Hur Hojeong

(2) The Title of “Feminist Artists” and “Feminist Art”

Feminism, curating, and writing history : (2) The Title of “Feminist Artists” and “Feminist Art” 

As a popular modifier, the word “feminist” is often used two dimensionally, without being given a concrete definition. And the artworks, exhibitions, and artists and curators that are juxtaposed with the word feminist, rather than being subject to the demand to ponder feminist attitudes, are instead subject to the demand for an answer to the judgmental question of “Are you a feminist?” In this regard, questions like “Why do certain people reject being feminist”have been repeatedly asked to the present day.

No New Work2 conducted research on multiple artists, curators, and critics in 2017. The results were published in 2018 in an online document titled A Research on Feminist Art Now: Re-Record.3 The project was an attempt to examine and compile the various perspectives on feminism—feminist art, exhibitions, and artwork—within the visual art community. It appeared that in many cases, participants repeatedly ask themselves the question, “Am I a feminist artist?” and “Can my art be called feminist artwork?”

Such questions must be made concrete by reflecting on the nature of feminism and its position in society, the ways in which the multilayered nature of feminism is revealed, and the ways such characteristics can be revealed. For this second essay, I interviewed three artists/teams: Critical Hit, DadBoyClub, and Collective Yagwang. In the hour-long conversation that followed under the pretext of an interview, we underwent the process that should have taken place before the utterance of the sentence, “I am/am not a feminist.” For disclosure, the following article was written based on these conversations.
Critical Hit has an affinity for workers and demonstrations and the activists who align with them. Participating, in part, in her friends’ activities and observing, in part, from the outside, she contemplates her form of solidarity. For three years from 2016 to 2019, she held a weekly “drawing day” in Yeouido, the site of the Cort-Cortek sit-in.4 During these drawing days, she and her colleague took in the passing statements of the people at the sit-in, their life stories, faces, and the daily occurrences and put them on the drawing board. The Yeouido-drawing (2016-2019) series contains the drawings of that time, and it is a selection of about 200 pieces drawn from multiple sketchbooks.

By no means does Critical Hit consider labor to be nongendered. This is no different for the sit-in. She is aware that the coarse language of the middle-aged men, the sit-ins in the face of an uncaring reality (despite the month-long hunger strikes and high-altitude sit-ins where people lock themselves in steel bars on top of structures) are undoubtedly “masculine” and are accompanied by violent imagery. And Critical Hit seeks to determine her position as both “woman” and “laborer.” Furthermore, by experiencing and considering these things she comes to understand the meaning of the word and concept of “woman.” At the same time, she regards the word as being inseparable from patriarchy, unfair labor conditions, and class destiny. This is the very reason why a single concept of “woman” cannot equally apply to all individuals. 

Make up Dash (2017), one of her major works, was created out of a necessity for a work through which she can speak through her own mouth. The work adopts the format of a vlog (video log), which is common on YouTube, and It was uploaded in intervals. The theme comprises cosmetics application tips, which intersect with the daily life of the artist herself. She imitates the speech patterns and content organization styles of other cosmetics YouTubers, and she feigns innocence as she shows how to put on makeup for different situations, including participation in demonstrations, putting on drag king makeup, and doing household work during Korean holidays. For example, she suggests that waterproof cosmetics are necessary during sit-ins as there is a risk of being hit by a water cannon when the demonstration is broken up. If one refuses to adhere to the appearance that is expected of a “woman,” one is subjected to societal pressure and paradoxical emotions. However, a drag king makeover with long sideburns and a mustache can create a satisfactory mirror image. When preparing for Chuseok, mothers will tap into their repertoire of holiday lamentations, lying in bed and putting skincare masks on their faces. Here, “makeup” does not adhere to an aesthetic canon. Rather, it appears as a tool of individual camouflage.

Critical Hit argues that “feminism” asserted and realized the humanity of women, that it accomplishes the task of raising up those who are not recognized as human so that they satisfy the conditions of personhood. Sylvanian Familism (2019) is a video work that shares this perception. The artist makes use of the Sylvanian Families, a specific brand of toy animals, and she overlays her own voice to create a puppet play. The entirety of the video, including the design of the miniature stage, the organization, screenplay, acting, and filming, were all accomplished by the artist herself. The details bring life to an eye-catching virtual reality. Where the original Sylvanian Families are anonymous toy animals that represent “normal” families of four that enjoy a comfortable life in pretty homes, in Critical Hit’s video series they introduce themselves as employees at the logistics hub of Copang (likely a play on Coupang), HIV/AIDs patients, disabled persons in wheelchairs, and hospitalized disabled persons. In the play, they are in truth harmless, but they are treated as zombielike entities, targets of fear and scorn.

Her recent solo exhibition, Under the Paper (Post Territory Ujeongguk, 2022), seeks to capture the daily lives of those who have been marginalized amid heightening societal uncertainties and rampant hate. These people—the disabled, immigrants, and refugees—subsist outside the domain of citizenship, and thus witness in real time the nature of being “without a country” and “without a home.” They cling to a single page of an administrative document that proves their identity, the existence or absence of which determines whether they survive or whether they are driven to the brink. The work of Critical Hit depicts on a single sheet of paper, in clear and simple form, the reality of their labor, the sites of their isolation and marginalization, and their process of mourning. When the thin and small sheets of paper, painted upon by brush and colored pencil, were put up in the large exhibition space, it appeared as if the exhibition itself still bore hope that the insignificance of the individual pages would gather up into something greater.5 The artist herself reaches out with her words and actions and depicts both encounters and departures, and sites of welcoming and adversity. Through her reflections on the conditions of personhood, she places faith in feminist action.

DadBoyClub, comprising Lee Sangmin and Sun Woo, launched a fake brand. The brand puts up for sale visual art objet that cleverly combine trendy fashion language and historic art styles, and push consumers to the brink of purchase. The objet glitter on the brand webpage. However, a close examination reveals something strange. Reading through the product introductions strengthens this sense of strangeness. The contents of these products dramatize and twist what could be called “female narratives,” including familiar myths, legends, and everyday dialogue. And they do so in a chilling manner.

Camouflower hides the fact that the ornamental metal pieces shaped like flower petals conceal sharp spears. Forked spears are fired at surrounding, hidden eyes (such as hidden cameras). Jell~O d’Emile borrows from the story of a woman who sacrificed her child in order to complete her work on a malfunctioning bell and criticizes the witch hunts prevalent in society. The charges brought up in witch hunts are, for example, accusations of unfaithfulness or extravagance. The objet represents the type of gossip that corners individuals under the pretext of falsified charges and the circulation of hate speech. But the “bell” has the consistency of Jell-O, and no matter how hard one hits the body with a spoon, it makes no sound. Psyche’s Clock is a bomb with a timer. In Greek mythology, Psyche falls in love with Eros, and she must not inquire after his identity, nor is she allowed to be curious about his face. In questioning the forced, unilateral responsibility of preserving the secret affair, DadBoyClub’s Psyche opts to hasten the timer on the bomb.

As cisgender heterosexual women, friends who discuss banal matters of “romance,” the two artists realized that these banal conversations brought back memories of violence and thus became fearful. They came to realize that this fear was a universal emotion that was shared to some extent by all heterosexual women in Korean society. Romantic episodes of individuals are often manifested in reality as social issues. There is an increasing prevalence of virtual encounters through dating apps and social media and a shift in understanding of relationships and communication. Hate crimes and various threats directed at “women” are increasing rather than decreasing. But adequate legal mechanisms to combat sex crimes and violence by romantic partners and spouses are being delayed. DadBoyClub’s narratives serve as an attempt to dramatize the sense of danger that is shared in the existentiality of women using self-deprecating humor of a sort.6

Of course, the artists remind themselves that these near-satirical narratives can trigger traumatic recall in certain visitors. They therefore establish the ethical principle that female narratives must not be transformed into objects of consumption, and they feature virtual objet on the web-based brand page and develop mechanisms to convey the narratives. Visually, they create a virtual space that simulates gothic fortresses, walls, and arched spire windows (this is a metaphor of recent fashion language as well as the hidden sensibilities of devices concealing traps). Inside, they place delicately designed objets. The offline exhibition space confirms this as a virtual space, which has a medieval theme, created using holograms and wallpaper sheets. The product descriptions are printed on cloth, woven together and laid down on the floor (The products themselves are absent in the exhibition space). The booklet is so large that the entire physical strength of the body must be used to flip the pages, and there is a certain level of effort required by the gravity of the narratives therein, to approach the narratives.

