21.02 - 16.03.2019
Wednesday, 20 February 2019, 7 PM
Research Grant Receiver Jang Mee 2018-2019
Jang Mee, Trauma Trickster
Mainstream narratives about refugees in news outlets tend to fit into one single story: a life riddled with trauma, exacerbated by difficulty integrating. While there can be truth in this story, it paints a monolithic picture that allows for little individuality to come through. This exhibition posits potentiality as an opposition to constraint.
Korean artist Jang Mee explores ideas of the myriad of self in her first Berlin exhibition, Trauma Trickster. Upon entering the exhibit, the viewer is first confronted with ink drawings of two large crows. These enigmatic birds are powerful, larger than life, yet remain oblivious to the visitors that pass them, staring only at each other with blank eyes. The energetic brushstrokes that make up the crows’ feathers are at once playful and brooding, a contradictory stance reflected throughout the exhibition and encapsulated in its title.
Mee’s interest in crows grew from seeing these plastic birds being used on balconies to keep away pigeons and other birds. Crows themselves hold numerous meanings: death, magic, intelligence, flexibility, destiny, and the unknown. Paradoxically, one crow signifies misfortune, but two indicate good luck. The calming organ music creates a contemplative atmosphere that echoes the stillness of a church, creating space to ponder the initially puzzling work. Light flows into the space through windows that evoke stained glass, adding to the spiritual potency of the viewing experience.
It is not until the alcove that follows the first room that the visitor is introduced to the theme of North Korea refugees living in South Korea through four texts. These are taken from the text messages and diary of two friends of the artist, both of whom are refugees who escaped from North Korea as teenagers. Through this, interpretations of the earlier part of the exhibit are challenged, and the viewer is encouraged to rethink their previous understanding of the work. The link between the symbolism of the crow and refugees is left deliberately vague by the artist, and this meaning is open to interpretation from the audience.
Further complicating this symbolism is the mirror behind one of the crows that contains no reflection. This calls to mind the long fascination with the mirror in European painting and myths, where this object can be a lesson of morality (as in the story of Narcissus), a symbol of introspection, or a subtle departure from reality imbued with hidden meaning. In Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434), a mismatch between the scene presented as reality and the reflection in the small mirror at the back of the room has prompted scholars to search for the meaning of this artistic decision for centuries. Once again, the meaning of the lack of reflection in the mirror is unfixed. It is an enigmatic invitation to question reality, our assumptions about it, and our own processes of seeing.
The mirror is a border between the physical world that we can walk around and interact with, and another world that we can see but not touch. It is a barrier to this second world and creates a division between us and those that we see there. One encounters the idea of borders elsewhere in Mee’s work. References to water in the second room of the exhibition allude to the closing of rivers by North Korea to prevent people from escaping. Many refugees from across the world must cross a body of water as part of their journey, a process that is oftentimes perilous. The water is a boundary that must be traversed, but prevents many from reaching their desired destinations. It embodies both possibility and constraint, a duality that mirrors life outside of North Korea for refugees. In one of the displayed texts, the writer expresses their gratitude for the possibilities their life now has, but in another, the writer explains how a friend’s refugee status negatively impacted her relationships and ability to marry. The area on the other side of the water, or in the second world beyond the mirror, remains abundant with contradictions.
The visual langue of the work, the vacant eyes and use of empty space in stark contrast to the strong black lines of ink, present the concept of the void. This builds on François Cheng’s writings that the emptiness in traditional Chinese painting is a conduit for transformation. The void contains pure potentiality. This possibility mirrors the way the artist had to transform her own thoughts about North Korean refugees. Her correspondences challenged her preconceived notion of refugees being bound by trauma, and helped her realize the similarities she shared with those she spoke to, as well as their individual personalities. Through this exhibition, Mee encourages visitors to do the same.
- Madeleine Onstwedder