Faciality, Trauma and Ambivalence in Performance Art: Insoon Ha’s Monology
Alice Ming Wai Jim
If the face is a politics, dismantling the face is also a politics involving real becomings, an entire becoming-clandestine. Dismantling the face is the same as breaking through the wall of the signifier and getting out of the black hole of subjectivity. Here, the program, the slogan, of schizoanalysis is: Find your black holes and white walls, know them, know your faces; it is the only way you will be able to dismantle them and draw your lines of flight.
– Deleuze and Guattari
Face. Imagine the head shot of a middle-aged Asian woman with bare shoulders and hair loosely pulled back. Now picture ninety of these artist self-portraits squarely-laid out on the floor of a brightly-lit window-front gallery to meet the gaze of visitors even before they step inside. They choose to enter willfully, reluctantly or not at all. To cross into the threshold, after all, entails treading on these faces like a door mat. Multiple street shoes track dirt in from outside, sullying the floor-mounted poster-size images in an otherwise pristine white cube.
Eventually the mass defacement takes place in the presence of the artist, dressed in an unassuming black ballet top and a long grey sweat skirt, at times sitting upright and slyly attentive to every move, at other times lounging in an awkward state of repose on her multiple faces/selves. The only time she stands during the performance is to disappear and reappear with a shallow metal wash basin of water and a white washcloth. With them, she starts to solemnly scrub the floor on her hands and knees alternating between languorous and vigorous strokes but to no avail it seems. Like black and white checkerboard flooring, the photographic surfaces of her face, irreparably scratched and weathered, look dirty even if they are clean. The only sound from her is the shortness of breath as she works while we watch.
Not quite done but physically and physiologically drained, she rinses her face with the dirty water, pats herself dry and wrings the filthy washcloth for the last time draping it over the edge of the basin. Facing the audience and the street outside, she kneels to take a low bow touching her forehead to the floor in silence.
As part of her solo exhibition at the Print Studio titled “Monology,” Insoon Ha’s Face (2011) may seem to leave a lot unspoken. Yet it could also be said that Ha’s performance installation enacts an ethical witnessing of cultural effacement through what effectively is a silent speech act, “a way of pointedly not saying something.”2 There was not one but many silences constituted and reconstituted by Ha’s performance with as many different feelings attached to the inability to say something as there are different ways to do so.
Probably the most immediate visitors’ experiences involving an “empathetic unsettlement (at times even inducing more or less muted trauma)” was as “secondary witnesses” – to use trauma historian and theorist Dominick LaCapra’s terms – to the artist’s traumatic self-effacement staged by her own hand and also to great extent theirs (or, their feet, to be exact).3 Performing in a human-size fishbowl, under the curious, even violent gaze of passers-by of the window front gallery on a busy art and culture crawl evening only intensified the emotive and affective nature of the performance. In form, earlier works ranging from Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Maintenance Art, such as Wash (1973) on a New York sidewalk, to Janine Antoni’s Lick and Lather (1993), in which the artist defaced fourteen self-portrait busts made out of chocolate and soap, come to mind, but Ha’s Face shows much more reticence to speak against putative enemies.
The most painful unsettlement and hard work Ha’s study of raw emotion involved was effectively to witness its indirect artistic testimony of the historical trauma of hundreds of thousands of girls and young women who suffered enslavement, rape, sexual exploitation, silencing, and abandonment under Japan’s institutionalized system of sexual slavery during its World War II colonial period as well as, soon after, through the state-condoned and highly regulated sex industry in U.S. military camptowns in Korea and the Philippines that thrives up to present day.
