Jin-me Yoon’s Time is Nested
Jin-me Yoon is a lens-based artist who lives and works in Vancouver. During her thirty years of making art, she has critically examined the notions of nationhood, identity, ethnicity, gender roles, and a sense of belonging, through the lens of her diasporic experience. Centring her body as a site of inquiry, Yoon’s artistic interrogation has gradually expanded from examining how bodies carry perceptions and stereotypes to how an individual’s experience registers intergenerational memories and histories. Yoon’s understanding of the body enables her to deconstruct prevailing assumptions around the criteria of inclusion and exclusion in relation to the notions of displacement and emplacement. Using photographs, videos and installations, Yoon contemplates how experience of migration has shaped the ways of rethinking our relationships with others and our place in this world.
Emigrating as a child from South Korea to Canada in 1968, Yoon’s experiences of displacement in her formative years laid a solid foundation for her art practice. She was a graduate student at Concordia University when she created Souvenirs of the Self (1991), a set of six picture postcards featuring herself posing for the camera at five different tourist sites in Banff, Alberta: a vitrine at the Banff Park Museum, the Banff Springs Hotel, a memorial for Chinese railway workers, Banff Avenue and Lake Louise. This project plays on feelings of discomfort and looking out-of-place, evoked by an Asian woman’s body juxtaposed with iconic Canadian tourist sites of natural beauty, serving as a constructed image of Canada.
Dressed in Nordic clothing, her racialized body is posed in a rigid manner and she seems not to enjoy the tour. Is she a Canadian or East Asian tourist? What are the recognizable indicators of being Canadian? And who has a legitimate right to be called Canadian? This visual dissonance prompts viewers to reflect upon their perception of otherness and the terms of inclusion, which shape an understanding of nationhood and belonging. Quoted by Hyun Yi Kang in Jin-me Yoon: Between Departure and Arrival, Yoon comments that this work questions who is the rightful and naturalized national subject, especially within the context of the ongoing history of colonization vis-à-vis the Indigenous peoples.
Inscribed in English and French, the caption on the back of each of postcard suggests two active voices: the young woman in the image is referred to as “she,” and the other represents the narrator who intentionally distances from “she.” These captions are accompanied by a message in Mandarin, Japanese and Korean: “We too are custodians of this earth.”
The postcard featuring Lake Louise includes the following sentences: “Feast your eyes on the picturesque beauty of this lake named to honour Princess Louise Carolina Alberta, daughter of Queen Victoria. She discovers the lake on a sunny day; before that she does not exist.” By infusing the voice of Eurocentric settler-colonialism with one that renounces the former’s discursive authority, Yoon interrogates the narratives of multiculturalism that implicate conditions of belonging to a place within the Canadian context.
Yoon has produced photographs from the series in various physical formats. The National Gallery of Canada's collection includes a chromogenic print of Lake Louise, which was shown in the Gallery's Photography in Canada 1960–2000 exhibition in 2017.
The originals were first sold in tourist gift shops, positioning this work at the boundaries between art and non-art. Echoing the representational critiques of Vancouver photo-conceptualism, Yoon staged these images in a popular tourist-postcard format, aptly placing her work in the public sphere. By doing so, the artist transformed her inquiry into a socially engaging art practice.
The postcard style reappeared in Yoon’s six-piece photo series Long View (2017). This work is the artist’s year-long investigation of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, the traditional territory of the Nuučaan̓uɫ peoples. It was commissioned as part of Landmarks 2017/Repères 2017, an art project across Canada’s national parks, marking the country’s sesquicentennial. Her series explores the region’s legacies of colonialism, militarism and tourism, on both sides of the Pacific. The photographs feature a black-clad figure digging a hole into a sandy shoreline, forming a large mound reminiscent of Korean ancestral burial mounds. The sequence of building a sand mound is encased by two images of active looking: one by the artist through binoculars and the other by the black-clad figure gazing at the horizon.
The Long View photo series is accompanied by a video work with the same title, featuring the artist's parents and children digging a hole to create a mound next to it on the beach. Working on the mound, they stop from time to time and look at the horizon, as if trying to reach out to the other side of the Pacific by scanning the scenery. Scenes of digging a hole and building a mound are followed by a sequence of the sand mound being eroded by snow and rain and eventually disintegrating.
The conceptual representations of these actions prompt viewers to engage emotionally with the artist’s intergenerational queries. Digging and forming the land – as performed by the artist, her family and a black-clad figure – might be her way of expressing a sense of belonging, claiming a temporary place on this land, while layering different sites and histories. Both the photographic series and video work poetically translate individual diasporic experiences in search of the embeddedness of self within a place.
The notion of self-emplacement implies being anchored to a place. In her 2019 photographic series Living Time, Yoon’s understanding of “being emplaced” addresses the relationships between human and non-human worlds. Composed of six diptychs taken in a densely wooded area, this work depicts Yoon’s friends, relatives and residents from the artistic community of Hornby Island. Their horizontally or vertically positioned bodies evoke human dependency, rootedness and belonging to a world much larger than mere existence. Yoon’s visual strategy for this work speaks to the interconnectedness of individuals and their surroundings, and how they shape each other. Her artistic inquiry, in this sense, is a philosophical quest. Throughout her artistic practice, her focus has expanded from the representation and identity of Canadian nationhood to human relations with communities and the environment over time.
Created in 2020, Carrying Fragments (Untunnelling Vision) is a multimedia installation, incorporating film, sculpture, photography and performance. In this work, Yoon’s take on human experiences within communities adopts a notion of “vertical time.” As art historian Ming Tiampo explains in Jin-Me Yoon: Life & Work, Yoon's visualization of this concept entails “an image is joined with others from the past or future, and moves through cycles that return and repeat, creating additional layers of meaning and existence.” In this monumental installation, the local histories of the Tsuut’ina Nation, entrenched in colonialism, militarism and tourism, are interwoven with a different future, reimagined by local Indigenous community artists and artists of diverse heritage. This work is the culmination of a three-year collaboration and workshops examining their experiences of settler colonialism in the region.
Yoon is currently working on her new projects Listening Place and Long Time So Long, alongside her most recent work Mul Maeum (2022), channeling her focus on creating a space for Indigenous-immigrant relations that could foster renewed ways of healing and care for one another.
Her works engage with time in an inclusive, generative and compassionate way, through which individual experiences of a place enfold the passage of time. These embodied experiences are nested in time, engendering infinite possibilities of interconnectedness that redefine who we are in this world.
Link to conversation between Yoon Jin-Me and NGC curator Euijung McGillis at the Image Centre, Toronto. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.