Copyright 2021 Ahram Jeong

Ahram Jeong: Performance Minimum

Hyejin Park

The first thing visitors see upon entering the dark exhibition space after opening the curtains of the entrance is a person lying on a large circular pedestal placed on the right side. Along with a spray painted sign on the wall next to the pedestal, there is a sign that says "No More Picture with a Dead Body". Then, one can hear the clicks and flashes of a camera on the tripod placed behind the pedestal, which is capturing something. Visitors who may have entered the space inadvertently are surprised that the camera lens and flashes are pointing towards them. Powerful flashes overshadow the 'no photography' sign on the wall. What is being photographed? Visitors carefully look at the images projected onto the wall next to the camera to see whether or not they themselves have been photographed.

From this moment on visitors become conscious of the presence of the camera while they view the exhibition. Those who feel uncomfortable with the situation where the camera captures them may be limited in their movements; those who do not care much about it come to respond to the constant flashes of the camera. Those who enjoy being photographed may take advantage of this opportunity of being the protagonists of the show. The camera’s angle does not capture the person lying on the pedestal. Rather, the body that lay on the pedestal is free from the eyes of the camera. They just lie down without making any special movements.

Ahram Jeong‘s solo exhibition Performance Minimum consists of two projects based on her perspectives and explorations on performance. The departing vector is a work Jeong exhibited in New York in 2011 called No More Picture With a Dead Body (2011/2020). Here, she presents a reconstructed version to Korean audiences for the first time. Whereas this work presents the artist's experiment with the genre of performance within a visual art context, the other project - a video work and an interview of the same title as the exhibition - analyzes the subject of performance from a broader social and cultural context.

No More Picture With a Dead Body

In general the work No More Picture with a Dead Body falls within the genre of performance in visual art. The work consists of (the bodies of) performers, audiences and a recording device (camera). These three elements meet in the specific location of Post Territory Ujeongguk, for the specific time period of the exhibition, creating a performance. However, looking closer at the elements involved, one realizes that each element does not perform their normally assigned roles. Each component disturbs the relationships among them, transcending each other's roles.

Performer's Performance

As is common in performances, there is a tacit rule that performers should provide the audience with certain experiences. In No More Picture with a Dead Body, such an expectation increases even more as the performer is given the status of being the 'work' by being placed on the pedestal. Expectations from performances have changed in various ways since the 1960s, as the genre has been incorporated into visual art. In Body Art performances in the 1970s, artists became the performers and experimented with an escape from sculpture and painting. Since the 1980s, the genre of performance has expanded, combining with diverse technologies, and has become a main component of interdisciplinary art through its collaboration with other genres. It also presented everyday practices as a reaction to 'technical perfection’, as it was intensified by collaboration. Everyday people, who were not professional dancers or performers, participated in performances as performers. Jeong's work is placed in the context of 'performance as everyday act,' as well. In this work, the performer even ‘performs’ an action of doing nothing while lying still. The performer who is (or enacts) in a paused state under the direction of the artist does not present a 'performance' living up to the expectations of the audience. The performer meets the anonymous audiences in the most vulnerable and private state which humans can be placed in. A power relationship between the performer and the audience is emphasized as the performer who lies there is placed far below eye level and under the eyes/gaze of the audience. The audience usually sees the performer from a distance or turns their eyes to another installation without seeing the performer for a long time. Here, they may turn their attention to something else because the performer does not do anything in particularly special, imparting an odd feeling of discomfort towards the audience at the same time.

The relation between the performer who is free from the pressures of constantly attracting the audience's attention and the audience who does not or cannot pay attention to the performer for long period of time departs from an expectation of viewing a performance. Bedsides, the performer who is exposed to the eyes of the audience is not completely objectified since the pedestal becomes a device that separates the space of the audience from that of the performer and the performer can also look at the audience as much as he or she wants. This is an interesting point. The roles of the performer and of the audience are not simply reversed, but the performer acts both as performer and as audience.

