My work has begun eliciting poemesque titles to expand meaning. I am also exploring the use of Korean language to reach beyond my known language boundaries and mental models, which are confined by English. I had my upcoming show title - This is the Shape of Me - translated into Korean. What a journey it has been and continues to be.
There is something vibrating between the space of verbal language (titles and poems) and visual language (icons and symbols). This is complemented by the dissonance and loss I have long felt in not knowing how to speak Korean. The gap between Korean and English feels as wide, and is filled with more sorrow, than the gap between verbal and visual language. I have a body sense of feeling that my mother tongue was stolen from me (this is itself a contradictory statement, as my mother is white American and my father is a Korean immigrant). Growing up, we were not generally part of a Korean community or regularly near Korean family, other than the year we lived in Beaverton, Oregon near our cousins (whom we spoke English with!). While we lived for a year in Korea when my sisters and I were children, we were home-schooled and didn’t pick up the language. When my parents argued, my father reverted to his native tongue: spoken Korean picked up an angry tone at home. There were times when my parents made an effort to expose us to Korean culture and language class through attending Korean church; however, it also became a dissonant space of standing outside the norm. We were of mixed heritage and odd-fits in an environment that was occupied by immigrants and their children who could, even if imperfectly, speak and understand Korean. Church generally felt like a space of judgement and rigidity, whether we attended an American or Korean church - and my parents flip flopped between the two through our many moves during childhood. Perhaps they were also trying to figure out where we fit.
I can read and write Korean (한글, Hangul), but largely have no idea what I’m reading. The Hangul alphabet is 24 characters – 14 consonants and 10 vowels – and is the brilliant invention of King Sejong.
I remember learning Hangul on a summer trip to Korea when I was 13 years old in a matter of minutes. I wonder if there is another example of such phonetic elegance in world languages – I can't think of one in the romance languages. I fell in love with the shapes of the characters, which are symbols of lucid elegance built from varying arrangements of vertical and horizontal lines, circles, squares, and chevrons. It appealed to me, even then, as geometric, reductive simplicity and as the building blocks of something greater than itself.
This is the background I need you to understand to explain why it is personal and private, as well as public and political, for me to translate and present the show title - This is the Shape of Me - into Hangul: 나의 형체. It is a necessary reclaiming and broadening of self, and it is painful. The soft parts of my underbelly are exposed.
The process has been involved. I first checked in with my cousin, Yoonsook Pack (백윤숙), who immigrated from Korea when she was a toddler. She has often discounted her own command of the language by stating that her Korean is not perfect, and I am jealous regardless. The phrase that I passed on to her that Google translate spit out was the following.
The back and forth exchange about the meaning of ‘shape’ included clarification on my part that ‘shape’ is not a reference to the appearance of the body as much as to Being. The body is not separate from Being, but physical attributes or aesthetic quality are not the shape of concern. Yoonsook suggested either 폼 (form) or 모양 if I want a literal translation, as in “this is how I show myself.”
This is when my brain begins to implode and leak out my ear. My shoulder strains and constricts over my heart space. My gut burns. My body and mind can’t hold all the dissonance and loss I feel around my lack of comprehension. I sense that there is meaning held in the shapes of the words that I cannot access. This is something old… an old sensing of loss that demands I stretch into something new if I am to journey here. I can’t tread this way without risk and loss of self. I already feel worn. I also sense a vibrating tickle, which means I won’t be able to turn away from this exploration.
I ended up asking a friend, Grace Sanghyun Nam (남상현), for further assistance. Her mother (omma, 엄마) is a linguist and native speaker and had some suggestions, as well as the caveat that her translations may be out of date or misaligned to contextualize my work. I feel utterly and completely exposed - now I’m getting gutted! Grace’s omma tapped into the thing that creates even more dissonance in this foray into verbal language, which is the relationship between verbal language (한글, Hangul and English, 영어) and symbol (my artwork ㅁ).
All the shapes begin vibrating, and the colors sing.