Until 1980 when the first survivor-witnesses spoke out, almost nothing was known about “comfort women” (jūgun-ianfu) the Japanese military euphemism for some 200,000 women, mostly Korean chongsindae, abducted for sexual service in comfort stations instituted and maintained by the Japanese government in northeast and Southeast Asia between 1937 and 1945 for the Imperial Army.4 The mid-1980s also brought to light the plight of some 27, 000 U.S. military camptown (kijich’on) prostitutes (know derogatorily as “Western princesses”) as victims of forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, and what human rights activists call the debt bondage system in which they accrue debts at usurious rates to their clubs, managers or pimps who pre-pay for everything (from rented rooms to make-up) deemed necessary to provide sexual services before she even arrives. 5
In colonialism and war, rape and violence against women is not only a metaphor for the patriarchal state and conquest but also physical and symbolic forms of terrorism and ethnic cleansing. “In both the chongsindae and kijich’on systems, rape was often used as a way to ‘initiate’women into sexual labor.”6 Sexually violated and ‘defiled’, Elya Filler writes, “victims, particularly from patriarchal societies, frequently fear the shame from their families and
society” and “to be branded as a whore. Fear of this shame causes victims to remain silent.”7 Shame, Filler notes, “is the most common and probably most detrimental “mental health consequences faced by victims of sex trafficking.8 It is precisely the fear and pain of shame that Ha’s performance attempts using water as a purgative metaphor to rid as a crucial step towards post-traumatic restoration.
Immigrated to Canada after obtaining her M.F.A. from the University of Seoul just over a decade ago, Ha’s art is self-admittedly informed by not only the highly-mediatized albeit also censored chongsindae and kijich’on redress movements but also from her childhood memories of the U.S. military presence in South Korea. Unspeaking of the unspeakable, Ha’s Face entreats upon her accompanying nine serigraphs in the Print Studio’s back gallery to counter the visual refuge of spectacle in the representation of trauma.
Hung in a row at eye-level, stark images of uncanny objects, each whimsical yet invariably implying violence and vice, float on sheets of creamy white printing paper.9 In this twisted array, a long hangman’s noose, a carpenter’s pincers, and a cane are striped like the peppermint candy.10
The ends of the cane, the bushy lashes of a single eye, and the blood-red shaft of a sharp scythe blade (or bird’s claw) all separately taper into long, make-shift piercing instruments or dripping entrails from a strappy garment. Of the female form, a bird’s wing span constitute breast and nipple (or pubis naturel), while two pony-tailed girls – one a completely shaded frontal visage save for where the mouth is to be, the other swallowing the end of a corporeal extension of herself looped from her spinal cord – either have discovered the means of self-expression or have had their voices taken away from them, their tongues tamed. If you can control someone’s tongue, you control their whole body.
According to Sophie Anne Oliver, performance art’s ability to accommodate “spectatorial ambivalence” may be key “to developing a model of ethical spectatorship of the traumatized body.”11 She cites art historian Jill Bennett who suggests the “squirm” as a “physical manifestation of the viewer’s disgust and unease” at the sight of the suffering of the “other/performer’s body” is “the condition of continued participation” that signals part of the viewer’s embodied response to the re-enactment of trauma through performance art.12 On the other hand, LaCapra warns that a post-traumatic response of unsettlement, if it is to remain unquestionable in the writing of historical trauma, involves empathy “counteracting victimization, including self-victimization” and not simply identifying with the trauma victim in an uncritical manner.13 What I propose is that Ha’s body of works can be seen to perform precisely how cultures that have been oppressed, erased or neglected in dominant narratives, repeat trauma dramas of and by marginalized “bodies of difference” as a means of breaking the cycle of trauma, violence and self-hate.
