Published 24 October 2018
Transcribed recording, edited for length and clarity.
This is the fourth of five in the Phantom Limb interview series: co-curators Kathy Cho and Katie Yook in conversation with artist TJ Shin.
Images courtesy of the artist.
TJ Shin (they/them) is currently based in Brooklyn but dreams about a house that they lived in Toronto. Their zodiac sign is taurus sun, scorpio moon and aquarius rising, so all over the place, mixed charts.
Kathy: What was your last message on Kakaotalk?
TJ: I use Kakaotalk exclusively to talk to my family. Having a Kakaotalk account raises your credibility score for being Korean, [laughs] so funny. My latest messages are from my mom asking me just like, ‘How are you doing? Make sure you’re eating well. When are you visiting Korea?’
I don’t talk to my dad as often with Kakaotalk but the one message that really affected me was when we were talking about the reunification efforts and the summit meeting. He sent this message: ‘아빠는 문재인 김정은 남북한이 서로 만나는 것을 라이브로 볼것을 생각하니 가슴이 벌렁거린다. 손에 땀도 나고. 너도 멀리서 라도 기원해주라. 이제 1:30 남았다.’
Screenshot courtesy of artist.
TJ: My Korean is not that good, but basically he was saying, ‘to watch Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un for the first time live and talk about the reunification efforts, I’m sweating and my heart is pulsing. Please pray from where you are...one minute and 30 seconds left’, and I responded in Korean ‘fighting’ ‘I’m praying too’. I think that was one of the most personal messaging experiences I’ve had with my dad. What about you?
Kathy: I think mine is my mom checking in on me or something, just casual, like ‘how are you?’ Lots of emojis [laughs] and she writes to me in English, which is a way for her to practice. It seems like you know more Korean than we do. Even hearing you speak it.
TJ: When I read it, I was like, ‘oh I’m going to regret this so much’. It’s so funny because my Korean level goes up and down based on how many K-dramas I’m watching.
TJ: If I don’t put on the subtitles, I become exponentially fluent in Korean because I’m not just reading English, but it’s also funny to read the mistranslations. You’re like ‘oh that’s an interesting way to put it’, or realizing there are some words or phrases that are incredibly illegible or mistranslatable.
Katie: Can you give us any recommendations?
TJ: Have you watched Coffee Prince? You have to watch it. I’ve been telling all my friends, all my yellow femmes, to watch this because it’s kind of like an upgrade from Mulan. In it, this gender-variant, queer-presenting woman pretends to be a guy to work at a cafe called Coffee Prince.
It came out like eight years ago so it was super radical because we have the actor Gong Yoo going through this journey of realizing he’s gay because he loves this guy. What’s really interesting about this is that there’s this trope in bisexuality, where usually it’s only after the gender reveal that the man allows himself to fall in love. Like “oh, I knew it, you were a woman, I love you now’, but Coffee Prince’s premise is that he already professes his love, admits and accepts that he’s wholeheartedly queer for this man. Just seeing that on live television eight years ago in Korea was radical and I think it is still pretty radical right now.
Katie: Where did you grow up, were there a lot of Koreans around?
TJ: I was born in Seoul, grew up in Korea and then immigrated to Vancouver when I was seven and Toronto when I was fourteen. My idea of home is one of mobility or migration. I remember my family packing and moving every year.
It’s only after moving to New York that I found my yellow femme community here. Yellow Jackets Collective, Danielle Wu and the Korean queer community changed my perspective and were so instrumental to me in unlearning my toxic behaviors and learning my internalized white-adjacent behaviors. It just gets to you over the years, with my parents wanting me to assimilate into the culture because that’s what they want for their child, to be mobile and acculturated.
When I was in Toronto with my mom, she was so bored because the busyness that she grew up with in Seoul compared to the rural farmland of Canada was so unbearable to her. So, she called my dad up in Korea and was like ‘Can you get me a karaoke machine?’ So, I grew up with a private karaoke machine and the way I connected and bonded with my mom was through karaoke songs.There were big gaps between what kind of songs we liked, and I picked up a lot of my Korean through listening to her sing. Karaoke is so Korean to me because it is so embedded in my memory. Recently, I went to Korea and all the karaoke bars are closing and they’re not as popular anymore and what is such a very iconic and memorable Korean experience for the diaspora is not always the same when you go back home.
The things I can learn about Korea living here in the diaspora is often through mediated technologies like K-dramas streaming on Hulu or Drama Fever. It’s really interesting what kind of narratives are being formed in K-drama, what kind of images, and how they almost create touristic literature. They’re aware that this is not just for the Korean audience because K-drama is a booming industry in Central America and in the West. Korean culture is becoming a tool for South Korea’s growing soft power in order to present its culture on a global stage.
I don’t want to say they are orientalizing themselves because I think there is complexity in what they’re doing. It is a huge institutional industry that pumps out these multi-million production and slick images on HDTV. As a diasporic person wanting a sense of that Korean community by watching K-drama, it’s interesting to see what they choose to authenticate as a Korean identity. And when you go back to Korea, it’s not the same. It’s those kinds of mistranslations that I find interesting.
Katie: Can you talk a little bit about your work and what you’re aiming to address?
Images courtesy of artist.
TJ: I’m thinking a lot about skin: enfleshment of skin, traumatized skin, yellow skin. One of the things I’m really interested in is the rise of K-beauty and how for me that translates to people wanting to achieve the skin and the complexion of yellowness without the subjectivities, historicity or nuances of the subject. Korean skin is now getting compared to with almost the same language of a vitrified object or of an ornament: ‘glassy’, ‘porcelain’, ‘snow white’, ‘poreless’. And how that language is really similar to when yellow bodies and asiatic femininity were compared to porcelain vases and how that was incredibly fetishized in the context of transoceanic and British global trade. The lives of Asian people and porcelain almost ran parallel to each other. It’s the same legacy of Orientalism just reviving itself and reforming.
