By Anna Lovatt
The work of Bang Geul Han raises questions of memory, testimony, and disclosure in the age of social media and “post-truth” politics. Drawing on personal memories and anonymous posts on Internet forums, she constructs fragile narratives of questionable veracity that nevertheless have the potential to coalesce into a form of “collective testimony.” Han’s earliest works were video installations that often focus on the human body—pulling, probing and puncturing its limits. These projects indicate her interest in video as a medium, recalling the work of pioneers like Vito Acconci and Lynda Benglis, as well as younger artists such as Pipilotti Rist. In 2003, Han began incorporating interactive technologies into her installations, using touch screens, sensors and experimental interfaces to open up new and diverse ways for the viewer to engage with her work. More recently, she has used facial recognition software, data visualization software and Twitter streams to explore the relationship between subjectivity and technology in a manner that would have been unimaginable in the early days of video art. In this interview, Han traces the development of her practice with an emphasis on identity, technology and female rage.
A visit to the Whitney Biennial in Seoul in 1993 sparked your desire to become an artist. What were your interests up until that point?
That’s an interesting starting point—and a little difficult, to be honest. You’re referring to an origin-story I construct as part of my video How to Remember the Black Book in Seoul (2017). There’s some truth to this event but before answering this question more earnestly I want to point out that there’s an important strategy here that I employ in a lot of my work. There’s often a tendency for the female voice in art and literature to be perceived as that of the artist herself rather than belonging to any other persona. I’m trying to play within the gap between hearing voices as constructed as opposed to something biographical or confessional. That’s why the narrative keeps falling apart in my videos.
As a child, I tended to prefer solitary activities such as drawing and reading. Early on, I do remember saying “I want to become an artist when I grow up” but then I latched onto the idea that art was for people less skilled in literature, math and quizzes. But my parents regularly took us to art museums and had books on visual artists at home. It wasn’t as clear-cut as I’m making out in my video, but going to Whitney Biennial in 1993 was memorable for sure. I found its direct discursive playfulness very shocking and powerful. I also want to mention that I lived in West Berlin in 1988. Even at a tender age, I had to quickly learn how to survive as an outsider. It helped me intuit culture as an abstract system that both pulls you in and alienates you at the same time.
Describe the trajectory of your practice between then and now. Where and what did you study? What have been your formative experiences and pivotal moments? Which artists and thinkers have influenced your work?
I studied Painting at Seoul National University. My paintings during that time were mostly oil-based, figurative and loosely based on personal narratives, again somewhat autobiographical—falling in love, my father’s illness, a memory of getting lost as a child, etc. During my junior year, I started working with video and performance. I felt a kind of release and freedom, different from painting. In some way I’m still trying to figure out what pulled me in – something about the immateriality of the moving image and its proximity to thought, memory, and life—as well as its distance from such experiences. My video installations focused on individual (personal) emotion and pain told through surreal and absurd setups, again playing with the distance between embodied and disembodied experiences and sites of enunciation. Then I came to the USA to pursue my MFA in Electronic Integrated Arts at Alfred University. I watched a lot of early video works by artists such as Nam June Paik, Gary Hill, VALIE EXPORT, Joan Jonas, and Bruce Nauman, but I think I was most affected by artists such as Kimsooja, Sophie Calle, Pipilotti Rist, Miranda July – particularly their juxtaposition of real and virtual memories, body, time, and language. With encouragement from my advisors, I also started reading Gertrude Stein and Lyn Hejinian. I was drawn to a certain tragic distance between the immateriality and the physicality of the act and artifacts of speech and writing. As a foreigner approaching English as a second language, everyday speech with its grammar and punctuations – rooted in specific cultural and historical contexts, with its unbearable banality and repetitions – feels like a heavy and difficult labor that’s impossible to master. There’s a presumption that this should all become second nature eventually, but these considerations still haunt every sentence I utter. I found the Internet to be a strangely fitting metaphorical space where these kinds of discordance get magnified: in one sense, there’s a collapse of physical distance, as electronic signals travel almost instantaneously within a hyper-efficient system of communication, but there’s still a form of ghostly distance that haunts the system. For something predicated on speed and efficiency, it’s easy to get lost in a million tweets, news feeds, and status updates, with their forever repeating banalities that drive a large part of this hyper-communication engine.
I’m particularly drawn to the writings of N. Katherine Hayles and her concept of ‘embodied posthumanism’ as a feminist alternative to more mainstream cybernetic studies where the body tends to disappear (via a homogenized vision with a distinctly white, European male lineage).
