Sunday, October 16, 2011

The eye of the beholder: Interpreting art

"Art is not meant to be merely decorative or beautiful; instead, it can be a question, an argument, a proposal, a resolution." -- Hye Yeon Nam

Last weekend, I took some of my Psychology of Women students to see Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter at the National Portrait GalleryIt was an interesting and thought-provoking exhibit and we had a number of conversations about the potential meanings of the various works.  We were often left with many unanswered questions.  I was particularly struck by a four-part video self-portrait by Hye Yeon Nam, Walking, Eating, Drinking, and Sitting.  We stayed for some time in front of these pieces, talking about what we noticed, what feelings they evoked, and what they might mean. 


SelfPortrait_Eating from Hye Yeon Nam on Vimeo.
Each of the pieces evokes a sense of awkwardness.  The simple tasks of eating, drinking, sitting, and walking are revealed as a difficult struggle.  We see her physical discomfort, the ache of her shoulders.  However, the artist's face is impassive, showing no frustration.  Are we to admire her persistence in the face of these difficulties?  Or does this merely reveal an ingrained acceptance of these impediments as "natural", even when they could be addressed? 


SelfPortrait_Drinking from Hye Yeon Nam on Vimeo.

Should we see her awkwardness as an inevitable aspect of the human condition or as a self-imposed choice (why not get a glass without a hole in it)?  Or are we to see her as victim to the social narrative that tells her what is "appropriate" behavior, even when that creates unnecessary impediments?  One can easily see a parallel to femininity and the ways in which women's behavior is constrained through social norms.

In Walking, for example, I see the awkward gait of the dictates of women's attire:  the high-heeled shoe, the bound foot, the narrow skirt, the corseted waist that robs her of breath.  Yet not only are women told to endure these constraints, they are required to move with grace, as though unhindered by the strictures of fashion.  By making this awkwardness visible, we can come to see the daily ways in which women's bodies are restrained and burdened through gender roles. 


SelfPortrait_Walking from Hye Yeon Nam on Vimeo.


SelfPortrait_Sitting from Hye Yeon Nam on Vimeo.

Those surrounding the artist seem oblivious to her obvious physical discomfort.  There is no offer to help or even a sympathetic glance from the other diners.  Is this to mean that our inner experience may not be visible to others -- the feelings of awkwardness or discomfort not even seen by those around us?  (This might be comforting, in that we avoid the humiliation of public exposure, but it also means we are all truly alone, unable even to have the sympathy of others.)  Or does it merely reveal the callous acceptance of the struggles going on around us?  Perhaps one can see the experience of disability here, in which the everyday challenge of navigating the world goes unnoticed.  Even if noted, we may do nothing, fearing our assistance may merely exacerbate the awkwardness of the situation. 

The artist also references her experience of immigration.  She notes:
In the videos, I seek to portray the difficulty of living in this 'room' that is America. Self-Portrait is an attempt to literally represent my psychological and bodily displacement as a means of representing the experience of immigration to non-immigrants.  Since moving two years ago, I now feel as if I live in a different skin. Many of the simple tasks that seemed inborn to me in Korea are now completely foreign.  My body, as a result, feels different.  I feel like it occupies both Korea and the United States and my arms and legs feel incredibly elongated, as if I cannot see the end of my body.  This space of being neither here in America nor there in Korea is precisely what I try to convey in Self-Portrait.
And yet, while I have not been an immigrant, the pieces still speak to me.  The artist has taken part of her experience and translated it so that we can see its universality.  And isn't that part of the power of art (and literature and science) -- to connect our own individual stories through the narrative of the piece? 

What I like about these pieces is their provocative nature -- they pose more questions than they answer.  Do they call for social change to create more space for diverse ways of being?  Should we criticize her for not changing her environment, or is she to be lauded for persisting in the face of difficulty?  The works are compelling, but without clear resolution.  I enjoy works that get me to think, but they need not provide simple, clear messages.  Indeed, these works would be less powerful to me if they framed their message too directly; they would become pedantic and off-putting.

"With her patient and resolute response to the difficult situations she encounters, Nam provides a reminder that 'fitting in' requires consistent negotiation between the self and perceived expectations—a challenge to which we can all relate."
In other words, these works speak to the discomfort we have all felt, but they call us to connect with the experiences of others, as well.  By making these inner struggles visible, we are able to see them more clearly.

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