Chasing Traces of Time - Talking With Korean artist Jazoo Yang

August 29, 2018

When you think about the notion of time, the present and the past, about artists, streets and walls, one way or another you will find yourself staring at the image of the Berlin Wall - a wall which was always a symbol of the utterly physical line between the present and the past; between the world with a future and the one which was destined to be inevitably lost.

In 1989, when the wall fell, on the other side of the continent the family of the 10-year-old Jazoo Yang moved to the new small apartment in the middle of a large-scale redevelopment area. The urban landscape of South Korea was rapidly changing at that time, so there was always some construction work near Jazoo’s home. It’s not hard to imagine how she used to spend the time with her younger brother by exploring the ruins on the site or simply watching the workers shifting between destruction and construction.

Ironically, today Jazoo Yang is based in Berlin, and the big part of her artistic practice is questioning the destructive side of redevelopment – the moment when the small villages are disappearing in a favor of big businesses and human life is worth nothing in the eyes of gentrification. And yes, she does think about the issue of North Korea and South Korea when she’s approaching the remains of the Berlin Wall.

Through her artistic practice, Jazoo Yang tries to understand the nature of time and to explore the special kind of nostalgia – a longing for the unfamiliar past. Jazoo is wandering through the streets of different cities with a great care for details and the objects around her. This is the way she collects the fragments of urban environment in order to transform the broken pieces into framed works. Whether it is a layer of the peeled pale paint, the piece of wood or a tile, these “specimens” are meant to maintain the certain time and place in the hands of an artist. When German artist Kurt Schwitters was collecting the fragments of the ruined country during the interwar period, those pieces were screaming in his collages. But times have changed and the modern age is merely one step away from being overwhelmingly noisy; there is no use from screaming here anymore. Jazoo's pieces are not screaming; instead, they are gently whispering a promise never to forget.

In 2015, back in the days when Jazoo Yang was still living in South Korea, she started the Dots series. She simply covered the house which was set to be demolished with her fingerprints. Meticulously day by day, fingerprint by fingerprint, she marked the entire house with INJU (traditional Korean ink-soaked pad used for taking thumbprints on the documents, since it has a legal effect similar to a personal signature). It was Jazoo’s poetical act against the redevelopment crisis in the port town of Motogol. It was her very own way to overcome the personal trauma and the common sorrow of local inhabitants who were forced to witness the wreckage which they once called home.

And do you know who actually taught Jazoo Yang how to use INJU in a proper way? It was the manager working at this particular redevelopment area. From the very beginning, the man wanted to get rid of the uninvited artist on the site, but soon he somehow became friendly with her. Maybe it was caused by support of local inhabitants or perhaps by her charm which naturally comes with such a sensitive persona. Whatever the reason might be, the manager opened to her through many stories and he was the one who made a valuable advice - to mix the ink with water in order to have a clear fingerprint. He surely knew the case, since all the documents regarding redevelopment were validated by INJU thumbprints. Made by the hands of residents…

One year later, Jazoo continued the Dots series by addressing the Sewol tragedy, one of the most traumatic events in modern South Korean history. This time, she got other people involved as well and proposed that them to create the dots on canvas by using the candlelight. Those blackened or sometimes even burned dots were meant to become people’s memories captured by the canvas.

The artistic practice of Jazoo Yang varies between the studio work, street intervention and live painting. Therefore, she can simultaneously fit into the “uncontaminated” gallery show or the “street art” event. Lately, she participated in the 8th edition of Bien Urban, a French festival which is currently considered as one of the most genuine and forward-thinking events in the field of urban art. This year, the festival was co-curated by American artist Brad Downey, thus Jazoo Yang had a chance to discover the streets of Besançon in a company of Santiago Sierra, Helmut Smits, Vladimir Turner and other artists who are known for their unconventional perception of the street.

More about what Jazoo Yang created on the streets of Besançon and how it represents her artistic practice is in the interview down below.

