We Relate, Therefore We Are: Relation-Making in Jin-me Yoon's Practice
by Areum Kim
Our bus drove us through the active construction site for the Southwest Calgary Ring Road before it pulled into the remains of a movie set simulating a bombed Belgian city. The set is located on a former military training site, which the Department of National Defence leased from the Tsuut’ina First Nation for military training from 1901 to 1996.1 Part of this land was used for the production of the film Passchendaele (2008), about a white Canadian soldier in World War I. While the rest of the 380-acre plot is still embedded with unexploded landmines left behind by the military, this small section was cleaned up for the film shoot. The ruins lured me in, and I could see the exposed core material of these buildings—weathered Styrofoam— underneath the dilapidated layers of paint and decoration. Fake rubble was strewn about the site amid the real rubble left behind by military training; from afar, their origins were indistinguishable. Here, the residues of cultural and military production collapsed into each another.
We were here to participate in a film shoot for artist Jin-me Yoon’s new body of work, which has been in the making for two years in Mohkinstsis (Calgary), Treaty 7 Territory of the Blackfoot Confederacy, Stoney Nakoda and Tsuut’ina First Nation. Jin-me is a Korean-born, Vancouver based artist working and living on the unceded and occupied territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy ̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl ̓ílwətaɬ (TsleilWaututh) Nations. Jin-me’s artistic practice is recognized for her early photo-based works that deconstructed the dominant discourse of citizenship, nationhood, gender and race. This new body of work unfolds as a continuation of the artist’s ongoing inquiries into the intersections of tourism, militarism and colonialism, and positioning the body—with all its interconnected histories and memories—within specific places where these three notions converge.
Because Jin-me wanted to move beyond superficial relationships with the people who would appear in her film, so the people in front of her lens would be more than mere subjects or actors, she facilitated a series of workshops in Calgary in August 2019 called Relation Making in the Context of Racism and Settler-Colonialism, supported by Mountain Standard Time Performative Art and TRUCK Contemporary Art, as part of the film’s production. These workshops, which I participated in, set out to deepen our understanding of racism and settler-colonialism—since both are rooted in personal experience—by sharing our burdens through the practice of deep listening. The artist facilitated a group of people through a process to form a space we carved out together, and into which each person carried their unique history and identity. The workshop exemplified Jin-me’s investment in relation-making within her practice. For the artist, relation-making is “ongoing work that requires being self-aware of one’s place in the world, as a part of nature in the fullest sense, in relation to others in complex ways, both past and present.”2 Jin-me brings this openness into her art-making process, and extended an invitation to the participants in her film to be similarly open.
On the film set, we entered into the presence of several sets of elders. The workshop was led by Jin-me’s sister, Jin-sun Yoon. Jin-sun’s background is in community organizing and activism; she works specifically with mental health; human rights; at-risk youth; and racialized, queer and Indigenous individuals and communities. She led us through a process based on collective healing and deep listening, in which people were asked to introduce themselves through their ancestry and their relationship to the land they live on. We began by first listening to Glenna Cardinal, a Tsuut’ina artist whose family was instrumental in Jin-me’s process of making work in Tsuut’ina. Afterwards, Glenna’s mother, Ethel Jacobs; Glenna’s son, artist, Seth Cardinal Dodginghorse; Glenna’s daughter, Cateri Cardinal; and Glenna’s aunt, Marie Dodginghorse all generously confided in us their intimacy with the land. Honouring the closeness of Cardinal’s family and their profound connection to their land was vital grounding for Jin me, and it became important to us as well, as we looked forward to the film shoot that would unfold on Tsuut’ina lands.
Following the workshop by her sister, Jin-me gave us pieces of rubble made of Styrofoam and concrete for us to pass among ourselves in an open circle. These objects, which carried an unexpected weight, would become performative elements for her new work. The elders witnessed as we passed the synthetic rocks in a procession, a simple gesture that Jin-me conceived of—one that is grounded in being present and mindful of the land we stand on, and the space we hold together on it. The rubble represented a fragment of Jin-me’s childhood in Korea, where debris was a prominent visual reality in the wake of the Korean War, while connecting us to the rubble-scattered plot of land in Tsuut’ina where these interstices of histories and memories collide. In this open circle, through our now-established shared friendship, we could momentarily exist in the possibility of expansion through one another. Though this engaged, intentional process may not appear in the final film, it was crucial for me, at least, for us to work together towards the hopeful outcome of heightened awareness and appreciation of each another’s complex histories—a kind of solidarity located in this intimate process of artmaking.
Jin-me’s desire to make work in and about Tsuut’ina as a non-Indigenous artist raised questions for me around why and how the artist was entering and talking about space that is not ancestrally hers. It is, at face value, a difficult domain—one that most of us hesitate to enter. When I asked Jin-me how she approaches the land of other people and their history, she said that, first and foremost, she does not attempt to tell their story on their behalf. Her entry point to the site in Tsuut’ina is located in her own relationship to colonialism and war, from which she draws out the sedimented layers of shared histories. At the same time, it is crucial for the artist to foreground her research and process with respectful listening to long histories and individual stories.3 Instead of withdrawing from addressing the place merely because it is not hers, Jin-me attempts here to address the interconnectivity among the Korean and Tsuut’ina peoples and lands. She carefully begins from her own position, bolstered by long-term relationships and friendships she has established in the place where she’s making work. Her methodology often resists the figure of an artist parachuting into a place, projecting their work onto it, then leaving—instead Jin-me works with intimate knowledge that can only be cultivated through time. In the film, the boundaries between different identities—Indigenous or variously racialized, Generation X or Millennial, etc.—recede, and we are able to come to a specific, particular understanding of the land.
