Art

Using Official Forms and Documents to Unpack the Migration Experience

When you walk into Spencer Brownstone gallery from off the street there’s no chance to mentally transition, unlike some galleries where there’s an elevator ride, or a long hallway, or the exhibition space is far from the front desk.

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Installation view of ‘On Paper’ by Jesse Chun at Spencer Brownstone Gallery (all images courtesy the artist and Spencer Brownstone Gallery)

When you walk into Spencer Brownstone Gallery from off the street there’s no chance to mentally transition, unlike some galleries where there’s an elevator ride, or a long hallway, or the exhibition space is far from the front desk. In the case of its current exhibition, On Paper, I felt I wanted that time and space of segue, perhaps because this solo show of Jesse Chun’s work is all about migration, the often tortuous shift from one political and social demesne to another. I felt, looking at the wall of strangely pixelated and patterned images of idyllic settings, immediately unmoored. I didn’t understand where I was for a moment, because I couldn’t understand what I was looking at. The images that are part of Chun’s Landscapes series look like what would be spun out by an early generation of artificial intelligence, commandeered to produce images of serene landscapes: mountains, trees, and flowing bodies of water. Actually, they are Chun’s scans of the images in the background of varied passport pages that are watermarked to resist identity theft. Through her digital manipulation, the underlying substructure of repeating visual motifs within the images are made more obvious,so much that the pictures become ersatz versions of the country associated with the passport. These images become strangely digitized fantasies that don’t actually seem capable of enticing anyone.

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Works by Chun that feature selective erasure of information taken from forms she or her family members have filled in (click to enlarge)

In fact, the images repulsed me at first, because they are so clearly inorganic and alienating, so I turned toward the wall displaying Chun’s Forms and Blueprints. Here, the lyrical and subtle strategy of selectively erasing the texts on immigration forms was something that made immediate sense to me. I’ve lived in three different countries — Chun has lived in four: Seoul, Hong Kong, New York, and Toronto — so I recognized the significance of the words left in one piece “Form #2 (diptych)” (2016): “Blue, Vert, Grey, Other, Autre, Noir, Brown.” These are all ways of identifying the self to others in terms of eye color, in two of the most widely spoken languages: French and English. I remember when I was in a group of children at school and we were asked to raise our hands if our eyes were blue and I didn’t realize that mine weren’t until that moment when the teacher told me I was wrong. There is something about the migration process that causes self-knowledge to loom larger in one’s estimation while geographic location shifts and becomes fluid and uncertain. Chun cleverly illustrates this by having the words “place” appear twice distally from the other text and in smaller font, like a voice fading in the distance.

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Jesse Chun, “Form #2 (diptych)” (2016) (click to enlarge)

The Blueprints series consists of a miscellany of documents meant to be filled in. They are all printed on blueprint transparent vellum paper and physically layered. The documents lie empty, with squares and rectangles that seem like draconian measures of information that insist it fit into the particular shape. The entire migration process makes one feel like one has to fit into the prescribed box, or be rejected.

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Jesse Chun’s ‘On Paper,’ installation view

The artist gets at the odd alienation from the self that occurs simultaneously with the self-discovery necessary to fill in the myriad forms — where born, what time of day, how long one’s lived at each former address, etc. Jesse Chun happened to be present in the gallery when I visited, and told me that she thought of the phrase “on paper” in terms of, as the saying goes, “being only good on paper.” The irony of being an immigrant is that one has to be good on paper, primarily on paper. One is defined by how good one is in that narrow view. And then perhaps, if the golden doors open, one will be permitted to find out what else one can do.

Jesse Chun: On Paper continues at Spencer Brownstone Gallery (3 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan) until September 17.

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