Eunjung Park: Arrangements, an Essay by Kayla Romberger
Eunjung Park: Arrangements
An Essay by Kayla Romberger
There is a passage in Don Quixote in which the two protagonists, Don Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza, encounter a statue that can speak—an “enchanted” bronze head fashioned after the marble portrait bust of a Roman emperor, whose responses “correspond to the questions put to it.”[i] This enchanted head can neither breathe nor move its lips, but is professed to possess powers to divine the future, delivered through muffled declarations from deep within its chest. When the pair is introduced to this strange head they are told that it is surely accurate in its foretelling abilities, and that it will reveal their true fortunes and identities in time. “Who am I?” one member of Don Quixote’s party ventures toward the head. “You know who you are,” the bust responds.
“I’m not asking you that,” responded the gentleman, “I’m asking you to tell me if you know me.”
“Yes, I know you,” was the response. “You are Don Pedro Noriz.”
“I don’t want to know more, for this is enough for me to realize, O head, that you know everything.”[ii]
This interchange is not so unlike an encounter with the work of Eunjung Park. The hair-standing-on-end sensation (not to mention hilarity) one might experience in front of the work is akin to recognizing one’s own self-interested inquiries into it, directed towards it. And likewise, the work thwarts our desire to discover something new by reflecting instead the things we already know or are want to believe of it.
Park makes installations, tableaus, and videos, and arranges objects on shelves and shelves on top of shelves. There is a sly and subtle humor underpinning much of it: a banana peel on a shelf, a portrait of a woman attached to a motor that goes round and round in time to audio recounting a circular logic: Fingers are not tongues but all tongues are fingers. Lips are not assholes but all assholes are lips. Occasionally, Park encourages her viewers to rearrange the shelves or alter the placement of the things on them, and other times she maintains that they stay fixed. The viewer’s intrusion into these arrangements in fact resides at the heart of her work, the pivot around which all the other components respond.
On the shelves, which aren’t really shelves so much as a kind of scaffolding, Park threads cellophane and sheets of foil. She places found objects and fist-sized bits of clay, pinch-pots, glazed pots, a sculpture of a woman’s buttocks, even, within the scaffolding and on top of thin wisps of plywood. We notice: an ironing board, an iron grate, a feather duster held aloft like a boom; faces; boxes; auratic objects; familiar things and unrecognizable things shoved together into a kind of pyramid [fig 1 & 2]. There are nods to Duchamp—in the dish rack (turned to the wall), the pair of gloves draped over a wooden lattice, and the carefully-hewn planks propped vertically, modeled after the decks of skateboards (echoing D’s 3 Standard Stoppages). Unlike Duchamp, however, Park is not really trying to call attention to the singular object. Nor is she really describing the whole either. The whole of her assemblage/painting reads like a collection of materials, and there are so many, many materials.
When Don Quixote suspects that the enchanted head is a hoax (a suspicion he holds from the outset), he is baffled by his companions’ lack of care. “By God, that is good!” Sancho says, even as the head tells him something he already knows. Don Quixote is indignant. “What is it that you want? Is it not enough that this head has given answers that correspond to what is asked of it?”[iii] The genius of Don Quixote as a novel, of course, is that all tricks are revealed in time. We soon discover that the head is made of hollowed wood; that it is fastened to a solid table and attached to the floor; that from underneath this table and hidden from view there is a long tube of tinplate connecting the base of the bust to the room underneath. Sitting at the helm of this operation is a young man supplied with information about his correspondents, which he conveys by setting his mouth against the tube. For any answer he does not know he responds by conjecture for he, too, is in on the joke and the joke is organized at the expense of Don Quixote alone.
But what does any of this say about Park? Park’s preoccupation with arrangement stems from an interest in the subjective influences that govern individual principles of organization, our “intuitive sense of ‘rightness”—what we allow or (or don’t allow) or let hold sway over a display, a collection, our belongings. Park turns her attention to the vernacular—where concepts of color and composition, “the pleasing rhythm of sameness and difference” [iv] appear “in window displays, on shelves, in people’s homes, on nightstands, etc.”[v] She sets the stage, and welcomes the audience to intervene.
