North/South Heterotopias: Mina Cheon’s Half Moon Eyes
Krista Genevieve Lynes
Mina Cheon, Half Moon Eyes, 2004-5, Image Capture from interactive multi-media installation with touchscreen technology, exhibited in "Athena?s Daughters," (Curated by Grace Hartigan) Maryland Art Place, Baltimore, Maryland and in solo-exhibition "Dizz/placement," Insa Art Space of Korean Cultural Arts Foundation, Seoul, Korea, ?MINALIZA1000
In Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud draws an analogy between contemporary Rome and the structure of the mind. Rome’s topography (like the psyche) reveals a heterogeneous architecture, the deposits of historical eras, experiences, social formations, memories, institutions, fantasies, and monuments. Below this visible surface, more opaque and stubborn spaces insinuate themselves. Michel de Certeau notes that, while a landscape’s surface appears like a collage, it is actually a piling up of heterogeneous spaces, different territorial unities, socioeconomic distributions, political conflicts, and symbolism . Add to this list the workings of fantasy, the deep vibrations of icons and images, the values of bodies and sites. Place is a palimpsest.
So too in Mina Cheon’s latest multi-media installation, Half Moon Eyes. Korea’s topography reveals complex geo-political negotiations, Cold War politics, recent threats of nuclear proliferation, terrorist cooperation, vast circuits of desire and dread, flows of capital, bodies, monuments, and goods, racial and ethnic identities, colonial and postcolonial histories, and proliferating contact zones along the broad negotiated border of the demilitarized zone. From earlier experiments with tensile string to her latest installation, Cheon questions the intimate relation of the body to layered, heterogeneous spaces. Starting with abstract conceptions of space mined from art history–the Cartesian grid, Alberti’s perspective, Fibonocci’s Golden Section, and Vitruvian proportions–Cheon has teased out what Michel Foucault calls "the space of emplacement". Increasingly, however, her work has complicated this notion of space, inflecting it with history, geo-politics, and the intersections of reality, fantasy and policy.
A Korean descendent whose mother left the North, Cheon constructed Half Moon Eyes out of her first visit to North Korea. Her own complex position–at the intersections of North and South Korea, and between these and the U.S., where she lives primarily–deeply inform this work. The piece draws its title from a common South Korean racial trope: that North Korean women are more beautiful because of their ‘half moon eyes.’ These eyes have become signifiers for a range of national concerns: North Korean women’s purity, their closer ties to nature, contrasts between North Korea’s technological underdevelopment vis-à-vis South Korea’s rapid industrialization. Cheon thus interpolates the visitor-qua-citizen into an active relation with a cultural, racial, national, or gendered other. For the artist also, ‘half moon eyes’ offers a model of partial vision, not clear or privileged, but the kind of tentative sensorial vision involved in walking through a moonlit field at night.
The installation recreates the familiar setting of the American electoral process: on either end of the room, Cheon installs two voting booths with monitors that replicate the controversial touch-screen voting machines used in the November 2004 U.S. elections. Across from each booth, two large screens project the data that appears on the touch screens, recording the interactor’s navigation through a vast catalogue of images, the layers of Korean history, exoticized and tropic images of North Korean women, and the monuments and tourist attractions of the DMZ. While the staging of this multi-media piece is formal (it mimics the pragmatics of the election process), one’s engagement with the screen is intimate. Sequestered from the larger exhibition space, the interactor is invited to feel her way through the selections, to touch the screen. The interface invites what Laura Marks calls haptic visuality, transforming the screen into another skin. Rather than a witnessing visuality, or even–in the case of much interactive work–an elective visuality, the touch of this piece is a synaesthetic act. The viewer has to work to constitute the image, to "bring it forth from latency" . The screen is both an absorptive membrane (the deposit of imaginary and symbolic relations) and a reflective surface (a mirror of more collective situated social relations).
As a counterpoint to this intimacy–a violation of the voting booth’s privacy–the large public screens project the interactor’s movement through the monitor. Cheon plays not only with the public/private divide, making the voting process visible in the public space of the exhibition, but also with the resonances of projection, in its psychoanalytic and cinematic articulations. In Christian Metz’s analysis of the cinematic apparatus, a complex relay occurs whereby the subject not only receives (acts as a screen which interjects the image) but also releases (projects onto the screen) . In Cheon’s work, however, the screens are doubled: the interactor both receives and releases the touch-screen, but the engagement is private, intimate, haptic. The projective screen, however, is released by the interactor but not received. Not able to see the projected screen, the installation exposes publicly the interactor’s movement through the piece, what she wants to look at.