Jazoo Yang, Dots mural for Bien Urbain
Jazoo Yang, Dots mural for Bien Urbain

Mural as a Memory Recorded on the Wall

Kristina Borhes: Besançon is full of the old architecture which is preserved as a cultural heritage. Was it interesting to work in such an area? Since it seems to be strongly connected to your artistic practice through the themes like time, memory and the preservation of the past.

Jazoo Yang: It was the first time I visited European city with such a long history. So, everything seemed very new to me. Everything was special for me because it was so fresh and exciting and it wasn’t easy to find the traces of the time in this city.

KB: Tell me more about your specific experience during the mural production in Besançon. Is this building going to be demolished?

JY: Besançon's building is not going to be demolished. Perhaps the building itself will continue to exist, but the fingerprints left on the wall will disappear with time because of the nature of Inju (The Asian Traditional Ink which I use for the Dots murals.)

KB: If I’m not mistaken, the “Dots” series started in Korea and the first time you were working alone, right? Then you involved the local people in the next one in Russia and again in France lately. How the process in different countries differs?

JY: The Dots work in Busan (South Korea) and the work in Besançon are completely different works conceptually. The first Dots work in Busan was done entirely by myself. Together with Dots: Candlelight, it was the result of the direct and indirect experiences of not being able to catch up with the pace of the ever-changing metropolis, and it was also an attempt to heal the trauma caused by the Sewol ferry incident.

In St. Petersburg during the exhibition Crossing Borders/Crossing Boundaries, the theme was extended to the subject of European migrants and refugee issues, including the situation in Korea. I imprinted fingerprints on the outer walls of the Street Art Museum with six illegal migrant workers in St Petersburg. While imprinting our fingerprints, we talked about our lives and memories as individuals, apart from the history or existence as refugees, migrants or artists.

Dots in Besançon was the moment when the work itself evolved into the next dimension beyond me. More than 200 people, including refugees who are legally resident in Besançon, immigrants, tourists from many different cities and countries, and local residents voluntarily participated in the production of this mural. If the works within Dots series in South Korea and Russia were still about myself, the mural in France is purely about other people, about citizens. I just talked with them when they were imprinting their fingerprints.

Perhaps this work seems to have a different meaning depending on where it is done and on the people. In the same act of taking fingerprints as a record of the moment, I hope that the memories of people across the border will be left on the walls.

KB: You mentioned that you’ve talked with the local people during the process. Which specific story now comes to mind first?

JY: I especially remember a boy from Chad, Africa. Before we were imprinting our fingerprints on the wall, we enjoyed the picnic in front of the mural, and he sat alone all the time. He didn’t utter a word during the picnic. But when it was just me and him on scaffolding during production, he suddenly began to pour a lot of stories about himself in fluent English. It was a totally different person from the boy I’ve met on the ground. When he came down under scaffolding, he returned to his silent appearance.

KB: It seems like the thumbprint murals are demanding a lot of time and significant effort. And when you use your own fingers as a “tool” during the painting on the huge outdoor wall – obviously you will have some micro-damage on the hands. Is it important for an artist like you to have this personal physical effort/or self-damage?

JY: As I said earlier, the first DOTS work was an attempt to heal my own direct and indirect trauma that was experienced at the time of social turmoil. In Korea, there are cases when people often make their own body suffering in order to overcome an indelible wound which an individual cannot handle. For example, a mother who has lost a child is bowing thousands of times. I did not understand such an act because I thought that act could not solve the essential problem. However, there are things that cannot be done by one person. Despite the helplessness, there are times when you need to do something again by yourself.

At the candlelight vigil dedicated to the Sewol Ferry Incident, the citizens’ slogan was “I will not forget it”. But time passed, and people gradually wanted to forget the incident. I could not bear to see how everything changes so quickly and disappears and becomes forgotten, including tragedy like the Sewol Ferry incident, or the disappearance of an old town into a redevelopment area. But in those huge social events, I was only a very small individual. So, I inscribed my own fingerprints on a small house that will disappear soon in Busan. This act at least gave me a certain sense of psychological stability.

