Transnational Trajectories


By Tanya Silverman

Jars from Dr. Rhee’s Kimtschi Shop, social intervention. Copyright 2011, estherka. Photo by Rachel Marsden.

The crossroads of civilizations past and present are dotted with countless cruxes.

Virtual Reality by Real Virtuosity, an exhibit at NYC’s Coohaus gallery, embodies an instance of modern global connections, featuring the award winning videos, sculptures, and installations by the Korean-American contestants of the AHL Foundation’s Annual Visual Arts Competition. AHL is a nonprofit that supports Korean-American artists and promotes their exposure.

This year’s first place entry actually came from Berlin: kate hers RHEE’s video performance, “And then there were none”. Playing on a medium flat screen at Coohaus, the voyeuristic video features RHEE, a small female, sitting with a belt strapped over her mouth, facing a larger black male. He picks up small chocolate desserts, places them into the belt, and bites them. The food gets messier as the body language of the actors–and likely the audience–grows more awkward.

The mood is anxious, and questions instantly arise: Is it sexual? Is it violent? Is it intended to make you feel compelled to watch, or to avoid, the screen? Is it supposed to be racist, or a comment on racism?

Indeed, there’s deliberate racial symbolism. The chosen chocolate dessert used to be officially called Negerkuss–or “Nigger’s Kiss” in German–a name RHEE still hears colloquially.

RHEE admits some white German audiences reacted negatively because they consider her unfit to speak about Blackness in the country. Part of her message is a greater proclamation about all non-mainstream denizens of German society in which RHEE argues that social persistence of the phrase Negerkuss “demeans this minority to an object” which lacks individuality.

RHEE in 7 Drawings, 28 Kisses. 2013. Courtesy of estherka.

As a “cultural producer” who works with mediums like performance, drawings, or foreign language, RHEE often focuses on transnational and identity topics. In the past, she explored her own personal uncertainties as a Korean born adopted American.

She’s recently taken to incorporating designated food items, which she considers “masquerading as a different type of cultural activity” to invite participation. For Who’s Afraid of Garlic, Ginger, Chili Pepper? (2014), RHEE installed kimchi ingredients into a glass ant farm as a conceptual food-art painting. In 2011, she and her partner Hanjo produced Dr. Rhee’s Kimtschi Shop, a participatory social intervention where people presented different “national treasures” to share and evaluate.

Nevertheless, RHEE mentions that as dear as the spicy cabbage is to her, her choice to ferment it is often poked fun of by others who allege that “if you don’t speak Korean or aren’t directly out of the culture you can’t make authentic kimchi.”

Determining what aspects of cultures are fixed or open is always subjective, as are interpretations of identity–whether for individuals or by group, on oneself or to others. Despite the challenges that have faced RHEE, her 2014 AHL award symbolizes her lasting integrity to navigate her own route and destiny.