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Homelands of the Imaginary

Born in Bonn, Germany, and educated in the United States, Y. David Chung is a visual artist and filmmaker known for his films, multi-media installations, drawings, prints, and public artworks. I met and talked with David at Stamps School Art and Design where he is currently working as director of MFA program. The interview was posted on LiveJournal of the Museum of Contemporary Arts Erarta.

What is your creative work about? I’ve been very interested in the ideas of displacement of people, and the idea of homeland. Today so many people are moving about, and they identify themselves with certain cultures or nationalities or territories. I am very interested in how that comes along, how it changes people. A couple of my works "Seoul House" and "Turtle Boat Head" are dedicated to Korean store-owners, because my family owned stores in Washington D.C. in the late eighties and early nineties. A very interesting situation happened in the US; American people didn’t know why all these stores were bought by Korean people in places like Washington D.C., Los Angeles and New York. They did not understand what was going on, because it happened very fast. Especially in the African American neighborhoods where there were a lot of situations that became very hot. The atmosphere wasn’t friendly. Americans were asking where do these people come from? Why are they here? And it became a very hostile situation.

How does this story influence your work? I worked in the store for so many hours, so I became very interested in this issue. My early work "Seoul House" was very autobiographical. I created a huge drawing, it was about 70 feet; it was the entire room and it depicted the whole neighborhood and the stores. It was an exhibition, which consisted of big drawings and video. Also for three nights in a row there was a performance that was called rock-opera, which was done in Korean mask dance style. Later I returned to this theme with another exhibition - "Turtle Boat Head".

"Seoul House", electronic rap opera.

Could you talk about how your career has been developing? I was trained as a filmmaker. Right after I finished school, I worked in New York City for HBO, ABC, doing television and documentary films for about five years, not as a director, but as an assistant. I learned the skills of filmmaking. That was very hard work and I got burned out. So, I stopped doing that and I came down to Washington D.C. to work at my parents' store. Then I went back to doing printmaking and drawing which I learned in an undergraduate school and I really like to do. I did that for about fifteen–twenty years, and recently I turned to the documentary film format and made a film about Soviet Koreans, "Koryo Saram - The Unreliable People".

Could you talk more about the story? It was the first and the biggest ethnic cleansing in modern history. Actually, the story began in the Czars period. There was a bad economic situation in Korea - bad weather, drought and famine. Korean people began moving to look for better places. At that time, there were no borders and the Koreans started moving in 1860s to what is now known as Primorsky Krai. Then the czar established the border and they ended up on the Russian side. That population became Russian. They all spoke Russian, but they also spoke Korean, and that population grew. By 1905, when the Japanese invaded Korea, a lot more Koreans moved there. By 1930, there were 200, 000 Koreans living in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. Some of them were Russian citizens, some of them were part of the People’s Party Congress and some were Communists. In 1937 Japan invaded China and Japanese were getting very close to Russia. There were some small battles there. Stalin and his people thought that Korean people who were living there were spying for the Japanese. Russian rulers decided to move those Koreans to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. It was the part of a big plan to populate the Central Asia region. They moved all the Koreans there first, and then they also moved all the Russian-Germans, the Polish people, and the Tatars to Kazakhstan as well. They were forcibly deported and thousands of people died on the trip. But what interests me about this story is coming back to the idea of movements of people. When I was travelling in Kazakhstan the first time, I met these Korean people, and I was wondering why they were there. Nobody in America, in Europe, even in Korea knows the story that almost 200 000 people were taken from this place and put into that place 4000 miles away. I went back there with my good friend Matt Dibble and we filmed for about a month and a half and then we came back and made this film. The most interesting thing about those Koreans in Kazakhstan was that even though they’re actually Russian people, because they lived in Russia for so long - three generations, but they still identify themselves as Koreans. I was interested in the differences and similarities between Soviet and Russian ideas of assimilation and ethnicity. In the old days the Soviet government would say they are the country of many different peoples, but they were ethnic on the outside and they were Russian on the inside. My Korean friends in Kazakhstan and in Russia eat bread, drink vodka and do not eat rice. I was thinking about that story, because it was almost at the same time the American government was facing similar issues. I heard that some American companies provided some of these trains to deport these people, so there were a lot more ideas about that. Americans moved all the Japanese people in 1940s. And at the same time, they were trying to figure out what to do with African American population.

"Koryo Saram - The Unreliable People", documentary film.