In How and Why I Became an Artist (Or How to Remember the Black Book in Seoul), 2017, you re-enact photographs from Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book, 1986, which depict Black men nude or partially clothed. Your image is out of focus and further obscured by a heavily annotated text. The text begins by recalling an encounter with Mapplethorpe’s portfolio in the Whitney Biennial, but as the video unfolds various memory errors emerge. Can you expand on the roles of clarity and fogginess in this work?
I think my background in painting is very apparent here, where the relationship between background and foreground becomes fluid and ambiguous. The fogginess and clarity are like a push and pull that creates a tension and rhythm in the work during which what’s in the background (the body) becomes foreground (the face) and vice versa, particularly as the superimposed text reveals itself to be unreliable, hinting at fragmented, rehearsed and revised memories.
In the USA, Mapplethorpe’s work became a cause célèbre during the “culture wars” of the late 1980s and early 90s. Conservative politicians branded his photographs “obscene,” yet the Black Book is also problematic for many on the left, due to its stereotypical and exploitative representations of black masculinity. Is your reenactment of these images an act of homage, or critique, or both?
It’s both, certainly, but I think it can be more accurately described as a study. I was actually preparing the work as a form of homage to Glen Ligon’s piece, The Notes on the Margins of the Black Book, in which multiple voices and perspectives actually become part of the image they’re addressing. I’m interested in how his dialog with Mapplethorpe’s work ended up changing the work in question.
It means figuring out what happened to the work that I never saw but thought I’d seen. It means taking a journey down memory lane and arriving somewhere else, where I find frightening fascistic tendencies within myself rooted in my ethnicity as well as my formative years in Korea – victimized, discriminated and sexualized, but also prone to racism, homophobia and nationalism.
In 2005, Marina Abramović raised questions of gender, embodiment and performativity when she re-enacted Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, 1972 as part of Seven Easy Pieces. What does it mean for you, as a Korean woman, to reenact these photographs of Black gay men, taken by a white gay man?
You could say that my work is the continuation of such questioning. By changing gender, race, environment and, not least, historical context, I am questioning how my gender and race are perceived and function as objects of desire, contempt and conflict. Just to readdress the previous question, producing a study also becomes a critique in itself – about how I learned what it meant to become an artist back in Korea. As a young artist, not only did I learn how to draw and compose through imitating western classical sculpture and painting, but I also very much looked up to the artists I previously mentioned, where the American/Western-European contemporary art world function as my aspiration. My attempts to domesticate the foreignness of such work involved also recognizing and critiquing the strange dominance of a distinctly Western, male point of view within myself as an artist.
Self-exposure and self-criticism appear to be central themes of How and Why I Became an Artist. Not only do you describe your own discomfort at appearing naked, you also scrutinize your own prejudices, particularly when recalling a girl with learning disabilities and a multiracial friend. Was this a particularly challenging work to produce? Was it cathartic?
Yes and yes! It was particularly difficult, not simply because of the self-consciousness involved in telling intimate, often difficult, embarrassing, or shameful memories but also because of the general tone of the work. I want it to come across as something personal and vulnerable but also somewhat crass, like in the end, I didn’t give a shit. I was imagining the person in the video was somewhere in between talking to herself and telling a story, a bit like awkward encounters on the subway or a park bench where a stranger could possibly be addressing you yet could also just as well be incessantly talking to themselves. I showed drafts of the text used in the video to some people and often the response was “I think I know what you mean but I think you will be misunderstood.” Another difficult challenge making this work was how to produce a mechanism of self-criticism and questioning within the work without this slipping into a reflexive theater that would position me as somehow morally superior or divorced from the scope of its critique, precisely because of an acknowledged level of self-awareness in the piece.
You also recount a sexual assault you experienced as a child—a story retold with one significant embellishment in Bøøb Talks, 2017. Here, your childhood molester becomes the President of the United States, only to be assassinated by the your mother at the inauguration. Bøøb Talks includes several stories like this, which begin with accurate descriptions of sexual and racial injustice, before escalating into spectacular, fictionalized acts of revenge. Can you expand on the relationship between testimony and fantasy in this work?