Re-Mix by Jazoo Yang
Re-Mix by Jazoo Yang, photo by Andrade Jault Gabriel

Urban Intervention as a Conversation between The Artist and Street Objects

KB: It is very interesting how your predominantly very personal and literally physical touch (painting with hands, or thumbprint) is combined with a quite indirect gesture such as reproduction through paste-up (in “Strawberry house” project, or in “Re-Mix” series).

JY: I take the sense of substance very personally. That's why I focus on a wall on the street and the materials I’ve collected in there. If you touch and feel some object, you can notice more details than you can see with just your eyes. So, materials become the main agent, they make me do something for them rather than I do something using them on my purposes. The Re-Mix series is an idea from that process. In fact, the original idea of this series is to cut the walls themselves and mix them together. Looking for a more realistic method, I’ve started to use the paste-up instead of cutting wall. However, if there will be an opportunity, I will implement this original idea.

KB: Could you tell a bit about your street intervention in Besançon?

JY: In Besancon, besides the Dots work, I made one more installation on the Emile Zola street. I filled the potholes on the street with resin and materials I peeled from the walls of different buildings in Besançon. As the result, we’ve got the colorful permanent installations. For this work, I walked the streets every day collecting pieces of windows, roof tiles, stone walls in the area of the old city. There was an opportunity to get inside an old former hospital which will be ruined soon due to safety issues, so I collected the various materials that I found in there and exhibited them. I found very old glasses, experimental tools, and amazing machines.

KB: I guess we can say with a confidence that this kind of artistic approach demands the special way of seeing the city and experiencing it.

JY: To me, it is a walk. It is not just walking, but walking with great care and attention in my way.

KB: Can you tell more about your Instagram project “Unexpected Wall”? It illustrates your “way of seeing” in a quite eloquent manner.

JY: This is what I ultimately aimed to do. It's a conversation between me and objects on the street. I want to suggest, instead of expressing something through my artistic practice. “Unexpected wall” is a question thrown at me on the street. I take that question and suggest it to the audience again in my own way. Among the objects on the street, especially those that I am interested in are old materials like cement, stone, iron. Cement is an artifact and the most common industrial material. However, this cement breaks down over time, becomes mossy, and looks like a stone. Timber used in architecture were originally natural objects from trees, but they were converted into artifacts by human touch. After a long time, it goes back to nature. My interest is to explore these materials that contain or resemble civilization and nature.

KB: It seems like you have the fine arts education. But even in your studio work, you’re still using the objects from the street. Although at some point, you started not only work on the street but actually work in the field of “street art” (I mean your participation in street art events such as “Crossing Borders/Crossing Boundaries”, Bien Urbain or forthcoming NuArt Festival). How does it feel to be in this “street art” clique?

JY: No. I did not receive an arts education. I studied arts by myself. I started working on my own artistic practice very spontaneously in my late 20s. Until then, I wanted to be a cartoonist and I also worked as a member of a team that created a magazine about Korean underground art. It was the first online magazine on Korean independent music, comics and art. I also used to make documentary films and work in the game companies for a while.

Then one day, I suddenly wanted to make a really big painting. At that time, however, the studio apartment I was living in was so small that I had to paint on the abandoned wall near my house. At that moment, the wall of the street was simply a canvas for me. And when I looked for a place where I could paint more, I worked mainly in the redevelopment area of Seoul. It was a place where public access was prohibited, therefore I was able to work relatively freely. When I painted on the debris of a broken building, I became naturally interested in the objects around the wall, and then I reflected the inspiration from the street back into the studio’s work. As I continued to work on the street, I naturally heard many stories from the area. The street that earlier was just a canvas or a workspace for me started to talk with more colorful stories. More and more I’ve become interested in the streets and the people living in there.

