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Spring 2006 | v.02 n.02 |

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A Calendar of Two Searches
Sowon Kwon

Artist and Visiting Professor in the MFA Program in
Visual Art at Vermont College


This text addresses three recent works: Calendar, a sculptural installation made up of twelve looped animations that feature the repetitive, futile actions of an “average female” figure based on an ergonomic template; harlem cartoon which traces an online search in the form of a digital snapshot and giveaway postcard; and dong ghap which is also based on a web search -- and is part of an ongoing series of works in a range of media -- that ruminate on the confluence of personal and historical memory, uncanny cosmologies, and self-portraiture. All three works address the ways in which the “old” complicates the “new,” especially as our bodies, perception, and identities are increasingly submitted to and made (in)accessible through technology.


Figure 1 & 2. From series Average Female,
Sowon Kwon, drawings on blueprints, about 1990.

If images could function epigraphically, these blueprints from about 1990 might serve that purpose for this paper. They are from the average female series, drawings and prints made using an ergonomic template of a standardized female figure whose proportions are derived from amassing statistical averages of body measurements. These templates are used by architects and designers to aid them in designing things like furniture, cars, the height of kitchen counters, etc. presumably for maximum comfort and/or efficiency.

Blueprints can deteriorate quickly. I was very attracted to the ephemerality of the material at the time, and also with the idea that blueprints signal a process.  They are "working drawings" as architects call them, a transitional document that reveals an underlying structure, but is not the final or built form itself. These are small about 8 x 10 inches, but I also made some quite large.

Figure 3. From series Average Female, Sowon Kwon,
drawings on blueprints, about 1990.

This blueprint is about 8' square and is printed on linen, a chemical process using specially treated cloth and ammonia, which was a way of archiving blueprints before microfiche. It wasn't easy finding printers using this process in the early 1990s, and now of course with CAD and digitization, it is completely outmoded. But even then I wanted to animate the figure as narratives came to mind. By the time I finally got to it, it was about ten years later, so I have to accept that sometimes things take a long time. Because I had a decent computer by then, I skipped over the film and animation stand stage:

[>] See QuickTime 1 (Offline. it will be available soon )
This is called Average Female (February).
She takes 12 breaths, then loops.


Figure 4. Calender, Sowon Kwon,
installation at The Kitchen, 2005.

Calendar is the latest iteration of the average female series as installed at The Kitchen in Chelsea in spring 2005. It is comprised of 12 of these looped animations to reference the annual cycle of time. I think of Calendar as a kind flexible sculpture that can be shown on any combination totaling 12, of available A/V equipment ranging from television monitors and analog tape players to computer screens and digital compact disc systems. At the Kitchen I worked closely with the curator and the installation crew who were great about providing me with equipment ranging from the latest DVD decks, to mostly Sony monitors from the late 70s and early 80s that still worked great for my purposes, but had been shelved and literally gathering dust to make way for the demand for newer toys.

Figure 5. Close-up of Calender, Sowon Kwon,
installation at The Kitchen, 2005.

The piece became an assemblage of monitors and playback equipment piled together sort of Paik Nam June-style (Paik as sign or memory and not direct reference to his use of monitors as sculptural objects). But I also like the allusions to a store display (or maybe even a pawn shop) or the idea of just so much furniture, as TV sets can be in a home or domestic context. I also hoped that it would become a kind of condensed history and inventory of so called "prosumer" apparatuses for “new media” presentations at institutions like The Kitchen, as they continue to bridge the rapidly outmoded to the “state of the art.”

Figure 6. Calender, Sowon Kwon,
 installation at The Kitchen, 2005.

Perhaps another important thing to mention is the interest in the old minimalist idea of expanding the perceptual field from the object itself, to the spatial context, to the architecture of not the white cube here, but the black box as The Kitchen (at least at the time of my show) was outfitted for performance and theatrical presentations.  So I like working with the specificities of the site--physically, as well as socially and historically. I think for artists of my generation, The Kitchen's formation marks an idealized moment--pioneering beginnings of performance, of video (so called new media then). So the piece and the show as a whole was a chance to consider some of the ramifications of ideas that motivated post-Minimalist and feminist American artists, many who were featured at The Kitchen: questioning the ideals of traditional media, the centrality of the body as a site of social and political inscription, and the focus on the phenomenological experience of the viewer.

Figure 7. Calender, Sowon Kwon,
installation at The Kitchen, 2005.

The animations were not synched, and there was no sound, just these repetitive actions fading in and out. I wanted it to be something like breathing. They were also black and white, new and old, slightly anachronistic. Here is one more "month":

[>] See QuickTime 2 (Offline. it will be available soon )

This also loops over and over. I think Calendar is also a kind of rumination on the fragility of identity, to use a nineties word, about how we perhaps disintegrate and reintegrate all the time.



To introduce the second work, I brought some images from about 1983 or so, even older than the blueprints:

Figure 8. Fou, Sowon Kwon,
sketch from about 1983.

What I notice when I look at this etching, is like the previous animation, there is the importance of line, as well as an ambivalence or struggle with discourse, with words, with language. There is also the use of text with image and as image, the pictorializing of words, using words as a kind of texture or even atmosphere. I hope you'll also notice the cartoonish style, caricature almost (although I didn't think of them that way at the time).


Figure 9. Artaud, Sowon Kwon, xeroxed drawing from early 80’s.

This is also from the early 80s, where I xeroxed a drawing, then xeroxed the xerox, etc., until the image transformed. It is an early example of an embrace of mechanical reproduction and my letting go of a certain kind of signature approach, by inviting the collaboration of the machine.

So keep that in mind: comics; text as image; the collaboration of the machine, as I show you the second "new" work entitled Harlem Cartoon Search

Figure 10. Harlmen Cartoon Search, Sowon Kwon.

This project began with an invitation from a curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem to make a small public art project, a giveaway postcard about Harlem as part of their ongoing series "Harlem Postcards." I chose to document a search entailing a comic book store, street photography, basically, but then was compelled instead with the idea of a digital snapshot of an online search. So this is the postcard. Basically I typed in the words “harlem cartoon” and dutifully culled through the first 100 entries that the search engine returned. It’s been carefully condensed and constructed, built up from the bottom to show something of the spirit of the search, if not the exact sequence or duration. I'll just point out a couple of things--I started with basketball manhwa or manga authored by a woman living in Tokyo. And I also found amazing historical material. Most of us I hope have heard of the Harlem Renaissance, and people like Jacob Lawrence or Romare Bearden, but I had not known a thing about some of their contemporaries like Oliver W. Harrington, or Ted Shearer, or Chester Commodore, who in their time reached so many more people through their work in newspapers and weeklies.



Figure 11. Self-portrait, Sowon Kwon,
oil painting, 1987.

This small oil painting from circa 1987 represents the last time I consciously made a self-portrait, this serves to introduce the last works I will discuss from a new series entitled dong ghap. I am tentatively calling the series self-portraiture, perhaps for lack of a better designation.

A desire to see or assess myself in as straightforward and matter-of-fact manner as possible, coincided with the almost accidental realization that 1963, the year of my birth, was also the publication date of Edward Ruscha’'s Twenty Six Gasoline Stations, that quintessentially matter-of-fact book of black-and-white photographs of just that: 26 gasoline stations, along Route 66 from Los Angeles, where he had been living (and continues to live) to his parent’s home in Oklahoma City. Each station represented is also captioned with its location and the name of the oil company. Ruscha later made other books such as Some Small Fires (1964), Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), 34 Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967), and so on, and Twenty Six Gasoline Stations should be seen in that context. It is a modestly scaled work physically, but considered by many to be a pioneering work of conceptual art, in that the idea for a book, the title actually, the words “twenty-six” and “gasoline” together came first. The execution was secondary. “I don’t even look at it as photography,” Ruscha has said, “They’re just images to fill a book.”

The publication year of this little book, 1963, also coincided with the year of the suicide of the American poet Sylvia Plath. Most people have heard something of the circumstances of her death. In 1963 on a cold February morning in London, after having completed what was to become another small but seminal volume of the 1960s, Ariel, Plath placed a tray of bread and milk by the beds of her sleeping children, sealed off their room, and lay her head down in her kitchen oven. Twenty six gasoline stations, gasoline asphyxiation. 1963. These two things happened while my mom was pregnant.

Here, I have to teach you a Korean word: dong ghap. There are many words in Korean that describe relationships between people that don’t translate just right into English, but in one dictionary, it says "dong" means same or together; and "ghap" means an order or sequence; and dong ghap is used to describe people who are the same age. Everyone born in 1963 is my dong ghap, for example. Sylvia Plath and Donald Rumsfeld and Paik Nam Jun are dong ghap.

So these events of 1963 are “constellated” for me, which is an appropriate way to describe it, because not only does dong ghap mean you are the same age, but (in the lunar calendar scheme of things, although I’m no expert) it means literally that the same stars were configured in the sky in the same order.

To conclude, I show a very short Quicktime titled, 1963 Gasoline Search.

[>] See QuickTime 3



Sowon Kwon is a Korean-born artist based in New York. She is a recipient of the 2005 Media Arts Residency Award from The Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, and a Visiting Professor in the MFA Program in Visual Art at Vermont College. Her exhibitions include solo exhibitions at The Kitchen (2005), The University of California Berkeley (2002), and The Whitney Museum at Altria (2000); and group exhibitions at The Drawing Center, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, ICA Boston, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; as well as internationally at The Gwangju Biennale in Korea and the Yokohama Triennale in Japan.


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