Audience's Performance

The audience also becomes performer. As mentioned above, the performer who lies on the large circular pedestal maintains a strong presence. However, at times the roles are reversed as the performer who does not perform becomes the audience, whereas the more active audience becomes the performers. They probably feel that they are performing in the exhibition space which has turned into a stage because of the camera that continuously shoots the space, or as they come to act against their will as they feel the eyes of the performer and the camera (when viewing the images with one's back to the performer, one may feel that he or she becomes the object of observation for the camera and the performer). Furthermore, the audience can choose to expose themselves to the wall as a protagonist on this stage if they wish, choosing to be objectified by the eyes of the camera and the performer for themselves.

Camera's Performance

Meanwhile, the camera, whose role is generally assigned to record the performance of the performer, shoots scenes other than the performer. The heartbeat of the performer triggers the shutter of the camera. The artist who conceived the work is not in control of the camera nor the scene it captures. Technically speaking, what is captured is not the by will of the performer, either. The scenes captured that are given regular rhythm but are also quite random cannot be considered to be under someone's control. Therefore, the camera that aimlessly captures its environment does not perform its normal role (performance) of recording. Approximately 3,000 photos a day and 50,000 photos throughout the entire exhibition period are produced. However, they do not include the performer on the pedestal and the scenes shot do not become part of the work. Instead, the camera becomes another performer that disturbs the roles of the audience and the performer in the exhibition space through the constant shooting (flashes, camera clicks synced to heartbeats and the audience influenced by the presence of the camera).

Ultimately, the elements that make up No More Picture with a Dead Body flexibly perform a plurality of performances across roles, while at the same time not playing their own given roles. What is notable is that each role changes frequently and flexibly depending on the movements of the audience. Jeong, who turns the exhibition space into a place for experimentation with performance, analyzes its composition and structure, thereby maximizing the very presence of the performance.

Performance Minimum I

Whereas No More Picture with a Dead Body is a contemplation on performance in contemporary art, Performance Minimum I (2020) presents an expansion of the meaning of performance in a social and cultural context. The performer, who does not do anything special while lying down or sitting in a similar manner to the performer in No More Picture with a Dead Body, appears in the middle of the gray floor filling the screen. In Performance Minimum I, upon the request of the artist five artists and cultural workers display the most comfortable posture they assume while they rest, or take pause after experiencing exhaustion. A performer takes a pose for about one minute and slightly changes his or her posture as needed. In the meantime the camera films this process from above the head of the performer in an aerial view. Soon, another person appears on the screen and marks the outline of the body of the performer who is taking a pose in white spray lacquer, moving around the performer. When this person finishes the process of marking, another performer appears and repeats the same process. This process is repeated several times. In the meantime, the camera does not show the entire set at once, but glimpses part of the location from particular angles, while following the performer spraying lacquer, or moving in the opposite direction. The camera captures other participants standing and watching the performer, waiting for their turn to be marked with lacquer. In spite of a difference in distance, the audience becomes one of the participants, as the perspectives of the camera, the audience and other participants who are standing and watching overlap. The participants, who take their poses and mark for each other in turn, play the roles of audiences as well as performers / protagonists, creating a performance together with the audience.

The time for rest that everybody experiences in daily life is a very personal time. Especially in contemporary society in which we survive through exerting constant effort towards goals and achieving results, the time for a break, pause and rest following the experience of burnout might be moments we do not want to expose or share with others. In Performance Minimum I participants (including the audience) ritualize, record and share such private situations. The artist examines and puts emphasis on acts that symbolize pause, inefficiency and invisibility as opposed to the performance of oneself as being useful, efficient, developed and visible. Through this the artist creates a 'performance minimum' with colleagues, instead of a 'performance maximum' that is sought in today's society.