Since I started by myself at a late age, I did not have any artist friends or clique, both from Street art or a fine art scene even in Korea at that time. So, in 2010, I’ve met some artists at a Backjumps's lecture in Seoul. Artists such as Brad Downey, The Wa and Akim were there. I didn’t think their work was street art, I mean… street art like Banksy or JR… I accepted their work as a very conceptual and progressive art done on the street and I liked it. So far, the works I have been interested in are things of that sort.

Unexpected Wall by Jazoo Yang
Unexpected Wall by Jazoo Yang

Stealing Time by Collecting Pieces of the Wall

KB: Let’s talk about “Stolen Time” exhibition. Are all the paintings of “Materials” series made from the fragments of the walls from Korea? What is the basic idea behind this series?

JY: All of the framed works exhibited in Besançon are made from materials collected in Korea. Usually, one framework is made with only the materials from one city. In Busan, Korea in 2016, I had the opportunity to work with an old house that had been sealed for a long time. It was the first time I walked into a building which no one had been visiting for 30 years. The smell and atmosphere were very unfamiliar. And the various tracks of time on the wall were so attractive.

I originally intended to make a mural on the inner wall of the building, but I gave up on that. Instead of removing the traces of the time on the walls by paint, I began to collect the pieces from it. I thought that it was like stealing a time which piled up from the building when I collected those pieces.

KB: It’s very interesting how you actually work with the fragments, “specimens” and the idea of the found object. So, talking about “Materials”: by deconstructing the physical constructions (such as walls, fences, houses etc) and taking the parts of it from “time and space”, it seems like you don’t tend to tell the particular stories related to the people. Could it be that you’re telling your personal story through it? What is your story about?

JY: It is about “time”. The issue that I was constantly interested in was the original sense of humans in relation to the urban changes. Urban speed flows faster than the human body speed. Therefore, the body of the person in the space is forcibly fitted to the flow of the big city. The details of the body's senses are easily forgotten in a situation that can be said to be violent.

When I first unlocked the seal of an old house in Busan located in the middle of the city, it felt like touching something closer to nature than the violence of the city. The unusual atmosphere, the smell, the sound, and the visual elements of the unexpected house soon began to stimulate me very sensitively. The more I experienced the senses that were so sensitive and experienced the traces left in this house, the more I felt the longing and nostalgia that seemed to exist here as well. Feeling nostalgic in the unfamiliar place is a truly special experience. What is longing or nostalgia? What is this sense when you are suddenly nostalgic every time you work at the old alleys and buildings and encounter strange places?

Personally, the work at the old house in Busan has transformed the familiar feeling of longing into a special experience. I’ve decided to retrace the longing. And this experience gave me a better view of the city.

Jazoo Yang, Installation view at Gallery Boaninn, Seoul, 2017
Jazoo Yang, Installation view at Gallery Boaninn, Seoul, 2017

Music as an Inspiration

KB: A lot of painters, and especially abstract painters, are talking about the strong connection between the painting process and the music. I like the way you were literally connected to a musician during your live performance in 2013. Does it work the same way in your studio everydayness?

JY: Music is an important source of inspiration for me, [it is as] important as the streets. I usually listen to music when working in the studio. Do you know that people do not listen to the new music anymore when they are over 30 years old on average? I'm consciously trying to gain the new auditory experience. Because I think it is really important that I can be able to keep receiving an audible shock.

KB: Which music do you prefer?

JY: I try to listen to experimental music from contemporary composers like Luc Ferrari, Iannis Xenakis, György Ligeti, Carl Stone. It is not easy. Mostly very boring. Sometimes, however, I encounter music that shakes every sensation I have ever experienced.

Written by Kristina Borhes.

Featured images: Jazoo Yang, Installation for Bien Urbain, France 2018. All images courtesy the artist.