“Monology,” from the Greek monologos (“speaking alone”), as an exhibition is clearly firmly situated within a particular strain of performance art practice that sees the performance monologue, as holding, to quote performance artist David Bateman, “the performative promise that the individual artist may begin to assist liberationist projects – projects in aid of oppressed subjects attempting to gain agency in an increasingly dehumanizing and traumatizing environment.“14 Significantly and obviously in this case, the monologue is a silent one but it is one wherein possibly silence, as Sandra Styres usefully theorizes, “is itself a dialogue that can communicate whispers of anguish, anger, aggression, resentment, resistance and/or stoicism through the void or space that it creates” [italics mine].15 Ultimately the very operation of the silent monologue, as a silent speech act, hinges on its capacity to embody and invoke a response-ability, a dialogic response to consequence.16
Two conditions have to be present for collective responsibility: I must be held responsible for something I have not done, and the reason for my responsibility. […] Every government assumes responsibility for the deeds and misdeeds of its predecessors and every nation for the deeds and misdeeds of the past.– Hannah Arendt17
Derived from the Greek logos (speech) and appearing first as apologia (“a speech in defence”), apology was also understood as it is defined today as: (1) a formal justification/defense or excuse; (2) an admission of error or discourtesy accompanied by an expression of regret; or (3) a poor substitute (Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edn). As E. Tammy Kim notes, the first and second definitions are almost oppositional, with the situation being that Japanese revisionists, who maintain that all ‘‘comfort women’’ were willing prostitutes, use the former more legal in character, while surviving “comfort women” clearly demand the first which comes closest to its meaning in everyday usage.18
A month following Ha’s opening performance, at the Third committee meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in early October, Korea demanded that Japan take “legal responsibility” for Korean ‘comfort women’ forced into sexual slavery by the military in Japan’s comfort system.19 This was the first time in fourteen years that a Korean diplomat had raised the issue to the committee, one of six that specializes in human rights and social affairs. The government of Japan admitted in 1993 that the Japanese military had been “directly or indirectly” involved in establishment and operation of “comfort stations” and in transportation of the women. Still unresolved, however, is a formal, clear and unambiguous apology to the victims of sexual abuse by Japanese soldiers. December 14, 2011 will mark the 1,000th and final weekly protest by surviving Korean comfort women outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul since 1992.
Meanwhile, recent studies indicate military foreign military presence (such as Japan’s comfort system and U.S. military prostitution) is the most influential factor, economically, politically, and culturally, first pushing the development of East Asia’s sex industry “ahead of the rest of the world and eventually causing it to be the focal point of the global sex trafficking ring” as we currently know it.20 Sex trafficking, having unofficially partnered up with the tourist industry and the government, is today of monumental magnitude and a global phenomenon as tourists from developed nations of the west and also from Japan replace military personnel as clients.21
As Ha has stated unabashedly: “Depending on the situation and the environment, the roles of victim and victimizer are easily reversed.” It is in view of these historical missives and the cultural contexts in which violence against women occur that Ha ‘s Face calls to an ethical witnessing.
We all believe we have been hurt, and, so, can empathize, sympathize with the plight of victims. But when we cloak ourselves in the banner of ‘the good’, ‘the just’, ‘the right’, we become blind to the realities of the pain and suffering we inflict on others. Human nature has the potential to simultaneously harbor an assailant and a victim. Should we admit that there resides a dual nature (that includes the villain) within each of us, perhaps we will become more circumspect about our actions.– Insoon Ha22
In regards to the duality of responsibility in relation to complicity, cultural theorist Rey Chow provides another point of access to Ha’s performance and exhibition as a whole which enacts the female Asian body as aggressively raced, sexed and classed:
[T]he victims of social marginalization, the very recipients of social dismissal […] tend to become themselves perpetrators of violence against a more or less innocent person. The crux, though, lies in the fact that, when the victimized insist willfully on being recognized, such insistence is often perceived as a violent act. it is as if the very bodies that are normally rejected – whose secrets are considered mere shit – must implode from within a society’s boundary between what it wants and what it does not want, with a secretive secretion that is, literally, “in your face” (walls being, after all, faces). 23
To be clear here, the walls Chow describes, which are “after all, faces,” are completely opposite to the “white wall” described by Deleuze and Guattari in the epithet, which onto you will be “pinned to and stuffed in the black hole.”24 The juxtaposition here is first and foremost instructional if only to underscore the critical project of knowing your faces, dismantling the “abstract machine of faciality, white wall/back hole” (I suggest, here, a necessary cultural effacement of false constructions, which I believe Ha’s work initiates), and doing away with “walls to which dichotomies, binarities, and bipolar values cling.”25 Secondly it is to be mindful of how the historical legacies of systematic rape and sexual slavery and other crimes committed against humanity functioned in tandem the promotion of gender-biased, racist and classist ideologies which laid a foundation of violent cultural practices that continued to not only be used the sex industry but also affect the ways in which the face/self and body/other is perceived into the 21st century.