Performance Minimum: The Interview

While watching Performance Minimum I, from the right side of the space visitors can hear female voices that speak in a monotonous and flat tone. The voice come from a monitor playing a clip of interviews with five people who appear in Performance Minimum I, and is titled Performance Minimum: The Interview (2020). Where Performance Minimum I focuses on images by turning individual experiences of exhaustion into a collaborative performance, Performance Minimum: The Interview presents a more direct form of communication with the audience by participants telling their own stories. There are two monitors installed back to back, so the other monitor placed on the opposite side is not visible while people are watching one monitor.

Looking carefully, visitors notice a small time delay between the articulating mouths of the interviewees and their voices. Their lip shapes do not perfectly synchronize with the sounds, even though it seems they are telling the same stories. Furthermore, the speakers change but the voice does not change accordingly each time. Then, visitors realize that the voices they hear do not belong to the person who is being depicted on the screen. Ahram Jeong uses a means of involving the voices of a third person, instead of using the voice of the interviewees directly. Middle school students are asked to repeat what they hear while watching the interview. In the monitor on the opposite side, one can see the back of the middle school student wearing headphones as she repeats what the interviewees in the monitor appear to be speaking. Middle school students simply deliver the words they hear, but do not feel sympathy or empathy. In this manner, the stories of the interviewees, delivered in a dry tone with their own voices erased, decreases the risk of being reduced to mere personal, emotional experiences of certain individuals by allowing the audience to empathize with them. Moreover, through a dual structure of separating the characters from the speakers as is seen in the monitor on the opposite side, the interview itself becomes a kind of performance.

The stories told by the interviewees are answers to the artist's questions about their own experiences of burnout and exhaustion, circumstances where performing is no longer available, the life after such circumstances and sustainable forms of performance. The range of performances varies from individual to individual. Some limit performance to parts of work, while others regard all acts they perform as performance. Nevertheless, the common ground is that all are conscious about and obsessed with the effectiveness or outcome of a performance. Be its significance as discussed in the field of visual art or a sort of capability to be seen in everyday life, all accept the principle of 'survival' with a maximum outcome and efficiency. When I saw the video Performance Minimum I after watching the interview, I got the impression that what they expressed with their bodies was not simply a performance as art, but a kind of stationary state in life or in the social and cultural structure that I belong to.

In 2011, Ahram Jeong was already working on a project to investigate the elements of performance that were institutionalized and historicized as a genre of visual art. Jeong pays attention to this theme again in 2020 because she has probably found something in common between her individual situation in today's Korean society where 'performance as an outcome' is demanded and the work of performance in No More Picture with a Dead Body. The transference of one's fatigue as a result of the struggle for survival into a performance of 'doing nothing' becomes the connecting point between No More Picture with a Dead Body and Performance Minimum. The two projects are in opposition to a form of performance that states a purpose or a performance intended to show something. These works can be seen as a form of criticism of the situation in which performance, which used to be an experimental, critical and reflective genre, has become a large-scale and genre in line with capitalism, or becoming mere performance for performance sake. Instead, the work becomes an attempt to suggest a low, least and minimum performance, against the grain of a contemporary society that values efficiency, productivity and outcome.

In No More Picture with a Dead Body, the motionless body of the performer looks like a 'dead body' as its title suggests, but this paradoxically demonstrates that the body is alive because the performer’s heartbeat triggers the shutter. It is ironic that the performer who appears dead actually photographs with the rhythms of his or her own live body, whereas it is forbidden to take a picture of a person who is dead. Considering the theme of the entire exhibition, this might suggest that a performance produced by a body that is not working efficiently can still be alive, despite living in a contemporary society where bodies that do not perform efficiently are considered dead bodies. Similarly, in Performance Minimum, the scene with the outline that the performer's body leaves behind after the lacquer work looks like a chalk outline drawn as evidence from a crime scene, while it also becomes a trace that expresses the 'minimum' acts of a living person that once existed in this place. In this way, Jeong questions if maximum performance is really a 'way to survive' by exploring what kind of performances are available through minimal acts.

(From the exhibition catalogue of Ahram Jeong Solo Exhibition: Performance Minimum, 2020)