[Talk about Freak Show] Contemporary Artist Ok Jung-Ho, Who is the freak of this era?

2021.2.24

(Description of work)

Contemporary artist Ok Jung-Ho, who has raised social issues using photographs and videos, borrows from the entertainment ‘Freak Show’, which was viewed by placing abnormal people on the stage from the 17th century to the early 20th century, and reflects on our lives today. The protagonist of the short film <Freak Show 2020> is a man with body cut in half who appeared in the artist’s last work <The Widow>, who is also Ok Jung-ho himself. The cut-off worker shown here subjectively wants to ‘see’ but is still being ‘shown’ as an object, and is also the image of us reproduced as the artist himself.

<Freak Show 2020> deals with the author Ok Jung-ho’s persona until she has a body cut in half. The story is terribly realistic and fantastic. The story begins at the stage construction site for a magician’s performance. A non-regular worker mobilized for the construction admires the onstage magician. In exchange for not paying attention, he cuts his finger. The magician attaches the worker’s fingers with a magic trick, but when the worker wanted to stand on the stage, he proposes to cut the body in half. The worker endures the pain of cutting the body, but the spotlight on the stage is only focused on the magician. The two bodies cut in half of the worker rely on each other and go out to the river and sit side by side, helplessly. A rainbow rises beside the two, not just one, creating an ambiguous mise-en-scene as if it were a fantasy or a past.

A stage space for magicians appears in the movie, forming a frame-like structure. The stage of the magic-play, which is a place of all kinds of fantasy as well as a space for the activities of the cast members, that is, the public roles, confuses the division of identity. In this chaos, the stage of the freak show, a device of violence in the past, becomes a space for active performances. The film begins with a performance of drag on stage, and the stage is handed over to a magician. The stage is the world of those who are recognized and finished. In the play, the worker does not hide his desire to be incorporated into the world on the stage. However, the logic of reality that still works in the world of fantasy is more destructive. The workers leave their own stage with two unfinished bodies and come out to the riverside. Instead of entering the promised world of the finished ones, they chose to stay in a shabby place in reality.

(by Critic Woo Ah-Reum)

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Contemporary artist Ok Jung-Ho
Critic Woo Ah-Reum
Curator Kim Sung-Woo

Freak Show: The beginning of the idea

Woo Ah-Reum: The first theme of <DIVERSITY> was selected as ‘Multi Humanity’ in order to consider humanity in the future environment. Through Ok Jung-Ho’s video work <Freak Show 2020>, we will try to highlight how humanity today is being dealt with by talking about the past and present that bring oddities to the stage. First, I am curious about how you decided on the concept of <Freak Show 2020>. Was it selected based on the topic proposal from ZER01NE?

Ok Jung-Ho:

“Freak Show” was conceived before. It’s basically about humanity, but it fits with the ZER01NE theme. At that time, I accidentally saw a program called <Let Me In (美人)> on YouTube and was shocked so I stayed up all night and continued watching several episodes. It was very bizarre to express the defects in the appearance of the contesters by exaggerating them as if they were dealing with a monster. In particular, the screen production seemed to be the same as the ‘Freak Show’ that had existed 300 years ago. It was no different from a show where deformed people were brought together and shown as a spectacle or a circus stunt. The broadcast was also based on a strange humanism. Each of the contester confessed their pessimism, knelt to receive expensive plastic surgery benefits, and begged them to live like a human being for a day. At this time, plastic surgeons and psychiatrists come out to provide professional advice and solutions. Oh, it looked like strange doctors who created Frankenstein. It turned out that it was a highly controversial program in the first place.

Woo Ah-Reum: Come to think of it, it seems that we humans who use ‘Freak’ to attract attention or seek profit are no different from the past or now.

Ok Jung-Ho: Right. The media that uses these people can be said to be evil. In the mid-17th century, if Siamese twins couldn’t make it to the Freak Show, they would have starved to death. They were forced to sell their deformed appearances and lived from hand to mouth, and the circus leader was able to put them on the stage and accumulate fortune. This pattern can be said to be the same structure as for the Freak Show or the current broadcast program. In a way, the entertainment program <Alley Restaurant>, which is currently being broadcast, is no different. It means that the plastic surgeon was changed to Baek Jong-Won. There are restaurants here that are always good at anything, and there are villains that will never be fixed even if you give them an advice. The same pattern repeats every time. Meanwhile, villain is basically a stigma effect. The more ugly and bizarrely the appearances of <Let Me IN (美人)> contesters are packaged, the more people fall into it. It can be said that it is the same thing in our society to treat people from certain regions by stigmatizing them.

Freak Show: Freaks in our society’s Freak Show

Woo Ah-Reum: Artist Ok Jung-Ho used to appear in works after suffering physical abuse. The severity of the harm became more and more severe, reaching the form of “Freak,” a body cut in half.

Ok Jung-Ho: “I” am the man who goes into the box and cut in half, and at the same time, a ‘Freak’. Is it ‘me’ the owner of <Alley Restaurant> and the person who applied for the story to <Let Me In (美人)>? Right, I thought it would be easier for me to tell the story I intended to be when I became the main character.

