Chang Sujung : Seung-Min Lee

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Chang Sujung: 

Seung-Min Lee:

June  July   August    September    October

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  July 31, 2023

Chang Sujung:

Patrick and I are expected to move out of our apartment by the end of August. I have lived here for the past three years—longer than anywhere else I have lived in New York. In my first six years in New York, I moved twelve times. Koreans say your lifespan shortens by 10 years with each move. By this measure, I have lost 120 years in New York alone. This idea that I am already living in my negative years has somehow helped me alleviate the stress around relocation. 

“Home” was never my concern or artistic interest when I lived in Korea. Back then, my thoughts around “home” were based on the interior of home and the emotions of being at home. Whereas, now when I think about "home", I visualize the shape of a house from the outside, almost like an emoji house (🏠). This difference could be simply derived from how much I gained and/or regained a sense of stability. Nevertheless, I still think it is worth reflecting on these new feelings of "home" while away from home.

Seung-Min Lee:

My girl cousin Jeehee, in Seoul, Korea, is 17 years younger than me. Her father is my mother’s youngest sibling; my uncle, her father, is 12 years older than me. My mother’s from the last generation of Korean families with 5 or more siblings; the burden of late capitalism in Korea has made today’s Korean nuclear families more compact units of just 3 or 4. Cousin Jeehee, like me, an only child and daughter, started a K-pop dance cover troupe in college 4 years ago. Somehow the video of her amateur group’s performance of the K-pop group, Twice’s song “Yes or Yes” ended up in my Kakao talk messages and I became completely obsessed with this strange derivative cultural product. 

It's the narcissism of families that binds us into tribes and makes us see patterns in our shared genes; her image feels like a black hole inflected mirror of my own. In spite of our vast age and geographic distance, I recognize myself in her. My own viral performance video where I perform Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” as a rope-tied and flailing dancer was 8 years behind hers. And behind the impassable wall of immigration which estranges us from our split originary families, made it impossible for her to have known of my earlier performance. So it felt poignant that my closest interaction with her was as an anonymous spectator of her YouTube embrace of a pop phenomenon in her country, her home.

K-pop, now a worldwide phenomenon that has literally created online activist disruptions globally, has never been an interest of mine. 

As someone who grew up in NYC in the heyday of the hiphop era, I’ll be honest with you, my experience of K-pop really began and ended with Park Nam Jung - Missing you (널 그리며). This was a hit of 1990, 33 years ago, and I was an 8 year old excited to be in Seoul visiting my Korean relations for the first time in a long time. I was enthralled with the pop star, Park Nam Jung–this handsome emotive oppa (older brother) who sang his feelings in a way that seemed like a version of masculinity so foreign to a young girl from Queens who experienced her father the most near and only Korean male figure as a series of Confucian aphorisms about duty and respect. This man who raised me, himself a boy left fatherless in the aftermath of the Korean War, gained his US citizenship when he ended up fighting in the Vietnam War to fight for a unit of the Korean Army that was conscripted by the US in a backdoor deal for backup in a losing war, he was 19. His experience of Korea as a home really ended in his teens but his foreignness in his adopted country of the US never left him.  He was coordinating attacks to kill the Vietcong, at the same age as my cousin Jeehee in this video where she’s gyrating her hips and shaking her arms in careful synchronicity with 4 of her closest friends. You can sense their joy in reproducing faithfully the choreography of the Korean idols in TWICE. 

She’s only 4 years past that video now and working as a salary woman in Seoul, having to stay out socializing after work with her coworkers until 2 in the morning regularly to maintain her position. The understood etiquette of conformity makes opting out of these mandatory “fun” activities, not an option. I wonder if practicing this complex K-pop dance choreography with her friends groomed her for a life dictated by a mandate to not “rock the boat,” to “go along to get along.” These also strike me as the alienated reflections of someone who will never truly understand what is is to be a Korean Korean.

The worldwide phenomenon of K-pop fans, who are mostly not ethnic Koreans at this point, see these K-pop idols as fantastic exemplars of beauty, style, and gentility. Their enthusiasm for this exotic cultural product has always struck me as an aspirational wish that an aesthetically perfect life is a happy frictionless one, a place where capitalism’s promise is actually delivering happiness, this just outside the horizon of where their own native culture is failing or has already failed them to give them this jouissance. Pop music seems to always have its strongest power in this twilight between entrenched discontent and hope for escape.

This painting I’ve been working on of her dance group for years is a Portrait of Dorian Grey but I realize now that is not for her, but for me. The continuous repetition of these group portraits in oil paint as palimpsests on the surface of the canvas, is erasure and memorial of their individual dreams second by second in this 4-minute YouTube video.

It’s hard for me to see “home” in South Korea, a place where I was born and left before I was 1. When I last visited in 2017, my elderly Korean relatives grabbed my face to exclaim it was so nice to see “an old fashioned face.” Meaning that they could not believe I hadn’t had the ubiquitous plastic surgery that’s created a synthetic new phenotype in Korea. The new tribes–like from the wealthy Gangnam district of Seoul–share facial similarities defined by the skills of rarefied surgeons rather than the expression of the phenotypes of rarefied families.