At the end of the day, Ha’s exhibition as a silent speech act not only prompts “a reflection of our unease and unwillingness to face our own ambivalent performance as spectators and commentators of the other’s suffering” but also is a petition to “overcome the challenge of ethical (in)action.”26 Commit, it possibly says, to the identity of ubiquitous complicity, the apology, the collective responsibility defined by Hannah Arendt, where survivors-witnesses are not exempt (political forgiveness is their charge). In this way, Ha offers Face as a small act of trauma repair for the sake of the future better world in which her daughter will grow up to live.
Alice Ming Wai Jim is Associate Professor of Contemporary Art at Concordia University. Her current research concerns contemporary Asian art and Asian Canadian art.
1 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guatarri, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. and foreword by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987) 188.
2 I find the way in which leading queer and literary theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick understands, as Jason Edwards explains, being closeted as “a silent speech act, a way of pointedly not saying something, a form of preterition or phrase in which something is neglected, disregarded, omitted, passed over or by,” tremendously useful for understanding that which is ‘unspeakable’ in Ha’s performance. Jason Edwards, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (London; New York: Routledge, 2009) 56.
3 Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore, MA: John Hopkins University Press, 2000) 47.
4 E. Tammy Kim, “Performing Social Reparation: ‘Comfort Women’ and the Path to Political Forgiveness,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 16:2 (2006) 223. Comfort women were mostly from Korea (80 to 90 per cent ), China, Japan and the Philippines.
5 Katharine H.S. Moon, “South Korean Movements against Militarized Sexual Labor,” Asian Survey 39:2 (March-April 1999) 315.
7 Elya Filler, “Sex in the Company of Soldiers: The Role of Japan’s Comfort System and U.S. Military Prostitution in the Development of
Eastern Asia’s Contemporary Sex Industry,” Senior Thesis, Department of Global Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California, June 2009, 10.
8 Ibid., 9. Other consequences include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction to narcotics, and suicidal thoughts.
9 Ha’s substantial body of work over the years comprises also of similarly pained and absurdly visceral sculptures that are sometimes used in her performances as well.
10 In the 1999 film, Peppermint Candy directed by Lee Chang-dong, the penultimate flashback of major events that led up to the protagonist’s suicide depicts him being shot on military service to crush the Gwangju Democratization Movement in May 1980 against the military dictatorship under Chun Doo-hwan. At times referred to as 518 (the date of the citizen uprising, or massacre, and now a national day of commemoration), the anti-Americanism arising from this event is considered by some to have abetted the burgeoning kijich’on movement in that decade. Moon, 322.
11 Sophie Anne Oliver, “Trauma, Bodies, and Performance Art; Towards an Embodied Ethics of Seeing,” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 2:1 (February 2010) 126.
13 LaCapra, 40.
14 David Batemen, “Performance Art as Cultural Effacement (2006),” background paper for Performing Identity/Crossing Borders: The Cyprus Symposium, Nicosia, Cyprus, May 3-6, 2007, organized by the Centre for Innovation in Culture and the Arts in Canada (CICAC), http://www.tru.ca/cicac/performing-bateman.doc.
15 Sandra Styres, The Silent Monologue: The Voice Within the Space,” AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples 4:2 (2008) 89-101.
16 During the nearly ninety-minute performance only one audience member went up to the artist and spoke with her in not so hushed words commending her for her courage.
17 Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, ed. with intro. by Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken, 2003) 149.
18 Kim, 230.
19 Park Si-soo, “Korea Raises ‘Comfort Women’ Issue at UN,” The Korea Times, October 13, 2011, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2011/10/116_96526.htm; UN – Third Committee press release, October 11, 2011, http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2011/gashc4009.doc.htm.
20 Filler, 5.
22 Insoon Ha, Artist Statement from her exhibition “Breeding Season,” Big Orbit Gallery, St. Catherines, Ontario, March 27-April 1, 2004.
23 Chow, 72-73. Chow’s essay analyzes the disturbing short story by Chinese American author John Yau about three hybrid ethnic men hired by a young woman to renovate her apartment who instead ransack and vandalize it through a series of sex acts that stand-in metaphorically as gang rape. This “ineluctable nature of the violence” involved in ethnic Americans’ negotiations with historical and structural trauma, for Chow, is “a stark portrayal of such otherness as something lethal.”
