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Exhibition becomes compact archive of intergenerational queer narratives

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An original poster made by Hong Kong-born American photographer Tseng Kwong Chi from his 1980 Polaroid photo of ballet dancer Shawn McQuate is on display at artist Lee Kang-seung's solo exhibition,
An original poster made by Hong Kong-born American photographer Tseng Kwong Chi from his 1980 Polaroid photo of ballet dancer Shawn McQuate is on display at artist Lee Kang-seung's solo exhibition, "Briefly Gorgeous," at Gallery Hyundai. Korea Times photo by Park Han-sol

By Park Han-sol

In September 1980, Hong Kong-born American queer photographer Tseng Kwong Chi captured in a still image the mesmerizing presence of 19-year-old ballet dancer Shawn McQuate, who was active in New York's East Village countercultural scene during the 1980s.

Now, four decades later, Tseng, as well as McQuate's artist colleagues, are long gone, after succumbing to HIV/AIDS-related illnesses. McQuate himself, one of the few survivors, became legally blind due to similar complications.

Such specific stories and figures of sexual and ethnic minorities stuck in the crevices of the mainstream historical narrative are where Seoul-born artist Lee Kang-seung's focus lies.

Like an avid historian, Lee spends a tremendous amount of time delving into both public archives and private recollections related to or left by LGBTQ community members.

Artist Lee Kang-seung / Courtesy of Gallery Hyundai
Artist Lee Kang-seung / Courtesy of Gallery Hyundai
After tracking down these memorabilia from different countries and eras, however seemingly insignificant ― diaries, portraits, ads, magazine covers, photography and even FBI documents ― he "reproduces" their images through graphite drawings and golden-threaded embroidery.

"The images I draw are always in reference to the things that exist in this world," he said at Gallery Hyundai in central Seoul, where 40 of his latest artworks, from drawings to installations, are on display at the "Briefly Gorgeous" exhibition.

"Reproducing the past images that portray some historical events ― many of which have been forgotten over the years ― purposefully through labor-intensive mediums like graphite drawings and embroidery is my version of reenacting and thus embodying these [memories]."

In doing so, the LA-based artist commemorates and brings forth the cultural legacies left by the figures from modern queer history, who led their own fight against the social stigma and discrimination that historically singled out the LGBTQ community as well as ethnic minorities.

But it would be wrong to say that his works are faithful, exact copies of the originals. In fact, he frequently adds a "destructive" finishing touch of his own, such as burning, burying or partially erasing the completed pieces.

"Untitled (Shawn McQuate 3)," left, and "Untitled (Shawn McQuate)" / Courtesy of Gallery Hyundai

In his graphite reproduction of Tseng's 1980 Polaroid photo of McQuate, Lee varied the density of each pencil stroke to heighten its contrast with the smooth surface of the original. He then burned off the corners of the drawing, cutting off parts of the dancer's body.

He also reached out to McQuate to collaborate in recreating the photograph ― this time, in a video format. In "Untitled (Shawn McQuate)," the former dancer, now 60 years old, is dressed in an outfit reminiscent to what he was wearing in the old photo as he strains to hold a static pose like the one he held gracefully in front of Tseng four decades ago. Lee's decision to capture his trembling body in a moving image brings the past narrative of marginalization to present-day audiences.

But he adds a much more daring, destructive touch to the originals in his reproduction of Tseng's 1980s self-portrait photography series, "East Meets West."

Born in Hong Kong, the late photographer moved to New York's East Village in the late 1970s, and explored the issues of representation, sexual identity and multiculturalism in America through still, often satirical, images, until he died of HIV/AIDS in 1990.

"Untitled (Tseng Kwong Chi, Paris, France, 1983)," left, and "Untitled (Tseng Kwong Chi, Disneyland, California, 1979)" / Courtesy of Gallery Hyundai

In his pioneering series, Tseng dons sunglasses and a Mao suit with a badge on his chest reading "Slut for Art" and takes self-portraits at popular tourist attractions around the world, including the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Statue of Liberty and Disneyland. Assuming the persona of a typically imagined Asian tourist visiting major Western sites, he offered a self-deprecating commentary on his identity as what he called a "permanent visitor."

In his graphite drawings, Lee attempts a new visual interpretation of this powerful series by erasing the entire body of Tseng himself from the paper, except for his hand holding the camera's manual shutter release cable ― leaving him as a smoky silhouette against the realistically rendered background.

"As I erase the central figures of the image, I'm trying not only to mourn those who are no longer with us, but to actually speak about their existence," he said. "I believe that the death of the historically marginalized or forgotten does not mark the end of their story about social trauma, but indicates a beginning of a new dialogue."

"Their very physical absence from the paper can, in fact, serve as an acute reminder of their historical presence both to those who are familiar with the original image and those who are seeing it for the first time," Gallery Hyundai's creative director Kim Jae-seok added.

"Those who know the original can think about what the absence of an individual can do to an image, and for those who've never seen it, they can then find out who is behind the silhouette and learn about the erased figure for the first time."

Lee's series of wood panel works show an elaborate combination of drawings, photography, embroidery, archival materials and objects that present narratives surrounding the LGBTQ community and ethnic minorities across different generations and nationalities. Courtesy of Gallery Hyundai
Lee's series of wood panel works show an elaborate combination of drawings, photography, embroidery, archival materials and objects that present narratives surrounding the LGBTQ community and ethnic minorities across different generations and nationalities. Courtesy of Gallery Hyundai

As a whole, the exhibition becomes a small yet compact private archive of the narratives surrounding the LGBTQ community and ethnic minorities across different generations, nationalities and eras.

By bringing together the seemingly disparate and random images and objects ― including the reproduced diary of an anonymous transgender woman in Korea, the drawing of a cactus that was passed down from San Francisco's first openly gay politician Harvey Milk and pebbles brought from the cottage-garden designed by English filmmaker Derek Jarman ― he creates a new kind of "queer-centric" historical genealogy.

"As I gather different stories of LGBTQ community members, ethnic minorities and immigrants to create historical linkage through my works, I aim to pose questions about what kind of future we can dream of based on these cultural and political legacies," Lee said.

The "Briefly Gorgeous" exhibition runs until the end of the year at Gallery Hyundai.


박한솔 hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr


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