Trailing the Defensive Shell
Interviewed by Megan Solis
Eunhyung Chung’s performances confront the emotionality of loss. They have been a method and a practice for confronting grief. In an interview with the artist I discuss with her how she considers these situations and how her sculptures aid in this vulnerable shedding of the shells of defense.
Megan Solis: I wanted to begin the interview by talking about your artist statement because it was the first item that I read and considered as I researched your work. The statement seems to be a personal admission that I think sets the tone for the way you talk about your practice. It’s almost as if I am reading an entry from your private diary. The intimacy in which you navigate is apparent. Is that fair to say? Have you updated your thoughts on this statement?
Eunhyung Chung: At first, I didn’t like the expression “private diary” because it made me feel like I am a frog in a well, but I cannot deny that all of my works are based on my emotions and my thoughts. When artists discuss their own narratives, others can be emotionally moved because they connect to the artist’s genuine concerns, thoughts and interests. Although my work starts from my own private story, it doesn’t just end with me. For instance, there are possibilities that my practice could speak for Korean people with similar educational experiences. For me, I know I always wanted to be a good student, a good daughter, and a good person. I thought pleasing others was the most important thing and was always in a hurry to groom and trim myself to look better. In contrast, art was the only thing that enabled me to be honest and confront my true self. That may be why I try to focus on my true, genuine feelings and thoughts which could be seen as private.
To answer the question about my statement, I haven’t updated my thoughts yet. I am still navigating what my art is, so I have to be careful about defining too much of a structure. However, it is evident that there are things to be added such as how humor functions in my work. I think this summer break away from the RISD program would be the perfect time for me to look back on my work and my thoughts.
MS: I was looking back at images of your performances from this year, and I found numerous moments of candid acts of emotion that are captured from its documentation, whether this is surprise, curiosity, bemusement, or trepidation. What was your own response with those ranges of reactions?
EC: I like to see my works with children. They are curious about everything, pure and innocent. Before we were adults, we were all children. We had big dreams no matter how unrealistic or ambitious they were. However, as we grow up, we slowly forget those precious things. I don’t think children will understand the nuances of my work, but the contrast between children whose lives are full of new and interesting things crossing over between a dull monotony that can been seen in my work, are moments I enjoy. Adults change over time and we lose a children’s curiosity. Seeing children’s pureness interact with my work evokes pity and sadness. But there is also an absurdity, so sometimes it ends up in misunderstanding or just in a humorous situation.
I am not necessarily interested in whether my work is successful or not, or on people understand my work properly. It is difficult to truly know what it’s like to be in another's shoes. We listen to others’ worries of pain, and even when we are all ears and take them as if they were our own business, we still turn around and get back to our own lives and forget about them as if nothing happened. I want to embrace this aspect of humanity that can be indifferent or even selfish.
Thus, I will work harder so that people can understand the struggle in a humorous situation, but at the same time, I would like to leave the door open for the possibilities of misunderstanding.
MS: Thinking of emotionality, your sculptures seem to be crossing a point of both a defensive shell, yet poignant vulnerability. What are your thoughts on these descriptions?
EC: I like your view of my sculpture as a defensive shell. Since I tend to care a lot about others’ gaze, I didn’t want my body to be exposed. When I was out of my body, I could eventually free myself from others’ judgement and social restrictions. I found something interesting in that I kept hiding my identity as a woman. I had thought a human could be a neutral man. As you said, my sculpture was armor or a shell to hide and free myself from the other’s gaze.
It is very satisfying to me when a human’s anxiety or “poignant vulnerability” is revealed through the performance. I remember one viewer told me that when I finally removed myself from the costume by pushing the top half of the sculpture off of my body, she was touched by the steam that was released. I think that was the best moment in this performance because it enabled the audience to connect and sympathize with my struggle and anxiety, rather than just the humor.
MS: In another performative sculpture, Normative Landscape 3, you describe the form: “A bug which possesses two eyes on each side connotes a person who cannot see ahead due to the caring of what others think.” Does this relate to your most recent performance, One who Cannot Live in the Present (Stability)? Why, or why not?
EC: You are such a keen observer to have noticed the similarities. Yes, I think they are closely related to each other in two aspects. Firstly, the shape of their heads equates the loss of direction and disorientation. Both of them cannot look straight forward since their vision is blocked or restricted. I wanted to talk about people who could never be satisfied with their current condition and cannot live in the present. Secondly, there are similarities in colors. Both of them are grey which represents boredom, heaviness and lethargy. As the yellow safety lines appeared in my previous work Normative Landscape 3, they became a starting point and destination. The first performance of One who Cannot Live in the Present was at The Wurks gallery in Providence, Rhode Island. When I was placing my work, I wanted to install my piece at the entrance which was surrounded by the yellow lines. And you can see the lines again in the performance that I did in front of the financial center. The reason I insisted this was that through these yellow lines, I wanted to show our ambivalent feelings about wanting to be in the secure bubble while craving for change and challenge.
