Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 16, 2022
Jane Jin Kaisen: Parallax Conjunctures
Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, November 5, 2021–January 30, 2022
Jane Jin Kaisen: Parallax Conjunctures, installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 2021 (photograph by Clare Gatto)

Jane Jin Kaisen: Parallax Conjunctures, the first solo exhibition in the United States by the South Korean–born visual artist and filmmaker (Danish, b. 1980), presented three media works that uncover repressed histories of postwar Korea and its diaspora. Two video installations, The Woman, the Orphan, and the Tiger (2010) and Sweeping the Forest Floor (2020), were presented on either side of the exhibition hall, and a photographic installation Apertures | Specters | Rifts (2016) was mounted in the center. Comprising an array of various historical references, political innuendos, and temporalities spanning the past hundred years, each work crafted a narrative that was both linear and porous. If it was the linearity that did the expected work of amplifying the global margins by situating overlooked subjects of Korea and its diaspora within the broader timeline of global postwar histories, it was the porosity that demanded the works’ newfound relevance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit here and now.

The centerpiece of the exhibition was the hour-long film The Woman, the Orphan, and the Tiger. (According to the artist, the tiger refers to the Myth of Dangun, the creation myth of Korea’s first kingdom Gojoseon, which stretched from 2,333–108 BCE; in this myth a tiger was denied citizenship in the newly founded nation-state for not being able to become fully human.) Using archival footage, interviews, and staged performances, the work weaves together three strands of histories that have been actively suppressed from the public memory of the Korean diaspora. One is from the survivors and victims of sexual enslavement, known as “comfort women” (wianbu), by the Imperial Japanese Army during the 1930s. Another is from the sex workers who have often been forced to serve American GIs in camp towns near US military bases (gijichon) since the end of the Korean War. The third strand pertains to the female adoptees who have been subject to transnational adoption between South Korea, the United States, and Denmark from the 1950s to the present. With each strand of history crisscrossing the others, the three narratives construct a collective history of women, orphans, and tigers, all subject to what I am inclined to call the “global military-sexual-industrial complex”: an imbricated system of domination grounded in military and gendered violence. This complex forced over 200,000 young women from South Korea, Taiwan, Cambodia, Myanmar, and the Philippines into sexual-military enslavement in the 1930s, pushed as many as 22,000 women into prostitution in the 1960s in the name of earning US dollars, and also gave rise to the foreign adoption of approximately 167,000 South Korean children since 1958.

Despite showing how each individual is entangled with the geopolitics and sexual abuse of the region it explores, The Woman, the Orphan, and the Tiger never clearly asserts a particular agenda. The force of its evocative images, however palpable, does not cohere into a unified narrative. Sights and sounds are mismatched, with distant scenes of Koreatown in Los Angeles, the wilderness of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and Incheon International Airport canceling out the charged testimonies of trauma and displacement. Within the streamlined progression of a feature film, the transition from one history to another is far from seamless, with unexpected pauses and liberal jump cuts among different scenes. There are also ample moments in which fragments are put into conflict and left unresolved. Some sequences frame Korean sex workers in gijichon as uneasily caught between forced labor and hopes for the “American Dream” achieved through illicit romance. Another sequence replaces a barbed-wire fence at the North and South Korean border with the sign of an intensive English camp (“English Village”) in the vicinity. This combination reveals a landscape marked by contradictions between South Korea’s anti-US sentiment and its nationwide craze for learning English, itself aided by the children adopted and raised in the US who return to their “homeland” as English teachers.

Kaisen’s aesthetic of the fragmentary was also witnessed in her 2016 work Apertures | Specters | Rifts. The photographic installation housed thirty-six photographs in three aligned wood-and-glass cabinets that emanated red light. The photographs were derived from two separate archives: The first group were drawn from Fra Nord Korea: Indtryk fra en Rejse til Verdens Ende (From North Korea: Impressions from the End of the World; 1952), published by the Danish journalist and activist Kate Fleron after her visit to North Korea in May 1951 as a representative of the Women’s International Democratic Federation. The other images came from Kaisen’s own archive of photographs taken in 2015 when she visited North Korea as a delegate of the international advocacy group Women Cross DMZ (WCDMZ). All digitally printed in black and white and laid out without a specific order, the photos offered repeating cycles of anonymous congregations of women, pastoral landscapes, and timeless monuments. In order to make sense of the narrative within this unidentifiable mix, viewers would have had to search for minute traces of time and space—noises, sharpness, torn edges—while fighting against the blinding red light that made it challenging to look closely at any one photograph. Bearing myriad associations with sex, motels, neon signs of red-light districts, blood, North Korea, and Communist ideologies, the red evoked a system of military and gendered violence not unlike that explored in The Woman, the Orphan, and the Tiger, while also forbidding viewers’ attempts at close looking to fill in the missing links. 

If the lack of closure was woven into both The Woman, the Orphan, and the Tiger and Apertures | Specters | Rifts, the last work in the show, Sweeping the Forest Floor, was arguably the most linear yet the least conclusive of the triad. Accompanied in the exhibition by the red light of Kaisen’s photo installation emanating in the background, Sweeping the Forest Floor is a twenty-five-minute-long video that shows an uninterrupted view of the DMZ’s grass-covered ground. The video consists of a single take: shot from a camera directly mounted on a land-mine detector, the footage documents the journey of identifying and clearing away mines buried by the South Korean and US joint forces. A precarious site of military and civilian casualties, the DMZ is also ironically a site of wilderness. Despite the threat of potential explosion, the camera’s focus remains on the repetitive, almost tedious, routine of peace activists sifting through the bushes and shrubs previously untouched. The ongoing militarization of the border thus is couched within an aestheticized scene of foraging in the ecological reserve. As both a contentious border and also one of Korea’s best-preserved ecosystems, the DMZ in Sweeping the Forest Floor bears an alarming sense of poeticism.

Parallax Conjunctures proposed an imperative to rearticulate the works’ relevance in 2022. Hardly a year has passed since the tragic murder of Asian massage-parlor workers in Atlanta, Georgia. Despite ongoing Anti-Asian racism, the racialized labor of Asian women, and gender-based violence against migrant sex workers, what we have witnessed in the past year is the cursory mention of histories of violence as a “tragic event” and the ebb and flow of the discussion of such histories in ways that are sporadic at best. We also have witnessed seeds of schism, including attempts at qualifying anti-Asian violence with the discourses of “model minority,” “complicity,” or “honorary white,” or the anti-Blackness that surfaces among non-Black people of color. In this sense, it is hardly a coincidence that the works in Parallax Conjunctures—particularly The Woman, the Orphan, and the Tiger, made over a decade ago—refuse to remain in the past but demand to reverberate in the here and now.

Soyoon Ryu
PhD candidate, Department of the History of Art, University of Michigan