Joo Yeon Woo’s newest works continue to explore themes that deal with place and displacement, with diaspora, hybridized identities, multiple consciousness, and shifting geographical and psychological borders. These themes have long engrossed her, inspired by her own experiences as an émigré from Korea. Her latest musings on the subject are presented in two elegant series, one of digital photographs called “What’s my Name” and the other on paper called “Gyopo Portraits.” The term “gyopo,” Woo explains, refers to ethnic Koreans who live elsewhere and also connotes their loosening ties to their origins, to their homeland and traditional culture.
The “Gyopo Portraits” focus on faces–although some are full-length figures–and depict people in-between, probing an otherness that is always relative and dependent on context. The works are quite beautiful, embossed images on thick paper, white on white, accompanied by a few words in Korean and English occasionally as a kind of signage. The overall whiteness makes their individual faces difficult to see, becoming almost like ghost imprints emerging from the whiteness, an undifferentiated, unidentified abstract space, then vanishing, the results of the lighting conditions and where the viewer is standing. In turn, that visual shift and uncertainty underscores the equally elusive identities of those who are being depicted, immigrants in need of creating their new place in the world and their new outward guises, reconciling it with their inmost beings.
The 14 digital prints of “What’s My Name?,” sleekly graphic in appearance, are pictures of the binders that many Korean immigrant families use to store documents pertaining to visas, green cards, and permanent residence applications, each folder representing one family. Placed once more against a neutral white ground (to diminish the harsh reality of immigrant lives, the artist said), the binders are seen horizontally, as if placed on an invisible table, installed more or less at eye level. What is seen is one edge. If you look closely, you might glimpse a creased immigration form, or an old red and blue striped airmail letter from a consulate or immigration office as well as other papers. Each folder, of an appealing and different color, varies in bulk depending upon the complexity of the family’s specific situation. Each, consequently, is also a portrait, complementing the “Gyopo Portraits,” the files emblematic of real lives. As surrogates for these lives, the binders have a curious poignancy, representing immigrant dreams and their once and future hopes; some of them might be fulfilled, some not.
Where do we come from, who are we, where are we going? In her practice, Joo Yeon Woo seems to reiterate the questions famously posed by Paul Gauguin in one of his most celebrated paintings. They are essential, existential queries with complicated responses. In our age of global intertwining, they have never been more topical.
Lilly Wei is a New York-based art critic, journalist, and independent curator whose focus is contemporary art.