. . . A N D W A I T
Seo Young Chang’s hypnotic videos hold viewers in an elliptical tide of endless deferral—waiting for closure which never arrives. Through agonizing plays with circularity and repetition, her videos render the pain and absurdity of existence in the face of an always impending death. The narrator in Chang’s Circle (2017) describes “the end of the world” like a “vanishing point, as it continuously postpones its actual arrival.” It is this disquieting state of dilated anticipation that Chang represents and interrogates in all of her work, questioning what it means to feel, communicate, and find meaning in the course of an existence always temporary.
In her works Keep Calm and Wait and Until Your Name is Called (both 2017), Chang evokes with stark precision the frustration of anticipation mediated through technological interfaces. Recalling the experience of waiting in a queue at at a doctor’s office, Keep Calm and Wait loops three lines of text, typed character by character, with variations on the bureaucratic directives “Keep calm and wait until your name is called,” and “Your name is not on the list keep calm and wait.” Paired with periodic bell sounds that ring yet beckon no change, the work fixes the viewer in a position of perpetual anticipation:
waiting for the next letter, waiting for your name, waiting for the end. Until Your Name is Called similarly withholds resolution, with layered videos of a ballerina endlessly preparing to dance yet paused in motion. The flickering cursor in Keep Calm and Wait and the buffering icon that spins in the background of Until Your Name is Called stand as mute emblems of this compromised potentiality.
Suspended deferral is depicted in the realm of the technological as well as the overtly corporeal. The bound or restrained dancer is a recurring figure in Chang’s work. In her early video, The Toddler (2009), the viewer is forced to bear witness to the slow and agonizing movements of a straight-jacketed ballerina whose face is shrouded tightly in cloth, fighting to stay on pointe. Nameless Disease (2016), a looping 2-channel video that cuts across two vertical screens, similarly tracks the movements of a cloaked figure’s strained movement on toe. Blinded by her garment, which ascends into to a slowly rotating netted funnel, the figure circles mechanically in darkness. Chang casts the restrained dancer, perpetually moving yet continually denied access to her surroundings, as a haunting embodiment of existential despair.
In 1972, the critic Marcia Siegel famously wrote, “Dancing exists at a perpetual vanishing point. At the moment of its creation it is gone…[it is] an event that disappears in the every act of materializing.” Much as Chang articulates the apocalyptic end as an ever-elusive vanishing point, Siegel positions dance as a mournful enactment of lost presence. The figures in Chang’s videos rehearse the maddening deferral of death in their trials of choreographed endurance, which stave off dance’s disappearance at risk of strained limbs and exhaustion. Watching in loop as her dancers both fight and embody the “ceaseless passing away of the ‘now,’” Chang’s audience is forced into an tortuous
pas de deux with death.
Chang’s work renders boundless suffering, both physical and existential, excruciatingly palpable. The circling dancer in Nameless Disease performs the agony, monotony, and loneliness of pain. A Monument for the Very Important Internal Organs (2014) similarly manifests the isolation of physical suffering. In the black and white video, a sock turned inside out slowly spins against a gray background, its clinical remoteness and synthetic textures evoking ultrasound imaging. As the sock spins, we hear a narrator refuting the presence of illness despite a patient’s absurdist efforts to turn her own body inside out to expose her pain. The works recalls Elaine Scarry’s seminal theorization of the inherent inexpressibility of physical pain through language. Scarry writes: “for the person in pain, so incontestably and unnegotiably present is it that ‘having pain’ may come to be thought of as the most vibrant example of what it is to ‘have certainty,’ while for the other person it is so elusive that ‘hearing about pain’ may exist as the primary model of what it is ‘to have doubt.’” While Chang’s videos posit the existential dread of death and the more acutely felt effects of illness as inherently inexpressible—resistant to clear communication—they also suggest that this inexpressibility might itself prove a productive, if painful, site of commiseration and empathic communion.
Chang’s single-channel video Circle, perhaps most clearly demonstrates her concern for this shared contact. The work pairs overlaid and mirrored footage of a woman endlessly descending a spiral staircase or otherwise eating a spiralized potato off of a skewer, with narration that eccentrically draws fragments of quantum computing, eschatology, and linguistics into the video’s cyclical orbit. The viewer finds themselves immediately implicated in this dizzying scene, addressed directly by the self-reflexive narrator who begins, “Thank you for coming to my screening. If you are now in a space, a real space, you are likely to have seen the ending before you saw the beginning.” As the film unfolds, the narrator continues to address the viewer, asking “you [to] tell me how I finish this,” pleading, “I need your foretelling no matter how ambiguous it is,” and stating directly, “I am talking to you.” It is the viewer that completes the circle of the work, charging the circuit with meaning, allowing the narrator/artist to find “the end,” whatever that may be.
We may find some hope or reprieve in this. Amidst the looping cycles of monotony and denial that consume Chang’s work, there is a whispered suggestion that through connection we may perhaps come closer to sharing our pain and challenging the supposed isolation of our own mortality.
Kate Wiener is Assistant Curator at The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in Long Island City, New York, where she is involved with exhibition development, public programs, and publications. She previously held the position of Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Education and Public Engagement at the New Museum, New York, where she curated the exhibition Screen Series: Virginia Lee Montgomery and co-organized exhibitions with Johanna Burton and Sara O’Keeffe, including Anna Craycroft: Motion into Being (2018), MOTHA and Chris E. Vargas: Consciousness Razing—The Stonewall Re-Memorialization Project (2018), and Jeffrey Gibson: The Anthropophagic Effect (2019). She has contributed to numerous publications, including Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon, eds. Johanna Burton and Natalie Bell (New Museum, 2017) and Out of Bounds: The Collected Writings of Marcia Tucker, eds. Lisa Phillips, Johanna Burton, and Alicia Ritson, with Kate Wiener (Getty Research Institute/New Museum, 2019). She received an MA from The Williams Graduate Program in the History of Art in 2016 and a BA from Carleton College in 2013.