A conversation with artist Jesse Chun

conducted by Sumita Chakravarty

The following conversation was inspired by an exhibition by Chun in which bureaucratic documents of travel are central to artworks that unpack their varied meanings. such documents are at once material objects and carriers of fraught signification in the contemporary world. Chun literally peels back the layers to bring to visibility what we cannot see in a document like the passport — any passport — such as watermarks, official insignia, grids and lines. Using techniques that she discusses below, she transforms this banal document into enigmatic art, putting aside the usual associations of passports with border control and discriminatory practices to evoke transformative images for new ways of looking.

  1. Why the passport? What led you to this particular object as suited to artistic experimentation? Were there unique challenges and opportunities in such a choice of object to work upon?

    I’m interested in notions of home and how we construct the framework of belonging through ways of expression and interpretation. I’m interested in speaking from my personal experience but opening it up almost like a vessel for this topic (migration). I’m interested in unveiling layers of meaning that are already embedded in the found sources, those found sources that define what ‘home’ is.

  1. Can you address the idea of mediation? Specifically, what is your relationship to paper as a medium? How does ‘On Paper’ tell the story of migration, your own or anyone else’s?

    I was interested in paper as a medium because I’m interested in working with found sources and paper really records its existence and it is like a proof or an evidence of how someone is validated. I’m fascinated by the power and the weight that paperwork carries in that context. On Paper, obviously, is stemming from my own personal experience of migration but again, I think it can open up to be a metaphor for a collective transit, and I think that in my work and in my practice I always think about how, even though I’m using my own narrative, it is really important to me that it opens it up to other people and that it becomes about this shared experience which is for instance, global mobility. And while it is not relevant for everyone, there are people who have had to deal with that or deal with migration and displacement. The thing that I’m really invested in is this notion of home and everyone seems to have a longing to belong, and longs for this place to call home. Everyone needs paperwork to travel, and this is literally how we are defined across borders and this is how your identity is recorded and validated, so in that way none of us can escape that framework. So using that found language and imagery, if I can play with the context, and try to figure out something in the layers that is universal to us . . . I think that’s how the work ends up becoming more about the poetics of home rather than the framework or the system.

  1. I want to ask you how your experience of living in four different countries influences the way you think of, and understand, identity.



    I have lived in Seoul, Hong Kong, New York and Toronto. For me, living in four countries and on top of that, basically witnessing the Handover – witnessing colonialism in a really personal way, because I grew up in Hong Kong before the Handover. I was there when it* was a British colony, and after it was returned to China. The night of the Handover ceremony is one of those moments of my life where, basically the constructs of what makes a country literally just came down, and I was really confused, sitting there as a kid, because one flag is going up and the other is going down. I hadn’t moved out of my couch, but the country’s changed overnight. So, on top of migration, being a transcultural kid and attending an international American school during the week and then attending a Korean school on Saturdays in Hong Kong, that already was quite a fragmented cultural experience. Witnessing the Handover and being part of that whole experience of colonialism and post-colonialism, and then moving to the States and then moving to Canada, I think that, it has definitely influenced me in a really profound way, because I think that my experience of belonging in a place or being a part of a country has always been more a fluid and fragmented experience. I think in that way, in my work I’m always kind of deconstructing and challenging these notions that are more “stable” or “fixed” because I do wonder about the impermanence of things and the things that are there to validate you.

  1. Is it more enriching to think of oneself as traversing between cultures or to feel that one belongs somewhere?

    Globalization has become such a big part of our lives even for those who are not necessarily mobile, because of the Internet and Social Media. Even if you are not moving and not traveling, you are still exposed to all these cultures. I do think that, ideally, it would be great when we can start to acknowledge the multiplicity of culture that is merging, because globalization has impacted us in ways we don’t even realize on a daily basis. I think it has a lot to do with othering others. In an utopian sense, if we realized that we can all be the “other” depending on where you are, that could open up the notion of belonging more. Even in my own homeland which is South Korea, I still feel othered because I don’t feel like I really belong there and then when I’m in any of the other countries I’m still the other. So I never feel like I fully belong anywhere. But because of that fact, the perspective I have of the world is that there is no one person that is the other, there is no one group that is the other, we are all others in a way, having a transcultural view makes me realize that I don’t want to think that there is the other, but that’s a very ideal perspective – I can understand that it is a little naïve and I can’t flatten the way everyone views the world, but I do think that the concept of the other is dependent on the cultural context and where you go geographically. Even the way that otherness is written about in the West is very Western narrative-centered, but from an Eastern perspective you are the other. So I think it is important to think about otherness in contexts of the perspective and the geography and that all of those things are really fluid in a way.
  1. Given what you said, what is your sense of community?

