Finding Identity

By Jeong-ok Jeon
Artist: Gi-ok Jeon

We live in a world that is “flat” and overwhelmingly connected according to Thomas Friedman, one in which our everyday lives are undoubtedly intertwined with each others’ in ways beyond the physical. Within this interconnected world of different attitudes and evolving cultures and races, it is possible to drift and lose contact with something personal and intrinsic: one’s identity. This loss is usually accompanied by a lack of ability to connect or communicate well with others, which in turn encourages us to turn inward to self-contemplation. The concept of and search for identity, tied together to the nomadic or immigrant experience and translated into the language of art, becomes an object of inquiry that is as earnest as it is complex and abstruse, where the artist is compelled to reach a realization of the (lost) identity through a variety of approaches. The first approach defines the recognition of “self” as a psychological exploration of the image of “self”, one that can be contextually subjective, and therefore, inconsistent. The second is a manifestation of “relation” through the examination of communication between “us” and “the other”. Finally, there is the more straightforward rediscovering and re-imagining of a traditional image or cultural symbol.

In the new series of Gi-ok Jeon, the three aforementioned artistic strategies are suitably employed in her contemplation of her identity as immigrant, artist and woman. Her use of mixed media –painting, sculpture and installation– not only provides a distinct visual experience and sensory pleasure, but also functions as a vehicle to drive across the artist’s voice, imagery and intent. The contradictory aspect between (different) media and (common) subject suggests the artist’s passion to find a common reality of identity that is universal and permanent although it has been generally understood as unfixed and constantly changing.

In Mindscape Gi-ok explores her inner space in order to pursue the problem of identity. This series conceptually deepens her previous paint series (exhibited in Mu Project in Washington, DC, 2008) even though it maintains the same technique and concept. She begins her painting with layering several rice papers on which she creates indefinite abstract images with watery Chinese black ink, dropping ink stains that leave accidental marks and blurred circles. These circular ink marks become the physical ‘seeds’ that unfold the story within her painting, and are also the conceptual ‘worlds’ that connote the subject of identity, bringing to the foreground related concepts of relation, human, nature and mind.

She embroiders numerous circular forms around the round ink marks imbued on the canvas. For her, each circle represents the artist herself in a different context or other people existing around her. A part of this series deals with the subject matter in abstract, non-figurative forms but they are informed, even supplemented by her other pieces that include gesturing human silhouettes, finely outlined with dot-stitches. The circles and generic human figures thus become expressions of the same concept of ‘self’.

Gi-ok repeatedly embroiders the same imageries on many of her canvases, and the painstaking repetitive embroidering becomes a metaphor for a kind of religious ritual or meditation, as she strives to overcome physical and spiritual agony. The same ‘meditation in repetition’ can be seen in her sculptural installation, Embroidering a space, an artificial garden of dozens of reborn ‘trees’, made of found tree branches densely coiled with colorful cotton treads that measure 0.5mm in diameter. Thus colorfully transformed, the once dead branches are reborn as art; nature is resuscitated through a superstitious healing process.

The vividly coiled branches are set on a tree stump, installed in the middle of a gallery space. Each branch may be considered a ‘line’, the basic element of painting. This makes the act of installing the branches in a space analogous to the act of drawing. Gi-ok’s training in Oriental landscape painting becomes juxtaposed in this medium: while a ‘brush stroke’ in Oriental painting is often described as a spontaneous flame sparked from the artist’s spirit, Gi-ok’s ‘branch line’ is more the fruit of a stoic who overcomes the painstaking process of creating them. Born of such great labor, each branch (or each tree) represents different individuals and the garden of the trees becomes our society at large, yet another exploration of ‘relation/identity’.

In a similar spirit, Name card tree is an installation that re-contextualizes a part of nature within a gallery space and experiments with new media to re-interpret three-dimensional spaces. The piece contemplates the story behind the found branches, broken and abandoned, and the artist, in her transformation of so humble an object, shares of her heterogeneous and idiosyncratic experience of trees, and displaces the tree from the familiar. Name cards belonging to people the artist is related to are hung on a leaf-less ‘tree’ using cotton threads, and this subtly elicits participation from her audience by inviting them to find the connections between the branches and the degrees of separation to the artist.

Because the cards are hung randomly and independent of status, the original social division among those individuals vanishes, poetically assimilated into nature. Furthermore, the audiences are asked to hang their own name cards, or write their names and contact information on blank cards, which add new ‘leaves’ to an increasingly luxuriant ‘tree’, adding dynamism and life to what was once a barren branch. This act is simultaneously a show of support and a small but significant new connection between the audiences and the usually reserved artist.

The last work in this exhibition, Patoong, is an installation in which Gi-ok explores with relation and identity literally, using her experience as a Korean artist submersed in Thai culture. A collection of traditional Thai fabrics, known as patoongs, are framed with embroidery hoops and hung on the wall. The patoongs, in their magnificent colors and arresting patterns, are a playfully sensory manifestation of vernacular beauty and cultural value.

Traditionally used to cover the bodies of Thai man and woman after their baths or while changing clothes, different patoongs are worn by males and females, and specific patterns denote the various Thai heritages or regions. In that sense, each patoong becomes a personification of various Thai individuals or identities, forcing onlookers to find a relation in this encounter with illusionary patoong ‘beings’.

Gi-ok’s pursuit of the recognition of self transcends both an inner space as well as the social and cultural space in which she exists. Using various formal experimentations from painting and sculpture to installation, the artist opens the dialogue to her audience, allowing them to share their presence with each other. By participating in her work, her audience becomes a network of humans that come together to identify themselves in her work, creating a sense of true universalism when they see themselves and each other within her work.