MS: You seem to play with the environments surrounding your performances. Are there certain contexts in which you like to see your work?
EC: When I was thinking of this performance, the first place that came to my mind was Wall Street in New York, full of office workers in suits. I thought the street where the companies are concentrated would be a suitable place where most people have their clear destinations and are always in a hurry. I imagined that if I see my creature in busy crowds who don’t have much time to look back on themselves, my struggling, slowness and disorientation would be seen more clearly in contrast with them. And although it will be very difficult, I would like to see future iterations of the performance for a longer duration in different conditions; for instance, sunrise, sunset, rain, cloud or snow. However, wherever it is displayed, ideally, I would like to perform in the costume rather than show documentation of the performance.Eunhyung Chung and Jen Thornton, High Tide, 2018, Courtesy of the Artist, Installation photos
MS: I am interested in the evolution of your material choices. For instance, in the site installation at Fort Adams, in your collaboration with Jen Thornton, there is an ethereal use of impermanent elements. With this newest piece you are building from your own body with heavy cement. Even though the inside is built with foam, the object's apparent denseness sets up something different for the viewer. Could you talk more about these decisions?
EC: I usually use fragile materials that change with time, rather than working with specific materials. In this work High Tide, my partner Jen and I chose this light and translucent fabric because we wanted to create a “sea” that was constantly changing over time. In the recent performative sculptures, I used cement as the main material. Although its external appearance seems sturdy and strong, I had to fix my costume every time I performed because my arms, legs and body would break when I moved intensely and when it hit obstacles on the street. The parts that I repaired were still wet, which animated the creature with emotions. So eventually, through my struggle to move in the heavy cement, I wanted to show weak individuals who are seeking change and challenge in the stability that has been stiffened like a stone.
When I look at my portfolio, it is hard to tell if it is one artist’s work. Some of them seem inconsistent and distracting. It is because when I make my work, I do not keep my style in mind, but the ideas come naturally. This might seem like an amateur who has not yet found one’s color as an artist, but I still do not want to force myself to fit into certain boundaries. I keep working, knowing that my style will be found in my work by itself naturally.
MS: When you think about your plans for future performances or object making, do you have a set structure or rhythm that you have noticed in the studio?
EC: For me, it takes a really long time to come up with new ideas. I don’t think I am a born artist. When I am too happy, I have no ideas at all. This might sound strange, but I tend to put myself in a sad and depressing situation to help with my process in the studio. When I want to release myself of this, I will try to move my hands or body. (This is a very helpful habit when I want to get out of the endless negative feelings of helplessness, frustration, and depression.)
I will scribble in my sketchbook and try to get out of my daily life, to be inspired from outside new experiences as much as I can. If I come up with some satisfying ideas, I always have a chance to talk to close people that I trust. Since I feel some of my works are childlike, it is difficult to see my decisions objectively. I have also noticed because of this that any advice I receive is very encouraging to me.
MS: Can you describe your internal thoughts while you are inside your sculpture?
EC: I would like to say thank you for your interest in things that are not visible. My work begins only after I have finished making the object. Making is always fun and exciting, but doing the performances takes a lot of courage and mental strength. Moreover, a performance for an introverted person like me is always a challenge. I admit that I at times hesitate to perform because it demands stepping outside of my comfort zone.. I often feel skeptical while performing. I ask myself questions such as, “Why am I being so harsh on myself?”, “Is this really what I want?” and “What am I pursuing through this meaningless act?”.
Sometimes these thoughts drive me over the edge. “It’s all about happiness, but am I really happy?” “Can I really overcome my sorrow and comfort those who have similar worries through this performance?” These thoughts crowd my mind. However, once in a while, there are some people who do really care about my work, and have interest in these seemingly insignificant and ridiculous actions of my performance. Even if it is only one person who comes to me and talks about their thoughts or feelings on my work, I am satisfied with it. That is the driving force that enables me to move forward.
MS: Is there anything you hope people would understand from your work that you feel has not been represented in the way you would like?
EC: To be honest, yes. I’ve always considered working hard as my best virtue. Whatever I did, I thought the process was more important than the result. It sometimes became a problem, after the work was made, I didn’t care that much about how to install it and in what form… For example, in the most recent exhibition at the Wurks Gallery, I had no idea how my work would look while I was not performing. And I didn’t consider how the audience would perceive the work as a non-moving stone had they not seen the performance. I left the debris of my performance on the floor and left the gap of my costume open, but I think it was not enough. Likewise, sometimes my work is just read as a humorous situation without my struggle or sadness. I think this is the biggest mountain I have to overcome.