Installation view of YI YUNYI’s “A Son Older Than His Father,” Doosan Gallery, New York, 2021. Photo by Jiwon Choi. All images courtesy the artist and Doosan Gallery, Seoul / New York.

Yi Yunyi’s “A Son Older Than His Father”

Doosan Gallery
USA Korea, South

In the 1930s, psychoanalyst Carl Jung found an unlikely parallel to his theories about the formation of personhood in alchemy. The chief goal of alchemy, historically, was simultaneous physical transformation of matter and spiritual transformation of the alchemist, a twofold goal that was not seen as two separate aims. For Jung, alchemy analogized individuation, the process of establishing oneself as a distinct entity from others. He theorized this process through the four stages of alchemy outlined in the 16th-century woodblock alchemical treatise Rosarium Philosophorum. This treatise, as well as Jungian theories of individuation, formed the conceptual basis of Yi Yunyi’s first solo exhibition in the United States, “A Son Older Than His Father.” Consisting of a print, a sculpture, and a video, the exhibition examined the different stages we go through to make ourselves legible to others and to ourselves.

Hanging from ceiling to floor and demarcating the space upon entering, the diaphanous print Pat on the Back and Snatch the Liver (2019) displays side X-ray images of Yi’s breasts, with one breast upside-down. The X-ray is not merely a means of visibilizing the body’s innermost landscape, but a diagnostic tool. In employing such monumental scale to render these images of potential bodily dysfunction, Yi retools X-ray technology as self-alienation, to make her body strange to herself again. 

Installation view of YI YUNYI’s The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, 2019, OHP, 35mm slide projector, Himalayan pink rock salt, 61 × 25 × 25 cm, at “A Son Older Than His Father,” Doosan Gallery, New York, 2021. Photo by Jiwon Choi.

Indeed, the first step of alchemical transformation, Nigredo, is a stage of psychological conflict and reckoning. This continued in The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (2019), a Himalayan pink salt sculpture that glows with projected images of snake scales that are overlaid with text from the Alcoholics Anonymous creed. Its principles are simultaneously self-supporting and self-indicting, calling for unsparing moral inventories and relational squaring. The sculpture’s brick composition, coupled with its solemn textual content, lends the piece a kind of gravity accorded to tombstones or altars. In alchemy, salt—a purifying preservative—is one of the three primitive substances that compose all things. Salt bricks represent an apt formal choice for displaying the 12 steps, which, like alchemy, strive for a higher form and wholeness in a physical and psychological sense.  

This exercise in self-alienation gave way to more complex levels of self-fashioning in the looped 24-minute video October to June (2019). Yi’s interpretation of individuation is more fully fleshed out in this work, which rewards repeated viewing as it plaits seemingly disparate scenes—ping-pong games with nuns, musical chairs—that eschew easy mapping. The cohesiveness of the video owes not to one obvious, pictorially linear narrative but to the fact that it is based on the various stages of alchemical transformation. 

The video opens with scrolling text that describes a friend of the artist who was hospitalized for delirium. As the video cuts to shaky footage of a man walking around aimlessly, the narrator observes him in relation to herself, looking for similarities. Shuttling back and forth between “I” and “him,” the narrator whispers: “Just like me, this person is seeking some happiness for their life. Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness, and despair.” Here, Yi instantiates Albedo, the next stage of alchemical transformation, comprising observation and identification of other subjects. 

YI YUNYI, October to June, 2019, still from two-channel FHD video with color and sound: 24 min 19 sec.

Toward the end of the video, nearing the completion of the alchemical transformation, two children recite sentences and the boy says in Korean, “And your cheek and my cheek are swapped.” The Korean words for the possessive “your” and “my” are homophonous, though spelled differently. When spoken, there is no distinguishing between “your” and “my,” save for contextual clues. Although this may seem like a reversal of the process of individuation that had gradually crystallized in the video, it is perhaps an apt way to signify its final stage: one sounds like another but is a distinctly separate entity. “Tension,” reads the scrolling text, “is someone you think you must become.” In Yi’s works, the real subject is the clumsily fashioned self, floundering toward wholeness but unimpeachable in its right to alchemize. 

Yi Yunyi’s “A Son Older Than His Father” was on view at Doosan Gallery, New York, from January 14 to February 13, 2021.

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