One of the highlights from the 2019 Venice Biennale is the multi-layered artistic practice of the visual artist and filmmaker Jan Jin Kaisen, a representative of this year’s Korean Pavilion titled "History Has Failed Us, but No Matter." Working with film, video installation, photography, performance, and text, Kaisen creates distinct modes of storytelling that gesture towards sites of the anxieties of today. At the Biennale Arte she showcased her double-channeled video installation Community of Parting, which traces a different approach to borders and division by invoking the ancient shamanic myth of the abandoned princess Bari.
ZEITGEIST 19—a research-led socio-cultural hub that curates interdisciplinary talk events with emerging talents and pioneers of culture, acting at the intersection of art and sustainability—visited the 58th Venice Biennale to interview participating artists and curators to discuss how art can serve as a guide, and reflect on the current times and anxieties, because apocryphal theme or not—it is certainly hard to deny that we do currently find ourselves in 'interesting' times. Here, ZEITGEIST 19 speaks with Kaisen about her take on these issues.
Is Community of Parting reflecting the reality of now?
Community of Parting is very much a work about time. It reflects the reality of now but also very much considers time in an extended scope. In Venice, I am presenting Community of Parting as a double channel video installation, consisting of a projected film and a performative video. Each piece in its own way negotiates and dismantles spatiotemporal hierarchies by insisting that the present and the reality of now is infused by both the past and the future. Now is a moment marked by sentiments of border keeping, the diminishing of alternative knowledge, and partial remembrance. I engage these issues in Community of Parting by tracing a different approach to time and memory through the invocation of the ancient female Korean shamanic myth of the abandoned princess Bari. What distinguishes the myth of Bari from other Korean myths is that she re-fuses to abide by human borders and to inherit half the Kingdom, which she is offered after reviving the dead. Instead she chooses to become the shaman goddess and mediator at the threshold of the living and the dead. By reinterpreting and remediating the myth, I situate within the myth a female genealogy of aesthetic mediation across time and space, which can point to a different direction and approach to forms of crisis faced in this moment.
Your work is focused on communities affected by war and division. Do you agree that artists can not only communicate critical issues but also trigger social transformation?
Yes, besides having engaged deeply with female Korean shamanism, the work also entails prolonged engagement with different communities affected by war and division, including women in South Korea and North Korea, as well as a range of diasporic realities. Another important aspect of Community of Parting is the notion of borders. Rather than simply retelling the myth of Bari, or treating Bari as a figure, the myth is re-actualized within a context of borders, not only geographical borders but also border logics due to gender bias and forms of marginalization and migration as a consequence of war and division. A primary function of borders is to create hierarchies and divisions and this is very much reflected within Korea and East Asia through a turbulent modernity and present marked by colonialism, Cold War polarity, and militarization. With Community of Parting I was interested in dismantling these hierarchies of knowledge and being, space and time by mediating across. This notion is very informed by Korean shamanic practice, which I regard as an ethic and aesthetic of memory and mutual recognition across time and space. While this might not trigger immediate social change on the level of political decision-making, I believe that art serves a very important role in offering alternative modes of representation that can contribute to altering our perception and ultimately alter how reality is perceived and negotiated.
Can art break boundaries?
Yes. Art has the potential in my view, to blur boundaries and distinctions in very profound ways.
What are the layers from which your multi-scale work is composed? What are the interdisciplinary approaches you incorporate?
Community of Parting derives from extensive research into Korean shamanism since 2011 and engagement with various diasporic and historically marginalized communities, among others survivors of the Jeju April Third Massacre in Korea, the issue of landmines around the DMZ dividing North and South Korea, the Zainichi community in Japan, Soviet Koreans in Kazakhstan, and migrations to Europe and the US as an effect of the Korean War and division. I have been filming in various locations such as Jeju Island, Seoul and the DMZ in South Korea, in North Korea, Japan, China, Kazakhstan, Germany and the United States over a period of five years and the imagery is a combination of ritual performances, nature and cityscapes, as well as aerial imagery.
These various aspects come together in the piece both visually, sonically, and discursively through references to the myth of Bari and the notion of the abandoned, which is at the core of the myth. A recurring feature in the projected film, which is the main work in the piece, are shamanic rituals and chants by Shaman Koh SunAhn, a survivor of the Jeju Massacre in Korea. The myth of Bari is also reflected in the poetry of Swedish poet Mara Lee and the poetics of Korean poet Kim Hyesoon, from whose book Woman, I do Poetry, the title Community of Parting derives. The film, which is loosely framed around Bari's multiple deaths, is told from a multi-vocal site in which the sentiment of the abandoned is what connects the various women narrators. In addition to the shamanic and the poetic, multiple narratives by South Korean, North Korean and diasporic women, reflect the myth of Bari and stories and experiences that have been abandoned and marginalized due to border keeping logics.
The piece is very much informed by interdisciplinary engagements and include perspectives by individuals from a range of fields, including shamans, artists, poets, a political philosopher, anthropologists, and historians. In its multi-layered approach through which multiple voices, narratives, and images come together through delicately edited montage sequences, I was formally interested in creating a film that mediates in a way similar to the shamanic ritual, which really is a blurring of boundaries between mundane time and ritual time, between the living and the dead, self and other, and the work similarly is an attempt at blurring boundaries between filmic genres and tracing a genealogy of female creation that departs from modernist Western notions of artistic genius and autonomy by rather stressing a collaborative and mutually informed and inspired approach to creation.
Why did you choose the medium of film, and how influencing and transfigurating can it be?
There are qualities intrinsic to the filmic medium that I was interested in further exploring with the piece. Film’s mediumicity allows for an engagement with time in which the now is always enfolded in the past and the present. While the piece is inspired by shamanism as a live performative practice, I was drawn to the medium of film and mediating through film the blurring of time, being in and out of time and about renegotiating history. For me, the filmic medium is able to address these questions in a very profound way through multi-layered compositions and through the use of slow motion, fast motion, and juxtaposition in ways that resemble the structure of memory.
Another significant aspect of the piece is the notion of translation and mediation, and here the filmic medium is a synaesthetic medium that involves image, sound, movement, voice, and rhythm, but also repetition, and being able to trigger in the viewer several receptive faculties, including affective levels, but also analytical, reflexive and discursive dimensions, for me enhances the medium’s transformative potential.