    I attended an American International school in Hong Kong and we’d always have American anthropologists come and they’d ask us, “Do you guys know where you are from or do you know where home is?” and all of us would be kind of confused, and they’d say that we were the third culture kids and the symptom of being a third culture person is that you belong everywhere and yet you don’t belong anywhere. And so, I think my community is obviously my community in New York, the friends I’ve made here have pretty much become family and also the artistic community. But also, because of my culturally fragmented experience — my family is in Asia and I have friends in other parts of the world — so I do feel that I have to put in such an effort to stay connected and even I think my personal and family relationships get fragmented because it is just so hard to keep in touch, even with technology. So it does affect you not in just a cultural identity kind of sense but being apart affects you in your emotional sense of experience. I think the limitations of being kind of everywhere and nowhere, it makes you feel isolated in some ways but at the same time, home, to me, really relates to your community and the people that you are surrounded by, and that’s why I feel like New York for me feels like the closest thing to a physical home.

    SC: I think we tend to bypass the fact that the body is still the body and that it is still placed somewhere; physicality is certainly important.

    JC: Yes, and I think that speaking of place, there is a Chinese-American conceptual geographer named Yi-Fu Tuan who has a book called Space Versus Place and there’s a quote that says “place is a pause in movement” and I like that because we tend to think of place as the place you grew up or what you call home but there are all these places in between, and the non-places. I think that life and the more long term aspect of belonging, it is a series of movements, even if it is in your daily structure, so I just think about how those places are equally “place,” that non-place is equally place. I think about how we talk about place as if we are in a place but that those places are also within us, so you harbor those places in you, and take them with you. So in a sense we become part of these places and they become part of us, so there is this intertwined structure.

6. Let’s talk a little bit about art. What are your tools and how do you approach them, what do they do for you?

I like working with found sources, whether it’s bureaucratic documents of travel or in my other work, found language and also with domestic home décor sources. In my practice I like working with things that already exist, narratives and iconographies and symbols of home, and re-contextualizing and transforming them into my own narratives that are often challenging the pre-existing notions and fragmenting them and turning them into a more fluid and sometimes, more transcultural interpretation. In my practice, I’m trying to question the pre-existing notions and trying to unveil the layers and see what’s underneath that, and what are some of the core ideas that we feel about home and that are found in these other aspects of our lives, whether I find that at Home Depot or in my own immigration documents. It is important for me to work with things that are already existing because I like playing that role of the editor, the artist as editor, and in a way translating from my own perspective what these things could mean, and turning them into a metaphor in our collective transit and our collective experience.

7. What do you think the role of the artist in all this is, and the position of the artist?

I think that an artist can pose really good questions and also open up new ways of looking at things, and new ways of experiencing things. From my own practice I’d like providing new ways for people to experience things that they are already familiar with. I think part of being an artist is that you exist in this world and you are trying to make sense of it, you are bringing your own experience and your own ways of looking. When you make work that makes people think, that’s pretty much what art does and what I expect my own work can do: to pose questions and bring people into considering things differently.

8. There seem to be two dominant ways to think about the artist, one as someone who documents their experience of the world, as they see it and know it, and the other as somebody who is a visionary, projecting alternate worlds. What do you think is the defining characteristic of today’s (migrant) artist?

I can’t speak for everyone who is working in the contemporary art context, but I can speak for myself.  My work is conceptually driven, I definitely think that I align myself with artists who are thinkers, and artists who are invested in questioning things and keeping a critical outlook or who read critically into things that already exist. Specifically for today’s “migrant” artists, I think that many of us can’t separate our experience of the world from our work; the series of events that shapes your perspective naturally become a part of your work. I think that artists who deal with this topic of migration have to be aware of their contexts constantly, and try to push the boundaries of geo-political stereotypes.

9. How is your artistic practice being affected by a range of new ways to communicate through digital froms and formats?

My work is definitely being affected by it. In On Paper, I used digital technology to retouch, to recreate, and to erase information, so the digital tools are a very big part of it. I just did a video poetry performance using Google Translator. I think that the Internet and new tools of technology have definitely opened up my practice to talk about things that are relevant and to address things in unconventional ways. So I might not be painting, but maybe I’m painting in Photoshop, and using the tools to make something new and sometimes appropriating things from the Internet, so I think that for me, new technologies have opened up new ways of collecting and new ways of curating and looking.

SC: And is that an exciting process?

JC: Yes! Personally, I think that my work deals a lot with transculturalism, and if I don’t have the budget to travel, I can go on Google and Youtube and extract the things that I need. So for me it is really helpful especially because I’m dealing with trans-culturalism, I think it allows me to have access to various cultures and places.

SC: So do you see this as an emerging practice? Is there a ‘genre’ of transculturalism? Structurally, or stylistically, are there certain recognizable features of this work that you are part of?

JC: There are so many different sectors of movement and stylistic differences that I wouldn’t be able to categorize it as one.

SC: What are some of the dominant ones?

JC: I think appropriation art is something that obviously started around the 70’s but with the Internet artists continued to work with appropriation. I think of artists who work with notions of home or people, who work with their own life story but turn it into a socio-political critique of the places where they are from. I think of Doho Suh in terms of trans-cultural rhetoric, and for poetry I think of Theresa Cha who passed a long time ago. I try to navigate through those practices and the conceptual concerns of their practice, because in terms of formal approaches, there are so many and a lot of artists are interdisciplinary. That’s what’s exciting about contemporary art right now, nobody is committed to just one  thing; people are exploring in various ways and that’s what’s exciting.

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