Lee Jinshil

(3) Labor and the Woman’s Body as a Battleground of Emotion

Transecting female corporeality (3) Labor and the Woman’s Body as a Battleground of Emotion 

Six portraits of young women standing side by side, rendered all the more spruce, clean-cut, and radiant by lightbox illumination. Having donned white collared shirts and near-impassive smiles, the women look much like one another, cold as though standing under white fluorescent bulbs—or rather, as though lying atop a dissection table. Their faces are homogenous to the point that a viewer of a different race might very well struggle to tell them apart (just as we, too, carry within us the same blunted sensitivity toward races other than our own), and this lack of particular character leaves us with no discernible justification as to why the women need appear before the audience as subjects of the artist’s work. However, if the members of said audience stare into the women’s faces long enough, some are bound to decipher a touch of sadness in their extreme neatness and the way their gazes never quite meet that of the viewer, while other viewers will discover the uncanny within the same.

Joo Hwang’s Vesti La Giubba (Put on the Costume), placed on display at the Seoul Mediacity Biennale in 2016, is a photography installation featuring the portraits of Korean women workers in their twenties to thirties. Summarized as a piece on “affective labor cyborgs bleached in fluorescence,”1 it constitutes the first stage of Joo Hwang’s portraiture series and a crucial juncture in cementing her work within a feminist context which calls to our attention the realities which women experience as part of the here and now. The artist recreates the appearance of Korean women workers—particularly women workers employed in service industry positions such as those at supermarkets, stores, and call centers—through staged photographs, with an emphasis placed on the distinctive tidiness and monotonous look so often found in Korean women working in such jobs. From flight attendants to supermarket cashiers, every last one of these women is required to appear in uniform, accoutered with unruffled hair, suitable makeup, and impeccable manners of speech. For Joo Hwang, who returned to South Korea in 2012 after years spent studying and living abroad, the excessive immaculacy and deference that spawned the convenience and customer centrism of the Korean service industry presented a nonsensical and bizarre landscape which one would be hard-pressed to discover elsewhere. Her photography thus reenacts humdrum imagery which is hardly questionable to the insiders of Korean society and discloses the illusion of ‘homogeneity’ nestled within its patterns.

It must follow that the serene yet subtle sense of alienation which these photographs instill does not, in fact, stem from the surface of the images themselves and their depiction of a stream of women’s faces as clear and crisp as those from a cosmetics advertisement. Joo Hwang tends to use the most descriptive medium of photography to demonstrate the rupture between that which the photographic image does indeed indicate and that which it does not. For example, the photographs in question “make themselves out to be a certain thing,”2  their subjects’ expressions and clothing being both comprehensively revealing and concealing. The title which brings them together, Vesti La Giubba, comes from that of the opera Pagliacci’s most acclaimed aria. By expressing the interiority of a protagonist who must put on his costume and powder his face to take the stage as a clown even in the midst of immense suffering, this aria becomes analogous to the experiences of women as they bear the burden of affective labor and evokes the sensibilities of desire and existence buried beneath their faint smiles. However, the realities shrouded beneath the masks that these women wear are afforded no dramatic manifestation akin to the tragedy that underlies the comic performance of the operatic clown.

Joo Hwang’s work arrives devoid of an ‘actual’ true nature for us to read in between the lines; her white fluorescent photographs almost appear to be a near-paralyzed state of affective insensibility in developed form.3  As a matter of fact, all too many women at times remain numb to the chore of ‘masquerading’ which they encounter in the workplace and at home. Moreover, they have no way of fathoming whether said masking stems from desires held within or whether it is an obligation and a condition of survival inflicted from without. Throughout the ages, the ‘labor’ demanded of women itself has had ill-defined boundaries. From the household to the professional sphere, a woman’s deference, smiles, physical attractiveness, and duty to satisfy have, for paid and unpaid labor alike, been considered a(n) ‘(appealing) resource’ that she is required to equip of her own accord, as well as an innately feminine ‘trait.’

Be that as it may, why is it that Korean women in the service industry exhibit hospitality and courtesy to such a distinctive degree? The so-called IMF Crisis of 1997 demolished the might of the Korean patriarch and manufactured a workforce of countless temporary laborers, many of whom were women. When it comes to the livelihoods of women in their twenties to thirties and women of forty or more years of age who have experienced career interruptions, the part-time jobs and service industry positions that began swelling the ranks in the 2000s constitute a frontline that must be withstood even at the cost of inequitable treatment and adverse circumstance. The mandatory affective labor and dress-up labor through which the survival of women in their twenties and thirties has been mortgaged—as well as their internalization of such demands—birthed the white phantasmagoria of South Korea in the 2000s, perhaps best characterized by Korean beauty products and Korean wave merchandise. This, in turn, provided a mythos and screen injected into women of color both within and without and functioned as the primary conduit generating the misogyny and sexual objectification directed toward Korean women.

