Kim-chee kismet: five Korean-American artists look at the family

Julie Sim-Edwards/Yong Soon Min/Soo Jin Kim/Heeyeon Chang/Michael Cho

By Sarah Lee

Like the dead-seeming cold rocks, I have memories within that come out of the material that wen to make me.
-- Zora Neale Hurston

For most of us, if we give it a chance, imagination can help us understand who we are. What we are is easy, but who we may be is far more difficult. Our public identities can be easily described. We are defined for the most part by what we do: salesman, dentist, storekeeper, housewife, lawyer, student, or artist. We are also defined to some degree by how we look and feel: young and athletic, middle-aged and professional, elderly and dependent. And, to be sure, we are categorized by our physical appearance: European, Latino, African, or Asian. Yet despite all these definitions, our true selves, our personal and essential identities, may still not be readily understood or appreciated. Identity is not a simple, linear equation but, rather, more like a calculus of variables that includes, among other things, language, ethnic values, spiritual beliefs, and complete perceptual cosmologies.

Who we really are is thus primarily a result of where we come from and what happened along the way. On the surface, our pasts seem simple enough and nearly irrelevant to our daily lives; yet so much of how we behave, what we believe, and how we perceive the world is determined by those pasts. Our pasts are there in our memories but seldom vivid. Our pasts have sealed our fate of who we have become, our memories are partial witness to that fate, and our imaginations serve to complete the story, for it is our imagination that ultimately recaptures our memories and makes sense of their incompleteness.

If our memories are the basis for understanding ourselves, our imaginations are the tools by which we unlock those memories. Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison wrote that, for her, "memories and recollections won't give me total access to the unwritten interior life...only the act of the imagination can help me." (1) While this is unquestionably true for almost everyone, most of us are either too busy, too frightened, or otherwise disinclined to grapple with the issues of our memories and identities. Which is exactly why there are psychiatrists, but psychiatrists are normally called in only when something is not normal. Otherwise, we would be left to our own sorry devices were it not for some novelists and artists who help to make people "aware of what they know and don't know that they know," (2) as well as retrieve those memories that are within any individual or group of people.

Over the course of the last decade-in America, Europe, and Asia-writers and artists have turned progressively towards issues of self-identity and individual histories in an attempt to more fully understand who they are and, by extension, suggest the richness and complexity of any one of us. What many contemporary artists have discovered in this quest is that so much of who and what they are can only be found in their own family histories. Short of buried ghosts, the facts of one's family are easily obtained; yet, what those facts mean is another story. Applying their imaginations to the facts obtained from oral histories, letters, etc., many contemporary artists strive for a more complete and reliable understanding of their identities while creating images that speak to humanistic issues accessible to everyone.

Seldom are the issues of identity and family heritage as compelling and under more tension than in immigrant communities. Separated from a native soil, isolated from a culture whose roots go unquestioned, removed from a language that is integral to both perception and belief, the immigrant is both adrift and besieged. Disconnected from familiar traditions and customs, they often find themselves replanted in distinct communities where some semblance of their origins has been artificially recreated. Within such communities, a particular native language and food could be the norm and a set of ingrained beliefs and customs could be maintained. While a certain sense of self-sufficiency is certainly laudable, it could foster an obliviousness to the outside world; and nowhere was this more blatantly clear than in the Korean American community in Los Angeles just before 4/29/1992.

For nearly three decades, Korean American artists in Los Angeles, most of whom lived and worked around "Koreatown," stayed with the art they learned in Korea such as calligraphy, landscape, or abstract painting. Questions of identity-whether personal or cultural-were, at best, secondary to more formal issues. After the social unrest of Los Angeles in late April of 1992, however, identity issues became paramount to many Korean Americans, artists included. Korean Americans found it imperative to try to understand not only what but who they were within the society in general. And, a number of younger Korean American artists, more familiar with global trends in autobiography and cultural-identity issues, strove to incorporate their own histories and memories within their art as a means of investigating who and what they were.

