Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Young Sun Han performance

Young Sun Han: Dance Of The Cockatrice
City Art Rooms
6 April – 8 May 2010

Artist, Curator and gallery sales-person of City Art Rooms (where I myself exhibit - I need to declare that), Young Han Sun here presents an installation of photographs made in anticipation of a performance in front of a live audience. These eight images were taken with a ‘practice’ mock up using a painted end wall - with the artist’s body carefully painted as well. Mounted and framed under glass, they are accompanied by a new painted wall created for the second ‘proper’ performance presented a week into the exhibition.

The hot cadmium yellow ‘camouflaged’ wall, being slightly darker in the photos, is quite overwhelming when experienced directly in the gallery. The pattern doesn’t so much reference popular youth fashion as Andy Warhol and his paintings of the mid-eighties. Instead of incorporating mottled landscape forms with subdued ‘earth’ colours as the army does, these were deliberately synthetic, bright and inorganic. Warhol eventually incorporated these motifs into his self-portraits, and here lies a connection with Young Sun Han’s project. Just as Warhol attempted to balance his fame as a popular ‘American’ artist with his need for privacy, coming from a family of Polish immigrants and being gay, Sun Han focuses on his own (North Korean) ethnic and sexual difference and how such otherness can be ‘camouflaged’ so he fits in as a ‘mainstream’ American / New Zealander.

To this end he uses the painted blobby pattern to blur the edges between figure and ground, his naked body and the background wall. The applied acrylic paint becomes a metaphor for cultural and sexual suppression, and his performance of stretching his body in order to crack and peel off the rubbery wrinkly skin a gesture of resentment and resistance. The discarded, shredded bits of dried paint scattered on the floor (also ‘camouflaged’) or stuck to the wall become futile attempts at conformity and ‘normalization.’

There is another layer to this activity which suggests far more than a resentment / disguise component – despite the work being entitled Dance of the Cockatrice, that being a mythological rooster/lizard creature with a intense gaze that can turn people to stone.

During the paint peeling process the artist holds a variety of poses as if in a tableau vivant, turning himself into a mock marble sculpture and object of desire. He also systematically locks the various members of the audience one at a time in a directly confrontational glare, perhaps as a withering ‘fuck you’ gesture scorning the pressures of social conformity, but maybe even more as a brooding but beckoning homo-erotic ‘cruising’ gaze for attracting lovers.

This makes the paint-peeling process a kind of strip-tease involving seductive poses and enticing body movements that turns the painted fabric helmet Sun Han is wearing not only into a way of hiding his head without shaving off all his hair, but also a jaunty fetish item that showcases his eyes. It is an unexpected accoutrement for generating arousal, like white socks or long gloves.

So Dance of the Cockatrice is a double game which both encourages and scorns voyeurism, reeling it in with a moving decoy while also slapping it down - perhaps in sadistic humiliation. The stringy sticky residue scattered on the floor from the performance is presented for the rest of the show as discarded erotic ‘clothing’ or else as remnants of abandoned symbolic social pretence. It is highly ambiguous. The meaning of this cleverly layered and thoughtful installation / performance continually oscillates, teases, confronts and entertains.

The first three images are from the photographs on the gallery walls. The rest are from the performance of April 13, documented by Zac Arnold.

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