Arts and Culture Exhibit

The Yeoseong Gukgeuk Project: Hijack the Gender!: A Discussion between Artist and Curator

One of the kick-off events of Montreal’s 18th edition of MOMENTA Biennale de l’image was a discussion between curator Ji-Yoon Han and artist siren eun young jung at her solo exhibition The Yeoseong Gukgeuk Project: Hijack the Gender! held at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Gallery on Concordia’s Sir George Williams campus. 

“siren eun young jung makes work that explores the subversive potential of popular cultural practices and highlights the existence of communities that, to this day, maintain spaces for dissimilar and non-conforming people within a given society,” Han says. 

Yeoseong Gukgeuk, which translates to “national women’s theatre,” is the central subject of the artist’s 15-year archival project. The theatre was made up exclusively of female actors and was popularised in the mid-twentieth century following the end of Japanese colonial rule over Korea. Through her work, jung explores the actors’ embodiment of masculine roles on stage through the lens of queer theory, particularly queer scholar Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity. jung seeks to critically examine the heteronormative national identity of Korea by building an “anomalous archive,” or what she also calls a “wrong archive,” that inherently resists the official version of national history. 

The discussion began in the archive room, where jung discussed her collection of materials offering insight into the story of the women who were involved at the theatre and who participated in the project. The archive reveals the unique visual culture of the theatre while preserving its legacy in a historical canon that often neglects to include the stories of marginalised people. The archive is not just a collection of print media, photographs and documents that tell a linear narrative of the tradition—it also includes oral history through interviews and personal accounts from performers, along with experimental videos of performances that collectively contribute to a living archive that will change over time as it grows. 

siren eun young jung, View of Deferral Archives (2018-2023), Leonard & Bina Ellen Gallery. Photo by Emma Bell/The Concordian
siren eun young jung, Deferral Archives (2018-2023) Detail, Leonard & Bina Ellen Gallery. Photo by Emma Bell/The Concordian

The notion of disrupting exclusionary national identities is reflected in jung’s aesthetic choices. The scattered light refracting off the reflective survival blankets that line the gallery walls similarly disrupts the traditionally crisp white void that the artwork would normally hang on. The editing technique employed in jung’s video works can also be described as disruptive and fractured—flashing lights and diagonal cropping make for a chaotic viewing experience of an already larger-than-life screen. This visual language reinforces a sense of rupture in the way history is remembered.

The discussion moved through the gallery space as jung and Han spoke about the importance of transmitting the knowledge of the past through this project and its relevance in contemporary culture. It goes without saying that there is a need within our current moment to not only preserve but to bring marginalised histories into the spotlight. 

The video work A Performing by Flash, Afterimage, Velocity, and Noise features performances from drag king Azangman, queer Korean female actors such as Lee Yii, Seo Jiwon of the disabled women’s theatre group Dancing Waist, and the transgender electronic musician Kirara. The installation completely immerses the audience in the performances, enveloping them in a full sensory experience to invite them into a theatrical world that embraces and celebrates creative transgression and alternative ways of being.

The Yeoseong Gukgeuk Project: Hijack the Gender! is one of 23 exhibitions that constitute MOMENTA 2023 and will be on view at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery within Concordia’s J.W. McConnell building through October 28, 2023.  

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