Jesse Chun

Jesse Chun on lunar colonization and “unlanguaging” empire

 Jesse Chun, SULLAE 술래, 2020, three-channel video, color, sound, 6 minutes 25 seconds.

A New York­­–based artist who has previously lived in Hong Kong, South Korea, and Canada, Jesse Chun studies the way language—especially English—shapes cultural experience. From the tedium of bureaucratic boilerplate to the social attitudes embedded in the ESL curriculum, Chun manipulates the tools of English-language pedagogy and officialdom to expose the linguistic imperialism of this so-called common tongue. In the past, she has used children’s alphabet toys as molds for silicone and graphite sculptures, creating abstract, illegible forms. Other bodies of work build a visual lexicon from the watermarks and seals from government documents, which she strategically repeats, reconfigures, and erases. For “SULLAE 술래,” her upcoming solo exhibition at the Yeh Art Gallery at St. John’s University in Jamaica, Queens, she has created a body of work based on Ganggangsullae, the traditional Korean women’s full-moon dance. The show will be on view from September 10­­ to November 23, and its eponymous single-channel video will also premiere on MOCA Toronto online (curated by Daisy Desrosiers) from September 1 to 15. Here, Chun discusses the poetics of “unlanguaging” and the link between colonial expansion and the moon.

OVER THE YEARS, I’ve been making work about systems of language and legibility. As somebody who navigates between languages in my own life and is trying to always locate myself, I came across this term called “languaging” in Rey Chow’s book Not Like a Native Speaker (2014). If language is a fixed state, “languaging” is a shift to an ongoing, open-ended production of meaning. My artmaking process is a form of languaging, but over the last few months, I started thinking about the idea of productivity as a core product of the colonial agenda. I wanted to work with language in a way where I can open it up and see what’s there, whether it’s open wounds or systems. Can I open it up and dispossess it, rather than trying to produce? I saw unlanguaging as a form of claiming that space, whether it’s opacity or the untranslatable.  

My new video, SULLAE 술래, is based on the Ganggangsullae, a traditional Korean women’s moon dance. My grandma was a traditional Korean dancer, so I remember her singing the chorus. What’s beautiful about this dance is that it’s communal, and circular rather than linear. Historically the dance has been known as an opportunity to unleash anger—silenced anger.

Sound has become a big part of my work in the last few years. With this video, I’m engaging with mistranslation and abstraction. When we think about language, there are obviously words and systems, but also there’s also the materiality of speech. The sounds in this video are all taken from YouTube tutorials of how to pronounce English correctly. The soundscape I made is technically still English, because it’s just voiceless and voiced consonants that I’m putting together. Taking the sound apart but still keeping it within the conceptual framework of English made me think about what else is embedded in making a language. English is tied up with legacies of imperialism; there’s so much unseen violence that is part of how this language is institutionalized.

View of “SULLAE 술래,” 2020.

I use pages from the index of an intonation workbook in the video, which includes entries on “raspy” and “breathy” voices. I saw those qualities as the aftermath or texture of voicing oneself. It suggests a relationship to the body, too. Oftentimes bureaucratic structures render somebody as an object without regard for their interiority as a human being. It’s just who you are on paper. I was interested in really capturing those interior or corporeal qualities.

Over the years I’ve been thinking about the surveillance aspect of the English language. It’s supposed to be the common global language, the translator between cultures and bureaucracies. I wanted to play with that kind of formal circularity but also think about this idea of reflection. In my sculpture new moons, 2020, I’m hanging crescent-shaped security mirrors at incorrect heights and angles and pairing them with graphite drawings of their shadows. These mirrors are typically installed from the ceiling, but I’m putting them at eye level. Through this shift in position and context, the mirror became an art object. I hope that might remove or at least reposition its power.

I’ve also been researching the history of the idea of colonizing the moon. Late last year, Trump established the Space Force as an independent military branch and, just a few months ago, signed an executive order encouraging the mining of lunar resources. I found this interesting because the UN ratified a protective treaty in the ’60s to prevent governments from making sovereign claims to outer space. The moon is an astronomical body that’s loaded with poetic meaning for so many people. I feel its cosmic energy, and there’s a lot of Korean folklore about it. But when I look up at it to feel comforted or to find solace, I’m reminded of colonial violence and an agenda that’s projected onto it. In that way, the moon also reflected how I see language.