All arts organizations are struggling to adapt to lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing. What little progress we had made in intercultural communication through organizations like the Indo-Korean Centre seemed to come to a halt in March 2020. When we cannot physically share a space to experience the arts, how are we to build bridges between cultures?
But while physical doors of gallery spaces have closed, virtual doors have opened. When InKo Centre invited me to curate a virtual exhibition, the paradoxical notion of pondering the physical body seemed like a timely and necessary preoccupation. We are all so aware of our bodies in light of the pandemic-the body’s vulnerability, safety, and sociality are at the forefront of every waking moment. How far and in what way will we protect this fragile home of our soul? What can we learn from our body’s transience, and what can we learn from its resilience? What will we learn from this time? These are the questions that lingered in my mind while I investigated the work of three Korean American artists for this exhibition. Yeonhee Cheong, Yoonshin Park, and Rina Yoon have consistently explored the body as subject throughout their art careers. All three artists make work in the interstices of their immigrant identities, culture, nature, and materiality.
The migrant body
Physical displacement due to migration brought the body into a new focus for these artists. Hailing from South Korea but having spent decades of their adult lives in the United States, they are all confronted with what it means to live in a country they were not born in and how that affects their understanding of home as a place to house their own bodies. Yeonhee Cheong investigates body language, social pressure, hybridity, and belonging. Yoonshin Park dwells on the imprinting of memory on the body and its movement in space. Rina Yoon recognizes the body itself as home and expresses her journey towards that conclusion.
Cheong perceives bodies as textures in space, whether in a wartime landscape or in a repeat pattern in clothing. She refers to cloth as a second skin and is heavily influenced by her background in the fashion industry. What we wear and how we present ourselves to others are a kind of language to her-a coded message that is embodied in each and every one of us. Park draws parallels between the body and paper. Both are recognized as “vehicles to deliver things.” She acknowledges them as holding a lot of contradicting and opposing qualities: “tangible and intangible, strong and fragile, timeless and transient.” Her installations are expanded book forms that use the materiality of fiber to intertwine transient qualities of light and breath with the physical form of the body. Yoon draws connections between paper and skin and how both are surfaces that get imprinted with our experiences in time and place. Much like printmaking processes record our marks on the surface of a paper, our body records our experiences.
We often delude ourselves into perceiving “nature” as something external to us. The coronavirus is proof that nature is in us and we are fully in nature. The body as porous and responsive to what is around it is explored by all three artists in various ways. Cheong draws inspiration from the Wisconsin prairie, perceiving it as an example that inspires self-acceptance without the pressure to mold herself into anything that she is not. Park juxtaposes natural fibers, light, and air in her work to examine the duality of the corporeal body and the transient nature of light and breath. “Earth is part of me and I contain that earth . . . we come from it and we return back to it,” says Yoon. She uses paper and printmaking processes to draw connections between the body, seeds, feathers, plant forms, mountains, and rivers. She speaks to the wisdom of the body, to how we need to listen to it, and to how we may already have all the answers we need within us.
These artists see nature as space outside of the gendered spheres of society, culture, and race. For them nature is source material, example, and inspiration. Perhaps this acknowledgement that humans are merely “companion species,” as Donna Haraway describes us, will help us come to terms with the challenges of the pandemic.
All three artists firmly situate themselves in the realm of what is called “trans-corporeality.” “Trans-corporeality positions the subject as interconnected with the substances of the material world, which entails new models of ethics and politics that cross conventional domains and interest groups as they traverse vast expanses.” The idea that everything in the universe is interconnected and reciprocal is not new. The pandemic has simply made us powerfully aware of this interconnectivity and, paradoxically, has isolated us and made us feel its fragility. But perhaps this is not necessarily bad, says Rina Yoon. “It reminds us of the preciousness of the life that is given to us. It makes us humble.” The helplessness and humility that we have come to recognize and live with these past months will hopefully make us better human beings and citizens of the world when we eventually find ourselves on the other side of this pandemic.
Nirmal Raja is an interdisciplinary artist and curator living and working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In her work, she examines global movement and the cultural, material, and human legacies of colonialism. She approaches her art and curatorial practice as a means of inquiry and as a way of exercising citizenship. Raja feels an increasing responsibility towards furthering communication and understanding between cultures and she hopes to fulfill this through her curatorial practice. Her curatorial projects bring people from different cultures and backgrounds together. She believes in providing a platform for artists who explore notions of disenfranchisement, marginality, migration, globalization, and intersectional identity. Born in India, Raja lived in South Korea and Hong Kong before immigrating to the United States in 1991. She holds a BA in English Literature from St. Francis College in Hyderabad, India; a BFA from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design; and an MFA from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She has participated in solo and group shows in the Midwest, nationally, and internationally. Raja frequently collaborates with other artists and strongly believes in investing energy in her immediate community while also considering the global. Raja received the prestigious Mary L. Nohl fellowship for individual artists for 2021.
Yeonhee Cheong is a Madison, Wisconsin-based visual artist who studies human bodies as representations of the power relationship between the individual and the society. Inspired by the Wisconsin prairies and her life experiences as a woman, she explores the question of power often by means of the visual and/or physical texture of the botanical vocabulary that is deeply embedded in human visual culture. Born in South Korea and having started her career in the fashion industry, she takes a broader concept of human body as media, “the extensions of man,” including all the outfits, poses, even the mode of representation itself (the “media”), particularly in this era of social media based on electronic signals after the pandemic. She earned fashion design degrees from Seoul National University and from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and an MFA in Design Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her works have been nationally and internationally shown through the Surface Design Association, International Textile and Apparel Association, Women’s Caucus for Art, Indianapolis Art Center, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, and Overture Center for the Arts, among others. Cheong has received several honors including most recently an award from Women Artists Forward Fund and a juried commission for the Madison Public Library.
Yoonshin Park is a Chicago-based multimedia artist, curator, and educator working with sculptural papers, artist books, and installations. Her interest in the comprehensive processes of papermaking and bookbinding leads her work to encompass various elements woven into complete objects. Born in Seoul, she often uses her experience as a foreign transplant to question space and its implications in defining identity. Park has shown at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, Hyde Park Art Center, Bridgeport Art Center, and Art on Armitage in Chicago. She has also exhibited at FlexSpace at the Riverside Art Center, Pablo Center at the Confluence and the AIR Space at Saint Kate–The Arts Hotel in Wisconsin, and Simyo Gallery in Seoul, among other venues. She has curated projects at Adds Donna, Blink Contemporary Art, and Woman Made Gallery. Park received her MFA in Interdisciplinary Book and Paper Arts from Columbia College Chicago. Her work has been reviewed in the June 2019 issue of Sculpture magazine. She currently teaches at Hyde Park Art Center and Evanston Art Center.
Rina Yoon is a Korean-born visual artist and a professor of Fine Art at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in Wisconsin. Yoon received a BFA in Fine Art from Southern Methodist University in Dallas and an MFA in Printmaking from Washington University in St. Louis. She focuses on nontraditional printmaking methods including large-scale prints, paper installations, and multimedia work combining video and sculptural elements with printmaking. Driven by curiosity and sensitivity to materials, Yoon often embraces slow processes to allow time for reflection and meditation. Her work has been widely exhibited in the United States as well as in South Korea, China, India, Italy, and Poland.