Gallery
January 16 – February 15, 2020
One may feel like an intruder walking into Jesse Chun and Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin’s stain begins to absorb the material spilled on at DOOSAN Gallery. Perhaps this is caused by encountering Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin’s Onggi (as if from a firm esophageal column) (2019) at the entrance, a gathering of Korean glass onggi vases on a bed of soil that have an authoritative aura in their multitude and containment. There is a sense of walking into the midst of a process that does not readily reveal itself.
Part of Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin’s installation is a custom mugwort scent fabricated for this show. My nose first picked up the sweet and minty top notes, and then detected smells reminiscent of hashish and fertilizer. The viewing experience is soundtracked by Jesse Chun’s voiceless consonants (2019), though, until walking further into the exhibit, one is unaware of the sound’s source. The piece is filled with what sounds like shushing, breathing, and spitting. Voiceless consonant is a linguistic term for the consonant sounds made by air released from the lungs through the mouth. The experience of listening to these airy sounds is one of bodily activation. Air is a material leaving the body, sound is just a byproduct. Smell enters through the nose and is ingested into one’s body. Jesse Chun’s piece seems to usher the ingestion as our bodies act as passageways for air. One may begin as an intruder, only to realize they have been intruded upon.
Onggi dates back to 5000 BC, a Korean earthenware used for fermentation that is breathable like skin, allowing optimal airflow. It is a sight that ignites nostalgia for Koreans, as modernity has made traditional methods into specialties, no longer commonly practiced in the everyday. Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin’s vitrified onggis stand as emblematic ready-mades, emptied of their original purpose. But the work eschews a dialectical interpretation of the authentic and the modernized (read: colonized). Varying in their opacity and size, the milky surfaces look like goo, at least maintaining a porous appearance, regardless of its glass material. The scent of the mugwort lingering about in the air causes one to think that though the onggis may no longer be porous, they are nonetheless breathing.
Walking through to the other side of the gallery, one is immediately drawn to Jesse Chun’s voiceless consonants coming from a low hanging black speaker, the semi-spherical shape a foreboding presence. Since the speaker is configured to emit sound towards the floor— though the volume is loud enough to be heard throughout the entirety of the gallery—the dimensions and tonality of the sound differ based on where one situates oneself in the space. Closer, the sounds are not as airy as heard from the front. Here, they are more labored and forceful.
Jesse Chun extracted, abstracted, and mixed the sound from YouTube videos of English language classes where students repeating after the teacher have a more orderly quality, bordering on subservience. The artist is known for her ability to forge new worlds using found materials that are typically instruments of control. In her hands, this is not a soundtrack of practicing English, but rather, its undoing.
if you weren’t saying anything (2020) reverberates from the floor near the corner right of the gallery. Regardless of its three dimensionality, if you weren’t saying anything is the most like a drawing or piece of writing out of all the works in the show. The previously seen motifs—etched watermarks, graphite, and nude flesh colors—have gathered over this surface to speak together, each one retaining their own ontology. While the other works maintain a palpable violence and resistance to systems of power, if you weren’t, offers a moment of respite. When viewing the words “pure landscapes” that emerge from the blurred background of a pigment print, one thinks about the intangible idealism of that phrase. But seeing it there, against the backdrop of elements previously in armored intensity now at rest, one is inclined to believe.
How could a stain absorb the material it has spilled on? This title comes from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s seminal work Dictée (1982). Cha was an artist whose deep understanding of language meant fully residing within the pain of her mother tongue and its history—a country whose people were unable to speak their own language during Japanese colonization, a country whose language is intertwined with the body, as the written alphabet is based on the shape of one’s tongue and mouth when speaking.
Usually, a stain is the after effect, but here, it is the subject and agent. Likewise, Jesse Chun’s and Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin’s works interrogate the agency of expression, meeting at the intersection of speech and the body. Language is not a concept; it is breathing flesh.