Crawl and Trace
: Invisible Histories and the
Project of Remembering
In a previous curatorial project, I had the opportunity to work with Vancouver-based artist Jin-me Yoon in presenting her 2003 video series Unbidden. _The way the artist crawls and scurries through an unspecified landscape in _Unbidden: Underbrush captured my attention and made me question what moved her in this way, along an inhospitable ground marked by jagged rock and scraggly bushes. Dressed in black, she uses all four limbs to negotiate the rough terrain as she grimaces and pants, going around in circles in an endless video loop. In Unbidden: Jungle Swamp, Yoon similarly scuttles, leaps, and falls, and in Unbidden: Grassland, she crawls on her hands and knees. It is only in Unbidden: Channel, that we see her body finally at rest, floating serenely on the water with closed eyes, a still body evoking death.
Known for her photographs from the 1990s, such as A Group of Sixty-Seven (1996) and Souvenirs of the Self (1991), in which the artist inserted herself into various re-creations of iconic Canadian landscapes, Yoon has consistently explored how her own body disrupts the reading of these landscapes and creates new meanings. Her body—that of an Asian woman—questioned national identity and body politics, as well as gender and race relations, against a predominantly white, patriarchal tradition of Canadian nationalist landscape paintings made most famously by the Group of Seven artists.
In these representations of a rugged Canadian wilderness, Yoon’s body became a monument set in opposition to the myth of male-centric individualism embodied by European pioneers who tamed the terra nova. Unlike the still images of her photographs, Unbidden releases Yoon’s body from a previously stoic monumentality and stillness, granting her a movement and fluidity as well as artistic control over the space and time her moving body creates. No longer fixed to a place, namely an archetypal depiction of Canada’s wilderness, the videos in Unbidden mark the beginning of the artist’s interest in a particular type of movement: crawling.
Since Unbidden, Yoon has crawled in video projects across various landscapes in the same nondescript black clothing she wore in the first series. Equipped with a rolling platform, she has crawled on the streets of Seoul, Korea, and Beppu, Japan—two countries with overlapping memories of occupation, war, and suffering—in The dreaming collective knows no history (US Embassy to Japanese Embassy, Seoul) (2006), As It Is Becoming (Seoul, Korea) (2008) and As It Is Becoming (Beppu, Japan) (2008). The common act of crawling in these three works compels us to ask what the motivation is behind it. Why would she choose to perform an action considered lowly or infantile? I begin by looking closely at the ground that the artist’s body skims—the asphalt and dirt roads that are mute witness to the violent conflicts that have ravaged both Korea and Japan.
It is well known that the early twentieth century was a tumultuous time for Korea, a then pre-industrial, hermit nation occupied by Japan from 1910 to 1945. Its colonial occupation brought the usual tragedies of economic exploitation, military invasion, and cultural suppression, all involving rampant and systemic violence. Japan’s surrender after the atomic obliteration of Nagasaki and Hiroshima effectively ended its rule over Korea. However, even after Japan’s surrender, Korea did not have sovereignty, since the US controlled the South and the USSR and China strongly influenced the North. With the division of the nation in 1945 and its subsequent civil war from 1950 to 1953, much of the country was left in rubble and its people without many resources. The period thus left a deep and trenchant wound on the cultural psyche of Koreans, with political tensions continuing to characterize the relationship between Korea and Japan today. I am not a historian of this period, nor do I have direct memory of any of these events, but I grew up in a Korean family in Seoul and Canada and absorbed this history through the memories of my now-deceased grandmother and through my parents. For Yoon, born about seven years after the armistice, a levelled horizon would have been the backdrop of her childhood in Korea, a childhood familiar with the immediacy of the ground and its rubble—its tactility seared into her memory.
As I watch Yoon crawl from the American embassy to the Japanese embassy in Seoul in The dreaming collective knows no history, I sense that the histories of war and colonialism in Japan and Korea haunt her humble movement. The route that Yoon takes in the video is symbolically loaded with references to the Japanese colonial occupation of Korea, the American intervention, and the continued influence and presence of the American military and diplomats in the country. Considering that Japan’s exploitation of Korean labourers motivated much of early modern Korean diasporic movement, the artist’s journey, on all fours, to the Japanese embassy is not trivial. The Japanese Empire coerced and forced Koreans into moving throughout areas in Manchuria and the South Pacific as military conscripts, labourers, and comfort women forced to serve the sexual needs of the Japanese military.
The video does not carry any explicit reference to the history of this forced mobility; instead, it focusses on what is visible on the surface—the imposing concrete structures of the embassy buildings and the walls that protect them, busy roads and sidewalks, and men in business suits. Sandwich boards and street signs that the artist passes advertise translation and notary services for travel documents and international marriage certificates, as well as lunch specials at various restaurants and sale items at the 7/11 convenience store.
The video depicts a typical metropolitan centre. However, the artist’s crawl leaves the viewer feeling visually disoriented, unable to connect to this urban landscape. The camera is angled low and at times bobs up and down, mimicking the artist’s field of vision. Rather than focussing on the verticality that characterizes most urban centres around the world, the video accentuates the horizontal axis that the artist travels along. Accompanying this visual disorientation is a painful, grating sound from the wheels of the platform the artist uses to support her horizontal body during the crawl. She pants audibly, and, at times, stops to catch her breath, or to assess potential danger from cars and pedestrians. The passersby and the guards at the embassies pay no attention to this vulnerable figure and offer no help. After eighteen minutes of crawling, Yoon finally arrives at the Japanese embassy, and, for the first time, the camera tilts up. After registering the Japanese flag flying from the top of the building, the camera quickly returns to Yoon’s eye level and focusses on guards wearing riot-gear and buses with window grates positioned strategically and threateningly in front of the embassy. The artist then resignedly rests her head on her arms as the video fades out to white, only to loop back to the beginning of her crawl.
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About the Author
Liz Park is a curator and writer committed to creating discursive spaces and generating forums to engage an audience with discussions of contemporary political and social realities. She received an MA in Art History/Curatorial Studies at the University of British Columbia. In 2011–12, she was Helena Rubinstein Fellow in the Curatorial Program at the Whitney Independent Study Program. She recently received the Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellowship at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.