24 Deleuze and Guattari, 181.
25 Ibid., 181, 190.
26 Oliver, 128-129.
Insoon Ha by Sally Frater
Insoon Ha’s work deals with binaries. Mired in the abject, her practice is predicated within the liminal space of borders. She creates pieces of art that are neither here nor there, presenting us with bodies fused together from animal and human forms, babies that are oversized, linear white halls that have their architectural structure broken by individual tongues. It is hard to develop a gauge by which to measure her individual works, for they are unsettling; they disrupt our sense(s) and expectation of the familiar. There is no clear delineation of order.
Ha’s installation in the Project Room at MOCCA, “Drain,” is yet another venture into the sculpture uncanny. Consisting of 12 separate works, one of which is remnant of a performance, the exhibition features mostly new works by the artist that explore her self-professed obsession with drains. Of 12 works, four of the pieces contain visible drains and several others refer to the physical act of draining: Draping, 2009, a white dress whose material is pierced by hundreds of red threads with needles hanging from it; She is her mother, 2009, a white sugar-filled bathtub with a video projected on it enclosed by a shower curtain; and Face, 2009, a large sculpture of a face that has a horse’s leg affixed to it that, from a distance, could read as a festering wound. For Ha, the incorporation of drains in her practice is “symbolic of the act and attempt to rid oneself of pain shame.”
The work Stay, 2009, consists of a stainless steel sink resting in a sparse wooden frame. The sink is filled with water and is stopped by a plug that appears to be floating atop the fluid in it. Given that much of Ha’s past work has been informed by Korea’s history of comfort women, who were forced to sexually service members of the Japanese military during World War II, one can easily read the works as alluding to sexual violence specifically directed towards women. Indeed, the visceral nature of works such as a White, 2009, a pair of white pantyhose with a knife blade protruding between the two legs, and Chair with a menacing curving metal spike protruding directly from the centre of the seat, make it hard to interpret them in any manner. Yet it seems as though Ha’s intent is not to completely submerge the viewer in the horror that may be contained within some of her art. Though she acknowledges that she “might push extremes a little,” Ha feels that the “deformed forms” that she produces “ are still beautiful although they are distorted.”
And they are beautiful. The minimalist sculpture are fashioned from combination of ubiquitous everyday objects. Their stark simplicity is made jarring by the pairing of object and forms with instruments and items that together, seem incongruous; it is when these forms are coupled that ruptures occur. Their power lies in the space where they hover, in the still moments before vicious acts of brutality and / or disruption transpire. Perhaps what makes them seem more palpable is that horror allude to by the works is sanitized. The blood we are met with in Dripping is simply cotton string; the rumpled bed in the work “Drain,” which might have been the site of sexual humiliation and violence, bears no staining; and the bodily fluids that threaten to leak beyond the barriers of skin
and cloth never materialize. It is only when visiting the site of the artist’s performance (which took place in the hallway adjacent to the gallery) that we witness any evidence of sullying: the white wall is smeared with a brown substance (chocolate) that has dripped onto a tongue attached beneath and has run down the length of the floor. On a video monitor in the corner, we see the artist making a futile attempt to inscribe words onto the wall. Ha write with her tongue the words taste, pant and obey, but each word is obliterated by dripping chocolate, leaving only the faintest of marks behind.
Perhaps what makes the installation so hardy (and heavy) is the suggestion that pain and suffering are not necessarily something to be forgotten over, or get rid of, but that they are continual, ever present and perhaps a necessary part of our realities. Nowhere is this more evident than in the work She is her mother, a video projection depicting two twinned figures sitting opposite each other. Tethered to each other by an umbilical cord, the figures move separately yet remain bound together, unable to free themselves from the other.
“Drain” was exhibited at MOCCA in Toronto from November 14,2009,to January 3, 2010.
Sally Frater is an independent curator and writer who has curated exhibitions at A Space Gallery, the McMaster Museum of Art and the Niagara Artist Center. In 2010, she will co-curate an exhibition of Dionne Simpson’s work at the Art Gallery of Peterborough.
Above is published in Crossover, Border Crossings, Issue No.113