Published 3 October 2018
Transcribed recording, edited for length and clarity.
This is the first of five in the Phantom Limb interview series: co-curators Kathy Cho and Katie Yook in conversation with artist Na Mira.
Film still from A Woman Is Not A Woman, image courtesy of the artist.
Na Mira (she/her) lives in Los Angeles. Depending on the situation, she identifies as mixed-race Korean, Korean, or Asian but she has been in Korea for the past few months so she has been IDing as ban-ban gyopo [half Korean diaspora] or hon-hyul gyopo [mixed Korean diaspora]. She is a Sagittarius, Scorpio rising.
Kathy: What was your last message on Kakaotalk?
Na: I was just trying to choose the best bingsoo place, with my friend Saewon, to go to before band practice.
Kathy: You’re in a band?
Na: I guess, yeah. We started making sounds while traveling in Korea and are just like ‘how do we keep this going?’
Kathy: That’s really cool. I’ve never been to LA but I imagine it as this like second mecca for Korean people.
Na: What is it like in London? Are there a lot of Korean people?
Kathy: No. Similar to a lot of cities, the Korean community is a little annoying to get to, right outside the city, and that’s the way it is here in London. I know the Korean population here is smaller than Berlin’s. There’s no Korean spa and in Central London when you go get Korean food they make you pay for kimchi and gim and I think that’s fucked up. [laughs]
Na: It must be interesting in terms of the desire to do this project to find that community there.
Katie: Yeah, I was definitely homesick moving to London. I grew up in New Jersey around a lot of Koreans. Kathy came to the course this fall, and our tutor buddied us up and in my head I was thinking ‘is she Korean?’ Then at the very end of our first meeting we bonded over where we could get Korean food. There was this immediate connection that probably wouldn’t have happened if we were living in the States but because we were in this new context, we asserted our identities and difference more to make up for the lack.
Na: Yeah, having just been in Korea I was thinking about how I relate to that lack, from IDing as Asian American. The yearning for representation and the codes are so different for Koreans living in Korea, what Korean-ness is, shifts.
Katie: I lived in Korea for a little bit to study Korean language. It’s just funny, I ended up having all American friends. I was like ‘what am I doing? I’m here in my home country and I’m just hanging out with Americans.’
Na: I was at a residency where like six of us were international artists and then there were maybe, twenty local artists. My Korean’s okay but I was like, ‘oh it’s gonna get so much better now that I’m in Korea’ but I was actually just surrounded by people who were totally fluent in English. The Korean residents were talking about how there’s a shift lately not to provide as much English language programming in the art world, because English was always this default language that everyone had to use.
Kathy: Do they say the names on the subway in Korean and then English?
Na: Yeah, so much of the Korean language is Romanized on all the official signage. So, driving and taking public transit caters to visitors who don’t know Hangul. Apparently you’re supposed to be able to learn Hangul in fourteen days, the Korean language was invented so that women and poor people could read. And then there’s a lot of stuff about the affect. The emotion that you deliver it with is really important. It’s confusing but then also it helps me to understand Korean even when I don’t know what’s being said. I get the vibe. How’s your Korean?
Kathy: Not great!
Katie: Mine’s probably worse than yours, [laughs] even though I lived there and took language classes. My parents were in a process of assimilating when they immigrated to the States and didn’t speak in Korean really. Now, my mom is more comfortable speaking Korean with me but my household language growing up was English.
Kathy: My dad still doesn’t really know English that well even though they moved to the States in the 1980s. He just resisted and my mom kind of learned, but they both always speak to me in Korean and I always respond in English. It’s been like that since I was five. It’s strange but it works.
Na: Like, you can understand Korean better, hearing rather than speaking?
Katie & Kathy: Definitely, yeah.
Kathy: I have a lack of vocabulary and I’m so sensitive to my lack of grammar that I just don’t bother.
Katie: I visited Korea a number of times throughout my life and I had intense experiences with adults saying ‘you need to know Korean.’ There was so much pressure. I went to Korean school but it didn’t really do anything. The teachers just kept passing me on to the next grade because I was always the oldest in the class.
Kathy: I feel like a lot of my vocabulary comes from growing up in a church.
Na: That’s why we don’t know how to say vagina in Korean! [laughs] It’s hard, I was getting kind of sad and embarrassed like ‘why am I not better at this?’ When I was really young, we spoke Korean a lot and I was in Korea with my mom’s family pretty consistently but I hadn’t gone back to Korea after I was twelve. I never really learned how to read or write in school. I only spoke Korean with my mom because I didn’t live near other Koreans. And so I had this like ‘ajumma’ [middle aged woman] affect or something and a very small vocabulary. I’m sort of like a baby ‘ajumma’.
Kathy & Katie: [laughs]
Na: My dad was a white American professor of Japan and we used to live in Hiroshima. A big part of my experience in Korea recently, was that the Japanese occupation came up a lot in conversation. I would often only know the Japanese word for something that was Korean and people would want to talk about that. I started to wonder if my dad didn’t value Hangul enough to teach us.
So, actually when I got back, I asked my family for the first time why we didn’t speak Korean more and they told me that when my brother started elementary school in Kansas, the teachers sent him to a speech pathologist to get rid of his accent. They treated him like Korean was a problem, gave him this shame, so we just stopped speaking it together after that.
