Untitled Document

Occupational Realism

By Julia Bryan-Wilson
TDR: The Drama Review, Volume 56, Number 4, Winter 2012 (T216), pp. 32-48 (Article)
Published by The MIT Press

3. occupy: to seize possession of and maintain control over

In 2005, South Korean–born artist Bohyun Yoon circulated a postcard on which he declared his upcoming performance piece, Two Year Soldier Project. As he explains, “As a male Korean citizen, I have to serve in the military for two years. At the time, I thought of myself as an artist, so I ‘disguised’ myself as a soldier for two years” (Yoon 2011a). Compulsory military service, national obligation, and creative authorial intent collide as the artist declares himself to be “undercover,” a double agent in his own mind. Within this piece, he might appear to all observers to be embodying the position of soldier, but his self-identification as an artist—one who was physically and logistically unable to make material objects for a designated amount of time—also distinctly imbues his military actions with extra value because he executes them as an artistic performance.
That he embodies this work of soldiering differently (at a critical remove, perhaps, or conversely, with fiercer concentration?) is somewhat implied, yet we would have no sense of this difference if it were not for the postcard announcement’s photograph of him wearing a handmade transparent vinyl camouflage outfit, a glass helmet, and holding a blown-glass gun, an outfit that he obviously did not don when actually on duty. “No opening reception, not open to the public” states the text on the back of the postcard. The formal declaration of this artistic “disguise” presumably fell away once he enlisted and, sans glass accessories, was indistinguishable from the others with whom he trained and worked.
The bohemian déclassé drag of some artists (such as Sherk) as they dipped in and out of the working-class labor force is distinct from the literal demands made upon Yoon. His status change was beyond his control: his decision to reinvent his military service as part and parcel of his art was in response to his lack of choice. Yoon has an MFA and was trained in the glass department of the Rhode Island School of Design; he wanted to stay in the United States after he graduated but in order to extend his visa, he had to return to South Korea and carry out his conscripted military service. On his postcard (which was circulated to a US audience in advance of his enlistment), Yoon shows himself at-the-ready, facing the viewer with his gun in hand, a parodic stance made absurd by his transparent outfit that produces the opposite effect intended by camouflage, as it renders him more visible, more vulnerable, more open, and more at risk. His hand-blown glass gun and glass helmet, in addition to being nonfunctional, are likewise fragile and might shatter with impact.
The glass helmet is the only material artifact from Yoon’s two-year piece, aside from the postcard, journal entries, and the two-year gap from 2005 to 2007 evident on his CV, which otherwise shows a busy itinerary of group and solo exhibitions. During this period he was engaged in his all-consuming performance without access to his own art-making tools or materials. Interestingly, however, during his active service in the military, Yoon primarily worked as a graphic designer—the same sort of job he might have had if he was supporting himself as an artist invested in material forms of art making. At the same time, this graphic design work was done under the scrutiny of the military with the constraints of their harsh schedule, and he endured a significant amount of militaristic mental training.
Yoon’s two-year piece also summons the idea of occupation as militaristically conquered space—though for him, the space of occupation was not land, but his own head. He is now working to minimize or work through the experience, to expel from his mind the procedures of the training. He has described himself while in the military as both occupied and preoccupied: distracted by his soldiering from his normal thoughts. It is a preoccupation that now requires undoing; since he left the military, Yoon has focused his art on interrogating systems of social control.
As a performance, Two Year Soldier Piece asks: What is the work here, where is it manifested, how does it become legible, and what are the mechanisms of its materialization? Two Year Soldier Project (whose after-effects continue to resonate through Yoon’s art and thinking) insists upon the nonidentity between the worker and the job, opening up a space between being and doing. In the above discussion, I mentioned vocational “passing,” but perhaps that is not the right phrase with regards to occupational realism. For the idea of passing presumes one stable identity, permanency, or authenticity against which drag is thrown into relief. What Yoon’s performance makes clear or renders transparent is that, under precarious conditions, one switches between radically different positions and/or occupations, performing differently according to shifting circumstances.
Still, I use the contested word realism to signal that performances of this sort are not just “acts” (though they are suffused with potential irony). At the same time, neither are they about unmediated access to anything that might be called “real”—itself always fugitive, phantasmatic, and illusory. Within theatre history, realism signifies a range of practices that began in the 19th century in opposition to the romantic dramas popular at the time, including naturalism, which often depicted bodies at work and/or at leisure in extended mediations upon the two (see Styan 1981). Within art history, Realism refers to a school of painting that originated in France in the 19th century. It was championed by Gustave Courbet and was understood as a politicized reaction to the 1848 Revolution, in which artists felt they were charged with showing the structures of social and political relations with all their ambiguities, including “class conflict and expropriation” (Clark 1973:116). Courbet was not the first artist to depict labor or laboring bodies—but he meaningfully placed peasant labor next to his own labor as an artist, thereby producing resonate homologies. Occupational realism, which began in the late 1960s and early 1970s along with postindustrial economic changes, likewise reveals ambiguous, difficult, and unresolvable conflicts about class, including professionalization, waged work, and volition.
Beyond theatre or art historical notions of Realism as a critical style, these artists are “realists” in the sense that they are insistent about the overlap between realms of art and work. Artists like Kinmont or Yoon or Fletcher effectively function as booksellers or soldiers or life insurance salesmen. They perform their duties within the actual sites of bookselling and soldiering and salesmanship. In addition, they are employed within the discourses of state-enforced, economically prescribed self-identifications, in which everything from census forms to visa applications ask us to name our occupation (meaning business, or legitimate wage work) with a singular word or phrase. What position do you fill? What space do you regularly occupy? These artists undermine the singular grammar demanded by these questions, as they perform roles as both artists and as wage earners. For artists whose employment becomes their art, their lives are dually occupied, toggling across the slash: bookseller/artist, artist/military man. Yet for Yoon, who did not have the privileges associated with educated white males with US citizenship in a time without a military draft, the question of “choice” proves much more volatile.

  Copyright © Bohyun Yoon. All rights reserved.