The Power of Asking Questions

Areum Woo (Art Critic)

Jaeyeon Chung’s works are bold and free. She doesn’t choose a stable path with the same media and a set theme. Instead, she discovers something or someone that captures her fancy, a situation that she finds grating, or a social norm that suddenly seems questionable - essentially themes that Chung finds in the present moment, and marches towards them with nothing but her able body. She asks the questions that need to be asked. She picks up any techniques or skills that she needs along the way. And so, her themes, media and material are always unexpected.

I met Jaeyeon Chung at an artist-in-residence program at an art school in 2016. The essence of the residency program was to bridge the education infrastructure of the school and the artists. Here, Chung learned printmaking for the first time. A year later, she exhibited a copper-plate print of the lobby of the former National Museum of Korea in the way she remembered it at the final exhibition. In 2011, Chung made a routine out of creating cement blocks in order to adapt to residency life. She had to regularly come into the studio before the cement permanently stuck to the mold and ruined her work. This was a form of practice that kept her bound to her residency studio. The cement blocks that were created in this way were stacked in her designated studio, and eventually affected the subsidence of the floor. These are not Chung’s most prominent works, but they give us a feel for the artist’s resolute footsteps that stride into unknown realms. Then where does her drive, her power to make her way into unknown places, come from?

The drive to go to unknown realms

Jaeyeon Chung began her artistic journey in unfamiliar places abroad. She had to discover her own artistic path in a new environment, and amidst new relationships. The artworks that the artist showed at the time took on the form of expanding on the contradictions that permeate certain places and times, and re-presenting them. It might have been easy for Chung - who was an outsider - to choose and delve into such themes, but she was bold and witty in expressing herself, nonetheless. For example, in Flags (2010), she put up the national flags of Southeast Asian countries on a flagpole on the window of the house she stayed at, and photographed them in a series. This was her answer to the somewhat blunt and impolite inquiries of the neighbors regarding where the Asian woman could be from.

The term Chung uses when elaborating on her work is public intervention. Her early works involved posing questions regarding public spaces, and their surrounding environments. She focused on questioning who had the authority to decide what the environment of a public space should be like, who the users were, and what its uses could be. She explored what public spaces look like under this authoritative system and who benefited from them. The works highlighted the different perspectives regarding the value of a public space. Some of Chung's early works include placing letters full of love and conflict in a public park, thereby telling personal stories within a space occupied by a bustling crowd, and raising questions on the use of the spaces at an artist in residency program that the artist participated in.

Chung created What Happens Here (2010) while she was a part of the artist residency program in Graz, Austria. There was a table tennis table that was clearly visible in the employee's lounge at a private company that shared the building with the program. The artist moved the table to her studio, and placed a red light in the table’s original location. Then what went missing? The context of the work was as follows: at that time, access to the building was limited and required people to have a security pass even to use the elevator. The situation remained the same even on the exhibition opening day, and only the guests who had invitations were able to enter. Thus, the artist’s studio was the most public and yet the most exclusive place during the show. The casual game of table tennis, accessible to everyone, had suddenly become an exclusive leisure activity that was afforded only to a select few people with exclusive authority. St.Saviour's Emergency Private Shelter (2012), which was showcased during Chung’s stay at the Florence Trust, involved creating two entrances/exits that seemed to lead to an underground space. It was paired with a promotional video that advertised a luxurious personal shelter to potential residents. This residency for artists was built in a former church building. The artist raises the question of whether a place that was once a sanctuary and hiding place for the poor and vulnerable had now become a place that could be enjoyed only by a handful of people, if the privileged class of artists can indeed be called public.

This context of probing into the use of a place and the authority to make decisions continues after she returns to Korea. Some examples include Opening Project (2013), which was a collaborative public art project carried out with ARKO Art Center that was selected through an open call, and Dialogue (2014) which Chung showcased during her stay at the Artist Residency Temi in Daejeon. Opening Project involved a collaborative effort to engage the community in discussions regarding the tall brick wall that blocked the view of the passersby that was erected behind the ARKO Art Center and ultimately/temporarily resulted in knocking down/opening up the wall. Chung has been consistently performing a series of interventions, which culminated in Dialogue where the message was conveyed in a metaphorical and concise manner. The Artist Residency Temi is a visual arts residency program that was created in the Temi Library in order to enliven and regenerate the city center of Daejeon with arts and culture. However, when the artist witnessed the citizens visiting the place thinking that it was still a library only to return disappointed, she raised the question of whether the use of the building for art was indeed serving the public. The residency decided to temporarily open a library with a collection of art books during the residency period, and it was here Chung created a performance piece. A two-person table with the same dimensions as those originally placed in the library was built and installed, then a lamp that can be controlled by either of the people sitting at the table to adjust the lighting is placed in the middle. Dialogue involves a simple gesture, but invites the audience to keenly ruminate over the artist's question through non-verbal communication. After this project, the trajectory of Chung’s oeuvre takes a marked turn.

