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Dr. Namsee Kim

Localising the placeless. Youngjoo Cho’s installation art

2009

 

Traditional works of art, like icons serving a ritual, are inextricably bound to a particular site. One can only see (or: worship) cult images at their actual location, and only on certain days, when visitors are granted access to them. According to Walter Benjamin, this “here and now of the work of art – its unique existence in a particular place” is lacking with reproduced works of art. Quite so. What the work of art loses in the “age of its technological reproducibility”, is above all its site-specificity. The site where a work of art comes into being loses its significance due to the technology of reproduction. For, technical reproduction “can […] place a copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain. Above all, it enables the original to meet the recipient halfway, whether in the form of a photograph or in that of a gramophone record. The cathedral leaves its site to be received in the studio of an art lover; the choral work performed in an auditorium or in the open air is enjoyed in a private room.” Being thus radically released from its site-specificity by its technological reproducibility, the work of art loses its embeddedness in a context of tradition, its character as an original, and also its aura. We can expand Benjamin’s analysis to the modern work of art in general, since modern art is characterised by a lack of being bound to a particular place. Insofar as modern art, thanks in part to the wide range of available transportation options, is exhibited all around the world, it is mobile and non-site-specific. The place where a work is painted or produced is of little significance for the reception of the work of art, since the work generally bears no direct relationship to the site of its creation, and equally little connection to the site where it is exhibited. What matters is only the work itself, how it expresses something, what it has to say.

The reason why installation art fascinates me is that it attempts in a completely new way to reinvest itself with a relationship to place all but lost to modern art. Unlike a painting or sculpture, an installation cannot easily be transported from one site to another. It is literally ‘installed’ at one site like architecture, but unlike architecture, it can be dismantled after the exhibition. An art action is carried out at a particular site (and at a particular time), and is captured (at best) on camera, but it is by no means repeatable. Installation art is therefore by its nature unique; unique not only in its creation, but also in its exhibition and its execution at a particular site. It is thus necessarily site-specific.

It is this relationship to place especially that characterises Youngjoo Cho’s work. Not only because the young artist uses soil from Parisian parks, decorations from a Christmas tree in a Paris apartment, or even the bus stop there for realising her projects, but also because she garners the subject material of her art from personal experiences that arise only out of a particular topological relationship with the artist; she is a stranger to the place she inhabits. Her projects clearly show how deeply her gaze is informed by her own experiences as an outsider. The artist’s empathetic gaze towards foreigners and minorities, which is clearly expressed in the projects Ne soyez pas jaloux du Bus 258 (“Don’t be jealous of bus number 258”) or I want to get a lot of love letters, would not be possible were it not for her empathy with the very people who live in a majority society as outsiders or minorities. A native of Korea, she studied art in Paris and now works in Berlin. She amasses experiences, the most important raw material for her installations, from her existence as a foreigner. As a foreigner she is not bound to the one place where she lives; she has roots nowhere, although (or because) she is always travelling here or there. In other words: she is a ‘global alien’ – to quote the name of the artists’ group of which she is an active member.

Although it may sound paradoxical, it is precisely this placelessness and the constant being-on-the-move of the artist’s existence that, to an extent, localises her work. Her art tells of places that she experiences as a foreigner. In her project Corrected Diaries, she projects onto a screen dairy entries that she made during her first residence abroad (also for improving her language skills), and that were corrected by native speakers. It is not only in the content, but also through the language itself, that she expresses her relationship to the place she lives, as a foreigner. In this way, her art gains a relationship to the place at which it is created and carried out.

Like the small figure darting across the silver screen, Youngjoo is constantly travelling between a foreign country and her native country. She realised these experiences in the projects Accessible, Acceptable and Valuable as well as Motherland Visiting. The aluminium box shows the prescribed size of luggage that airlines allow passengers to take on board. However, this internationally standardised, placeless container is filled with passengers’ personal, place-specific things and is carried individually. In Motherland Visiting, rubbish, as the remnants of a visit to one’s native country, an individual’s primary place, seems to jump out of a suitcase. In both cases, the works deal with the relationship of the placeless to localness, a relationship that is becoming more complex in an increasingly mobile world.

The strange localisations of her art, which derive from the placelessness of the artist’s existence, are expressed poetically in the project One Night With Someone’s T-Shirt In My Bed. The artist approaches strangers on the street or in cafes, and asks if she can borrow the T-shirt they are wearing. Once home, she then puts on the T-shirt herself, and goes to bed in it. What we see are photos she takes of herself, just after she wakes the next day. The artist, who is herself a foreigner in this city, acts here as a place, where the T-shirt of the other, its actual owner, stays for a night. The T-shirt wanders from one body to another, connecting the two, before it is returned. The exchangeable T-shirt creates a relationship between utterly foreign places – people in their bodies. But this works only because the T-shirt itself is completely mobile and not bound to one place; just like the artist herself, who affirms as the most important source of her art her foreign, placeless existence – a living condition that some find hard to bear. In a later group project, Exchanging T-Shirts, Youngjoo sums up this principle in one sentence, which is printed on the T-shirts visitors receive in exchange: We live where you live.

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