Bodies and Battlegrounds: An Interview with Christine Oh

Editor’s Note: During the fall of my senior year, I organized a lecture and facilitated discussion on eating disorders, body image, and mental health for Asian American women. Community organizing around such topics required intention: How do we address pain and trauma without stigmatizing those who experience it? How do we critique the external and internal impulses of perfectionism without walking away from doing the difficult, time-consuming work of being present, patient, and generous? How do we do that kind of healing work for ourselves?

Spring semester, still heavy with reflection, I encountered my classmate Christine Oh’s solo exhibition, Political Figures: An Exploration in Paint. One piece that particularly struck me was Wellesley Girl/Woman, No. 2, featured below. There was something so matter of fact and natural about its depiction of the body of an East Asian American woman, yet so refreshing. I had never seen bodies like mine portrayed without the aspirations of labor we are expected to perform: to be someone’s trophy child, to be someone’s trophy wife. To be someone else’s idea of perfect. For me, experiencing this painting unearthed the deeply buried desire/pain to exist as I am and call it enough.

As I write this, I think about the thematic parallels of trauma, healing, and perfectionism between Christine’s political work and art, and my response to her work. Even so, we inhabit different socio-cultural-political spheres that affect our relationship to the human rights issues in North Korea and Korean/Korean American identities. Thus, as I preface Christine’s work with my personal experience, I invite readers to approach these pieces with their own perspectives. –AZ

 

Wellesley Girl/Woman, No. 2 [Naked Korean American woman standing next to a large sketch filled with a few North Korean male political leaders]

As[I]Am: Your thesis project, Political Figures: An Exploration in Paint, is a collection of paintings that depict Korean and Korean American bodies. Most strikingly, it features several paintings that depict unclothed Korean American women, black and white head shots of Korean middle aged men, some or all of whom are political figures, and these Korean men’s heads superimposed on the bodies of presumably Korean American women. What compelled you to take on these themes of identity, the body, and politics? Why did you feel it was necessary to bring in this perspective?

Christine: My first thesis proposal didn’t include anything about North Korea or politics. It focused primarily on the body and was meant to help me expand my skill set and explore my obsession with reinterpreting human flesh. I soon realized that keeping my thesis separate from a passion that ate up the majority of my time not only did not make sense, but was impossible. I would go into the studio and sit down to paint my friend, but my thoughts would be elsewhere, thinking about what the North Korean defector prison camp escapee spoke about at Harvard, or trying to bring a North Korean defector artist to show his work on campus… I felt like I was split into two—the artist and the North Korean activist—and only one part of me could win my time, efforts, and energy.

Who is a Father? Who is a Leader? Who is a Hero? Grid No. 1 [Charcoal portrait sketch of North Korean male leaders]

These People Are Real To Me [The same North Korean male leaders, but semi-colored portrait]

One of my thesis advisors helped me resolve this well into our first semester. Essentially she helped me understand that being a painter means being an activist and vice versa. When I came to this realization, I felt freed to finally let these parts of me mix together—but it turned out this would be as difficult, if not more, than keeping the two things separate. I started by bringing in different images that were associated with North Korean human rights. I painted black and white portraits of the now third generation dictatorship, the Kim family. I asked my mom for pictures of my North Korean grandfather and requested the same sort of photos from my friends with North Korean heritage. A few responded, so I spent a period of time translating these photos to paper, but nothing really interesting came from that.

The breakthrough really happened for me when I gave up the idea that I was going to create a number of perfectly executed paintings. The works I had begun prior to introducing North Korean elements were visually and conceptually failures, so I began to think that I really had nothing to lose. That is how His Body is a Battleground was created, when I found a way to mash together North Korea and the female figure. That painting is deeply personal for me because it represents a victorious moment. I accepted the risk of failure and followed my instincts, and I created something powerful by putting together my two obsessions.

His Body is a Battleground [The head of a North Korean leader in black and white attached to a colored naked upper body with hands clasp together]

The entire body of works was not pre-planned or thought out meticulously in any sense. It was an intensely emotional and vulnerable journey to figure out whether I could stay true to both my passions—painting and North Korean human rights activism—in the studio and outside of it. The project was really an exploration of my identity that extended into the realm of the politics of the body and the body of politics, and that was where it became relevant not only to me, but to others as well.

As[I]Am: What have been people’s responses to this collection?

Christine: Two words I heard a lot from those who experienced the final exhibition were “moving” and “powerful.” I think the space it was displayed in had a lot to do with it. Jewett Gallery is a one-room exhibition space that encases the viewer with three high walls. I would guess it was kind of like entering an enormous box full of silently conversing images about my dilemmas, anxieties, fascinations and judgments, and inviting the viewer to engage by putting her/him in a sort of crossfire.

Gallery 9

[Jewett Gallery at Wellesley College featuring a collection of North Korean political work done by Christine Oh]

As[I]Am: What is your response to people’s responses?

Christine: I was surprised at how adept some people were at reading into the work and thus into my psyche. They caught onto things that I didn’t know I had made visible—like the struggle I had with my crippling perfectionism, or my uncertainty of my place within human rights work. Many professors accurately pointed out that this project had been a search, not carried out with a peaceful, solidified identity, but a turbulent one where I posed numerous questions, many of them at myself. Even looking back at it now I can see that I was so lost, but I am grateful that I was not guided to the answer per se (who can hand out answers to life?), but taught the right way to search for one by my mentors, teachers, and friends.

As[I]Am: What can we expect from you in the future?

Christine: I’ve been allowed this amazing time of rest, reflection, and time with family after graduation (I like to think positively about unemployment). Working part-time has made me realize that a part of me is dreading entering the “real world,” where there are salaries and goals and results. I would much rather be in the studio painting and thinking than dealing with clients and projects. In that sense, going to art school would be a practical next step, but then there is this very small and stubborn side of me that wants to live a “normal” life of having a 9 to 5 job with raises and happy hours and bosses. Either way, I think I would be fooling myself if I said I wouldn’t go back to art. I love it and I think it will ultimately be my way of giving back to the world, something that no one else can do in the same way. I’ll just have to see how and when that happens.

 

Show photoCHRISTINE OH is an aspiring creative based in Irvine, California with a Fine Arts background. Born in Princeton, New Jersey, her childhood was divided between the U.S. and South Korea. The few things that stayed constant throughout were her large family (the second of four girls), a voracious appetite for stories, and a love for creating things. Currently she works part-time as a barista and freelances as a graphic designer. Contact her with any questions at yehjinoh@gmail.com and see more of her work at her website.

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