Jin-me Yoon

“Jin-me Yoon: About Time” was on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) over a period of wintry unease on the Pacific Rim. That this unease is more a broad and enduring than local and fleeting condition of 21st-century life—and that it takes forms ranging from the political to the spiritual and from the militaristic to the environmental— underscores the past decade of Yoon’s photographs, videos, sound works and installations. Born in Korea and raised in Vancouver, where she is still based, Yoon is both culturally and geographically situated to examine likenesses between nations on opposite sides of that vast ocean. She is also emotionally and intellectually alert to the losses, fractures and disjunctions of history, diaspora and colonialism, the destruction of the natural environment, the ties that bind families together and the forces that pull families apart. Overarching all her recent artworks, as the show’s title indicates, is a preoccupation with the backwards and forward unfolding of time. “Time is nested,” she writes in her brief artist statement. “The past and future exist in the present. In each place, in each instance, it is a set of relations I am trying to touch.”

Throughout Yoon’s recent probing of contemporary issues and metaphysical questions—her interweaving of nature and culture and her linking of history, memory and identity to the landscapes upon which they are inscribed—certain images and gestures recur. These include the digging of holes and the making of mounds; the collective work and play of family; the deep forest and the wide sea; and the stealthy coming and going of a black-clad figure. This figure may originate in Korean folklore; however, it reads to me as a disembodied spirit, a vagrant ghost seeking a place to lodge itself, searching for a way of rescuing a sense of what it once was or might become. Each of Yoon’s video works is shaped not only by the dominant aesthetic of collage and the slow choreography of performance but also by her deep research and its measured realization in visual and aural form.

Jin-me Yoon, Turning Time (Pacific Flyways), 2022, video. Photos: Ian Lefebvre, Vancouver Art Gallery. Courtesy the artist.

In her single-channel video, Long View, a fixed camera records a curious enterprise on a rainy day. Four figures—Yoon’s parents and adult children—alternately labour and rest on a wide, sandy beach. Big waves roll onto the shore behind them, asserting a primordial presence in the video and on the soundtrack. The location, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve on the far west coast of Vancouver Island, is, on sunny days, spectacular. Here, however, the scene is muted by the weather, the silvery-grey water met— almost subliminally—at the horizon by the bluish-grey sky. Nearby but unseen to us is a military site, Radar Hill, with its memorial to Canadian soldiers who fought in the Battle of Kapyong during the Korean War—a reference that serves as an unsettling subtext to the performance on the beach. More immediately symbolic is the hole that the family is digging: theirs seems to be a metaphorical act of excavation, of uncovering what might be shreds of historical or cultural meaning hidden beneath layers of sand deposited over time by the pounding sea. Every so often, one or the other of Yoon’s family turns and stands very still, gazing westward, each still pose suggesting yearning for a lost homeland on the other side of the not-always-peaceful Pacific. The mound of excavated sand is shaped and patted down, the family takes their shovels and leaves (stage left), and that vagrant ghost—a faceless figure, dressed head to toe in black neoprene—enters (stage right) and jumps into the hole. The hole that is obscured from our view by the sandy mound. The sandy mound that gradually diminishes before us, washed away by the rain and the tides.

Jin-me Yoon, Long View, 2017, single-channel video. Photos: Ian Lefebvre, Vancouver Art Gallery. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Acquisition Fund.

The overtly performative elements of the video are followed by an almost psychedelic montage of flickering and flashing light, flapping and soughing sounds and blurred images, contemporary and archival, Canadian and Korean. The camera plays over fir trees and ferns, salal bushes and wavering white strands—feathers—and then the screen is washed entirely in white. That deathly whiteness and the sound of the waves created, for me, a metaphorical bridge to Yoon’s nearby sound work, Iyeodosana: Living Water. Here, in a dimly lit passageway at the rear of the third floor gallery, we hear Korean women chant a culturally hybrid song, its chorus consisting of “iyeodosana, iyeodosana” from a Korean work song and its lyrics rendered in Korean from excerpts Yoon has borrowed from the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. (The words are twice translated, from the original Portuguese to English and from English to Korean, the latter courtesy of a Google translation program. These linguistic peregrinations can be tracked in Yoon’s notebooks and papers, on view in the accompanying vitrines.) References to the singers, Korean women divers known as haenyeo, again serve as a particular cultural subtext while the lyrics call to more universal strands of spiritual belief and the great and ultimately unanswerable existential questions. “And so when I die, I’ll never have been born and lived,” the women sing in Korean. “Death washes away the traces of seafoam on the beach.” Behind the singing voices, which move us in inexpressible ways, we hear again the rolling waves of Long View. This aural juxtaposition is intentional: Yoon has commented that the show’s installation was designed to create a connecting path from one work to the next.

