JETTE HYE JIN MORTENSEN
Published 10 October 2018
Transcribed recording, edited for length and clarity.
This is the second of five in the Phantom Limb interview series: co-curators Kathy Cho and Katie Yook in conversation with artist Jette Hye Jin Mortensen.
Installation view of The Apology, courtesy of the artist.
Jette Hye Jin Mortensen is a Danish citizen who sees herself as Korean-Danish. She was adopted to Denmark when she was two years old. She is based in Roskilde, thirty minutes outside of Copenhagen, Denmark. Her zodiac sign is Aries and her Korean zodiac sign is metal monkey, 1980.
Katie: I’m a rooster.
Kathy: I’m a horse.
Jette: Nice [laughs], so now we have each other totally figured out.
Kathy: Do you know that thing in Korea about your blood type?
Jette: Yeah, mine has something to do with the colon. I went to this traditional doctor, where they do Five Element Constitutional acupuncture to define your blood type. You get acupuncture from the elbows and knees down. Then they put all these small things — it looked like chewing gum and charcoal — on your stomach. I found out I was colonotonial, which goes very well with being an Aries, and means that fire is your element, you should have cool foods, not eat meat, and do cool and calming activities. It’s a holistic view of your body, your ancestry and your activities in life. This was part of why my work shifted toward the more healing, cooling aspect. Also, I became a full time vegetarian after that point.
Kathy: What was your last message on Kakaotalk?
Jette: It was a bunch of images to my Korean dad. I’ve known him for ten years and he usually writes one word with an exclamation point like “Hye Jin! I love you! I miss you!” or something like that. I’ve been asking “How are you doing?” and wanting to have an in-depth conversation and he’ll respond “Sorry! Busy! I love you!”
Katie: How’s your knowledge of Korean?
Jette: I can haggle at a market, which I was better at after I lived in Korea for half a year. I used to get good prices but now I get tourist prices again. Also, ordering food, taking a cab, these things I can do. I did an evening course at Yonsei with all these American GIs and it was weird because they wanted to ask me out every time I had class. We were taught language in a very strict and old fashioned way, more writing than speaking. I heard Sogang University has a better programme for expats.
Katie: I did a language course at Ehwa, it was good.
Jette: So, you both don’t speak fluently Korean?
Kathy: I haven’t practiced it much recently, but when I was in Korea eight years ago, I picked it up once I was there.
Jette: So, your families are based in the states now?
Katie & Kathy: Yeah.
Jette: And they never spoke Korean to you or forced you into lessons when you were kids?
Katie: In my household English was the main language. I went to Korean school once a week when I was young but I didn’t learn much Korean. I did drumming class and wore a hanbok [traditional Korean dress].
Jette: I feel like I am thin water, like if you imagine Korean-ness being washed out slowly, the adopted one is the one that has the thinnest water, or connection, fewest particles of Korean culture.
Katie: What was it like in your hometown, were there a lot of Koreans around growing up?
Jette: It isn’t very nice to grow up as an adoptee because in many senses, you’re stuck in a matrix where you believe something that is not true. You’re adopted into a white family that had no experience with racism or being a minority. You’re raised with the idea that racism is nonexistent, but you experience it. Because you’re so little, you don’t know how to process it or put it into language.
I grew up in a middle-sized city in Jutland, not the main part of Denmark, so there were very few other adoptees and you kind of avoided each other because it reminded you of racism and being ‘other’. As a child you attempt to survive, of course, by forgetting everything Korean and assimilating into your new culture and language. So, that is what adoptees do: assimilate, learn the language, do all those things that will give you praise and love and recognition, which often has nothing to do with your background.
It’s not like an immigrant community where your parents and people around you belong to the same experience. You’re very lonely with your experience so it is a slow progression into becoming and finding out your identity, becoming an adult, and eventually a parent. It’s like getting out of the matrix, basically. It is also a very difficult process because when you stop subscribing to a colorblind gaze, you also say goodbye to a lot of privileges. As an adoptee you have weird paper privilege of being white, but outside of your family and known circles, you are a minority. People will address you often in English [in Denmark] and think you are a stranger or a tourist. It’s different from being a tourist elsewhere and you can just shake it off if people treat you weirdly.
Katie: You mentioned that you had this tension with other adoptees when you were younger but you’re now part of an adoptee network?
Jette: It wasn’t a confrontational tension, but if you saw somebody else who was adopted, you just looked the other way. My friends who have an immigrant background tend to be attracted to other people with the same background. They feel familiarity and readily have something to talk about, which is the opposite with many adoptees.
It is a very painful memory and realization, a painful image of a part of yourself that you want to bury and forget. You become very strange toward your body and when you look at your face in the mirror. You have internalized a very different image of yourself because you grew up in a white family. So I find that at some point the only thing that was Korean of me was my body, a body without any language to process this experience. When I was painting when I was younger, I did self-portraits to get familiar with my features because I felt alien. When I started at the Royal Danish Academy, I got together with other adopted female artists and started the group Unidentified Foreign Object Laboratory [UFOlab]. I’m a shy person so I didn’t really like to perform in front of others but I did it with video so it was a private process.
Kathy: Can you tell us more about your work?
Jette: When I got into the academy in 2004, there was no critique of adoption in Scandinavia. There were artists like myself and UFOlab, and a few academics who researched adoption, racism and migration studies. We made exhibitions, events and talks where we tried to create a language. It was building upon feminism and postcolonialism because it resembled a lot of these experiences but there wasn’t anything written about transcultural adoption, specifically critiquing its immense power imbalances.