Kim Sung-Woo: “Freak show” is the otherization of a specific human being as an abnormal, non-human being. In the existing work of the artist Ok Jung-Ho, how can the artist be free from their otherization? When asked this thesis, the artist Ok Jung-Ho appeared in the work and made it by caricature of himself. I thought I could be a little free from it. As the artist enters the work, it can be thought that the palatability becomes zero. On the other hand, when connecting the stage of this ‘Freak Show’ with ‘modernity’, you can ask questions about ‘human things and non-human beings’.

On the other hand, when connecting the stage of this ‘Freak Show’ with ‘modernity’, you can ask questions about ‘human things and non-human beings’. In the past, in Britain, a colonial black woman who resembled Venus, a symbol of fertility, was bought and sold. For them, colonial black women are literally otherized beings who do not come into a universal and rational system. For them, colonial black women are literally otherized beings who do not come into a universal and rational system. But in the video of Ok Jung-Ho, strangely, the characters that are shown as “Freak” have a very subjective position. For me, this was the very fun part. On the contrary, workers with normal appearances making the stage looked like “Freak” on the one hand. Workers eventually become instruments on the stage, which can be seen as not having acquired human subjectivity in the end. So, the tears the protagonist shed at the end also feels ironic. Are these really humans? He became Freak, but then he is not Freak at the same time.

Freak Show: To have subjectivity

Woo Ah-Reum: Workers, magicians, patients, clowns, and artists step up on the stage of the freak show in the work. Today’s stage is also a place where exploitation and achievement are mixed, so some oddities seem to be subjective. This duality is interestingly revealed from the appearance of Drag Queen in the opening scene of the work. Drag queen appeared as a person who had both hydrophobicity and artistry and was confused, but when the scene changed afterwards, it was found that he was a successful entity, a celebrity, on the space of achievement called the stage.

Kim Sung-Woo: Is it the acquisition of their subjectivity to receive the spotlight? In fact, I think that no matter what stage many people are on today, when asked, are they really subjective? It is a world in which we are living by making so many alibis. For example, even in the field of art, artists criticize institutions, criticize society, experiment again, and challenge existing traditions, but in the end, the experiment and criticism are incorporated in the name of art to expand its extension. And so the artist is making an alibi that will keep their position again. Therefore, we have no choice but to fall into the question of whether this is truly subjective. It is not a dichotomous logic as in the past Freak Show. It is very interesting that there are beings called Freaks on the stage, and there are beings in the position of Freaks, although they are not in appearance under them. The workers who make the stage make the stage for normal acting, and those acting on it bear the name of Freak, but not actually Freak. I thought that these abnormalities and the creations of those abnormalities are similar to the principles of community formation today.

Woo Ah-Reum: I think you can think about subjectivity through the case of Drag Queen. When she goes on stage, she usually leaves herself and has more exaggerated gestures, and the drag queen seems to have shown her who she is. There was a device that showed that he was a drag queen dancer in costumes, heels, and makeup. In order to attract the attention of our society, I felt that people had made themself subjective by expressing a little unusual part, a part that could be read as abnormal in the past, in a way that could be digested. So couldn’t he be able to appear on the stage while receiving the spotlight?

Ok Jung-Ho: If you watch the movie Fight Club, isn’t it Edward Norton’s fantasy? In fact, I once said that I wish these protagonists to look like my fantasy, these characters are the characters that make up me, and in the end these people don’t exist, but I wish they would look like a fantasy that he sees alone. Perhaps because of that, I felt like I just said. On the other hand, the drag queen dancer wanted to somehow neutralize it and express it. Instead of dancing the drag queen, I asked the actor to express self-love and self-loathing at the same time. Not 5:5, but 6:6.

Woo Ah-Reum: You can also talk about the role of a magician. Isn’t it a magician who provides a stage for freaks, providing a stage from the past Freak Show to show programs such as <Alley Restaurant> and <Let Me In>. He is a person who does not change and continues to exist. He may think that he is taking profits or self-actualizing through others, but maybe it is only an illusion, and he may be a person who cannot change forever, a being who cannot acquire subjectivity.

Ok Jung-Ho: The reason why Nam Sang-Soo was recruited as a magician actor is because he has an image of a fallen religious leader.

Kim Sung-Woo: I thought of him as a typical capitalist. Capitalists continue to change internal rules in order to sustain their stage, through which they maintain a structure that can be constantly exploited. It is impossible to be a perfect subject, it is difficult to see it as a transcendental being, and it can be said that it is a very secular being.

Woo Ah-Reum: Then, when we come back to life, the question of how to use or intervene in the magician’s system seems to depend on us. To the freaks on the stage or to the workers who want to climb. In the end, I think that I can touch the question of which space will be set as the stage and where it will be located. On the other hand, the part where the magician felt that he had no subjectivity was because he ran the already established rules as it was.

