By Ron Hanson
If a shooting star could travel upwards that would be Samin Son. Wellington has always been a cautious town, tending more towards the reserved than the outlandish. So perhaps there were no defence mechanisms in place for restraining someone of such concentrated intensity. The Korean-born Wellington-based artist has been making a name for himself in 2012 with a series of performances and exhibitions, and a ubiquitous online presence.
An artist who is hot is one who is gathering energy. Everyone wants to find a way of drawing some kind of a connection to channel some of its flow. The first time I encountered Son was at a party White Fungus held at Happy back in 2007. There was a band performing and Son jumped on stage, grabbed a drumstick and began playing along. I remember Son more clearly than the band. It was an immediate response: who is that?
Then one night Son turned up at my studio with Tao Wells and was immediately drawn to the music we were listening to - usually in Wellington that would clear the room. We got along immediately but he was soon off to Korea to do his compulsory military service, and I headed off to Taiwan and then to the US. Upon arriving back to Wellington it wasn’t a surprise to see Son, returned from the military, caught up in a flurry of activity, with a steady stream of performances and exhibitions and a growing public profile.
The 23 months Son spent in the Korean military appear to have been a catalyst for his art. “Every day was like a performance,” Son says, “to please the senior officers of higher rank, to look the part and act the part. They wanted us to do the same, to be the same as everyone else, to eat the same, go to sleep at the same time, to not have a personality. I was like a bird in a cage.”
It was a paradoxical situation: a total nonconformist in a situation demanding absolute conformity. Son’s approach was to go all the way, putting maximum energy into his daily cleaning and exercise rituals. “There’s a saying in Korean that if you can’t avoid it, may as well ride it,” he says. Son’s training included preparing for riot scenes. Senior officers would beat him to toughen him up. Eventually he would enter into real riot scenarios, one in which 40, 000 people turned up. On another occasion he and other soldiers had faeces thrown at them by protesters demonstrating against a crematorium being built in their neighbourhood.
Son would have to clean the bathroom using toothpaste every day. His only chance to practice drawing would be then, when he would snatch a spare moment to draw self-portraits in the mirror using toothpaste. The only time he was able to encounter art while he was in the military was when a friend sent him in a letter including a picture of Carolee Schneemann’s famous performance piece Interior Scroll, in which the artist pulled a text out of her vagina.
Upon returning to art school in Wellington, Son began channelling his experience in the army into a series of performances in which he simulated his exercise drills from the army while naked. The performances were a strange subversion of the exercises that are intended to instill discipline and conformity into the soldiers. Son says that being naked referenced ideas of freedom but also, on a more sinister level, alluded to the treatment of Guantanamo prisoners who were stripped and tortured. Son performed the exercises with an unnerving level of commitment. Detached from their army context, the exercises appear absurd but strangely compelling.
Son’s performance Hammer Piece helped him to start building a national profile as he performed the action at Snake Pit in Auckland and None Gallery in Dunedin. The Auckland performance was written about by Sue Gardiner in the Autumn issue of Art News New Zealand. The performance is a ritualistic demolition of a door using a hammer, sometimes accompanied by noise music produced by Max Trevor Edmond using samples of Son’s voice.
Recently Son has begun his toothpaste actions series in which, dressed in his old uniform, he acts out his cleaning and exercise rituals from the army, along with his private passion of drawing toothpaste self-portraits. Taken from the military latrine and re situated within the gallery context, the performances seem at once raw and refined. The physical exertion and skill demonstrated in these exercises is impressive to the extreme, a reminder of what the power of discipline and commitment can produce. But in this radical gesture, Son retakes control over subjectivity from the cookie-cutter experience that is the working of any indoctrination. He also reveals the pain involved in relinquishing control of one’s body at the service of larger doctrine or discourse in which possible modes of subjectivity have been rigidly predetermined. Son has already performed the action four times, at Russian Frost Farmers, Enjoy and The Engine Room in Wellington and the Snakepit in Auckland as part of Artspace’s performance series Youth Of The Beast. This star is sure to rise.
- Article courtesy of second issue of Permanent Vacation by Kerry Ann Lee