Julie Sim-Edwards has worked with collage and mixed-media for nearly a decade. Customarily, her delicate collages have shunned narrative and representation, and have tended to be formalist exercises in form, texture, and color. If their titles made reference to her father or mother, they were far more poetic than analytic. Occasioned by personal events in recent years and a growing appreciation of her young children, Sim-Edwards has developed a shift in perspective that has led her to reconsider her memories of her parents in new ways. Not only are her collages, paintings, and drawings in the exhibition dedicated to her parents and herself, but an autobiographic artist's book explores her past through conjunctions of photographs, letters, and personal memorabilia.

Yong Soon Min's art does more than reveal personal history; it discloses, addresses, and explores the "representation of otherness through visual and linguistic projects." Central to Decolonization, is the interrogation the artist embeds in her panel: "Who am I?/Am I who I am? It began with a question. Perhaps it always begins with a question. The same one." (3) For Min, the answers, if any, are located in her family's history during the Korean War when her father went north to the Front and her mother worked at a menial job at a U.S. Army base to support the family. Around the particulars of her early life, recorded in snapshots and letters from her mother, Min weaves a work that talks about the social and psychological impact of colonization in general. On the traditional dress that is part of the installation, a Korean poem is written and reads, in part: "Our history, rushing to us through fields and hills is our home,"

Soo Jin Kim questions the very fundamental values of marriage and a traditional family life. The focal point of Distance is a monitor on which is played a mute videotape of her and her mother confronting each other, while beneath it, in the shadows, are two small Korean dolls denoting bride and groom. In front of the monitor, countless fortunes from cookies are strewn signifying the relentless hopes, promises, and expectations. Parent and mothers, Kim suggests, are fervid in their desire that their daughters become wives and mothers themselves while a younger generation may feel quite the opposite.

Heeyeon Chang has concentrated on video and multi-media installations, incorporating such diverse materials as televised Korean soap operas and 200 pounds of rice. In Untitled from 1994, Chang recreates a traditional Korean scholar's study, complete with rolls of mulberry paper, ink-brush drawings, a calligraphy instructional book, and photographs of male calligraphers including herself disguised as one. These photographs reappear in photocopy form on the four red banners that hang in front of the room. The entire ensemble is a poignant and heartfelt memorial to her father, whose failed dream was to teach calligraphy in this country.

Michael Cho specializes in photography and video and is the only one of the five artists to have been born in the United States. Another America of 1995 explores inner-city life from the perspectives of Korean Americans and African Americans. The work was initially done in response to the events of 4/29/1992, and is essentially documentary. It does, however, include a sensitive examination of his own family's tragedy that occurred in Detroit some years ago, when his uncle was shot to death by a teenage African American only steps away from Cho's father's business. Through still photographs and film, news footage, interviews with family members and Afrcian American business people in the area, Cho significantly adds to the genre of film/video documentary.

The five Korean American artists exhibited in finding family stories rely on images as well as words to come to terms with their own identities and the realities of their families. And ultimately, it is through either found or created images that some sense of their past can be gained, fabricated, and memorialized. It is through their images, uncoded and without definitive meaning, that they attempt to engage their imaginations in a quest to recapture their origins and gain a sense of personal identity.

Often through the most commonplace mementos, these artists construct memorials. And memorials are, after all, not only rooted in the word "memory" but built to act as metaphors whose purpose is, in the words of William Glass, "to return an idea to consciousness, to re-mind, and hence restore, a thought to life." (4) All of these five artists have reclaimed their past and the significant role their families have played. They have reminded themselves who they are and how they became themselves in part through their families, and have fashioned private memorials that may, in turn, help a public understand how it is done.

(1) Cited in Toni Morrison, The Site of Memory, in Russell Ferguson, et al. (eds.) Out There: Marginalisation and Contemporary Cultures, New York and Cambridge: The New Museum and the MIT Press, 1990, p. 302.
(2) William S. Burroughs, Painting of Guns, New York and Madras: Hanuman Books, 1992, p. 37; I am grateful to my yobo for this citation.
(3) Robert Blake, Body Languages, in Elizabeth Hynes, et al. (eds.) This is my body: this is my blood, Amherst: Herter Art Gallery, University of Massachusetts, 1992, p. 19.
(4) William Gass, Monumentality/Mentality, Oppositions 25 (Fall 1982), p. 129.

Sarah Lee is an independent Curator working with Asian American artists.

Read Interviews with the artists:

Julie Sim-Edwards
Yong Soon Min
Soo Jin Kim
Heeyeon Chang
Michael Cho

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