I watch these K-Dramas now available on Netflix in the US, in a sea of unfamiliar, surgically modified faces and see nothing that I recognize as my own. Like my father, who left Korea to make his fortune fighting in Vietnam, and then was abandoned as a shameful chapter in a corrupt era of a country trying to present a bright new face to the world, I feel there is no place to return to. In my cousin, the grandeur of her will to perform in spite of, to create something knowing it's futility, the viability of a creative will that persists has been my inspiration to keep painting again and again.

June    July    August    September    October

Chang Sujung: 

After our first phone call, Seung and I met up in a gallery in Brooklyn. Both of our works were in the group show there. We had a few casual conversations, found out that we both like listening to K-dramas as ambient sound at home, and shared what we don’t want to do instead of what we want to do for the show. We ended our conversation by agreeing to write about what we would do together and share it only with Jiyeon. 

But, where would I start? I came to America nine years ago to go to grad school after finishing my undergrad in Korea. I went to the same program Seung graduated from a few years prior. Although we didn’t overlap, I heard about her from other Koreans who were in between our years in the program. I also remember attending her talk at Artist Space in 2015. I was in awe when I first saw her because she broke every expectation I had as an Asian and of Asians. Especially then, I was a Korean newcomer to America who was frustrated by the discrepancy between how I was naturally perceived and who I was. What made it harder was not only that part of me wanted to play it safe in the foreign world for my own benefit to some extent, but also that I had no means to present myself in the way that I wanted. My English wasn't good enough to do so. In this regard, Seung’s thoughts, attitude, and wit were refreshing and hopeful. 

A few words that surfaced while thinking about the collaboration with Seung:

Seung-Min Lee: 

Race-based affirmative action ended yesterday, June 29th, 2023. The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the ruling of a case brought to a lower court by an alleged group of anonymous Asian Americans called Students For Equal Admissions, who sued Harvard for discriminating against Asians in their application review process. But of course, Students For Equal Admissions is actually a group started by a white male conservative legal strategist, Edward Blum, secretly funded by conservative billionaires with a single-minded objective to end Affirmative Action in America. 

Blum made convenient and easy use of these Asian Americans as a shield to further his pro-white, anti-minority agenda. He effectively forged, and now forever enshrined in US Constitutional law, a legal alliance between white Americans and Asian Americans at the expense of all the Americans from other racial minorities. The deep cynical irony of course, is that Affirmative Action, and race-based advancement policies were originally enacted because of the bond between Asians and these other non-white (specifically black and Latino) forged together voluntarily to gain recognition as equally, under-represented, and underserved communities in America. 

I applied and was accepted to Harvard College in 1999. In my acceptance letter and in a phone call a Harvard admissions officer told me the admissions committee was impressed by my “outstanding, exceptional personal qualities”. 

The lawsuit’s investigation of Harvard admissions procedure brought to light that Asian applicants to Harvard consistently scored low on the metric of “Personal Qualities;” these are the ineffable qualities of leadership, charisma, and likability that most Asians who excel academically and equally to their white and brown peers, consistently did not impress upon alumni interviewers or admissions staff. 

Whether or not I believe that I possess these “Personal Qualities", what I do know is that the admissions board of Harvard made their decision and chose to share this with me as their determination of my character. 

Intentional or not, being reduced to an antithesis of a cultural stereotype by the gatekeepers of this institution, set me upon a path to seek answers and perhaps revenge on the system that brought me there. 

My consistent joke about being Korean-American, is that I have to learn what being Korean is backwards from the outside in. My own experience growing up in NYC, as a self-aware artist from a young age, with two Korean parents with liberal values always made me a bit of an outsider with other Korean-Americans of my generation. There wasn’t a home in my Korean-ness outside of my familiar home of my mother and father. Now, watching an absurd K-Drama about a 20 year old Korean student from a poor background with a scholarship to study at a fashion school in downtown NY with rich chaebol Korean rivals sometimes feels like a more accurate representation of what my life should be than the one I’m living in as a 40 year old woman from Brooklyn. 

It wasn’t until grad school at Hunter that I met and befriended Korean artists from Korea that I felt I had much in common with other ethnic Koreans. It wasn’t just the love of eating too much kimchi and Shin ramyeon late at night, after too many after art class critique beers; it was

our mutual dedication and love to art itself that gave me a feeling of camaraderie and belonging that I didn’t have with the pastor’s sons “Joseph Kims” of my high school years. Even though, Sujung and I did not overlap in graduate school at Hunter. Sujung has always been an artist I respect and this opportunity to get to know her and familiarize myself with the context she draws her work from is exciting and charging. She’s a lightning rod In my performance work and everything else, I take the temperature of the room constantly. The audience, the space, the institutional architecture, and the human support structures (e.g. curators) all bring with them desires that want to be met. It creates a kinetic heat, and if they’re failing, a paralyzing chill. The time spent doing these measurements before every one of my artistic gestures is the climate, it’s a sort of empirical observation of the patterns of the temperatures I’ve taken. 

And my creative acts that these things spur, are like weather, expressions of the contradictions between what the climate near me insists and the pressure of established systems passing towards me from far away. I wake up hoping to piss off the clouds today, every day. 

Seung-Min Lee 
June 30- July 1, 2023 12:35am

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