I’m also thinking about the reunification efforts of the Koreas and how that’s really changing my conception of what skin we’re even talking about when we talk about Korean skin. What we’re trying to achieve actually is South Korean skin which is one that’s been rehabilitated, reintroduced from the war. We’re not actually interested in North Korean skin, which is now categorized as Communist and impoverished.
At the moment I’m trying to work with porcelain to talk about how when it’s fired it loses its pore count. Porcelain becomes fetishized because of its impermeability. I want my porcelain to be unfired so that it is porous and easily stainable. I want to grow an organic, corporeal body because we’ve always been erased of a biological body and equated to ornaments, vases, rugs, etc.
One ingredient that I’m always coming back to is lactic acid, a probiotic microorganism that is naturally produced in fermentation processes. Yogurt, wine, cheese, and kimchi have a ton of lactic acid. I grew up eating kimchi when I was also immigrating abroad and whenever I’m homesick or sick. My mom said you have to eat kimchi when you’re sick because it makes your gut healthier.
Lactic acid fortifies your gastric lining and all of the immune system exists in the gut flora. Those without essential microbes in the gut are more vulnerable to post-traumatic stress and microaggressions that can lead to PTSD. This also connects back to how lactic acid is used as an exfoliant in the skin for K-beauty to whiten the skin. That entanglement and messiness of bodily boundaries are interesting to me in my research practice. Thinking about how to make new articulations or map out new forms of queer bodies in kinship.
Kathy: You sent us a reading by Anne A. Cheng that was really good.
TJ: Anne Cheng’s ideas of ornamentalism really changed my practice drastically. I felt so seen when she was describing us, how historically we didn’t even need a biological body. We were the first cyborgs because we were always compared to the synthetic, prosthetic, inorganic, plastic, artificial.
Katie: Are you reading anything else right now?
TJ: I’m reading Grace M. Cho Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy and the Forgotten War. She’s using the specific histories and the perspectives of the yanggongju [literally translates to ‘Western princess’] – who provided sexual labor during U.S. militarization – to think about the traumas that are suppressed from the forgotten war [Korean war]. They were brought back to America by G.I.’s as celebrations of domination. This subject is shunned by her family yet praised for her proximity to whiteness and the American Dream. Ultimately, she becomes deployed as a ‘spectral character’ in the making of American Exceptionalism and a new world order of modernity. I am interested in Cho’s ways of excavating and mapping out invisibilities like traumas and her efforts of materializing new ways of remembering.
Kathy: What does it mean to you to be included in the show with other people who are trying to process this shared identity?
Katie: ...and have you ever been framed in an exhibition specifically around being Korean?
TJ: In terms of what I think I’m bringing to the show, that’s tough because I think what I’m bringing isn’t anything really radically new. For example kimchi and fermenting are indigenous knowledge systems that my ancestors have known for years and were so crucial, even to the ratio of how much salt we need, to make it the best for fermenting food. They knew it was important as a survival mechanism during the harsh conditions and that’s something that I’m bringing forth in a new light.
I think what I’m inspired in bringing forth, from Grace M. Cho and Anne Cheng, even to radical politics, is an archive of interests that I’m compiling. We have a really rich history and my work is pointing to those incredible ontologies, entanglements and archives. Korean people have rich histories and are multi-layered, which is something that I want to honor and present in the show.
I’ve never been in a show that’s exclusively people who identify as Korean but I once curated a show about the myths and ontologies of people who identify as Asian. It was about complicating our notions of what Asian identity even means, because America’s historical and political imagination, it assumes East Asian bodies. The show was calling attention to those traditional borders and complicating them and having people like Dana Davenport talk about interminority racism as a black Korean woman. Also how because of the fact that she’s black, her Korean identity is always negated or jeopardized.
Surprisingly, that show was very politically heavy because I realized that everybody identifies themselves very differently. ‘Asia’ is a term that I wanted to employ as a way of talking about solidarity or traditional borders but some people felt that it didn’t do them justice or that it’s not their identity to reclaim. I realized it is an incredibly nuanced issue, who gets to be Asian and why others are negated due to the legacy of colorism, islamophobia, xenophobia, and/or anti-blackness.
So no, I never got to do a show that was exclusively Korean but I think it’s an incredibly important topic, especially in Britain where the political imaginary is focused on South Asians folks because of their colonial legacy. We’re complicating those notions together.
Kathy: I feel like I’ve been looking into this for at least the past 10 years, looking for different archives, stories, literature, theory that can explain this experience that we’re having. Part of this exhibition for me is working with other people to think through these things. It is really important to record it and have these conversations visible and available for other people who are going to come along later because it’s really hard to find. Especially the more intersectional you get, like when you’re researching into a queer Korean diaspora, there’s so many times when you’re learning about something where you have to adapt. You’re like, ‘this doesn’t 100% fit my experience’.
Katie: What does Phantom Limb mean to you?
TJ: When thinking about the ghostly presence, the ‘phantom limb’ in the Korean diasporic consciousness, I start to think about the genealogy of trauma and why I am here in America, of all places. I’m in a place that continues to occupy our lands and colonize the Koreas. In the process of immigration, assimilation, and racialization, I felt homesick, never knowing which home or body I am referring to or looking towards. I am a ghost. I am suspended. I am a post-memory of a war I do not understand and I did not see but embody from the legacy that haunts my idealized flesh.☁
For more of TJ Shin's work, please visit their website at jaeyeonshin.com