In short, DadBoyClub largely adopts two strategies. First, they remind the viewer of everyday, universal violence. Second, they paralyze product strategies that accelerate the universalization of such violence. These two strategies bring a subtlety to the work of DadBoyClub. The products that they sell are so attractive that everyone would want to buy them, but there is a fatal narrative of violence that underlies this charm. This collusion, where one feels a sense of revulsion but cannot help but press the purchase button, brings one to a state of “pre-purchase.” Then this shatters in an instant. The “buy now” button on DadBoyClub’s webpage does not lead to a purchase, and the product naturally is not delivered to the consumer.

In closing, Lee and Sun Woo, who both work with video, audio, and paintings, mentioned the gap between the sense of feminism that underlies their individual work and the label of “feminist art.”   When I inquired of their impressions of the words “feminist artist” and “feminist art,” they replied with self-reflective laughter and the question, “Would I even be accepted as a feminist?” This reply evidences the multilayered nature and complexity of the restrictions that apply to our society. “Short-cut hair” and “bralessness” invite the labelling of “You’re a feminist, aren’t you?” And that labelling conveys hate. At the same time, those who do not portray the two-dimensional imagery of “short-cut hair” and “bralessness” become unworthy of the title of “feminist.” While this might be to some extent an exaggeration, “identities” that unify individuals and enact political functions also secretly operate as convenient mechanisms of exclusion and omission. This state, in which this two-sided nature is revealed in its raw form, is the reality of Korean feminism.

Yagwang is a collective comprising Kim Terri and Jeon In. The two formed the collective in 2021 through PUMP, Windmill’s support program for creatives. In July that same year, they showcased their project, titled Lubricant. In June 2022, they held another exhibition with the same name, in the same space. The artists take an interest in “things that are considered unfamiliar and different, like objects that glow in the dark, emitting absorbed light into the dark night and thus revealing themselves.”Their first collective exhibition, Lubricant, featured memorable artwork that belied the fact that it was their “first” exhibition.

The exhibition featured a diverse array of media including videos, installations, and photographs that the two artists worked on together as a collective, as well as paintings and poetry produced by the artists individually. Of these, two videos take the center stage. A visitor that follows the stairs down from the entrance will first come face to face with a 2-channel video titled Lantern (2022). The left video records of performance by Kim and Jeon (with other performers), where both wear white underwear and have lanterns hanging from their foreheads, advancing forward but repeatedly failing to come face to face with one another. The  video on the right depicts twelve characters who portray characteristic lesbian “imagery,” speaking of their lives as lesbians and their memories of the time when they realized their gender identity. These are presented in the format of faux interviews. 

The series of installations that line the path from Lantern lead to LATE(X) (2022). The person that fills the screen of LATE(X) wears form fitting latex clothing and performs a suggestive dance routine. The motions are suggestive of BDSM activities. The figure travels through a dark club, repeating these same motions, and it uses a heart-shaped cloth to wipe the tables. The two people, the artists, that appear at the end of the video are confronted by a ghostly ambience in the club that they visited so lightheartedly, seeing nothing and no one, not even the person wearing the latex. They tilt their heads in confusion and leave through the door.

In holding their first exhibition, Yagwang also underwent a “fearful” confession. Also lovers, the two artists exposed their gender identity, which their “parents are unaware” of, and showcased artwork that showcased queer language. However, the goal of the exhibition was not for them to come out as lesbians, but rather to provide entertainment for lesbian audiences and for themselves. In this regard, the exhibition is permeated with the language of the people who share in their particular subculture. (That the title of all works begin with the letter L is a callback to L-word, a soap opera obsessed with the L in lesbian).8 Of course, understanding this language does not guarantee entertainment. As per the logic of this secret language, the exhibition visualizes the (non)spontaneous dynamism of secrecy and openness. The entertainment derives from this sense of dynamism.

Jeon In stated that her experiences working at a lesbian club are reflected in the video of LATE(X). She said that, as a lesbian herself, she was curious about “them” and wanted to work at a lesbian club. Such a statement by the artist evidences a facet of the nature of identity. There is a desire that permeates the exhibition space to conceal oneself from others while at the same time discovering oneself through others. In coming out as lesbian and visualizing “their” culture, Yagwang adopts the premise of “transparency” (non-visuality) as a basis. But what is more important is the exchange of signals between “them” that occurs under these circumstances (or despite these circumstances). These faint signals may give form to “our” haphazard boundaries.