Too often, a lot of testimonies by victims of sexual assault and hate crimes are often treated as fantasy or embellishments. Those cases of fantasy or embellishment do exist but when one story gets debunked it undermines every subsequent story. I stumbled upon an article called “League of Men”, published in N+1 magazine. In the article, Elizabeth Schambelan talks about how we can view the notorious, retracted Rolling Stones magazine article "A Rape on Campus" as a story, something like a 21st century version of an old fairytale genre. I was thinking about how a fantasy or story, in itself, could be used as a way to approach collective testimony—as a way to manifest things such as intangible injustices that would otherwise be too difficult to articulate.
In her article “Rage Begins at Home” (The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 44, No. 1, Spring 1993) Mary Ann Caws argues that the suppression of women’s anger within patriarchal culture heightens its intensity. Are the revenge fantasies of Bøøb Talks eruptions of suppressed female rage?
In some ways, yes, it is very much about that. Over the past ten years or so, I have felt real hostility from our society towards negative emotion—we are supposed to be thinking positively and constructively at all times. I wanted to work with the pleasure in imagining the eruption of female rage particularly when compared with the idea of male anger. But I also want to avoid female rage becoming an image of itself, a spectacle that represents the female psyche and reinforces the stereotype of the hysterical woman.
The recordings in Bøøb Talks are at odds with the delicate tactility of the ceramic objects, luring in the listener. How did you decide on this form for the work?
The form in my mind from the very beginning was the Japanese dessert Mochi – round and pillowy rice cakes usually filled with sweet red bean paste or ice cream. The shape and texture always reminded me of women’s breasts or human flesh, which made me even more attracted to eating them because of the thrill that accompanies an act of transgression. I wanted the object to have a similar contrast between its calm and delicate appearance and the violent revenge stories they offered up.
Through the Gaps between My Teeth, 2017 is based on the notorious video of Donald Trump and Billy Bush engaged in so-called “locker room talk” in 2005. The remarks made by the future President of the United States are seen in white letters on a blue background. The letters disperse before reconfiguring into a series of Tweets describing experiences of sexual assault. Since each of these statements must be reconstituted from Trump’s own, some letters are missing. What role do these “gaps” play in the work?
One way we’ve been taught to tell a lie from the truth is to look for the inconsistencies and gaps within a story—will the story or testimony survive cross-examination, etc? This presupposes an unproblematic relationship within our means of representation and experience. The gap is something inherent – there from the beginning—I don’t see it as a corruption or foreign element. In the work, the gap becomes manifest, an image, something constantly forcing approximations and creative workarounds.
Social media is increasingly being used as a space to speak out against racial and sexual injustice with the hashtags #NotOkay and #SayHerName and the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation. How helpful do you find these forums, in your work and in general?
Just like everything else, I have mixed feelings about them. I started reading online journals around 2004 when blogging became very popular. I still regularly spend a lot of time reading through people’s stories, conversations, reactions and responses on social media. I am fascinated by the wealth of stories afforded by the ease and anonymity offered by social media platforms. I look for the repetitions and randomness that offer a glimpse of collective human desires and emotions on a scale that I still can’t really comprehend. With #NotOkay, it was moving and horrifying to read through thousands of tweets all too familiar and surreal at the same time. With the election, the feeling became all the more helpless and depressing—how was it possible for thousands of these stories to not carry more weight? Is it possible that the fate of all these testimonies was to end up as traffic or data—something to be moved and sold – disappearing from public view as soon as a particular hashtag stopped trending? I wanted this work to be a public monument to memorialize a collective outrage and anger that I feel very much part of. But I also wanted it to manifest the cyclical oscillations between outrage and silence.
As Through the Gaps between My Teeth demonstrates, the personal testimonies that populate your work have assumed political urgency in the current climate. How do you see your work developing in the near future?
Current political events and dialogs cut across my personal life more than ever. As an artist, educator, woman, immigrant and person of color, pretty much every public identity I assume in this country seems to be under some kind of systemic attack. One thing I am doing in my work these days rather deliberately is trying to be less refined and more direct and raw. This doesn't necessarily mean that my work will take on more overt or explicit references to current political events. I try to stay receptive to multiple modes of critique and confrontation within my practice. I want my work to assume an urgency as if it only makes sense for it to exist now, which also may mean that the gap between work and life could become ever wider as the work ages. I switched from painting to video and new media because I wanted to resolve the gaping distance between painting and life. While I still struggle with similar kinds of distance even in my current medium - although different in many ways - as I lift the fragments of life and assemble them into a new context, I also realize that this undulating gap is where I want to be.