Published 17 October 2018
Transcribed recording, edited for length and clarity.
This is the third of five in the Phantom Limb interview series: co-curators Kathy Cho and Katie Yook in conversation with artist Joan Oh.
Film still from The Notebook, image courtesy of the artist.
Joan Oh is based out of Brooklyn, by way of Philly. She is a Libra, uses she/her pronouns and is a Korean-American.
Katie: What was your last message on Kakaotalk?
Joan: Let me check real quick.
Kathy: [laughs] Katie just saw your Kakaotalk ceramic on the wall behind you.
Joan: Oh my god, I just put it up, hit that app button! My last message was, ‘but I’m here’ and it was to Kathy Cho.
Kathy: Ahh that’s no fun! When you messaged me, I was like, well that ruins the question because it was just us figuring out logistics.
Joan: Before Kathy, it was, um, [laughs] it was with my family, in a family group chat, and the last message was, ‘lol you want me to sue Johnson & Johnson?’
Joan: My dad wants me to sue them because of the baby powder.
Kathy + Katie: Ohhhh.
Joan: A lot of women are getting settlements.
Katie: How is your knowledge of Korean?
Joan: I always say I can speak it conversationally, kitchen talk, but if we want to talk about politics or more, I can’t. It’s probably at a 6th grade level.
Katie: That’s pretty advanced.
Kathy: Yeah, that’s better than us.
Joan: Yeah, I can read and write it, but a lot of times I have no idea what I’m reading. I’ll say it out loud and it’s just sounds.
Katie: I had that I was conversational in Korean on my resume/cv for a while and I recently changed it to basic.
Joan: I think I’m between basic and conversational. Yeah.
Kathy: I have a lot of anxiety around it.
Joan: You have anxiety speaking it? At this point it does feel a little alien because it’s harder to use the language these days. There’s really no purpose for who I surround myself with and my family is really far away. There’s not really a time to speak it unless you’re talking to an elder. That’s probably the only time I use it, honestly.
Kathy: Do you speak with your parents in Korean?
Joan: I text them in English and they text in Korean. So, a lot of times I use context clues to figure out what they’re saying. But other than family I honestly can’t think of anyone else I speak it with, unless it’s Konglish.
Katie: I always try to make people speak it with me, like with my cousins, but I don’t really speak it any other time.
Joan: I have a cousin in Korea who I talk to on Kakao and he wants to practice his English, so he’ll text me in English and he forces me to text back in Korean. It’s been really funny, we’ll both laugh at each other’s errors and correct them.
Katie: When I was living in Seoul for a couple months, I got on Craigslist and found an English-Korean buddy, where we spoke for 30 minutes Korean and then in English. She was a lot better at English than I was at Korean, and it was the best way to learn. And by chance she also had an art history background so we talked a lot about that.
Joan: That’s cool. Yeah, if you immerse yourself in it, it feels more natural to speak it.
Katie: Where is your hometown and what was it like growing up there, were there a lot Koreans around?
Joan: I grew up in Chicago, the northwest suburbs. Schaumburg has a really large Korean community. Korean was my first language and growing up, my socializing was through church and Saturday school so a lot of my friends were Korean. When I entered public school, I started hanging out with a more diverse crew. But growing up in Schaumburg – I mean it’s a suburb – I was getting antsy even at a young age. My friends and I would take the blue line or the Metra into the city a lot actually, just because we were so hungry for culture in any kind of way. So, heading to the city was our best option.
My parents’ business is in Garfield Park, so I was also in that neighborhood a lot as a kid because they would babysit me at the store, or my grandpa would, so we would all hang out at the store sometimes. I think that stopped probably when I was 8 or 9. Going into the city with friends, started in high school.
Kathy: I was going to Baltimore a lot.
Joan: It feels like a very common story.
Kathy: Can you talk a little bit about your work, your personal experience and how what you’re working on right now is tied together?
Joan: I think a couple of years ago it was heavily weighted on the self and trying to understand yourself through cultural differences, a fine line – walking between two different cultures. I think it’s shifted so it’s less existential. My work also includes an interest in not only daily life but the disbelief of trying to live like a regular ass… [laughs] I don’t know how to explain this. It’s been so long since I’ve talked about my work.
I don’t want to use the word capitalism with a capital C but I think a lot of the work involves economic means and production. Such as, interest in my parents shoe store and tying that into Hollywood cinema and comparing the differences. A lot of the work is basically performance, but documented through video. It’s extremely observational and also pretty amatuer. I have no interest in making really tight, professional videos or work. The content feels amatuer in a way that’s sincere and the way I shoot it is observational but it’s also supposed to look like a rehearsal.
I’m thinking specifically about the video of my parents (The Notebook), the scrubbing video (Scrubbing Impotence), and the karaoke performance that I did. In the karaoke performance, I turned the gallery space into a private karaoke room and the only way the audience could see me perform was through surveillance video footage and the audience was all standing outside in front of the video screens. Karaoke in general is super amatuer, we’re all bombing, you know? The idea is it’s a communal activity, because the people that sing karaoke to show off their vocal range, they’re actually totally missing the point.
Kathy: Have you been going to karaoke a lot in New York?
Joan: Yeah, karaoke has been really prominent in my life lately. I’m basically a KJ (Karaoke DJ) now, I don’t know how that happened. Do you know about Chen’s World? Chen’s World is a space that started up very recently by Alex Ito and Howie Chen. They want me to do a karaoke event over there with this jazz musician from LA. The space is in Bushwick, you can see photos online of the space and the show that’s up right now.
Kathy: I remember when we were talking last year, you were still flip-flopping about wanting to move to New York. You were worried that moving to New York would change your practice. Do you feel like NY is influencing you already or are you just going along with it?