Political activism became a natural thing to do. In the 2000s, activism, activist art, art about globalization and imbalances in the world were also very popular at biennials, and we were invited to the Gwangju Biennial. It was very collaborative in the beginning which was important because we all had these very singular experiences growing up. Coming, talking, and producing together, is important to creating community together; the end product eventually being a kind of aesthetic language or culture.
I also did some confrontational, humorous pieces where I worked with identity to make mockumentaries. I staged myself as Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s great-grandchild and a lot of people believed it. The Danish government at that point was very racist — as they are now — wanted to build a cultural canon. They had nationality tests for immigrants, a nationalist project which Carl Nielsen’s songbooks were a big part of. I didn’t want to estrange myself from Danish nationalist culture or make an alternative to the existent traditional culture. I wanted to insert myself into Danish culture and build upon other projects of nationalist conscious creations. I had a background in singing in church choir and classical music and I wanted to insert my adopted Asian identity into that.
I later became increasingly interested in epigenetics. The different tribes of bacteria you were born with link with the landscape and the bacteria cultures of the place you’re from. We are inhabited by millions of different cultures of microorganisms and I was interested in the body being a stage for other stories. I began to work more with collective practices where the pieces were interpreted and acted out by others, even the audience. I wanted to look at how everything arises as a chain of reactions depending on the works and the gazes of others and how we as identities are multi-existent in time and space. When I dove into epigenetics it was even more expansive because from one generation to the other you can experience a trauma and your body gets influenced by that trauma. There have been studies with holocaust survivors and women who witnessed 9/11. After the events happened and they had children, they could detect in the spit of the children symptoms of PTSD even though they didn’t directly experience the actual trauma.
It’s also mind-blowing to think that the Korean War was so recent. As a culture you process trauma in different ways. On one hand, you could have a very strong narrative which could be a place to gather to heal and process trauma. On the other hand, you could also, as Korean diaspora, be spread around in all these different scenarios and the trauma will be encapsulated. You wouldn’t know which parts of your reactions, your nervous systems, your likes and dislikes, could be traumatic after-effects. I know a lot of adoptees fight with anxiety and I also tend to find that many are very driven, almost like a survival instinct.
At some point I got activist burnout from always fighting a huge system. The transnational adoption system is a very unequal system that puts the birth parents in a very weak position. In many aspects, it’s also a child trafficking system where a lot of papers are forged. My papers were forged. Rules you would consider criminal in your own legal system become bent and rewritten when it becomes transnational.
You could give up a child for childcare, in an institution in Korea, and find out later that you signed papers that irrevocably won’t allow you to get your child back. So, you get fatigued when your critiquing, fighting and trying to dig your way into changing the system. This led me to search for other strategies to critique and deal with difficult subjects.
I wanted to create an aesthetic way of communicating or an architecture that could surround the body and be a place of healing and discussion, that would calm the nervous system. Recently I have used a deeper blue. The healing properties of the wavelengths work with melatonin production in your brain, allowing you to sleep and relax, which are common difficulties of those with PTSD and the anxiety of trauma. The materials and spaces that I use are inviting and tactile. Fabric is something that we all, on a bodily level, experience because of clothing. I also began to work with low frequency sounds and different things that our intellect doesn’t register but your body experiences.
Kathy: What have you been reading recently that informs your practice?
Jette: I am very interested in Jerzy Grotowski, a experimental theatre director. He talked about the para-theatre and described a theater that was participatory and improvisational. He wanted to have this transformative, introverted focus and energy. That is how he saw theatre in its ancient function. It was almost a spiritual function where you would gather as a culture, around the performer or the storyteller, and have a space to process events. It’s like performance as meditation. Besides that, I read a hell of a lot of permaculture books these days. [laughs]
I also recently read this article in the Huffington Post by Joel L. A. Paterson, a researcher in education and adoption. He wrote about this citizenship rule that until June 13, 1998, you couldn’t get south Korean citizenship if you didn’t have a Korean father with citizenship. So, if you were a single mother, you had the choice of raising your kid without citizenship or you could abandon your child and then abandoned children could get citizenship. That is really a strong image of society that favors this rule of blood, as well as men and fatherhood, over motherhood. I was surprised this right of blood rule is still prevalent in Korea, so even if you’re born within the Korean borders you’re not automatically a Korean citizen.
Katie: Have you shown work in London before?
Jette: No, actually! I have only been to London once on a study trip so I’m really excited to go. Me and my husband have been seeing all these shows on Netflix about moving to the countryside, living in a stone house and cottage garden, and we’re like ‘England is so nice. We should live like hobbits in England’. [laughs] But I know London is different. I am excited because London is multicultural in its own right and I think the different minority communities are very strong in London. Is there a Koreatown?
Katie: Yes! It’s not central though. New Malden, it’s kind of outside on the South West and is the biggest Korean population in the UK. There are a lot of Korean restaurants and a big H-Mart, a Korean supermarket chain.
Jette: Is there a good jjajangmyeon place?
Katie: We just had it in New Malden, it was so good.
Jette: Yeah my mouth is watering now. I’m kind of sustaining on Chapagetti. We got the powder so we can make it but we tried to do it with spaghetti but it’s not the same. We should have something fermenting during the exhibition.
Kathy: We actually have something in the works!
Katie: What does phantom limb mean to you?
Jette: I thought it was a great title because it really describes what it’s like to have this very weak connection or subconscious remembrance of where you originated from. I’m curious to go to London and meet you both and all the other artists in London because for adoptees there is a pain, but this pain of not being connected to the motherland has maybe different colors and aspects which can be transformed into different empowering scenarios. I’m really excited about that and the artists in the show. The overall impression I get is that the exhibition really looks forward, wanting to create a new funky vibe. [laughs]☁
For more of Jette Hye Jin Mortensen's work, please visit her website at jettehyejinmortensen.com