Düsseldorf

siren eun young jung, A Performing by Flash, Afterimage, Velocity, and Noise, 2019, three-channel HD video projection, color, sound, 27 minutes 36 seconds. Installation view.

siren eun young jung, A Performing by Flash, Afterimage, Velocity, and Noise, 2019, three-channel HD video projection, color, sound, 27 minutes 36 seconds. Installation view.

siren eun young jung

Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen

It all started with a photograph of a wedding party. There was nothing unusual about the scene at first glance: the bride and groom, the family. . . . Yet as South Korean artist siren eun young jung examined the picture more closely, it gradually dawned on her that the people depicted in it were all women, including those whom one might initially have thought were men. They were members of a troupe of performers of yeoseong gukgeuk, a variant of traditional Korean opera sung exclusively by women. Established in South Korea in the 1940s, the art form remained popular until the 1960s. Delving into its history, jung found herself enchanted. She met surviving participants, dug up historic footage, conducted interviews, and supplemented the material she had gathered with excerpts from a musical starring Korean drag king Azangman. The resulting works make up her ongoing “Yeoseong Gukgeuk Project,” 2008–, which was also the starting point for her recent exhibition “Deferral Theater.” The videos on view showed, for instance, actress Lee Ok Chun’s transformation into a man in the makeup room and nonagenarian Lee Soja—who acted in male roles throughout her career—commenting on her life and struggles. More than just documentaries, they are dramatic works in their own right.

Yeoseong gukgeuk has its roots in the Korean musical storytelling genre of pansori, which boasts a long tradition of subversion vis-à-vis social hierarchies. By performing the parts of men, women established a distance from time-honored gender roles and made a critical perspective possible through a kind of alienation effect. And so jung rightly asks: “What are the implications of the discussion surrounding yeoseong gukgeuk and its potential to be considered in the position of a ‘contemporary’ performance?”

Jung took the inquiry into gender roles further in the three-channel audiovisual installation A Performing by Flash, Afterimage, Velocity, and Noise, 2019, with which she represented Korea at that year’s Venice Biennale. Again featuring Azangman, as well as transgender electronic musician Kirara; lesbian actress Yii Lee; and Seo Ji Won, who leads a Seoul-based disabled women’s theater group, it probes the question, prominently raised by Judith Butler, of the performative nature of gender—and other—roles. Accentuated by lighting and sound effects, the projection makes a rousing case for a community life founded on the celebration of difference.

Yeoseong gukgeuk fell victim to the “modernization” of Korean society pushed through by Park Chung-hee’s military government in the 1960s. An “audience that had already become part of modernity that sought after ‘Western’ values as its ideal,” the artist notes, saw this type of theatrical performance as outmoded. Her assertion points to another dimension of this outstanding project: In deeply moving images, jung champions not only a diversity of gender expressions, but also another kind of diversity, that of the manifold cultural traditions threatened by today’s Western-dominated globalization.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.