Trace of Speech

Jewyo Rhii

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Jewyo Rhii's exhibition Night Studio, recently at Art Sonje in Seoul (26/10/2013 – 12/1/2014), centers on the artist's experience living in a noisy market street in a downtown area of the city called Itaewon, which is near the big US Army base, and is the closest Seoul gets to having a cosmopolitan and louche neighborhood.

Rhii is interested in narrative, in telling stories. She often works with words, which take on a kind of veiled epistolary or confessional function within her installations. These installations are made up of ephemeral, cheap, ugly, and abject objects and temporary materials. Her themes are insecurity, resentment, deficiency, danger, and vulnerability, but also the desire to be heard and understood, to be loved. As the British critic Charles Esche writes: "What we encounter in Jewyo's installations...often has resemblance to a real place that is distended or twisted out of immediate recognition. These places of the past are neither wholly reconstructions nor willful fantasies, but a little of both."

I caught up with Jewyo Rhii on the occasion of a short, noisy and entertaining performance outside Art Sonje by the artist Myungwoo Jung, who'd worked for Rhii on the construction of one of the works in the exhibition—a moving floor that wobbles and creaks as you cross it (image 10). The performance was a kind of dramatization of the activity of making the floor. This interview was conducted in English.

—Simon Morley
Visual Editor, December 2013

I'd like to focus on your use of text, and first of all ask about your hand-made typewriters (e.g. images 2–8). These deliberately crude mechanical objects seem to make the process of writing both tangible and fraught with a sense of failure. It's clear that some physical action—even violence—is necessary to make the words, but that this action always falls short of really working—of actually communicating.

The typewriter has a function, it does something, and it also has to do with my body, my physicality. It helps to tell a story, and in a sense it's a performance, unlike making objects or images. It's a way of talking and saying things. It's a trace of speech. And it's also a form of documentation. But how the typewriters are made is also part of the story. For example, in the typewriter I made for "Love Letter" [image 6, on the right next to the pillar], I thought about how to move my body when speaking certain words. I wanted to hide my hands because a love letter ought to be secret, so I put my hands into a box. But the love letter never gets written, and the movement comes first. Desire carries failure. It's quite predictable it's going to fail.

What, for you, is the difference between using words and using images?

I want to sculpt words. I want a story to be something physical. It's all to do with my body, when I move. It's all related to myself, my physicality, when I talk, say things.

What about using Korean language as compared to using English? You use both in your work. Sometimes it's to do with context—who your audience is—but what can you say about the differences between the two languages?

I think twice. I write twice. Once in Korean and once in English. I never focus on one language, ever. I just choose which language for a specific thing. Maybe I look for the shortcut. Sometimes English is much more efficient. Sometimes Korean has double meanings, is less precise. But this means I simply have more options. The priority of meanings shifts, but I can be happy with both. I don't really have a problem with which language I use—I'm not a writer. But Hangeul is a closed language—it's only used on the Korean peninsula, so in many ways it's much more constraining than English.

The body is central to your practice. How do you see the body relating to language use?

I see the body as my third language. But it's the language we never really use. However, I believe this body language has the possibility of gaining a kind of accuracy or precision that is far greater than speech or writing.

What about the viewers of your work? What do you expect from them?

I hope the viewer makes some kind of journey. I want them to be physically involved. But they come with this whole package of assumptions, so I want them to experience the work, or imagine something. One guy who lives in Itaewon, here in Seoul, said "Wow! This is Itaewon." But Koreans can be disconnected from their expectations. I mean, in my experience, Westerners are less nervous about seeing something new. They have more "humor" and are willing not to understand.