For this reason, the meaning of the installation shifts radically depending on its site. The project was initially exhibited in Baltimore, Maryland in December 2004, one month after the presidential elections where President George W. Bush’s campaign against the ‘Axis of Evil,’ including North Korea, was at the forefront of public discourse. Symbol of a ‘rogue nation,’ nuclear proliferation, Orientalist ‘Yellow Peril,’ and Cold War communist totalitarianism, North Korea thus figures in the American political landscape and on the world stage. The large scale projection makes manifest the ‘exotic other,’ North Korean woman with ‘half moon eyes,’ the feared other, identified as either ‘evil,’ ‘threatening’ (a symbol of nuclear proliferation, Communist expansion), the ‘temptress’ (possible spy, Madam Butterfly or terrorist), or exotic other (mythical siren).
In its second installation–the cornerstone of Cheon’s solo exhibit "Dizz/placement" at the Insa Art Space in Seoul, Korea in 2005 –its meaning shifts remarkably. For South Koreans viewing Half Moon Eyes, Cheon makes clear the tense American political and electoral context, the technology supporting political agendas, and the imbrications of American politics and the North/South divide . For this audience, Half Moon Eyes registers a different and more complex projective relation: projection of difference onto the too-close other, made manifest in her ‘half moon eyes,’ partition and reunification, fetishization of North Korea’s mythical history, state of nature, or pure femininity. The closeness between the image of the viewer and that of the Other produces the public projection as a screen, foil, alibi, or veil for the indeterminate relations between South and North Korean women, and between Asian women generally and the markers of a ‘half moon eye.’
Half Moon Eyes is thus about spatial relations, but space here, far from conceptual, is profoundly geo-political, territorial and nomadic, national, fantastic, and mythical. It is populated not only with travelling bodies (the numerous checkpoints in the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea) but a proliferation of North Korean bodies, figures, icons, objects of fantasy, myth, discipline, and ideology. This point is emphasized by the voting booth: one is electing rather than interacting in this piece: enfranchised citizen, agential. At the same time, one is not the public citizen the liberal state imagines: overly imbricated in the visions of otherness, governed by exoticism and fantasy, there is finally no choice in this touch-screen. This is why the interface Cheon designs does not allow the interactor to actually select any of the options and vote. Rather than casting a ballot, then, the ‘vote’ button only brings you home to the Ballot Page: a return circuit that constantly points the finger back at you.
Mina Cheon argues that "desiring half moon eyes is a post-colonial symptom of Othering and being Othered, desiring the authentic and original of something that is inaccessible and that can only be imagined." Cheon’s Half Moon Eyes, like all her work, materializes this imaginary, the deep vibrations of icons and images, the values of bodies and sites. Her multiple-projections, intimate screens, and perceptual modes are critical and timely. Through them she casts figures that travel across her works, becoming more articulated, localized, marked and differentiated. These figures shuffle through heterotopias–haunting incommensurable spaces–gathering up paradigms, dreams, fantasies, music, photographs, food and water. They cross borders, disrupt maps, project and interject, undergo modifications, and dream of the other, disrupt the best-laid plans, and cast new nets on old grounds.
1 De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
2 Foucault, Michel. "Of Other Spaces" Diacritics. 1986: 22.
3 Marks, Laura. Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002: 13.
4 Metz, Christian. The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.
5 Half Moon Eyes was exhibited in Baltimore, Maryland from Nov.30, 2004 to Jan.8, 2005 at the Maryland Art Place as part of ‘Athena’s Daughters’, an exhibit of five artists who worked with artist Grace Hartigan in the Hoffberger School of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art, including also Jessica C. Damen, Espi Frazier, Tonya Ingersol, Allyson Smith.
6 Cheon was invited by the Korean Cultural Arts Foundation (KCAF), a government institution.
7 Of course this is not the whole story, and Cheon is also sensitive to the influences of Russia, China, and others on the Korean context.
8 Artist’s Statement. Mina Cheon, Half Moon Eyes, 2004. Multi-media installation with touch screen technology.