The artists included in The Mulberry Forest Becoming Ocean work across a diverse range of media, but there is a unifying expansiveness to the visions of Minjung Kim, Tao Hui, Im Heung-soon, Prabhavathi Meppayil and Pak Sheung Chuen. Perhaps that is in part due to the work of the exhibition’s curator, Philip Tinari. The incredible vibrancy and diversity of contemporary Far East Asian Art would present formidable challenges to any curator seeking to bring viewers closer to the concerns that infuse the works created by such heterodox creative polity. Tinari’s approach is, in some ways, more essayistic than comprehensive and The Mulberry Forest Becoming Ocean is a far stronger exhibition for this tightness and focus. The artists’ works reach broadly enough across temporalities and forms to make grand gestures towards completism superfluous.
The films included in the exhibition are particularly powerful and offer both a historical sense of the implications of 20th Century geopolitics in Asia as well as deeply personal reflections on the contemporary dynamics of the Koreas and the “Harmonious Society” of China. Im’s film “Bukhansan/Bukhangang” is a two-channel video that follows, literally, the singer Kim Bok-ju as she ascends a mountain in South Korea and recounts the narrative of her life. The singer defected from the North and made a life in a country that was, at once, her own, but also culturally alien. The two channels of “Bukhansan/Bukhangang” alternate between Kim telling her story and more impressionistic images based on her girlhood and family life before defecting. It is a work that both embodies and metaphorises the ways in which biography, suffering and displacement are transmuted from subjective experience into art.
Tao Hui’s films explore the nature of identity and normativity. “Excessive” tells the story of a family sundered in part because of their inability to cope with having a daughter with an extra finger on one hand. The film’s stylish black and white palate and heightened acting further ratchet up the emotional pitch of an avowedly melodramatic tale. From a certain perspective, “Excessive” could be understood as a form of social critique, but also of media critique. In a society which prizes stability, disturbances – be they social or genetic–can take on significances out of all proportion to their actual implications. A salutary notion to bear in mind in the current fevered global political climate. Tao also presents the film “Talk About Body” in the exhibition. The theme of normativity is also at the centre of this shorter work in which a woman seated on a bed describes her physical characteristics in forensic detail to an assembled group of men and women. The seated woman goes on to describe the genetic heritage she carries as well, pinpointing specific alleles responsible for her physical appearance and tracing her geographic lineage as well as her mapping her body. The process of Han-normativity in the history of modern China is clearly an undercurrent of the work, but also wider notions of the hyper-vigilance devoted to the female body in the history of art both of the Far East and the West.
Pak’s installations and photographs and Meppayil’s delicately wrought panel works speak with perhaps more oblique voices but they contribute to an arresting–in the case of Pak’s “Nightmare Wallpaper”, literally – glimpse of the aesthetic landscape of contemporary East Asian aesthetic practice.
Images courtesy of the artists and Esther Schipper, Berlin.