Installation view of A Woman Is Not A Woman, image courtesy of the artist.
Katie: Tell us more about your practice.
Na: My work is related to ways that I grew up and where I come from. I am interested in how knowledge is produced, defined or how it’s often used as a form of domination, which is how Edward Said defines Orientalism. I have methods and paths in my work which focus on how intuition and the unknown act as resistance and refusal to that domination. For a long time my practice tried to prove concepts. It really started shifting for me, ten years ago, when both of my parents got really sick. I became their caregiver and it introduced this ongoing lesson in my life of relinquishing control; the kind of control where I’m approaching knowledge as static. I had to embrace uncertainty.
Spending so much time with my parents, I reflected a lot on their roles. My mom is a Korean immigrant and comes from a lineage of shamans which she’s not always comfortable talking about. I was raised in this way where the decisions she made were based on her dreams and we would forage wild food and medicine.
My dad was one of the leading scholars of East Asia in the English language and literally defined ‘Japan’ in the Encyclopedia Britannica which was trippy for me. I think I was ten and I was like ‘wait people write the definitions in the encyclopedia? That’s where facts come from? People who are experts like my dad who’s a white man and not even Asian?’ Which quickly led to ‘is the entire encyclopedia the collective opinions of dads?’ [laughs]
I think it took my a long time to be able to reflect on how much my life relates to my practice. There’s always been this kind of questioning for me about whose knowledge has power? Whose language has power? When do those things challenge power? Who’s allowed to have that position? Whose story is recorded? What are the methods we value as ways of recording? I ended up dropping out of high school to homeschool myself. I was punk and called it civil disobedience. It’s been a long path asking ‘what are the different ways I can relate to my own sense of knowing?’
During my residency in Korea I talked to a lot of people about shamanism. Although it’s so embedded in the culture, it’s also really taboo. When I watch K-dramas there’s always a shaman episode, if not a main character. It’s the oldest form of religion in Korea. There’s a lot of shamanist influence within Korean Buddhism, Christianity, song and dance. But young women I talked to in Korea would often recoil at my interest in shamanism while also being like ‘oh, you read tarot cards, that’s really cool.’
These conversations made me reflect back on my video A Woman Is Not A Woman, thinking about the lineage of the haenyo [female divers in Jeju]. There is a question of ‘who’s gonna carry on this tradition?’ For the divers there’s a lot of political and environmental shifts impacting whether women can continue diving for seafood on Jeju Island, but for both the haenyo and the mansin [shamans] the younger generation also just has a different relationship to the traditions and the work.
My interest in shamanism and haenyo is from a feminist point of view, relating to multiplicity; a refusal of the Western idea of the singular human or linear time. Many earth-based indigenous practices were outlawed by capitalism, colonialism, and slavery because they hate that we can make something from nothing, that there is knowledge within the land and body and community. Even though women are generally the practitioners of shamanism, there is a lot of framing by men of shamanism as a spectacle, the singular aspects of ‘a woman who is possessed, who has no choice.’
Lately, my larger diasporic Asian community has been asking ‘what does our feminist ritual practice look like? What does it look like to connect with some of our heritage and traditions, that we may or may not have grown up with, and have a desire to connect with?’ I’m interested in what all our ways can be, the choices we make.
Kathy: Can you tell us more about the part in A Woman is Not A Woman where your mother is watching TV?
Na: My mom lives in downtown Philadelphia and the Korean community is very much out in the suburbs. Years ago she found this one Korean drama that’s on a Spanish language channel so the show is dubbed in Spanish and has English subtitles. My mom doesn’t speak spanish and the subtitles are too fast to read, but it was her favorite show and was the only time she saw Korean people.
I started making A Woman is Not A Woman, loosely to do with with the mermaid myth and then at some point brought it into the video not even consciously, I just started bringing in different chance elements that I already had and seeing how it affects this information that I’m trying to build. I suddenly related my mother’s immigration to The Little Mermaid story where she trades her voice for legs so that she can be human. It’s really a story the video told me, there is a magic in the noticing, a narrative that is beyond what I can think.
I always feel this video is a meditation stone turning round and round. Meanwhile, there’s a lot more Korean programming on US television now and my mom has a hundred shows that she watches. She has deep cable channels. She knows about way more shows than me.
Katie: Speaking of spirits, what does Phantom Limb mean to you?
Na: The phantom limb is an enigma. It’s like a spirit, it’s an experience that you can’t really prove but is being had. In relationship to the Korean diaspora, maybe it’s this part of me I don’t always know how to define or it may not be defined in a way that anybody else experiences. It’s missing and it’s extra, which is something I’m interested in, excess and absence.
Katie: It’s also like trying to adapt and relates to the rhetoric around being grounded in two countries. It’s feeling like you belong in multiple locations, how nationality and race are often talked about in terms of soil in the US, or blood in Korea, as indicators of citizenship.
Na: I don’t feel grounded in my body which I think is an experience of trauma that many of us have but it’s also one of the markers of diaspora, that there’s movement in the body. Sometimes, I don’t relate to the goal or language around being grounded, what that has to look like. Because dirt moves, blood moves as a liquid in side you, the ground is always moving.☁
For more of Na Mira's work, please visit her website at na-mira.com