So what’s at stake then, in all this rearrangement? “Only when a work is most fragile,” Bryony Fer says, “is there the possibility for it to morph into constantly differing mutations.” [vi] It is an exquisite phrase, Fer’s, yet the thing about putting the audience in charge is that they really aren’t. Certainly, Park’s work is most vulnerable in the moment we shift her paintings around in their frames—something we’re allowed to do. But behind the scenes, isn’t Park the one pulling the strings, putting her mouth to the mouthpiece, anticipating our questions, providing the “right” answer? We move things about. We slide a curtain from one side to another. We believe that we give it new life. “That is the most resilient part of art.” Fer concludes. “How it survives.”[vii]
What I mean to say is this: Park is giving the jokes away, she’s revealing her tricks, and we’re eating it up, eating it up. Part of Working Arrangements (2014-15) includes two banana peels on a cockeyed shelf. They’re painted over, clinging on, so to speak, but anyone can recognize it for what it is: the oldest joke in the book. The peels may not be placed on the floor (cheap laughs) but they are placed on a shelf and they are spilling off it (a cautionary tale, a slippery slope) [fig. 3]. It’s spectacularly funny. Shelf Life, she calls it. Comedy, we call it.
In Walter Benjamin’s Grave, anthropologist Michael Taussig talks about how “in the sorts of societies in which religion was in the hands of so-called shamans, witch-doctors, and sorcerers,” one specific doctrine was shared by each: they all revealed their sleight of hand, even as they believed it.[viii] In short, the healer and the patient are in on the “trick” of their cure—and yet they believe and fear the trick simultaneously (that recurring binary of faith and doubt). “Although every magician must have known himself to be a fraud and a trickster,” Taussig says, even as he goes out of his way to publicize his doubts and call out a fake, he also “believed in and greatly feared the supernatural abilities of other medicine-men.”[ix]
In a loose way, Park’s work navigates this realm. In Green Box, for example, which consists of a small green box perched on top of a stepladder, the work hinges on the anticipation of a viewer’s regard for it. “Green,” the little box says in a droll male voice (it has a voice). “A little bit of green.” Like the enchanted head, it deigns to “correspond to the questions put to it,” but the box can only point to such an interaction rather than animate it.
We notice a small recording device resting at the foot of the ladder (the trick!). The recitation continues, like a mnemonics. “Looks like green. Feels like green.” Only once does the voice crack, ever so slightly, the statement made out like a question. “Feels like green?” Is it any wonder how green it is? We’re given only answers; the mechanics are out of whack. Whether and how it receives our manipulations is irrelevant. It’s an audio recording on repeat. “Deep Green. Very Green. Very Very green.” The more we’re told what to believe the more we begin to doubt it. If we’re trying to trick Park into revealing her tricks, she has already done so for us.
Why, we might ask, does Park’s work conjure such grand narratives, such big comparisons? I think it is because the arrangements appear so deliberate, even after they have been combed over by a previous visitor’s machinations. Her shelves start from sketches, two horizontal lines drawn on paper, dots drawn in for objects. Once the drawings become shelves and the dots become real objects, we rarely see the drawings put up for display, but they serve as the counterpoint to the material work they describe. They remind us of who is in charge.
Taussig ascribes the shaman’s trickery to one particular phrase—corporeal techniques—the methods by which a person might commune with the holy through the body, person-to-God. Park’s techniques are material. Object-to-object. On thing touches another, the hierarchies are overturned, a shelf stacked with shelves becomes an object of objects, rippling outward, its “potential inwardness,” in the words of Susan Pearce, “hanging before the eyes of our imagination.”[x] Fingers are not tongues but all tongues are fingers.
[i] Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, trans. Edith Grossman (Los Angeles: Harpor Collins, 2003), 871.
[ii] Ibid., 870.
[iii] Ibid., 870.
[iv] Susan M. Pearce lists sixteen possible motivations for collecting: leisure, aesthetics, competition, risk,
fantasy, a sense of community, prestige, domination, sensual gratification, sexual foreplay, desire to reframe objects, the pleasing rhythm of sameness and difference, ambition to achieve perfection, extending the self, reaffirming the body, producing gender identity, and achieving immortality. Quoted in Meike Bal, “Telling Objects: A Narrative Perspective on Objects,” in The Cultures of Collecting ed. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal (London: Reaktion Books, 1994), 103.
[v] Eunyoung Park, “Statement,” 2015.
[vi] Bryony Fer. “‘States of Abstraction:’ Lygia Clark and the Problem of Art,” Lecture, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 2014.
[viii] Taussig, Michael, Walter Benjamin’s Grave (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 123.
[x] Susan M. Pearce, quoted in Bal, “Telling Objects,” 47.
About the Author:
Kayla Romberger is an artist who lives and works in Philadelphia. Occasionally, she writes. She has exhibited in the 4th Gwangju Design Biennale (Gwangju, South Korea), BASE Beijing (China), Work-Detroit, UMMA (Ann Arbor), and the NY Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1 (New York). She holds a master’s degree from the University of Michigan and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.