Solidarity through intergenerationality is a gesture to uncover and carry forward the past and future, and it has been a key theme in Jin-me’s recent works. In the video work Long View (2017), the artist’s parents and children are seen digging a hole and creating a mound on Long Beach, located in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve between Tofino and Ucluelet on Vancouver Island. As the waves break and the horizon extends into a vast grey plane, Jin-me’s family members occasionally stop digging and look out towards the sea, on whose other side lies the Korean coast. The mound remains like a soft monument, and a figure clad in black jumps into the hole they’ve dug. This opens up a chaotic, blurry scene achieved by the artist’s experimental use of a hand-held camera. Montaged with archival footage of soldiers, the work switches to an introspective space that connects the two places—Korean and Indigenous lands between generations, between parallel histories of militarism and colonialism. As the traditional territory of the Nuučaanu̓ł peoples, this part of Vancouver Island is also a site of extensive military history as a Pacific frontier and strategic post. On Radar Hill, also located in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, a radar station scanned for oncoming air strikes during World War II and the Cold War; nearby, a Korean War monument commemorates a war-forged bond between Canada and Korea.4 The two lands on each side of the Pacific and the connections between them are channelled through the people in the video who each bear the weight of their respective generations. As a first-generation Korean settler myself, this work speaks to me in a profound way because it imagines a shared future founded in reconciling with how Korea’s past pushed out our predecessors while attempting moments of solidarity, connection and deep respect towards the Indigenous lands and acknowledging our own role in Canada’s still-ongoing colonial history.
Here, I’d like take a moment to honour the beginnings of Jin-me’s significant career. In her earlier photo-based, site-specific performance work, she questioned Canada’s so-called terms of inclusion, and settler-nationalism. Canonical works like Souvenirs of the Self (1991) and A Group of Sixty-Seven (1996–7), for example, directly addressed questions of place for racialized immigrants within a dominant culture and white nationalism by making the marginalized presence of Korean people visible. In Souvenirs of the Self, the artist poses in famous tourist spots in Banff National Park, where tourism has been one of the earliest and most active forces of ongoing colonialism and white identity-formation in Canada’s West.
In A Group of Sixty-Seven, 67 people from Vancouver’s Korean community pose against the backdrop of celebrated paintings by Lawren Harris and Emily Carr. Participants face the camera on one side, and turn their backs on the other. These photographs juxtaposed Korean people from the peripheries with paintings depicting the visual iconography of the stolen lands—the Group of Seven’s depiction of Banff National Park, for example—that white settler Canada claims as its pride and joy. Jin-me recounts to me how these works were pigeonholed into the discourse of “identity politics” only because she placed Korean subjects in front of the camera, while critics avoided addressing the work’s formalist qualities. The artist finds pigeonholing to be lazy and reductive, especially when her photo-based works collate complex topics of citizenship, memory, place, colonialism and history, using photography both as a direct tool and as a critique of the image-making devices through which the dominant culture self-images/imagines itself.
Decades later, I look at her work and see how the bodies that appear in front of her lens have become more active agents that carry out acts in a place. Through her earlier work—positioning her body and those of other Koreans in proximity to the images of stolen land that have been key to settler Canada’s nation-building project— to undo and deconstruct the tightly formulated idea of dominant Canadian identity, Jin-me developed a foundation for bringing together images of variously racialized and Indigenous peoples. As agents, the subjects who appear in her recent work are playing, embodying and experiencing joy, rather than always working to dismantle oppressive systems. This idea was realized for me as we neared the end of the film shoot. After we carried the rocks in a circle, we re-entered the ruins and scoured the lands to pick out our own “musical instrument.” After careful, aesthetic deliberation, we all had a satisfying instrument in our hands, and we sat down amid the tall grass and crumbling Styrofoam walls. One by one, we started to make sounds with our instruments, tuned into one another, the tight blue sky, scratchy grass and all that we’d shared together over the weekend. The somewhat absurdist jangling and banging of plastic, metal, terracotta things, rocks and plant life echoed among us. It was a light-hearted exercise in improvising and responding to each other. In this space of spirited play that Jin-me had set up for us, I felt an intense joy about what we had shared, the friendships we had formed and now the music of detritus we were playing. The space for our noisy play felt like a gift.
I asked Jin-me what intergenerational support systems mean to her. In response, she said: “As I approach my Hwangap,5 I truly understand the role of the elder. Elders hold and contain and support the next generations while bridging ancestors. This idea of ancestors can include our art-making ancestors—the artists we have been inspired by that continue to talk to us, long after their death. While we respect difference, we also are deeply interconnected and flow from each other, gaining energy and spirit to continue on, making worlds to come.”6 I acknowledge this gift from Jin-me, a whole lunar cycle’s worth of work, art-making and thought, as we make worlds to come.