Shin Min’s sculptures lend a much more straightforward and political texture to her portraits of the women workers laboring within such present-day realities. From the 2010s and onward, the artist has produced work such as Daughters (2011) and Basketball Standards (2016) that brought eerie and unattractive configurations of young girls to the forefront while directing our attention to issues of sexual assault and other forms of oppression and violence endured by their contemporary same-gender peers. If the #MeToo movement and the resurgence of the feminist movement that occurred in South Korea around 2016 gave massive and explosive voice to the wrath that women held toward Korean social institutions brimming with discrimination and bigotry, Shin Min’s sculptures embodied as ‘workers’ the women of the millennial to Gen Z cohorts who stood as the principal targets of misogyny and sexual objectification within South Korean society and were simultaneously the most exploited part-time laborers of its capitalist machine.

Created from 2014, the artist’s so-called ‘McJob sculptures’ encompasses sculptures of women made out of clay and McDonald’s french fry boxes. Compressed into these shapes like wax is a slice of the actualities which young women workers face while being relegated to the status of eminently replaceable components of the wage labor market, while undergoing appraisal based on their demeanor and manner of dress in the workplace, and while weathering their role as the receptacles for the emotional dumping of others. For her 2015 solo exhibition, Shin Min wrote the following.

While spending years on the McDonald’s crew, I saw the other side of the counters and store lobbies that serve up all that hospitality and mouth-watering food—I saw the poverty stacked in countless heaps throughout the stockrooms and kitchens and garbage patches. And by that, I mean that I saw our generation, disposable labor used up once and thrown away like so much garbage alongside the ingredients and Happy Meal toys produced in developing nations, leftover food waste, and load after load of single-use disposable trash.4

As seen in one of Shin Min’s most representative pieces, Part-Time Workers in Downward Facing Dog, these sturdy and massive figures of women made out of McDonald’s french fry boxes renew another dimension in the sensibilities surrounding the realities of contemporary feminist art. As a yoga pose, downward facing dog is ideal for improving blood circulation and alleviating sciatica, but in the workplace, it necessarily morphs into an infliction of corporal punishment (the ready position for push-ups). Here, the part-time worker with her head raised and eyes white-ringed in defiance appears prepared to put an end to her prolonged endurance of this ordeal at any moment and defy all rules and regulations. The uniform-clad part-time worker in Your Order of Two Soft Serves (2014) holds out an ice cream cone in each hand, but her expression is contorted, and the space behind her is strewn with a profusion of feces (the soft serves and feces share the same spiraled form). The Workers (2020) series marks the emergence of multiple women workers who, dressed in their uniforms and hair nets with black satin ribbons, share feelings of anger with one another or cry out in unison. As Shin Min herself has pointed out, the service industry uniform constitutes both a control mechanism through association and “a form of make-up that whitewashes poverty.”5  The hair net is emblematic of women expected to live and breathe hygiene and neatness—women who find themselves objectified even as they are rendered merely functional entities and denied the slightest expression of individual character. Nevertheless, they stand sharp-eyed and hot-blooded when congregated together. There is likely no other work of art more relatable or keenly gratifying to these women who “apprehend the shared ill of encountering the most self-entitled patrons on the frontlines of the service industry.”6

Delivering a scathing indictment of the exploitative nature of housework as unwaged work in Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, Silvia Federici argues that the disingenuous exploitation of women’s labor reaches much further than the household. More specifically, she maintains that the positions afforded to women, whether professional career or side job, remain little more than expanded renditions of housework. The backbone of housework hinges on holding women solely responsible for its management as though it were not actual labor, when in fact it is not only actual but also interminable labor which debilitates women’s bodies, sexualities, and social relationships. Accordingly, the labor generally assigned to women as an expansion of housework incorporates “the impossibility to see where our work begins and ends, where our work ends and our desires begin.”The doing up of her face on her way to work, the mandatory lip service paid to her superiors, her ‘feminine’ attentiveness and the conscientiousness of her work ethic…. The woman worker must meet the demands of everything from ‘dress up labor’ to ‘affective labor’ as proof of her ‘capabilities’ and ‘skill.’ However, Federici confronts us with a far sterner truth—that by compromising with such disingenuity, or indeed by rebuffing it, and thus striving to become ‘competent women,’ the only epithet which we can expect to receive in return is that of the “cunt.”8

