By Leah Gallant
Nayeon Yang is an interdisciplinary artist from South Korea. Through installation, performance, video, and participatory artworks, she explores the body as a site where memory and the passage of time are recorded. She is an MFA candidate at Ohio State University and holds a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Nayeon in her installation space in the men’s locker room in the Commerce Center.
How did you first start working with performance art?
I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where there was a very good performance art program, but I didn’t really take any classes in it. I was making some performative sculptural work that was very personal and private. When my professors saw it, they told me to take video and performance classes. But I’m a very shy person, so I said ‘no, no, I can’t.’ And then when I graduated, I finally admitted that my work is related to performance art. I decided to work at Defibrillator, the performance art gallery in Chicago, and through that I learned a lot about what performance art could be.
Nayeon Yang, Permeation: (De)composing a Territory
Your portfolio is divided into sections that together form a full sentence: ‘I/ left home / to learn to become / an-other to you.’ How do each of those phrases relate to your practice?
The idea I’m really pursuing is about meeting people as a person and trying to figure out the boundary between us, how the boundary is created, and if, by recognizing it, we can respect and overcome it. I go back and forth working in all those categories. ‘Left home’ is about me. That section is more like talking to myself–it’s about self-expression more than communication. ‘To learn to become’ is about a practice of removing the ‘I’, or self. I figured out that when I was trying to express myself, I didn’t recognize who I was talking to. To remove myself, I focused on bodily mechanisms that all human beings have. So my body did not have to say anything about me, but served as an anonymous body that stated being present. For example, ‘Permeation: (De)composing a Territory’ is a video performance work where I tried to remove myself just by breathing. I was in a clear plastic box in the woods in winter, so when I breathed, the condensation made me become slowly invisible in the box. Now I see myself not as an individual but also as a part of society, part of culture, so that’s become the subject of most of my current practice. ‘An-other to you’ is about my existence in relationship to my surroundings.
‘Otherness’ or ‘the other’—race, nationality, gender, etc. when deviant from a white male norm—has been both a subject for artists to lift up social issues and a way to pigeonhole artists who might possess any of those identities – by saying, for example, that women artists can only make art about being a woman. Some of your work deals with your identities and some is less specific. What is the role of ‘otherness’ both in how you think about your work and how it’s been perceived by viewers?
I don’t need to recognize myself as an Asian or a woman. But I know I am recognized in those categories, and that’s often a difficulty for me. I don’t want to only make work about elaborating my own boundary because that would hardly open conversations. We are all different from each other, living in different and various boundaries. So, I rather want to focus on “how” my boundaries cross over “yours”. I’m trying to point out there’s actually no “you” without “I”. “You” and / or “They” can mean a group of people that is defined by social, cultural, political boundaries. I want to navigate myself, regardless of the given boundaries, where ‘I’ exist not to label “you” or “them” as the others. So, I am trying to encounter people as individuals first, as much as I try to be recognized as an individual rather than an Asian female artist. But sometimes, it is a necessity to use my given boundaries as a tool; if I want to say “let’s overcome the boundary”, I have to point the boundary out. ‘Borderline,’ for example, was a performance piece where I was naked in a room covered in mylar and I held a security mirror tilted so I could make eye contact with the audience behind me. They were facing my back, but they could see my eyes in the mirror, and that was about not just the male gaze but about protest of rape issues in college, asking questions of boundary and autonomy of a body.
Nayeon Yang, Olympia, documentation of participants
Your piece ‘Olympia’ exemplifies for me questioning the idea of ‘you’ as a monolithic group. You wrote that that piece is “concerned with an authorship of a body that is violated by an image, more particularly, by ways to observe, exhibit, and market otherness such as different gender, culture, race, and class.” But rather than make yourself the subject of these questions and identities in your work, you deflect them onto the audience-participants. Particularly with your participatory performance pieces, you have these set-ups that make the art viewers the performers; they’re the ones performing for you. So who is the audience in your work?
In that piece, I performed as a photographer, and like in Manet’s ‘Olympia,’ I was totally naked, wearing high heels and a black ribbon necklace. I invited and asked them to pose like Olympia, and then photographed them, gave them the printed photo, and paid them one dollar. I was hoping to give them the time to think about and choose their role in the performance during and after their participation. I said I was a photographer and called them models. But the performance already implied that we were not in a photo studio, I was not a photographer, and they were not models. In that sense, they were not quite “performing”. My audience were the individuals encountering familiar scenes in unfamiliar way. They interacted with my performance. Of course, I am thinking about the secondary audience who’s going to experience just the photos, not the actual performance.
Also complicating this idea of audience, the work is documented not only for documentation’s sake, but also for the participants – they are given a snapshot of themselves. Documentation becomes a part of the work itself.
Yes, documentation is a part of the work but not the work itself. I have to address that this is part of the work; what secondary audience experiences through the documentation can be very different from what my participants experience in person.
It seems like a way of propelling a piece forward as it unfolds in time. In ‘Emotion of Histories / Histories of Emotions,’ the documentation, in the forms of postcards from the audience members, goes on to fuel the next part of the work.
Developing this piece, it triggered me to think about how to document things that I can’t really document. After that, all my pieces include documentation as a part of my performance. It’s about finding what’s not being archived. Once something has been written it can be shared, and it often becomes a structure of a hierarchy. So I thought about what’s not being recorded, and therefore is disregarded. Smell has a really powerful element that triggers the memory, but there’s no way to record it using current technology. Because scent triggers very different things for individuals, I tried to use actual people as sites to record a smell. I then invited them to write their memory on a postcard and send it to my mom. So when she got all the postcards she emotionally responded to that— not necessarily the individual postcards but the idea of smell, and then the idea of me being in a foreign country. And she thought that probably I’m just lonely here and I have been missing family in Korea, and cooking is the best thing she could do for me, so she’s going to come over and cook for me. And after that project I really questioned what documentation meant–how documentation varies the interpretations and how documentation can archive what’s not perceived and recorded.
For more of Nayeon’s work, go to http://navelnayeon.com/
Photo credit: Leah Gallant, Nayeon Yang, Sandra Derr.