Joan: There are so many goddamn people here, it’s non-stop people, everyone and their mother is an artist. It’s wild. Basically everyone is fascinating, everyone I meet is doing really cool things. And it’s kind of a wakeup call because I think in Philly, I felt this weird tension where if you were trying, you kind of got shamed for it or something?
Kathy: Yeah, there’s a lot of anxiety around being too ‘social climby’, but it’s just that you want to make stuff happen.
Joan: Yeah, here you really can’t sit on your ass. You can’t even afford to have a vanity studio, you can’t have a studio just to say you have one, it’s too expensive, you really need to hustle.
Kathy: [laughs] Are you saying people in Philly have vanity studios?
Joan: Lowkey, yeah, because it’s so affordable. It’s like $100 per month. Being here, the energy has been so good. My work is changing because I have to cut the fat. I can’t dip my toes in everything anymore. But the main thing that’s changed is the audience.
It’s really funny how open people are here about how they have stalked me on my website. They’ll just tell me to my face, and that’s incredible. The first few times I was just like ‘wow, okay’. But, I think there’s more of an interest here. So, I have been also way more open about looking at other people’s work too and appreciating it, being more vocal about the artists you are into and reaching out. I don’t know if it has to do with me moving here, and trying to be the most epic social butterfly but, yeah, I definitely have met a lot of cool folks. But, it also feels weirdly like a small world, everybody knows each other.
Katie: Have you ever been to London and how do you imagine your work being received in this context?
Joan: I went to London a couple years ago, with friends. I think my work will have an interesting read, because it is about the Korean-American experience. But either way I think the pop aspect of it — popular culture reference of The Notebook — I think everyone knows who Ryan Gosling is over there — that aspect of it will read or register there.
My last exhibition looked like a storefront. I was cracking jokes about surplus goods: the visors, the bucket hats, and sneaker culture that is probably similar over there. You know Supreme? Like even the picture of my grandparents was kind of a one-hitter on trying to blur ‘who did it first, the rapper or the Asian grandma’?
Senior Squad, image courtesy of the artist.
Kathy: And the squat.
Joan: Yeah, the squat. I’ve actually thought a lot of this. I’ve wondered how the work (The Notebook) would read in South Korea. I don’t think it would read at all, or maybe it would be less accessible?
Kathy: Or maybe there might be parts we’re not thinking about or aware of?
Joan: I think the reason people would understand that video over there is because of my parents. A lot of Asian people have parents like that. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m sure a lot of kids have never seen their parents kiss, or show any sort of affection — they just have a more militant way of expressing themselves. Maybe it’s changed over there, who knows. Maybe they’re all making out with each other.
Kathy: Is there anything you’re reading right now?
Joan: Yes, I have been on some shit lately. I’ve been looking at a lot of artist books like Roni Horn and Walid Raad and, going back to basics like Félix González-Torres and Sophie Calle, really going back to basics. I’m interested in artists that troll. I feel like these artists troll and also incorporate a very specific type of intimacy in their work.
Kathy: How does someone like Félix González-Torres troll, what do you mean?
Joan: I think they all troll. Sophie more when she followed that guy around. Felix less… maybe the word troll has negative connotations. I just think they infiltrate certain spaces that artists weren’t doing work in before, you know, the billboards. I guess he was trolling the urban landscape, with his personal life, the images of the bed, you know. That’s what I meant by trolling.
I’m reading a lot about love, truly, just seeing myself as a robot, trying to understand or compute the idea of love.
Kathy: I feel like that’s what being on tinder in New York feels like
Joan: Oh my god.
Joan: Whew, yeah, I think love is probably the only thing that can carry itself across every subgroup. It’s also supposed to be this extremely radical vulnerability, which I think is really lacking these days, in terms of the shit-show that’s happening politically even. Treating love as a tyrant, the tyrant we need is love, not necessarily anything violent or… I don’t know [laughs] my libra ass is reading a lot about love, relationships and affect theory and tying it back to daily life and even consumer culture. Emphasizing really banal things that happen.
I’m reading a book called Ugly Feelings by Sianne Ngai, The Cultural Politics of Emotion by Sara Ahmed, and bell hooks obviously. I’m actually also reading this book on octopuses. I’ve been super into octopuses lately, because the way they mate is very poetic and tragic, they essentially die after mating once, and they die of dementia. I just thought that was the perfect metaphor.
Katie: Can you explain that a little bit?
Joan: Yeah so octopuses are extremely intelligent animals and the reason why they haven’t, in my theory, taken over the world is because they have really short life spans. So an octopus will mate and after they mate they enter this dementia-like state where they lose all sense of time and they actually neglect their own self-care, where they starve, they forget to eat, they wander around aimlessly until they die, unless they get eaten by a seal or something. And the female will die shortly after the eggs have hatched and they’re literally having mind blowing sex and dying from it. [laughs]
Oh also, there’s this book about the female psyche, Women Who Run With The Wolves, which has been circulating. It’s myths and stories of the wild woman archetype, so you’ll read a story about some old folklore that’s been around and the author will unpack it in relation to the female psyche. It’s been a tearjerker. You read it and you realize you’re not crazy or air-quotes-hysterical. You feel weirdly understood?
There’s one specifically about a fisherman who finds a skeleton at the bottom of the ocean. She’s a metaphor for life and death and how people tend to run away from real and sincere relationships based out of fear of intimacy, or just running away from something that’s too real. Something that you can’t really handle, it talks about the running and hiding aspect of starting relationships and the stages of relationships in less romantic terms, like a one-on-one with anyone in general. This book is really good.
Kathy: What does phantom limb mean to you?
Joan: Phantom limb is the mind in denial about the present, a lingering past that has major ‘fomo’ and wants to remain in the present.☁
For more of Joan Oh's work, please visit her website at joanoh.com