Los Angeles

Young Joo Lee, Paradise Limited, 2017, three-channel digital video, color, sound, 17 minutes.

Young Joo Lee, Paradise Limited, 2017, three-channel digital video, color, sound, 17 minutes.

Young Joo Lee

Paradise Limited, 2017, was the showstopper of Young Joo Lee’s recent exhibition. The three-channel animation dramatizes the sociopolitical tensions in the demilitarized zone separating North Korea and South Korea, informed by the artist’s research and interviews there. Lee’s approach to animation could be placed somewhere between Shahzia Sikander’s playful and sometimes acidic riffs on Indian and Persian miniature paintings and William Kentridge’s airless, political morality plays. Referencing Korean landscape scroll paintings (in fact, the video’s attendant eighty-two-foot scroll, In Search of the Lost Tiger [Paradise Limited], 2016, was shown nearby in its own special display unit), Paradise Limited’s narrative unfurls slowly and deliberately, ultimately spinning into a more allegorical yarn. Two warring groups, separated by a central channel, behave like enantiomorphs—mirrors of one another. Their insignia and symbology are essentially the same, but with inverted black and white colorways. Such equalizing within the symbolic terrain of conflict—“See the other? They’re simply us, backward!”—eliminates any need for Lee to more specifically address the knotty asymmetries that exist for North and South Koreans, ensuring that her video speaks to a wider spectrum of political attachments.

A fog pervades. In Lee’s video, haziness is both a natural phenomenon and a product of opposing leaders’ smoking habits. Its cover alternately conceals and exposes minor dramas: a tiger, a woman, a footman moving slowly beyond the barbed-wire fencing. Later, the scenery shifts from guard towers and spartan military interiors to a lusher, wilder locale. Representatives of the two peoples wade naked into a large pool and are revealed to be female. They gather together in a ritual wherein longtime enemies meld together, transforming into something altogether new—a plant/human hybrid whose bulbous, tentacular, fleshy extensions may represent outgrowths of the lives and attendant dreams that war inevitably stunts. Noticing that the surrounding forest is densely populated with such anthro-dendrites, the viewer is witness to the lasting changes that conflict wreaks on the landscape. Elsewhere in the exhibition, small renditions of these organisms were placed on plinths like diminutive Surrealist sculptures. No longer terrifying or awe-inspiring, they appeared twee and pathetic, filled with pathos.

Melting Point, 2018, a sculpture of two disembodied cast-aluminum hands holding a gun made of chocolate, conceptually connected Paradise Limited with many of the other works on display and suggested via its dynamic material interplay an intrinsic bond between violence and consumption. For example, Song from Sushi, 2016—a willfully awkward music video in which Lee pretends to be pieces of conveyor-belt sushi—functioned as a primer for bell hooks’s essay “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” The viewer is reminded that, when ensconced in white or Western hegemony, the quotidian activities of desire (such as eating or fucking) are not necessarily psychically distinct from the capturing, owning, and consuming of a racialized other. Misrecognition is a key component of the declaratives that pepper Lee’s lyrics (rendered in gloriously kitschy karaoke subtitles): MY PUSSY TASTES LIKE THE EASTERN SEA / I TELL YOU I AM FAKE / I AM NOT FROM THAT FAR AWAY. A related watercolor (Sushi Woman, 2016), in which titanic chopsticks grab a prone, naked woman lying facedown on a bed of greens, made the same point, albeit in a more ham-fisted way. This exposed a minor deficiency in Lee’s show—not all the works on paper exhibited here were needed in this installation. Some had the look of failed studio experiments, or of ideas glimpsed only on the periphery. Three Pairs of Eyes and Fibrous Thoughts, for example, didn’t have the snap of, say, Father’s Tree, all 2017, a watercolor of a woman chopping down a tree that leaks blood in grim response. The brutality required of Lee’s protagonist to keep hacking despite all indications of fleshly suffering aligns with the animating force of the carefully calculated Paradise Limited. New wounds, old grievances.