Jewyo Rhii, Moving Floor, 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Jewyo Rhii, Moving Floor, 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Jewyo Rhii

Jewyo Rhii, Moving Floor, 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Another version of Jewyo Rhii’s solo exhibition “Night Studio,” curated by Sunjung Kim, was previously on view at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, and the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt under the title “Walls to Talk to.” The exhibition’s tour began in January 2013, but the journey behind the work began back in 2008, when the artist moved into an apartment on a market street in Itaewon, one of Seoul’s hippest commercial districts. Most of the twenty-two objects and fifteen installations on display were produced in this apartment during the nearly three years that she lived there and seen only by a few invited visitors. And this intimate environment continues to dictate the conditions of their display; Rhii not only transported the works to the three venues but also transformed the spaces to reproduce the layout of her apartment as closely as possible, since all of the works were a direct response to what she felt and experienced there.

Curiously, the Itaewon apartment was Rhii’s first permanent address in almost two decades. Since becoming a full-time artist, she had been drifting around the world to participate in artist-residency programs or to prepare for exhibitions. She had to make a living by “residing” as an artist in foreign countries, since a young practitioner with no sales income could never find an affordable place to live and work in Seoul. Indeed, when she eventually moved to Itaewon in 2008, it quickly became apparent that she had chosen the wrong place. Her apartment was located in a narrow alley, far from the fancy restaurants and storefronts on the main street, but home to a cheap market for migrant laborers. At night, the entire neighborhood sank into total silence, except for the rare sound of a street fight. No one in the neighborhood seemed shocked by these incidents, except for the newcomer. Fence, 2010, which stood at the entrance of the exhibition, was the actual fence that she installed in her window to scare off would-be intruders. A wooden frame, sharp metal coils, steel bars, and three cactus pots manifest the unease that Rhii felt in her new home.

Fish Peddler, 2010, is one of her handmade typewriters, each constructed in such a way that it can type only one specific narrative, since its keys are actually an array of word stamps that leave their imprints on the wall facing the apparatus. Rhii calls them “storytelling machines,” and with them she could “talk to the wall” in the middle of her sleepless nights. Fish Peddler describes an encounter Rhii had with a street vendor who woke her up every morning by crying out the catch of the day. Rhii begged the peddler to stop shouting for the sake of her sanity, but he replied that it was necessary for the sake of his business. Hence, the story told by Rhii’s typewriter expresses the irony of life, in which one person’s survival comes at the cost of someone else’s peace of mind.

Fish Peddler works by pressing word stamps onto the wall, but the keys are creaky, the stamps fragile, the letters easily smudged, and the words fragmentary. Thus, the physical presence of the story on the wall embodies the anxiety, weakness, and helplessness the artist felt when attempting to confront the world that surrounded her. Similar sensations are aroused by Moving Floor, 2013, in which several floorboards are raised a few inches off the ground, while others have little wheels beneath so that they wobble and squeak under visitors’ feet. This shaky ground forces spectators to take great care with every step, as they share for a moment the anxiety and trepidation that has motivated so much of Rhii’s own artistic production.

Jung-Ah Woo