Shin Min’s young women reveal of their own volition the bare faces of the “cunt[s]” at hand. These girls with their ‘FEMINIST’ T-shirts, their acne-ridden, unattractive faces, and a perpetually pissed off attitude epitomize the so-called ‘kungkwangi (thumper)’ of Korean misogynistic terminology.9 Could we not say that they thereby give shape both to the matter that the true woman precariat is made of and to her declaration of self-liberation in its most naked form? Said configurations refuse to be subsumed under a sleek and elitist aesthetic and instead send shockwaves through the near-faddish increase of abstraction and materialism in recent feminist art. Above all, as class-specific and generationally pinpointed pieces of work, Shin Min’s sculptures exhibit a dense specificity and reality and consequently cut across the unified signifier of ‘woman’ assumed in the name of feminism, demonstrating in the most powerful and endearing manner possible the corporeality of women workers as they stand against the shackles and violence of capital.

The term ‘affective labor’ provides a bald disclosure of the extent to which emotion has become yet another component in present-day capitalism. Affective labor is not gendered in and of itself. However, when we speak of affective labor as genderless and nonmaterial, the women who make up the majority of those responsible for said labor have no way to break through. Moreover, we end up jettisoning the actualities and gendered paradoxes behind affective labor, as well as the history of women’s resistance. In her essay titled “On Affective Labor,” Federici states that the dominant function of affective labor today is none other than the ungendering of labor itself. For example, “the traits once associated with ‘women’s reproductive work’ are now being generalized, so that no difference now exists between male and female workers.”10 This by no means indicates that all labor has been ‘feminized’ and therefore rendered more advantageous to women. On the contrary, it reveals that the multitude of work once discounted as labor—invisible work that required sustainment as a matter of course through love and sacrifice—was in truth a form of labor obscured under the concept of production. Housework, child-rearing, and the care of ailing family members were all unwaged tasks allocated to women. Accompanied by a rise in the elderly population and the dismantling of the nuclear family, this unseen labor has, on the one hand, become perceivable through various branches of the service industry, while on the other solidified as a point of increasing magnitude in terms of upholding everyday life as we know it. Issues formerly hidden behind the logic of ‘productivity’—particularly those of illness, disability, and death, all traversing emotions and mental health—now disclose the long-abiding knot at the crossroads between gender and labor within advanced capitalism and the family institution.

Having used visual grammar to speak on labor issues and the contradictions within Korean society ever since the early 2000s, Jeamin Cha now turns her attention toward the relationships linking bodies, capitalism, and care. While Cha’s work has consistently touched on alienation and the emotional dimensions surrounding urban redevelopment and labor, her more recent concerns seem to venture closer to suffering and marginalization as physical, psychological, and social symptoms, as well as to the challenges of care and healing. Granted, Cha’s objectives were, from the very beginning, focused on playing back through the language of film the sensations generated by the paradoxes of social structure (such as pain) rather than on articulating the paradoxes themselves. Her emphasis on the expression of such sensations via image and sound can be traced back to Sleep Walker (2009), a single-channel video installation which drew from the ghostly gestures of tap dance and Heidi’s somnambulism to reconstruct the sense of loss felt by those who had been stripped of their livelihoods due to the futility of large-scale development. Cha’s solo show Hysterics (2014) and its follow-up four years later in the form of Love Bomb (2018) signaled a shift away from a labor framework and a prioritization of labor-related yet individual hurt and loss. The artist launched into the dynamics between emotion and perception in earnest with Autodidact (2014) and Hysterics (2014). In On Guard (2018), she portrays the sensations experienced by K—guard and student in training, guardian and care worker—through the cinematic apparatus of suspense. Sound Garden (2019) surveys a cross section of how ‘clinics’ ostensibly devoted to psychological or emotional care and healing instead operate in the capacity of social systems management.

