Zooming Out

Travis Jeppesen on the Josh Kline virtual walk-through at Various Small Fires

VSF assistant director Somin Jeon showing disinfectants to the Zoom audience. All photos: VSF.

WHO KNEW 2020 WOULD END UP THIS WAY, with someone asking me to stare at American flags on my laptop screen and write about it for Artforum? But that’s precisely what I’m doing on day thirteen of my fortnight of mandatory home quarantine in Shanghai, having recently returned from a post-Wuhan COVID-19 evasion tour. It’s eight o’clock in the morning: I’m wiping sleep out of my eyes with my hand-sanitized fingers and pouring gratuitous amounts of black coffee down my throat, keeping an ear out for the body-condom-ensheathed volunteer from my neighborhood committee who bangs on my door twice a day to take my temperature, all while watching Various Small Fires director Esther Kim Varet in Los Angeles introduce new Josh Kline sculptures at the gallery’s Seoul outpost. It’s a virtual shebang for press, most of whom appear to be stateside, where it’s still nighttime and where self-isolation is recommended, requested, begged for, rather than enforced under the conditions of surveillance that are currently China’s specialty but will likely soon be exported to the rest of the world.

Varet declares at the outset that she hopes to treat this more like a seminar than a walk-through. I hear in her words the same optimism I effused two weeks prior on my own Zoom debut, as I presented an introductory lecture to my class at Shanghai Jiaotong University. Blame the technology, the times we’re living in, or both—my students have been rather less than responsive. I’m not really seeing them, they’re not really seeing me; the software doesn’t give us a new experience so much as reinforce the inauthenticity of the encounter, effectively reminding us of the depressing reasons why we now have been given no choice but to rely on it. They feel like they’re missing out, and in truth, we all are.

Anyway, it would be great if this all led, if not to the downfall of capitalism, then to us smashing all the screens we permanently surround ourselves with and re-creating some semblance of a real life. I don’t see that happening, though. Ironically, screens are the totemic appendage upon which Kline’s flags have been emblazoned. The show, “Alternative Facts,” which was set to open that night in Hannam-dong—“the Beverly Hills of Korea,” per VSF assistant director Somin Jeon—consists of six wall sculptures cast from LG and Samsung flat-screens with Old Glory wrapped around them in various configurations and encrustations.

Screenshot of walk-through of “Alternative Facts” by Josh Kline at VSF Seoul as seen through Zoom on Friday, April 10, 2020.

“There’s really dirt in there,” notes VSF senior director Sara Hantman. She’s diagnosing the brown stains smeared into the white stripes on Reality Television 12, 2020. On Reality Television 16, 2020, the spatter is white and viscous. In Fox and Friends 5, 2020, the red has been removed from the flag—actually all colors, save for a single stripe of cerulean, the rest of the flag reduced to black-and-white shapes. (Apparently, another work has been assigned the title Blue Lives Matter, though it is hard to tell which one it is when you’re not in control of the camera’s movements and trying to keep up with what everyone’s saying.)

The somewhat predictable moment arrives when the Tactility Question must be broached; suddenly, the entire art world finds itself in the same predicament as the small-town art history professor lecturing from slides. “Are they heavy? Are they waxy?” Varet cues Jeon, the sole member of the staff in Seoul this morning. The sculptures, we come to learn, are not made up of actual televisions; rather, they are casts, their details encased in the resin. “Can you maybe bring the camera around, so that we can see the wall mounts? The sculptures from behind?”

Screenshot of walk-through of “Alternative Facts” by Josh Kline at VSF Seoul as seen through Zoom on Friday, April 10, 2020.

When the artist and gallerist were discussing the exhibition, Kline asked Jeon what she thought Koreans might like to see. “Koreans are very nationalist,” she told him. At the vast majority of press conferences she had attended in Korea, the press always wanted to know in what ways the work was “for” Koreans. Of course, South Korea’s national identity has long been intertwined with that of the United States, as it was the US that played a major role in developing the country’s political and economic systems in the aftermath of the Korean War (whereas Soviet Russia did the same for North Korea).

It’s impossible for me to say much about these as works of art when I can’t stand in front of them. This is why I’ve been asked to write a diary. From in front of my screen, I can tell you that the symbolism is clear enough—the US flag emblazoned on electronic products from two corporations whose names alone convey the Korean Dream having come true—and, along with the sardonic references to contemporary right-wing America in the titles, perhaps a shade unsubtle. Not that subtleties could even be appreciated from my domestic perch. For as much as I wish I could conclude that there was some redeeming feature about viewing three-dimensional objects through a screen, there really isn’t.

If there’s any good news, it’s that life has mostly returned to normal in Korea, even though it sucks right now in most other places. I ask if there’s going to be an “actual” opening for the exhibition in Seoul. Jeon assures me there will be—in the form of a pizza party. “In Korea, we say if you drink a lot of alcohol, it sanitizes you from the inside out. So we’ll be serving sparkling wine at the opening.”

That’s one safety precaution I hadn’t thought of before, and, though early enough in Shanghai, it’s still not too late to try.