Post-historical Space in CHUNG Jaeyeon’s Work

CHUN Jin-sung (Historian, Professor of Busan National University)


The belief that space includes memories no longer corresponds to our common experience in this era. Space no longer serves as a “fossil of continuity” that the philosopher of science Gaston Bachelard admired but as a catalyst for a change that makes our ordinary life always unstable. Do we still have a home in our contemporary society in which we can continuously abide? Can our scattered, aimlessly wandering memories be recognized in the field of national or world history, or at least in the nature of our hometowns where the souls of our ancestors inhabit?

Artist CHUNG Jae-yeon attempts to solve the puzzle of space that continuously slips over memories. Since she does not empathize with an official message that so-called “public place” manifests and institutionalized memories, she “retraces” fragments of lost memories in order to find her own identity. The artist intends to search for and represent the traces of the past inscribed in her five senses, which in other words, refers to the memories of the body to become honest to herself. If her body of work is classified as a “site-specific art,” it is not because of her emphasis on the public value of a certain place, but because of her focus on the experience of the materiality that breaks this value with her own body. A phrase she wrote in the artist’s note that “a sense of shame that I do not empathize with ideological symbols and signs or a fear that the absence of my historical consciousness may be revealed” is not a confession of her artistic incompetence, but rather a proof that she utilizes space in a totally different manner.

Space is a catalyst for a concrete experience and its result rather than a fixed substance. Space finally gets its status as space by differentiating itself from other spaces by specific memories or ideas and ideologies. For example, the status of the West is recognized by a gap between the West and the underdeveloped East, while Korea is recognized by a gap between the South and North Korea and Gangnam by a comparison with less-developed Gangbuk. In this way, space is both a relative and independent concept. Space is required to change in accordance with the change of memory. As space does not respond to the call for change under its own inertia, a conflict often occurs. Space obtains its independent right by disrupting memories and disturbing their rearrangement. Through its own materiality, it inversely stimulates new memories. In this sense, the idea that space is originally given and that it holds our memory is a product of modern history which is not valid any longer.

CHUNG Jae-yeon’s installations that slyly privatize public places, like her own house, revive the vitality of the space itself by removing an ideological curtain that has dropped down and enveloped the space. If we bracket the witty aspects of her work, her early creations, A Piercing Gaze(2002) and Love Letter in Hyde Park(2009), look significant and demonstrate a new approach to space, foreshadowing her later works. Personal engagement in a public space transforms a coercive and cold space into an intimate space that my five senses can feel immediately. Of course, the place is not only mine. The space is close to the boundary, where public and private areas meet as it looks forward to and pays attention to the reaction of the viewer. Her collaboration work Opening Project that she performed after her return from studying abroad is, in light of the artist progress, an example of physical substantialization in an attempt to break down the wall between public and private realms.

As indicated in her artist’s note, CHUNG’s installations are in pursuit of space for communication by bringing down social barriers. What she has created is, however, close to a space of division, rather than that of communication. A series of works in which the artist displaced cement blocks here and there, like every day labor, seem to be far from a real act of communication. The bricks floating around the space without becoming organic structures bring up the image of ruins. Although not intended, it is read as an allegory of history. A dark shadow of history, wandering without finding an anchorage like an unavoidable labor roaming around the remains of the ruins, namely, that of “posthistoire” is the cast on her work.

In such global circumstances, with the collapse of socialism that once touched the hearts of the intellectuals, dictatorship that is more vicious than colonization of the past in most of newly emerging countries that wished for independence and the crisis of representativeness in representative democracy that seemed the most reasonable, all the systems of official ideologies and legitimacy lost a historical glory. The glorious past ensures no meaning any more. The performance titled Way in & out(2009) presented in front of the gate of the Royal College of Art, a historic college in London, implies such a collapse and an accompanying crisis of reemergence. CHUNG describes the difficulties of the artists of our times as follows: “It is not easy to get a convenient shell that can represent oneself.”

Her attempt to ‘retrace’ a widely known public space based on the memories of an individual body in such an unprecedented situation seems convincing. The memories of the old Seoul Capitol that the artist represented in her works Retrace(2017) and Lost Corner(2018) reveal the chasm between official history and extremely personal distant memories. More accurately, it is a chasm of history itself that is exposed between the Japanese General Government Building and the Seoul Capitol (National Museum of Korea). In fact, the memories of the place couldn’t be completely personal. The senses of my body were already refracted by the Western historicity that the building had already embodied – historicist architecture(!). It destroyed the memories of the palace of the old dynasty that had “originally” occupied that space. In this regard, my memory is not “originally” mine. Unlike the title of the work, one’s memory is based on the forgetting of something absent, not something “lost.” The images of the space created by CHUNG Jae-yeon are highly “post-historical.”

While space provides the categorical parameters of history, it also maintains historicity per se in the process of mediating social and political changes continuously. Space can be regarded as an active agent of history in that it weaves diverse situations and different contexts into a network of synchronic-structural relations. Then, the space within the boundary of our relations is always a humanized one, meaning that in other words, it’s a space that has experienced historical changes while being embraced and reorganized by political power, namely a “nomos.” Humans take back their position as a harmonious cosmos is created in the middle of the chaos. To have a topophilia is a fundamental mode of human existence. And yet, all these stories are outdated already. We find ourselves lost in the “non-place.” Today’s global phenomena, including unequal development, based on spatial division of labor and the resulting movement of capital and labor, border disputes, immigration and tourism made us regard space as a multi-layered and frequently conflicting social and political process, instead of a cozy nest or a place of memory. In the so-called “space of flows” that Sociologist Manuel CASTELLS mentioned, it is very difficult for us to keep our historical identity.

Ultimately, the body, the most primal “place,” will be the only exit from this chaos. According to philosopher Maurice MERLEAU-PONTY, the body is a “place” where our ego stays, a “birthplace of the soul and the model of all other spaces. In reality, however, this body does not find a steadfast place. In contemporary art, the relation between body and space has been a subject of exploration for a long time. There are works that disclose the reality of the “post-historic” era, in which even our body has difficulty securing its own place: House(1993) by Rachel WHITEREAD, who has focused on the body deprived of the physical link to the house, usually casting the empty spaces of the house, such as a bathtub, floor or room; Angel of the North(1998) by Antony CORMLEY, who sculpted traces of the body by making himself wrapped in cling-film, covered in plaster and almost buried alive.

The works of space artist CHUNG Jae-yeon reflect deep contemplation on the post-historical space and memory of the body in line with the universal question of contemporary art. Her thoughts and concerns are probably deepened due to the weight of the history through which her own country controls her past and present. The Marronier Park designed by architect KIM Swoo-geun, which the artist wanted to take back by tearing down the wall of a museum, is not in fact “original.” A vague nostalgia is only an extension of the memory of the Japanese colonial period. In the end, we have no choice but to find the exit from the “outside” of history that offered the standard of solid identity and representation. The only choice left for the artist is to become a mediator who reveals the division and contradiction between space and memory and then disappears, escaping from the bad infinity of the sameness in which the present becomes an inevitable consequence of the past.