A number of Yoon’s videos and video installations are complemented by still photographs, which visit subjects as diverse and yet as philosophically interleaved as cultural identity and filial duty; our fraught relations with the natural world along with a poetics of reverence for it; and more specifically militaristic and industrial trespasses upon unceded Indigenous lands in western Canada and endangered wetlands in South Korea. In A Group for 2067 (Pacific Flyways), a photo-based work that stands independently from her video installations, Yoon revisits her then-career-defining photographic grid, A Group of Sixty-Seven. Created in 1996, the latter introduced a Korean-immigrant presence into entrenched settler- Canadian concepts of wilderness and nationhood and their expression in “iconic” paintings by the Group of Seven and Emily Carr. In the new work, created in 2022, hopes for a more thoughtfully “inclusive future” are expressed through photographs of Korean Canadian youth draped in colour-saturated traditional Korean fabric and posed before the natural setting of a conservation area on ancestral Tsleil-Waututh lands.

For me, however, Yoon’s video works made the most powerful and lasting impressions, even as they ranged widely across time, place and subject matter. In the exhibition catalogue, Diana Freundl writes that Yoon’s work of the past decade “is distinguished by a poetic, cinematic aesthetic—one that is deeply contemplative and marked by a sensory slowness, and punctuated by heightened intensities.” These qualities are evident in Mul Maeum, a three-channel video with sound, projected onto a long, curving wall purpose-built for the exhibition. The work, whose title translates into English as “Water, Mind-heart,” shifts and slides across three different locations on the Korean peninsula and speaks again to unthinking acts of humankind— “extraction economies and military industry”—and their impacts on the natural marine environment and the spiritual beliefs and the livelihoods of Korean people. Moving images, which range from dump trucks to clamouring flocks of seabirds and abandoned fishing boats and from wildflowers to neoprene-clad surfers and, yes, children digging holes in the sand, may flow continuously across all three screens, may split, reverse and reflect back at each other, or may be broken up into individual and seemingly dissociated scenes or scenarios, some contemporary, some historical. And, as in Long View, there are sudden psychedelic shifts into abstracted and experimental forms, blurred and slow motion, poetical and documentary in style and content. Yoon has spoken about the “associative” properties of collage and montage, “the collision of meaning, accidents, serendipity,” and this collision presents as a defining strategy in her video installations.

The most visually beguiling and emotionally arresting work in the show was, for me, Turning Time (Pacific Flyways), which was (physically) composed of eight video monitors floating in the air in the VAG’s third-floor rotunda. Invisibly suspended from a gridded structure across the building’s skylight, high above us, each monitor played a slow, meditative performance of the Korean Crane Dance by a young person of Korean ancestry. (They are the same young people featured in A Group for 2067.) The Crane Dance is described here as a symbol of “longevity, life, ancestors and cultural traditions,” meanings that are married to the location in which the young people perform: the Maplewood mudflats, located on unceded Coast Salish lands, and out across an arm of the ocean at the residential and industrial developments on Burnaby Mountain, including an expanding oil refinery at its base. Again, the references—both direct and subtextual—are complex, and range across a number of issues, from cultural identity to colonialism to environmental catastrophe. The manner of their expression, however, is charged with beauty and is immediately accessible visually and aurally. The cluster of monitors dazzles like a cloud of brilliant light, like a spiritual revelation, compelling the eye and, with it, the soul.

A criticism levelled at Yoon’s recent work is that she has taken on too much—too many themes and issues. That view seems to me a bit narrow and exclusionary. As is so beautifully and contemplatively articulated across the many works in “About Time,” Yoon’s belief seems to be that everything is connected in the metaphysical questions of who we are, where we come from and where we’re going. In her own words, “Between my outstretched hands and the viewer’s, we expand the possibilities and constellations of becoming.” ❚

Jin-me Yoon: About Timewas exhibited at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, from October 15, 2022, to March 5, 2023.

Robin Laurence is an independent writer, critic and curator, based in Vancouver. She has written essays, reviews and feature articles for local, national and international publications, and is a long-time contributing editor to Border Crossings. She is the 2021 winner of the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing.