My work doesn’t attempt to make statements, it asks questions

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We gathered in the port city of Antwerp to visit MHKA’s Eurasia –  A Landscape of Mutability. The exhibition explores how the plurality of cultures can give birth to new forms of artistic exchanges and innovative practices. We sat down with Julia Dahee Hong, a Canadian artist currently based in Antwerp to talk about the artistic imagination and mutability within art practice. Hong is a master in liberating visual cues associated with advertising and commercial aesthetics from their usual ideologies and mutating them into new contexts. Her multidisciplinary practice looks into visible and invisible forms of labour, and questions the belief systems we have attached to service industries.

In what ways do you think Antwerp is a city of flux and mutability?

Antwerp is an interesting city that is at once culturally diverse and monocultural. It is also a transit city where many people come and go. I guess change happens quietly here. I haven’t lived here long enough to feel I can answer this question, but from my experience, I have noticed that institutions are becoming more open to change and transformation. In 2020, alongside my peers, I launched a survey project to document the systematic discrimination at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp to discuss the problems that exist within the current educational system and how it has been affecting the students. Since then we have presented suggestions of the kind of transformation that needs to happen in order to create a more open, decolonized curriculum and education. I guess from my experience, that’s the kind of institutional change that is beginning to take shape in Antwerp.

I guess change happens quietly here

As an international artist, has the globality of cultures you inhabited influenced your work? Do you feel like there is something in that movement or migration that has shaped your artistic inquiry?  

I don’t particularly think it has. The themes I work with, like service and labour, are omnipresent and global. I think my work is not tied down to a place or a particular identity. I could be anywhere and I would still be making the same work. Of course, my identity is embedded in my work, but the elements I engage with are not tied down to my cultural identity per se. 

Could you tell us about your practice? 

I come from an artistic background that is rooted in photography, which has now evolved into a fluid, material practice. After my BFA, I liberated my practice from medium–specificity and chose to view medium as a tool, rather than a product. Just like you would use different tools to get different jobs done, I started to use the medium in this unrestrained, mobilizing way.  This has allowed me to have an open attitude to art–making. On the one hand, you run the risk of never perfecting a medium, at least technically. But on the other hand, it allows you to venture and explore other mediums, such as performance, sound, and sculpture, to experiment more in shaping your artistic ideas materially.

I started to use the medium in this unrestrained, mobilizing way

My latest work Do Not Fold, Spindle, Or Mutilate (2021) was exhibited in Kunsthal ExtraCity, in an exhibition that took place at the end of the residency I undertook at AAIR Antwerp. Spindles are those small metal structures that are used in service or office jobs to collect receipts or tickets. In this work, I recreate this structure on a large scale, and instead of tickets, there are large transparent smiles suggesting that the imagery of smiles has become an invoice. 

This work seems to be very connected with the idea of emotional labour. 

Yes. Emotional labour, service, and hospitality are central themes to my work. Through this work, I was thinking about what hospitality represents nowadays and how it has been modified from a genuine service that people do for you versus what it is now: a transactional service, where even the smile has become a commodity, something to be made or ordered. 

Even the smile has become a commodity

What’s interesting about emotional labour is how it inhabits the body. You cannot disconnect your body from what you do. It just violates you to an extent. There is no distance between who you are and what you do. In a way, you never really know to what extent it is you or how much you have morphed into a working body. The sense of (self-) alienation can be overwhelming but surprisingly imperceptible too.

Did any of the works in the exhibition resonate with you and your practice? 

I found Taus Makhacheva’s works particularly interesting. For example, Landscape was a collection of wooden objects representing human noses modelled after Caucasian types. I’m interested in how Makhacheva uses the body as a metaphor for landscape. My practice also uses the language of the body to talk about larger issues. I use imagery of the body in very anonymous ways too. In We Can Hear Them Utter Their Complaints Strangely (2020) I cast feet from my fellow artists to support a reconstructed large service bell and of the bell was an electronic tip box that allowed visitors to leave a gratuity (tip). These sculpted feet can seem as if they are being crushed by the huge service bell,  which is connected to the broader ideas of service, capitalism, and consumption. I always find it more relatable when elements of the human body are present in the work since we always recognize ourselves in our human element. 

Throughout the show, we saw art and objects being used to make the argument about mutability. How can objects show this nature of change?

Objects are laden with memory, what we call tactile memory. Ria Pacquee’s work Hats, and Bassir Mahmoud’s Lunda Bazaar used clothing as an object to study transformation that occurs through migration and movement. Appropriated, borrowed, or bought objects are also common in my practice, so I like to see how other artists have used objects to create a transcultural dialogue between different environments and contexts. 

Objects are laden with memory

Did any of the works in the exhibition relate to themes or questions you are interested in pursuing?

In terms of themes, I wish to further explore ideas connected to alienation and labour. In our contemporary world, everything is a service. Even as an artist, I’m always reflecting on the service I provide to the world. My work doesn’t attempt to make statements, but it does ask questions. What I try to create is a small environment that triggers the viewer to interact and rethink their opinions and values. I think this transformed way of self–reflecting is the service I provide. What I propose are open questions to think about or to evaluate. If my art continues to effectively engage viewers, I would be happy with that. 

One of the pieces, Metahaven’s Eurasia (Questions on Happiness) is a multimedia work that combines moving images, writing and design, to reflect on the permeable borders between information, fantasy, fact and fiction. I’m interested in this form of speculative inquiry and I liked the aspect of a fictionalized environment that fuses fact, fiction, and subverts and transforms original references. I think this mode of inquiry is powerful.


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