Seoul

Young Joon Kwak, Burn Slow, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 8 minutes 20 seconds.

Young Joon Kwak, Burn Slow, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 8 minutes 20 seconds.

Sara Sejin Chang (Sara van der Heide) and Young Joon Kwak

Raise a hat to curator Angela Jeeyoung Chun for taking on not one but two charged topics in this heartening exhibition—at a government-affiliated institution, no less—which was effectively a pair of solo shows. In one, South Korean-born Dutch artist Sara Sejin Chang (Sara van der Heide) delivered an unflinching look at coerced transnational adoptions. In the other, Korean American Young Joon Kwak staged a queer fantasia, a panegyric to hybrid identities. Titled “All About Love,” after the 1999 bell hooks book, the two-person exhibition amounted to a master class in intimacy and trust.

Chang presented an installation of her Mother Mountain Institute, 2017–, through which she has been documenting the trauma wrought by the international adoption industry. Such adoptions remain a fraught subject in South Korea; more than two hundred thousand children have been sent abroad since the war, nearly seventy years ago. Voices read harrowing monologues collected by the artist from mothers separated from their children: one in Bangladesh, who believed that she was sending her son to a boarding school, and one in South Korea, who was pressured to give up her daughter. “Apart from her clothes, there was no trace of her,” the Korean mother said. “I was in so much pain. Everywhere. Every day.” Overhead, a model sun and moon rotated around one another: a mother and child, never meeting.

Chang’s thirty-three-minute film from 2017, Brussels, 2016, addresses her birth mother, whom she has not been able to locate. “Soon I’m turning forty and I would like to show you how I live,” she says in Dutch, explaining that she can’t speak Korean. Shots of life in the city around the time of the 2016 Brussels Airport bombing flutter by as she talks about the Roma people and Syrian refugees living in a tunnel near Wiels Contemporary Art Centre, where she is in residence. She tells her absent mother about her girlfriend, something that she says a fellow Korean adoptee who reunited with her own mother has not felt comfortable sharing. We see a DJ workshop at a feminist space and children learning about beekeeping. The film is a tender, casual, even pleasantly mundane essay on how we understand ourselves amid various communities at workaday moments.

A similar quotidian sensibility, tinged with languor, permeates Kwak’s three-channel, fourteen-minute Slow Dance, 2013, made in collaboration with Christopher Richmond, as a female-presenting figure in stockings, a waist cincher, and a bra lounges in a stuffy living space in some decade long ago. The person looks a bit tired and a bit discomfited but also relaxed, at home in their head if not in their surroundings. In about a dozen charismatic sculptures, Kwak conjured abstracted bodies via resin, rhinestones, and wax, sometimes nodding to gender-blurring statuary of the ancient Mediterranean: Imagine Alina Szapocznikow at a very fun discotheque. The kitschy bedazzled Buxom Sparty Breastplate, 2021, gives breasts and a crotch bulge to the torso of the Michigan State University mascot; Surveillance Mirror Vaginis III, 2020, is a huge vulva in black resin with a hemispherical mirror at its center, turning viewers’ gazes back on themselves.

At a time when Pride events in South Korea are met with substantial protests, and following an incident in which a member of the new president’s cabinet termed homosexuality “a type of mental disease” (he resigned thereafter), Kwak’s art exemplifies celebratory defiance, the presentation of one’s most expansive self. In a mesmerizing short video made with Richmond, Burn Slow, 2015, Kwak’s drag persona, Xina Xurner, with long white hair, inexplicably caked in mud, undergoes some otherworldly cathartic metamorphosis. One of her forearms appears to be on fire, and while we cannot hear her, the flame looks painful. She is screaming, and she is having the time of her life.