My work is an act of integrating disparities through the process of making. The process and the forms are somatic, spiritual, emotional, mental, and of this space and time. Language is inherently inadequate to describe something that is not a verbal experience. The container is not big enough.
The good news is that the shadow space between languages and the shadow space between language and symbol are infinitely rich, as demonstrated through this exploration of having a show title rendered into something analogous. This ambiguous space is precisely where the iconography of my work is held and where the mapping of a language of symbols materializes. Dissonance creates beauty. Symbols obscure and reveal. They are suggestions and abbreviations for something intangible that lies outside of concept. Language cannot grasp this, and the frustration created in attempting to articulate a thing outside of itself spurs creative sources. The energy moves.
Grace also sent the phrase to her friend SeoKyeong Lee-Yoon (윤이서경), who is an artist and native Korean speaker. She offered even more suggestions to explore.
1. (이것은) 나의 틀 (이다.)
Inspired by how she used the 'shapes' and 'structures' to create the atmosphere in her works; and the words 'oxymoron' and 'confusion' from her statement. '틀' could mean boundary, frame, mould, formality, stereotypes, etc. It could be visible or invisible, it could be translated in many different ways.
2. (이것은) 나의 형체 (이다.)
This would be a more direct translation. It could not only indicate the 'shape' but also the individual's unique 'temperament'.
I feel myself falling into infinity. There are endless possibilities depending on tone and context. I’ve fallen into this space before, and begin to float. I steady myself through the urge to exit. SeoKyeong is generous and we arrange a phone call to further discuss her suggestions, both of which feel appropriate for my work. I am so appreciative… and terrified. The conversation with SeoKyeong is one in which my utter lack of nuance and not-Korean enough self is on display. I can’t form the sounds of Hangul in my mouth, even when I hear the tones in my mind. This judgement comes from myself, not from SeoKyeong. She graciously holds space for my fumbling.
SeoKyeong clarifies the meaning of specific words further, and it is helpful.
모양 (suggested by Yoonsook and Grace’s omma) is a more direct translation, referring to the shape itself.
틀 (#1 suggested by SeoKyeong) allows more space for the audience to interpret meaning.
형체 (#2 suggested by SeoKyeong) is a more personal context, referring to personhood.
My initial inclination was to use 틀, but I changed my mind after the conversation with SeoKyeong. I do not intend my shape - my personhood - to be left open for interpretation. This is a dangerous area for an Asian-bodied woman to occupy, a space fraught with fetishization, projection, and erasure. I have been placed in this space throughout my life and had it declared it is where I am to live. It is a space of violence. SeoKyeong clarified that the frame or boundary implied in 틀 infers emptiness within the boundary. I am not an empty vessel.
I must admit there is a part of me that pauses and mourns a little. In a world in which I didn’t have to consider the implications of race and gender, I would welcome more room for interpretation and space for the interplay implied between the visible and invisible. A space of ambiguity is precisely where my work lives. But, I also contend on a daily basis with living in my body within a culture that places me in a liminal space between visibility and invisibility. It is too dangerous to reinforce this cultural reflex, nor am I open to allowing my artwork or my Being to be accessed as a blank landscape open for interpretation.
You may be wondering: is it relevant if the only people who will perceive this nuance in the title are in fact Korean speakers? Within the context of the Korean diaspora, is being interpreted as an empty frame still at issue? Can this occur to an Asian-bodied woman within an Asian space? Certainly. Because I am of blended culture, the dissonance in my layers of identity are felt within each cultural context. Anyone associated with a diaspora yet residing outside the country of origin is subject to scrutiny of 'authenticity', regardless of racial 'homogeneity'. And, gender plays a role in either and all cultural contexts.
In the end, my choice is to use 나의 형체 as the show title. It is a truncated form that exists as a statement - it translates to Shape of Me as opposed to This is the Shape of Me - which SeoKyeong says is less heavy and feels more poetic in Korean. It references my unique personhood and shape, and this feels true.
It feels true… and the more I say it the more the shape, sound, and meaning of the words collapse into one another. The energy moves, the colors vibrate, and I take shape.