Which technologies influence your work? As a film-maker I started working with 16-mm films, then 35-mm films, and then I moved to working in natural film and then changing to digital. It kept me very interested in the different processes, in the technical processes, even in print-making as an ancient craft. I explore the different modes of visualization. The other component I am very much interested in is the time-massed modes. When you make a film, the spectator has to watch your film from one to two hours. When people go to an art gallery, they see an artwork for a few minutes, and then they move on.

Some of your works are made in video, in some of them you mix video and animation and in others you combine drawing, installation and performance. How do you decide which techniques or media are more fitting for your idea? I think about it all time. I am very interested in these novel things and how to combine them, how to look at them. Sometimes I combine video with drawings in my installations. It’s very difficult, because there is a visual hierarchy of what you look at when you walk into a room. In some cases, the drawing and the video become one thing together, at other times I put the video inside installation. When I was making a documentary about Soviet Koreans, I found that the film world was very different from the art world. There are almost no connections between the two. Drawing, painting and installations are presented in the gallery world, but if you make a documentary film, it is a completely different world, different community. When I present my films in a documentary festival, people don’t know that I am an artist and when I show my art in a museum, they don’t know anything about my film work.

"Stripmall" , drawing and video installation

What do you see as the best place for your work? A private gallery, a museum, the Internet or a private collection? I show my work in big museums, like in Houston and in small private galleries. I used to have a gallery in DC for 16 years, and I had shows there all the time. So, a gallery setting is fine for my work, and a museum setting is fine, too. A private home is fine. The Internet is fine. I am okay with sharing my stuff on the Internet.

Your work consists of different components: you have to communicate with people and at the same time, you work in your studio. What is more important for you?

I value drawing very much and print-making at my own time. I do like the time when I am isolated, which can be fine sometimes. But I also like the collaborative nature of film-making and interviewing these people. I like this communicative element, as well. I have some projects where they do come together. Most of my projects have some component of interaction with the audience and with other artists.

Do you collaborate with other artists in your working process? Yes, film-making is very collaborative. I work with musicians, composers and a variety of different people, like editors, camera men and the sound engineers on films. In projects like this, we become real friends. I collaborate also with other artists, but most of the time it’s my own work.

Who watches your films, who are your spectators? I don’t know who my audience really is, it varies. Lots of people come to see my work and it is important for me that it is comprehensible by different people. I don’t try to make work that is just for artists. It should be sophisticated, complicated and have multiple meanings and it has to work on many different levels. It has to be interesting for the art cognoscente and also for the general audience as well. People don't have to go to an art school to understand what an artwork is.

Is the understanding of your art different in South Korea, in Europe and in America? That’s a very interesting question. Coming back to your question about who my audience is, culturally it is different if I show my work in Korea or in the United States or in Europe. People have very different points of view about what is going on in my work. I do not adapt my work; I keep it pretty much the same. In South Korea, my work has been interpreted as being a part of a very specific group of protest artists and they often called my work - people’s artwork. They compared my style to the people’s movements.

How is your work associated with Korean art tradition? Because I came from a Korean family, a lot of my visual references come from Korean tradition. In a lot of my works I am using Korean motifs or ideas, but I am interpreting them in my own way. As an example, I have a piece right now in the Smithsonian museum of Natural History. It’s a Korean pot. A real Korean pot is made by a potter and it is earthenware. This one is not, it is a sculpture made of plaster. Koreans would never use plaster. So, I use these motifs, I use these ideas in my work.

What is the role that art plays in society? It seems that the majority of people do not go to galleries or museums. Do you think that contemporary art can influence society? I think it can. If you are talking about people who don’t go to museums, but just watch TV - even that is interaction. They are seeing something on the screen that has been made. They are having some dialogue. Art can make a difference at many different levels. For example, at a nationwide scale, in North Korea, the government thinks that art can influence politics, so the government makes artwork. It is propaganda.

Should artists be careful about the way their work can be interpreted, about the consequences? A lot of times, the role of an artist is to challenge certain ideas, to provoke questions, and that’s good. That’s the role the artists are playing. That happens on many different levels. Artists who are painters do this, and artists who are social activists or who are in social practice also do this. That has always been a defining role of an artist to push the boundaries of what is practice, a type of skill, or a type of understanding, or even the way of commenting on the society. In my earlier work on the Korean store project, I was deeply involved in social activism. It was part of the process, being involved in the community groups, going to the community speak outs, going to those kinds of activities.

What does teaching mean for you? I like teaching. It is always great to be in a community where you are getting fresh ideas. It is exciting. I never think about students as students. I always think about them as my colleagues working together on something. It also allows me to question my work, to think about where my work is going.

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