From a place of familiarity

From 2016, the stage for Jaeyeon Chung’s public interventions become less physical but instead extends towards the socio-psychological. She twists ideas like those concerning a country’s identity and historical ideologies that have become familiar to people because of customs and education in order to bring different voices to light that would otherwise have been kept in the dark. Compared to her early works, two major changes are noticeable from Retrace (2016) up to her latest works. The first is that her works have shifted to long-term ones to form series. The second is that she traded in wit and reversals for juxtaposition. As such, scholarly devotion has accumulated in Jaeyeon Chung's work, which calls for the audience to stitch the different features of her work together.

The starting point of the work was quite simple. After more than a decade as an artist in residence, she had the opportunity to return to her alma mater where she was first trained as an artist. She browsed through the information that became available to her once again at the library, and stumbled onto a list of books that she had checked out in the past. On encountering this list, which helped her form a sense of aesthetics as a young student, she decides to retrace the steps that led to the formation of her artistic tastes. She found a printing press at the print-making studio, and decided to create images of the central lobby of the now demolished Korean National Museum. Why the lobby of the National Museum? The image of the Museum lobby had stayed with her as a faint image and became the prototype of her personal aesthetic sense. The building was demolished because it was a symbol of colonization, and was, therefore, torn down at a national level in an anti-memory event. However, macro-narratives aside, it was, in fact, a beautiful work of architecture, which was elegantly built out of noble materials. The artist arranged the image of the lobby - the prototype of her aesthetic sense - along with other European buildings that were referenced at the time of its design together with the list of library books that she had checked out on the wall. By juxtaposing the list of books that the artist read while she was receiving her education within the art institution with references to colonialist architectural styles that Japan imitated at the time, she describes how the formation of an individual’s aesthetic sense takes shape within a broader context of education and the legacies of historical ideologies in in a multi-faceted way.

In the subsequent two solo shows , the work entitled Retrace develops into a work of in-depth research and finally moves towards examining official discourse. The solo exhibitions Lost Corner (2018) and Lost Corner - Memory Archive (2019) illustrate the trajectory of Chung’s research that delved into the same theme in different ways. In Lost Corner, the artist focused on spatializing the fragments of memories by projecting the details of the different architectural elements of the former National Museum, which had featured in Retrace, as the central image. However, in Lost Corner - Memory Archive, she creates a documentary film by interviewing a number of individuals who had different opinions that were obscured from view during the national decision to demolish the building, which was juxtaposed with another video that presented an individual’s personal memories in order to expose the different branches of memories and opinions that could not be combined into one coherent narrative.

K-93 is a motif that Chung discovered during her work and research that she was becoming more deeply involved in and was a continuation of Retrace. This time, however, she sets off from a news report from 1995 when the demolition of the National Museum began. It turned out that the woodcut blocks of Daedongyeojido (대동여지도, Map of Joseon) by Kim Jeong-ho (김정호), which was thought to have been destroyed by Heungseon Daewongun (흥선대원군), had been kept safe in the museum the whole time. The rumor that Heungseon Daewongun destroyed the original block of the map because it exposed national secrets was, in fact, false, and originated from Joseoneodokbon (조선어 독본, a textbook of the Joseon language) that was published during the Japanese occupation. The destruction of the museum and the wooden plate were public events that illustrated how history, which ought to be intangible public knowledge, can be shaped under certain agendas. The artist uses the two prints, depicting the central lobby and the wooden block of the map, as evidence to question the veracity of a historical narrative.

The power of asking questions

Jaeyeon Chung’s works have always undergone change. Rather than thinking of what else to make under the same theme, she observes reality with discerning eyes that cannot be fooled. She unapologetically poses more questions that she finds along the way. This is the power of asking questions. The drive to willingly go to unknown realms, her unwavering gaze, which seems bold and free at a glance, is what gives her work narrative continuity. I wanted to label the artist’s adventurous attitude that she had been maintaining amateurism, but then came to the conclusion that she maintained a professional commitment to this attitude. Jaeyeon Chung is a pro-amateur.

When asked about her future works, she replied that she was working with a digital map. She plans to create a video of the different ways Dokdo Island is labeled depending on the country from which the digital map is accessed, then display them next to the K-93 woodblock images. The message will probably be about the map, which is generally believed to hold objective information, being read in different ways depending on where you are located. This too, seems to be about the fictitious nature of history. As I watch Chung make her way into the world of virtual space, I will inevitably ask myself, I expect nothing less from her, What other objects of interest is she going to discover? It feels as if I am waiting for a knight to return with the spoils of her adventure.