Liveworks: Geumhyung Jeong: Actualising fantasies

Nikki Heywood

After the first of South Korean choreographer/performance artist Geumhyung Jeong’s two interconnected performances for Liveworks, she left some audience members underwhelmed, pronouncing they’d seen it all before. Maybe they had. Jeong began work on 7 Ways in 2004 and premiered it in Seoul in 2009, and many artists before and since have mined the territory of object-based performance. However other spectators, like me, were fascinated with Jeong’s eccentric dive into human and non-human interaction.

After performing 7 Ways in Liveworks, Geumhyung Jeong presented Oil Pressure Vibrator, a performance lecture that artfully revealed something of the artist’s process and self-examination in the making of 7 Ways and the rigour invested in her ongoing exploration. Oil Pressure Vibrator takes her obsession with objects into an astounding new partnership with an earth-moving machine; it is literally groundbreaking.

7 Ways, Geumhyung Jeong, Liveworks 2017, photo Wooshik Lee

7 Ways

White light on a white floor, no music and no pretence. Geumhyung Jeong waits watchful and still as the audience enters. There are objects scattered about, the most prominent being a robed mannequin, sitting close to centre stage. The inanimate female looms large in this work, beginning with a featureless dummy and ending with a brief appearance by an open mouthed plastic blow-up sex doll inflating from a suitcase, bookends to Jeong’s strangely compelling performance.

Nonchalantly undressing and then donning a concealing black body-hugging suit, Jeong becomes … a Ninja? A hooded puppeteer? A void? A white masculine mask, placed on her foot, takes on a life of its own, rising from the floor supported by its long leg/neck and compelled by a magnetic attraction toward the pale mannequin. The creature plays with a threatening proximity, and hovers about the female figure.

Jeong’s dark form is contorted and reshaped as the other leg becomes a hand, stroking, undressing and then detaching the upper half of the dummy and making off with it, like a mutant body snatcher, only to return for the lower half. Torso and legs are reconfigured horizontally and the sequence concludes with the lifeless figure being humped by a shadowy ghoul that climaxes in a whimper of vibration and pathos.

A subdued tone persists throughout, yet Jeong undercuts any sense of mundanity with a series of manoeuvres that verge on the sexually macabre. Her disquieting assemblages confound the senses to create uncanny acts of puppetry between the body and unlikely apparatuses, such as a small electronic organ and later a masted galleon that sails across the ecstatic turbulence of the performer’s body now covered by a sea of blue cloth. Many of Jeong’s manoeuvres involve vibration, pumping or sucking of air, and her understated depiction of female sexual excitement is itself closer to the elements of air and water than the qualities of fire or earth.

The central disturbing sequence features Jeong at her most visible and vulnerable lying across an industrial vacuum cleaner cylinder, manipulated by a shaggy haired male visage attached to the end of the suction hose. Like a mad professor in an act of necrophilia, he comes to life as a long-necked molesting incubus, and she is a rag doll under his leering control. Evoking a sense of menace, as the masculine/alien/machine and prone woman/puppeteer are artfully conjoined in one image, the performer becomes a victim at the behest of her own lamprey-like creation.

Woman as still life, woman dismembered, woman in a suitcase, woman as prey and object of sexual gratification all evoke a passive lack of agency — problematic images that Jeong resists and yet persists with inventively in her revealing performance lecture.

Oil Pressure Vibrator, Geumhyung Jeong, Liveworks 2017, photo Gajin Kim

Oil Pressure Vibrator

In contrast to the brightness of the first work’s white space, Oil Pressure Vibrator is staged on a black floor in low light, with Jeong seated at a table with laptop. And now we hear her voice, speaking live in native Korean with succinct English subtitles projected on screen behind her. She presses ‘play’ on a reprise of the blue figure with the ship moving on waves of her breath. This was the image that seemed less congruent with the palette of mechanical objects in 7 Ways, yet there is something delightful and liberating in this version of elated anthropomorphic coupling.

Jeong’s ‘lecture,’ along with video footage of sequences we have seen in 7 Ways, outlines the evolution of her thinking. Most illuminating is her decision to split herself in two in order to become a hermaphrodite. We learn that she wants to become sexually independent by creating new partners for herself and to enjoy the liberty of isolation in a closed feedback loop. It is at this point where it becomes difficult to discern the person from the artist and where I become intrigued with her long-term commitment to this demanding (and one might say onanistic) project.

When people/friends told Jeong of concerns that within her work she was always playing the passive female character, she decided that being passive was unattractive to her. It became imperative to actively play both roles, and to incorporate the characteristics she finds most desirable in men — their hands and mouths. She chose to employ more objects to perform her sexuality at a distance, and we see the example — a vibrating electric toothbrush penetrating the mouth of one of her masks. These playful experiments are humorous and intriguing and also involve other constructions with long flexible necks and “better suction.” We watch on screen as she creates and trains her perfect lovers, but even so, with time and too much familiarity she claims “the orgasms decreased” in intensity. Even resorting to “cheating” with a real life man, she could get no satisfaction. The sheer mechanics of sex are not enough.

Jeong’s resourcefulness knows no bounds (or boundaries) when “destiny” and her quest for total union draw her toward the ultimate apparatus, something huge with the requisite “long neck and flexible joints,” “strength in motion.” Something to satisfy her desire for “orgasm unto death” — a giant, multi-attachment earth-moving machine. Gasps of disbelief and hilarity from the onlookers. But Jeong is serious.

Determined to perform the role of and with this perfect being, she engages in the logistics required to meet the machine. The only woman in the heavy equipment training program she undertakes, she is exultant to learn it moves by the flow of liquid and internal oil pressure. “Breaker” her favourite attachment, a sharp beak-like drilling tip, could fulfil her fantasy: “one gentle touch would melt me away.” After passing the written exam and three attempts at the difficult practical test she is qualified to become one with the machine.

A ritual is prepared and on an empty beach, the perfect venue for a wedding, her proxy sand sculpture woman and giant drilling partner are aligned. With initial gentle strokes from Breaker’s tip — like a tongue or finger — she is ready to be tenderly pierced. In an extraordinary act of puppetry (and hermaphroditism) the larger than life sand Jeong does indeed melt away, finally flattened by machine driver Jeong. “Orgasm unto death,” behold. The climax was also the end of the lecture-performance, and I needed a cigarette.

Both works are exemplars of Geumhyung Jeong’s obsessive artistry, they are skilful and well resolved in ways that were not visible in some other offerings I saw in this Liveworks. Evident depth of thought and aesthetic cohesion surely come with time and the support to experiment and fully develop ideas into action that is satisfying for both artist and audience.

Performance Space, Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art: 7 Ways, creator, performer Geumhyung Jeong, 25 Oct ; Oil Pressure Vibrator, creator, performer Geumhyung Jeong, cinematographers Geumhyung Jeong, Hoseung Jeon, Bongwoo Park, Youngkyo Choi, video editing Geumhyung Jeong, Younghyun Jeong, 29 Oct; Carriageworks, Sydney

Top image credit: 7 Ways, Geumhyung Jeong, Liveworks 2017, photo courtesy the artist and Liveworks 2017

8 November 2017