Insoon Ha’s exhibition, Face, was a performance based installation in which multiple large-scale digital self-portraits were mounted on the gallery floor. On the night of the opening Ha conducted a performance during which she washed the accumulated visitors’ footprints off of the photographs and then used the dirty water to wash her face.
Over the 6 weeks of the exhibition, Ha used the gallery as a studio, completing multiple wall works and transforming the space over time.
Born in Seoul, Korea, Insoon Ha lives and works in Toronto, Canada. She holds both a BFA and MFA from the University of Seoul in Sculpture, and a second MFA from the State University of New York at Buffalo in Fine Arts. She is an multidisciplinary artist who works in sculpture, installation and video. Her work has been exhibited throughout Korea, the United States and Canada at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art and A Space Gallery in Toronto, McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton, Big Orbit Gallery, Albright-Knox Art Museum and Art Space & Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center in Buffalo, “X Industria: CAFKA 05” in Kitchener, 621 Gallery in Tallahassee, FL., and LA CENTRALE Gallery Powerhouse in Montreal.
“If the face is a politics, dismantling the face is also a politics involving real becomings, an entire becoming-clandestine. Dismantling the face is the same as breaking through the wall of the signifier and getting out of the black hole of subjectivity. Here, the program, the slogan, of schizoanalysis is: Find your black holes and white walls, know them, know your faces; it is the only way you will be able to dismantle them and draw your lines of flight.”
—Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guatarri1
Imagine the headshot of a middle-aged Asian woman with bare shoulders and hair loosely pulled back. Now picture 120 of these artist self-portraits squarely-laid out on the floor of a brightly-lit window-front gallery to meet the gaze of visitors even before they step inside. They choose to enter willfully, reluctantly or not at all. To cross into the threshold, after all, entails treading on these faces like a doormat. Multiple street shoes track dirt in from outside, sullying the floor-mounted poster-size images in an otherwise pristine white cube. Eventually the mass defacement takes place in the presence of the artist, at times sitting upright and slyly attentive to every move, at other times lounging in an awkward state of repose on her multiple faces/selves. The only time she stands during the performance is to disappear and reappear with a shallow metal washbasin of water and a white washcloth. With them, she starts to solemnly scrub the floor on her hands and knees alternating between languorous and vigorous strokes but to no avail it seems. Like black and white checkerboard flooring, the photographic surfaces of her face, irreparably scratched and weathered, look dirty even if they are clean. The only sound from her is the shortness of breath as she works while we watch. Not quite done but physically and physiologically drained, she rinses her face with the dirty water, pats herself dry and wrings the filthy washcloth for the last time draping it over the edge of the basin. Facing the audience and the street outside, she kneels to take a low bow touching her forehead to the floor in silence.
Insoon Ha’s Face (2013) may seem to leave a lot unspoken. Yet it could also be said that Ha’s performance installation enacts an ethical witnessing of cultural effacement through what effectively is a silent speech act, “a way of pointedly not saying something.”2 There was not one but many silences constituted and reconstituted by Ha’s performance with as many different feelings attached to the inability to say something as there are different ways to do so. Probably the most immediate visitors’ experiences involving an “empathetic unsettlement (at times even inducing more or less muted trauma)” was as “secondary witnesses”—to use trauma historian and theorist Dominick LaCapra’s terms—to the artist’s traumatic self-effacement staged by her own hand and also to great extent theirs (or, their feet, to be exact).3 Performing in a human-size fishbowl, under the curious, even violent gaze of passers-by of the window front gallery on a busy art and culture crawl evening only intensified the emotive and affective nature of the performance. In form, earlier works ranging from Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Maintenance Art, such as Wash (1973) on a New York sidewalk, to Janine Antoni’s Lick and Lather (1993), in which the artist defaced fourteen self-portrait busts made out of chocolate and soap, come to mind, but Ha’s Face shows much more reticence to speak against putative enemies. The most painful unsettlement and hard work Ha’s study of raw emotion involved was effectively to witness its indirect artistic testimony of the historical trauma of hundreds of thousands of girls and young women who suffered enslavement, rape, sexual exploitation, silencing, and abandonment under Japan’s institutionalized system of sexual slavery during its World War II colonial period as well as, soon after, through the state-condoned and highly regulated sex industry in U.S. military camptowns in Korea and the Philippines that thrives up to present day.
Until 1980 when the first survivor-witnesses spoke out, almost nothing was known about “comfort women” (jūgun-ianfu) the Japanese military euphemism for some 200,000 women, mostly Korean chongsindae, abducted for sexual service in comfort stations instituted and maintained by the Japanese government in northeast and Southeast Asia between 1937 and 1945 for the Imperial Army.4 The mid-1980s also brought to light the plight of some 27, 000 U.S. military camptown (kijich’on) prostitutes (know derogatorily as “Western princesses”) as victims of forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, and what human rights activists call the debt bondage system in which they accrue debts at usurious rates to their clubs, managers or pimps who pre-pay for everything (from rented rooms to make-up) deemed necessary to provide sexual services before she even arrives.5 In colonialism and war, rape and violence against women is not only a metaphor for the patriarchal state and conquest but also physical and symbolic forms of terrorism and ethnic cleansing. “In both the chongsindae and kijich’on systems, rape was often used as a way to ‘initiate’ women into sexual labor.”6 Sexually violated and ‘defiled’, Elya Filler writes, “victims, particularly from patriarchal societies, frequently fear the shame from their families and society” and “to be branded as a whore. Fear of this shame causes victims to remain silent.”7 Shame, Filler notes, “is the most common and probably most detrimental “mental health consequences faced by victims of sex trafficking.8 It is precisely the fear and pain of shame that Ha’s performance attempts using water as a purgative metaphor to rid as a crucial step towards post-traumatic restoration.9 Immigrated to Canada after obtaining her M.F.A. from the University of Seoul just over a decade ago, Ha’s art is self-admittedly informed by not only the highly mediatized albeit also censored chongsindae and kijich’on redress movements, but also from her childhood memories of the U.S. military presence in South Korea.
1. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guatarri, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. and foreword by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987) 188.
2. I find the way in which leading queer and literary theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick understands, as Jason Edwards explains, being closeted as “a silent speech act, a way of pointedly not saying something, a form of preterition or phrase in which something is neglected, disregarded, omitted, passed over or by,” tremendously useful for understanding that which is ‘unspeakable’ in Ha’s performance. Jason Edwards, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (London; New York: Routledge, 2009) 56.
3. Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore, MA: John Hopkins University Press, 2000) 47.
4. E. Tammy Kim, “Performing Social Reparation: ‘Comfort Women’ and the Path to Political Forgiveness,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 16:2 (2006) 223. Comfort women were mostly from Korea (80 to 90 per cent ), China, Japan and the Philippines.
5. Katharine H.S. Moon, “South Korean Movements against Militarized Sexual Labor,” Asian Survey 39:2 (March-April 1999) 315
7. Elya Filler, “Sex in the Company of Soldiers: The Role of Japan’s Comfort System and U.S. Military Prostitution in the Development of Eastern Asia’s Contemporary Sex Industry,” Senior Thesis, Department of Global Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California, June 2009, 10.
9. Other consequences include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction to narcotics, and suicidal thoughts.