Freak Show: Normal and abnormal

Woo Ah-Reum: These days, this standard seems to be internalized for each individual rather than clearly given from outside. That’s also the question that Drag queen threw at me. As I watched this video work, I thought that some individuals could survive by reaching the level of making great use of abnormalities or oddities, but others could collapse. I even thought about when I would collapse, and I also thought that when I couldn’t tell where I was on the stage, whether I was on the stage, or being myself, I could collapse. However, I think it is difficult to notice this in today’s society. There are a lot of YouTube and social media, and there are many cases where they live as if they were acting on such a stage.

Kim Sung-Woo: I think I had a similar thought while watching writer Ok Jung-Ho’s Freak Show. This Freak Show is a show of freaks, and those who stand on the stage are unusual, weird people. On the other hand, the people who were making the stage are those who have a normal appearance. What is interesting is that he wants to get on stage, that is, to be a freak. In other words, it is the moment when the boundary between normal and abnormal collapses. In the future, it has raised the question of what standards can divide normal and abnormal, or what makes the distinction between normal and abnormal.

Freak Show: Meaning of the last scene

Woo Ah-Reum: When I hear curator Kim Sung-Woo’s words, the last scene suddenly comes to mind. Where is the way out? I thought about it. How can we see the last scene? In the end, the worker who admired the ‘stage’ was cut off, but did not receive any spotlights he wanted, and the film ended as he went out to the outside space without help and sat down and stared at the water’s edge.

Kim Sung-Woo: In terms of several layers, he was nevertheless not able to become the master on stage. In the modern concept, it is something that has not been humanized or that it does not belong to the normal human category, and furthermore, it is an entity that has not acquired sovereignty as a human, and eventually ended as an instrumentalized and other entity. But does someone do yoga in front of him? Watching the scene, I wondered if any free gesture he wanted could only be achieved within the realm of imagination, like a mirage in front of him. On the one hand, it may be because I already know that this is the artist Ok Jung-Ho himself, so I saw something like the “Artist’s Award” there. In the end, what did artist Ok Jung-Ho do this for? After all, what is an artist today? What is their role? I get to throw these questions.

Ok Jung-Ho: In fact, in the last scene, I thought they were my fantasy and I couldn’t see the rainbow man. I intended to just look at the water.

Woo Ah-Reum: At first, I thought as the worker as a failed person who had not acquired subjectivity and leaving that space. In fact, when you live on, you need some free time to find your place again. So, I think that it could be seen as a place and time to come out of the world he admired and look at the water. It could be that the rainbow shows that he is in space and time to go to his own space.

Freak Show: Ok Jung-Ho’s Next Chapter

Ok Jung-Ho: You can’t change the world. But I believe that changing how you look at the world can change the world. So how do you look at this world? Can I say that the story about me is now resolved? From now on, it’s time to tell a different story, not about myself.

Woo Ah-Reum: You cut your body in half. I was worried about what can be the next. Thank God.

Kim Sung-Woo: Artist Ok Jung-Ho’s work has a radical part. He always has an overturn structure. He works through caricatures or humor, but in fact, he puts the social structure in his work and eventually overturns the structure. He laughs like a black comedy, but on the one hand, he adds discomfort to the discomfort, making him inevitably admitted, and eventually gives a catharsis that can only be resolved at the end of that discomfort. In the end, it seems that the discomfort and catharsis that solve it always coexist and exist in the work.

Woo Ah-Reum: Artist Ok Jung-Ho’s work is like an allegory. The allegory to face in this era. So, are you going to appear directly in the work in the future?

Ok Jung-Ho: No, I don’t think I will.

Kim Sung-Woo: I think appearing and not appearing is an important part. It’s something that you have to worry about. Art is inevitably subject to objectification, and the question is what kind of ethical viewpoint and attitude the artist takes there. There is a saying that ‘ethics is the aesthetics of the future’. Ethics, in fact, cannot be separated from aesthetics. When I look at the work of the artist Ok Jung-Ho, I think that the problem of objectification can be solved to some extent through the device of the own appearance in a situation where the object is made other than the other. But, if such devices are omitted in future work, it will look quite different.

Woo Ah-Reum: The artist’s appearance in his work felt like a canary sent down in a coal mine. From the days of doing yoga in the mud flat until 2019, it was the remarks of the artist Ok Jung-Ho to the world by appearing in his own work. He put his own body directly into a messed up world to show the misery of this world. When I shed a drop of tears at the Freak Show, would I say it was the end of that story or feeling? I felt like I was putting a period once. But, I think that the artist Ok Jung-Ho leaving the video can be comforting to me. Now, it feels like a sign that a very dark tunnel has passed.

Kim Sung-Woo: The way of seeing the world through Ok Jung-Ho, which appears directly in the work, is good, but it seems that the position to capture the gaze as a part of life outside the work is not so bad. But, if it is difficult to come out of the work rapidly, it may be sufficient to have a role that exists as a comma or a period in a sentence rather than appearing as a subject leading a narrative in the work.

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