The single-channel video Sound Garden features the voices of four different female therapists one after another, though their physical appearance is never represented on screen. In their place, we see images of trees—landscaping trees broken in for the purpose of urban survival—and watch the camera as it takes on the investigative role of tracking and showing us how these trees are shipped to and planted in the city. The testimonials from the therapists working at universities and corporations expose the ideological mechanism of the ‘clinic,’ supplied to the modern individual in order to maintain their status as a controlled entity much like a landscaped tree. However, there seeps from the soft words of the women something beyond a placid acceptance of the contradictions and constraints that riddle the capitalist charge to achieve the healthy reproduction of the workforce. For example, we catch hints of the capacity for solidarity and reciprocity that grows of its own accord in the gaps between the service industry and our advanced medical environment, accompanied by the willpower needed for marginalized people to rise up and support other marginalized individuals and for injured people to do the same.

Through moving images, Nameless Syndrome (2022) explores the experiences of women with illnesses that are difficult to diagnose as they navigate established medical systems and look into the stories that they might be able to share based on those experiences. The piece features women going through breast cancer screening, taking hearing tests, and receiving underwater Watsu therapy. Composed much like a book, Nameless Syndrome spans five chapters and progresses on the basis of appropriated sentences delivered through sluggish and awkward narration. The ending credits present the footnotes to these sentences in painstaking detail, with Carlo Ginzburg’s “Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm,” Anne Boyer’s The Undying, and Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor as primary sources. The textuality of Cha’s work, comprised as it is of citations, resembles a tapestry cobbled together out of the repeated struggle and failure to grapple with questions and clues exchanged and identifications sought in vain as they crop up around uncategorized and unnoticed forms of illness and suffering. At first glance, the sheer density of this textuality might seem to denote an excessive desire for intellectual reference. Nevertheless, it also happens to be a pseudo-autobiographical testimony, tracked down and cut and patched up as if the artist were some sort of investigator—another practice through which we might conspire to question and contemplate those of our bodily predicaments unprovable and impossible to solve in their entirety within existing institutions of knowledge, all the while without giving in or going mad.

In The Undying, a record of her battle with breast cancer, Anne Boyer writes the following. “[I]n my contradictions, which I suspect aren’t too different from all of yours, this doesn’t mean there aren’t so many sad and wrong and outrageous things I want everyone to know. Some things, however, remain mysterious and unspectacular, and in this, I think, there is hope.” Boyer’s writing is a feminist act that proposes to bring together all the lonesome souls who state (or claim) that they are ‘sick’ according to the clear-cut labeling, demarcation, and identification so definitively guaranteed by advanced optical visibility. Cha’s work with image and sound likewise attempts to take those existences excluded from the paradigms of modern science and medicine and their invisible sensibilities of suffering and enter them into a different configuration of signs. It is because of this—and because such an attempt kindles a politics of solidarity with expendable and vulnerable individuals—that Cha lays the groundwork upon which the politics of the contemporary working woman and her body are able to rise up into view.

Joo Hwang, Vesti La Giubba, Lightbox Photography Installation, 190x65x560cm, 2016 SeMA Mediacity Biennale, (Photo: Seoul Museum of Art)
Joo Hwang, Vesti La Giubba, Lightbox Photography Installation, 190x65x560cm, 2016 SeMA Mediacity Biennale, (Photo: Seoul Museum of Art)

Joo Hwang, Vesti La Giubba, 2016.
Joo Hwang, Vesti La Giubba, 2016.

Shin Min, Our Prayer - I don't hate my colleague I love I hug I am in solidarity, 2022, Pencil, French fries sacks, (each 132x136x77cm, 140x120x72cm, 155x135x60cm, 130x118x62cm,125x120x76cm).
Shin Min, Our Prayer - I don't hate my colleague I love I hug I am in solidarity, 2022, Pencil, French fries sacks, (each 132x136x77cm, 140x120x72cm, 155x135x60cm, 130x118x62cm,125x120x76cm).

Shin Min, Downward Facing Dog Yoga for Mcjob, 2014, French fries sacks, styrofoam, 308x200x153cm.
Shin Min, Downward Facing Dog Yoga for Mcjob, 2014, French fries sacks, styrofoam, 308x200x153cm.

Artist Interview ㅣ Shin Min
Artist Interview ㅣ Shin Min

Jeamin Cha, Sound Garden, 2019, Single channel video, FHD, 30min. color/3channel-sound.
Jeamin Cha, Nameless Syndrome, 2019, Single channel video, FHD, 30min. color/3channel-sound.

Jeamin Cha, Nameless Syndrome, 2022, Single channel video, 4K, 24min. color/sound.
Jeamin Cha, Sound Garden, 2022, Single channel video, 4K, 24min. color/sound.

Artist Interview ㅣ Cha Jeamin
Artist Interview ㅣ Cha Jeamin