(My) Identity Crisis: The Work of Jin-me Yoon

Review published in “Last Call”, Vancouver,  2002

Jin-Me Yoon, “Touring Away from Home”, lifochrome, 32″ x 26″, 1998-99

 

 

It’s summer, and Jin-me Yoon sits on the grass, legs stuck straight out like a Chatty Cathy Doll. Looming behind her at least twice her size is a large wooden sculpture that seems to be mimicking her pose; its red painted braids, straw hat, and early 20th-Century sailor dress say (she’s) Anne of Green Gables, although the reductio ad absurdum of the signifiers probably have L.M. Montgomery rolling over in her grave.

Growing up in Prince Edward Island, I spent my pre-pubescent years puzzling over why some Toronto talent scout had never spotted my reddish braids and spunky attitude, thus precipitating my meteoric rise on the musical stage as “Anne.” I imagined turning cartwheels alongside Jeff Hyslop (who played Gilbert, Anne’s romantic interest) and smashing imitation school slates over my astonished antagonist’s head. I was perfect for the part. Many years later while visiting Japan, my interpreter, upon discovering where I was from (I was reluctant to admit it), reassured me that “Anne” was seen as a proto-feminist role model for young Japanese woman in quest of independence.

Mounted as a string of nine suspended 23″ x 30″ sized light boxes, spanning the widest axis of the Presentation House Gallery with a Cibachrome print installed on either end wall, Yoon’s current show Touring Home from Away depicts Yoon’s family’s explorations of Prince Edward Island as they make their way through the tourist gift shops, convenience stores, bed and breakfast lighthouses, golf courses, and potato fields. The conventions of the images vacillate between the casual family snap and the more composed material of a tourist brochure. In tourist high season the family doesn’t necessarily stand out as one of mixed cultural heritage, but like any tourist they distinguish themselves as they pose as a family group in front of tourist attractions, visit with the locals, or get caught in the cranky moments of family pit stops. Some of the images however, give away the ruse of this conceit, where the conventions of the family album are stretched by mannered intervention. A disruption which might provoke reflection on the assumptions of cultural identity in transit, or misfire as a bad Brechtian distanciation device.

Touring the rest of Yoon’s exhibition at Presentation House I was confronted with the all too familiar landscapes of my youth; the Space Ship at Rainbow Valley; site of ruinous children’s’ birthday parties. Woodleigh Replicas, a park full of miniature English castles which my father, an anglophile, relished for the annual family trip (later as a sullen teenager I would refuse to go). The War Memorial in the centre of town, in front of which every November 11th we felt obliged to affect some melancholic contemplation in exchange for a day off school in almost always horrible weather.

Some of the images seem forced; Yoon and her family, crouched beside a potato field (Although depicted often in postcards, potato fields are not usually targeted destinations, even for the locals, unless they are farming them). The group standing to attention in the middle of another potato field, gazing off to the horizon, their matching set of t-shirts promoting Anne of Green Gables and the Lobster Crawl. A little boy (Yoon’s son) standing in front of some scaffolding near a small historic church undergoing restoration, looking uncomfortable in his red yarn wig (Anne again) . No less disturbing a sight, I had to remind myself, than that sombrero my parents let me bring back from Expo ’67; I could be spotted wearing it all over town, it’s two foot peak bobbing over the crowds of tourists’ heads—as complete an image of Mexico as Yoon gives of PEI.

Yoon was invited as an artist in residence at the Confederation Centre, tied into the programming of Curator Terry Graff. Residencies can have their arbitrary effect, as the artist tries to recontextualize their thinking in a place they might never have thought of going to otherwise. This work records the most obvious signifiers of place, the bathetic aspect of which one might encounter on any touristic venture. Access to any more complicated sense of community could only come with the vested interest of becoming a member. With the exception of one pair of images where Yoon appears to be thoughtfully in discussion with a Mi’kmaq leader in front of what used to be traditional lands, or in another pair, where Yoon seems to chatting with the red-haired tourist guide, the visiting family seem quite isolated, the way families can be when they travel. Previous work by Yoon had prepared me to read this exhibition in terms of a discussion of perception of race in the particularized Canadian context of tourism and immigration, or a feminist analysis of the conflicted roles of the professional and maternal woman. In this exhibition it is all mixed up. As I try to filter out my assorted subjective memories associated with the location, I wonder how a viewer who doesn’t have them might make sense of the work. They will see a family group presenting themselves at a series of generic tourist destinations, posing in varying degrees of ironic self-consciousness, with props whose significance may not seem obvious or important. The irony cross-fires, flattening the intended cultural dissonance by its misappropriation of signs, signs which hint at the conflicts of a denuded rural economy that has to rely on tourism.

My unease at seeing my place of origin reduced to the promotional material of the provincial bureau, might be the same unease of finding oneself a visible minority in a population that is predominately white. This is a point similar to one Yoon made in an earlier work, Souvenirs the Self, a series of images where Yoon inserted herself in front of popular mountain views of Banff and Lake Louise (That work’s format as a set of unfolding, perforated of postcards, was playful in its possibilities of distribution and was clearly justified by its subject matter. In the current exhibition, the light boxes qua light boxes in a Vancouver context always raise the question, why light boxes? Conjuring up as they do in the low-lit peaked ceilings of the gallery space, the Stations of the Cross, or Jeff Wall). For the viewer from “Away,” the collapse of what could constitute an Island identity to the bare bones of potatoes, lobsters, and red-haired girls might not be all that poignant a loss. So the point of comparing that paraphrased identity to the dilemma of the visible minority falls flat.

Projecting myself as the only viewer who might “get it,” I swing between embarrassment and dismay, like a teenager spotted by friends out on an expedition with her parents. No one will give you the time to explain how these things actually do have something to do with who you are, and you are left with the harrowing knowledge that it is these things by which you will be misunderstood.

This is a hazard of making art. As I struggle with my conflicted emotions I wander away from the narrative, back over to the image of Jin-me Yoon and the giant Anne, whose sheer weirdness transcends the didactic panels the viewer from “Away” might otherwise need.

Jin-Me Yoon
TOURING HOME FROM AWAY
Presentation House Gallery, North Vancouver
January 5 through February 10, 2002

Jin-Me Yoon, Touring Away from Home, lifochrome, 32" x 26", 1998-99

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