Tales of In-betweens

Abandonment and ghostly presences dominate Jane Jin Kaisen's body of work and an exhibition that, despite compelling narratives, longs for rhythm and surprise.

Jane Jin Kaisen, Community of Parting, 2019, still from two-channel videoinstallation.

A large photograph portraying a Korean shaman during a ritual welcomes visitors outside the exhibition halls of Jane Jin Kaisen’s solo show Community of Parting at Kunsthal Charlottenborg. The picture works as a portal of sorts into the exhibition, a visual introduction that complements the wall text, dense with traces of recurring elements in the works inside the galleries. The figure of the shaman, a medium between the invisible and visible world, is an allegory of Kaisen’s artistic project, which investigates the seething presence of an intangible and traumatic past removed from individual and collective sight.

Community of Parting is the first retrospective of the Korean-born Danish artist (b. 1980), who has just been appointed professor at The Royal Academy of Fine Arts’ Media School in Copenhagen (in a joint position with Polish artist Agnieszka Polska). Focusing primarily on video works, but also including photographs, sculptures, and text, the exhibition revolves around the impressive film installation Community of Parting (2019), which formed part of the Korean Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, and is presented here in an expanded format comprising three films.

Unfolding through a combination of narrative and associative editing typical of the artist, the film re-interprets the Korean folktale of princess Bari in light of traumas connected to Korea’s history of occupation, war, and division. Bari, meaning abandonment, is a symbolic figure in Korean shamanism for her power to transgress boundaries between life and death, genders, and man-made geographical borders. 

Through the story of Bari, abandonment is given a central space in the exhibition’s conceptual and formal construction. The traumatic absence left behind by abandonment is transfigured in the film from a place of loss into a powerful means to allow the repressed to emerge. As the shaman explains, abandonment of her ‘self’ is necessary to create the space for the spirits to enter her body. Here, the figure of the shaman represents much more than just the link between our visible world and the invisible world of the spirits: by merging the past and the present, it becomes a feminist symbol of resistance, capable of redrawing an alternative history in the face of oppression and injustice. 

Ghostly dynamics, as the re-emergence of something erased from sight, are present throughout Kaisen’s work. The film The Woman, the Orphan and the Tiger (2010) addresses the spectral residue of the systematic repression of truth by political authorities in a continuum from Japanese colonialism to American militarism. In the film, different female voices with a variety of accents tell personal stories of separation, violence, and forced migration. This polyphonic voice exemplifies one of the artist’s formal strategies – using sound that aims to become the voice of a multitude, yet without erasing individual accounts. Personal healing is, in fact, only possible through the collective endeavour of accepting the existence of ghosts: something invisible, yet producing material effects. 

Jane Jin Kaisen, Community of Parting, 2019. still from two-channel videoinstallation.

The bleeding of individual trauma into a collective one, transgressing categories and boundaries, is reflected in the exhibition in the leakage of sound from room to room. While this choice is consistent with the conceptual and formal content of the artist’s oeuvre, it creates a challenging cacophony for the viewer, taking focus away from the already layered works. 

Throughout my visit, I longed for moments of silence and reflection – somewhere for the dense experience of the exhibition to land. A missed occasion for this is the beautiful, two-channel film Braiding and Mending (2020), which shows a group of women from the artist’s family sitting in a circle, combing and braiding each other’s hair. The images have a meditative power, but the film’s sound, blending with noise from other rooms, interrupts their hypnotic rhythm.

The show’s composition is simple: arranged with roughly one work per room, with screens often hanging diagonally and in a variety of scales, the display offers elegant views and some good moments. One of these is the red light that bathes the two rooms hosting the seven cabinets that make up Of Specters or Returns (2020). This shade of colour is the same, I imagine, as the one described by a voice-over in one of the films as “sex red, meat red, motel red, Jesus-who-dies-for-your-sins red, Korea-at-night red.” It’s a poetic and dramatic connection between the two works. 

Despite this, the exhibition doesn’t escape a sense of redundancy; the same artistic strategies are repeated again and again, and there is a tendency throughout the exhibition of placing unnecessary clues to establish connections between the piecest. Similarly, the films – which are all beautifully shot and edited, and beyond doubt where Kaisen is at her best – are rendered prolix at times by the artist’s penchant for over-layering her poetic and narrative discourse, curbing the rhythm of the works. 

The investigation of spectral dynamics, as the inevitable return of the repressed, is a fascinating way to explore the intertwining of personal and collective traumas artistically, as is the merging of the mythological and the documentary as means to create a restorative narrative that can break an oppressive loop. Within these strategies, however, there is a fragile balance between revealing and retaining, presence and absence. This balance, which is ultimately a matter of poetics, could perhaps learn more from the issue of abandonment. Just as the shaman must let go of her ‘self’ to make room for the invisible to emerge, these works would be stronger if they were allowed more space to find their own way to meet the spectator.

Jane Jin Kaisen, Of Specters or Returns, 2020. Installation view, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2020. Photo: David Stjernholm.