As another axis of this exhibition, Yagwang raised the issue of their self-perception of themselves as “laborers.” Kim and Jeon both maintained throughout the interview that they were themselves laborers. The two work day and night at the film set as laborers, concealing their identities and taking up the position of external observers of other people. And they also stated that they were comfortable occupying such a position. Jeon added that she “lives and breathes” the state of being “unseen,” as both a laborer and gender minority. This statement seems to condense the paradoxical nature of the situation in which she finds stability in transparency. But there is no intervening lament or regret. What can be seen from an unseen place in of itself constitutes life, and this is the point that resonates within Yagwang’s work. The suggestive movements of the “labor” of the person in latex working at the lesbian club, depicted in LATE(X), are revealed to be unseen. The artists interpret the characteristic of being “unseen” as part of the nature of “labor.” It is both the reality of labor as well as the reality of the various simmering desires that enable such labor. The massive neoliberalist movement erases not only the reality of labor but also the entangled desires therein. 

During the interview, Kim often used the word “late.” The aforementioned messages are perhaps in other words a warning of “lateness,” the effect of “lateness.” This sense of “lateness” appeared to be quite important to Neon. To the artists, being late is the equivalent of something that one seeks to accomplish but fails to do so, the equivalent of a lament or criticism that it is “too late” when one finally makes the effort to achieve something. That target of such achievement could be “normalcy” as it were, “Western feminism (or feminist history),” or all “attempts” to identify dissatisfaction and to overcome or resolve them. Korean feminism was late in the 90s, late in the 2000s, and it is late in the “reboot” spanning from 2015 to the present day. But there are people who build upon this foundation of lateness, harness this momentum, and quietly tackle the challenges ahead. It is the same with LATE(X); the X is a warning that one should “not be late,” yet those who are “late” survive through their “lateness.”

Critical Hit, Yeouido-rawing_ I'm heartsick, 2016, Pen on paper, 25×18cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Critical Hit, Yeouido-rawing_ I'm heartsick, 2016, Pen on paper, 25×18cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Critical Hit, Make up Dash_ Drag King Makeup, 2017, Single channel video in YouTube, 18min 20sec. Courtesy of the artist.
Critical Hit, Make up Dash_ Drag King Makeup, 2017, Single channel video in YouTube, 18min 20sec. Courtesy of the artist.

Critical Hit, Sylvanian Familism, 2019, Single channel video with 5 Episodes, 32min 55sec. Courtesy of the artist.
Critical Hit, Sylvanian Familism, 2019, Single channel video with 5 Episodes, 32min 55sec. Courtesy of the artist.

Yagwang, Lantern, Courtesy of the artist.
Yagwang, Lantern, Courtesy of the artist.

Yagwang, LATE(X) Courtesy of the artist.
Yagwang, LATE(X) Courtesy of the artist.

Yagwang, Lick my heart, 2022, Courtesy of the artist(Photo:Hong Jiyoung).
Yagwang, Lick my heart, 2022, Courtesy of the artist(Photo:Hong Jiyoung).

 Yagwang, Lubricant, 2022,
Yagwang, Lubricant, 2022,
DadBoyClub, DBC FRESCO, 2022, Print on film, LED Hologramfan, Sound, Chains, Illuminated manuscript, Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.
DadBoyClub, DBC FRESCO, 2022, Print on film, LED Hologramfan, Sound, Chains, Illuminated manuscript, Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.

DadBoyClub, Camouflower, 2022, Hidden camera detector, Wood, Vintage metal spears, Auto-fire function, 30x30x45 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
DadBoyClub, Camouflower, 2022, Hidden camera detector, Wood, Vintage metal spears, Auto-fire function, 30x30x45 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

DadBoyClub, Psyche's Clock, 2022, Candle, Electronic clock, Wire, Darkness, Patience, Love, Bomb, Fire, 35x20x9 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
DadBoyClub, Psyche's Clock, 2022, Candle, Electronic clock, Wire, Darkness, Patience, Love, Bomb, Fire, 35x20x9 cm. Courtesy of the artist.