artist's statement
installation view

Women Who Serve Shadow Work

Lee Seon-young
Art Critic

Sungyeon Park¡¯s exhibition <To Meet Customer Demand> demonstrates the artist¡¯s social self-awareness as a single woman in her early thirties. It is full of simmering female unconsciousness and desire, suppressed beneath the widespread patriarchal culture. Whereas many female artists tend to refuse the term ¡®feminism¡¯ in the interpretation of their works, Park reveals this issue out front. This does not come from a delusional sense of victimization, as this type of work is usually mistakenly understood. Rather, Park demonstrates an excellent strategy both artistically and politically by trying to achieve universality from intensive pursuit of personal and specific issue. By following the logical links in her works, one reaches the conclusion that the injustice is not limited to women. Park¡¯s critical mind exceeds feeble imagination, incomplete work masked with flowery language or struggle for the sake of struggling. This is also different from hypocritical feminism put forward as a means to successfully enter mainstream culture.

Rather than trying to establish her quarters in the sublime art world, Park struggles within by mingling into woman¡¯s daily life of unrest. The materials she uses are extremely common ¡© kitsch palace designs of Korean wedding halls and ¡®love hotels (motels for secret sex)¡¯, women worker uniforms and cosmetics ad flyers. Because they are so ordinary, it is not easy see the other side. It might actually require a social vision that could seem rather too extensive. This exhibition consists of not so many pieces in a not so spacious gallery space, just enough for the viewers to follow the logical links in between the pieces that deal with women in public and private realms, and patriarchal ideology on women¡¯s mind and body. As with all fundamental issues, there are no definite conclusions. Art does not suggest alternatives. It does not provide a clear single answer, but only plays a role of shortening the journey to the answer through uncomfortable questionings.

This exhibition is largely divided into three spaces. A courtesy desk with video appears as we enter the gallery. The video shows a neatly dress woman who never fails to greet her customers with a kind and refreshing voice. <¡°i¡±> is the image of working woman repeating herself like an automaton, saying ¡®how can I help you?¡¯ This installation using the gallery courtesy desk and woman assistant in the video speaks for women¡¯s typical situation of having a supporting role in social specialization. The video piece with a continuously bowing yellow letter ¡®i¡¯ is the woman subject ¡®I¡¯ who has an instrumental role. This idea is directly expressed in the word ¡®information¡¯. It satirizes the marginality of women¡¯s pubic labor. One example of private realm in contrast with public realm is the wedding hall metaphor to home. <Melting Wedding Hall, Melting Castle> makes a grand appearance with solemn classical music then tumbles down endlessly. The castle in this piece is a Photoshop composite of online images of Korean wedding hall buildings and foreign castles. The image is set to black and white, making it almost impossible to distinguish the copy from original.

This glamorous castle in which a fairytale princess marries her prince is cheap kitsch whose cover and content don¡¯t match. It is a suffocating site of patriarchal hierarchy. This sanctum, often packaged with mystery and sacredness is an uncomfortable and sometimes uncanny place for women. Park has previously expressed her claustrophobic obsession in <Alice, trapped in the room>(2004) - in which Alice¡¯s enlarged body is trapped in a small space, and <Breathing Apple>(2004) ¡© where Magritte¡¯s surrealistic apple is remade into a sculpture. Whereas her past works were more ambiguous analogies, this exhibition states women¡¯s discontent in a more direct manner. The 2004 exhibition <Night, Night, SweAt Dream!> at Brainfactory, Seoul expressed the anger of socially repressed women as grotesque hysteria. The women trapped in lenticulars repeating the same action over and over, were recreated in this exhibition as an usherette. The Woman in nightmare is reborn as melting castles. The mouth that spits out noodles instead of unspeakable language full of patriarchal ideology in <Woman Vomiting Noodles>(2004), continues to point at the body of cultural control which continuously gives us the message to become beautiful.

This is a conscious approach to the core of problems rather than physical language in which resistance is unconsciously projected. In the space between public and private realms, there are pieces inspired by cosmetics description leaflets. These pieces talk about the myth of beauty concentrated on female body and mind. All over a green wall that signifies freshness are advertisement copies such as ¡®Erasing the Trace of Time¡¯, ¡®Younger¡¯, ¡®Time Release System¡¯, and ¡®Silky¡¯. There are also cosmetics description sheets in picture frames and a book of cosmetics advertisements. This prestigious black book reminiscent of an encyclopedia or the Bible contains more than 400 pages of cosmetic ads in alphabetical order. This overflow of luring and persuasive messages around us is considered as code of laws or canons. It says something like the truth. It provides an unexpected solution to women¡¯s injustice.

Although improved, there is still a large difference in the average annual income for fulltime female and male laborers. Ivan Illich writes in <Gender>, as wage labor is expanded and popularized, the economic discrimination of female laborers increases. ¡®Progress¡¯ only means more women are participating in low income wage labor. Women¡¯s participation in labor is still low, many of them working for subsidiary jobs represented in Park¡¯s work as an usherette. In addition, the private realm - household labor for women without jobs - also sustains the economic discrimination and subordination of women. Park¡¯s works express women¡¯s situation in a ludicrous yet tragic manner. They have their basis on the sore truth of labor specialization in the public and private realms. However, what the dominant culture industry - represented in Park¡¯s work with cosmetics ad flyers - does is the romanticization of gender specialization. According to Jacqueline Sarsby¡¯s analysis on western romantic novels, the typical heroine is a single woman who does not have a job except serving her boss, who gains a husband and loses her job after marriage.

After all, the problem is the fact that social classification linked with sexual discrimination. Ivan Illich points out the English word sex derives from the Latin word sexus, and continues to state that sexualization undergoes transformation by the industry systems in order to polarize human labor forces, libido (vitality), characteristics or intelligence. In the contemporary world of capitalism where production and exchange of products take place, this polarization becomes a class system. Within the paradigm of Homo economicus where human freedom is synonymous to possession, discrimination of woman will only be achieved through the removal of gender in non-economy and self-sufficiency, as well as establishment of social sex. Modern economy directs human desire to an artificially created scarcity. The norm of beautiful women demonstrated in Park¡¯s Bible and flyers is one of these scarce values strategically created by the capitalist system. Present day norm of beauty represented by a small face, white skin and sticklike figure cannot be obtained and maintained from the start. This secretly emphasizes that men - hero of the public realm - win material capital, and women ¡© heroine of the private realm - win physical capital. Somewhere within these two realms, home, the true returning place for women, is deteriorating. According to the context of this exhibition, this is because home is a place where women¡¯s shadow work revealed in the public realm really gets down to take place.

Ivan Illich points out that economy can be classified into two parts - statistically reported and unreported. Shadow work, the shadow cast by economy, is the economic activity unreported by statistics. Shadow work is also called the pre-spot-economy, non-money market, self-service, realm of self-help spontaneous activity and social reproduction. It is the unpaid labor served by consumers to add more value to a product. Feminism theorist Juliet Mitchel sees the role specialization between man and woman as not only a labor specialization, but also a mechanism that degrades one role as service and upgrades the other as production. Women at home are unrecognized laborers who provide hidden labor force for home-based production. In addition, they are objects to the highly developed ideology created by post-capitalism.

Household chores are considered tough yet mediocre. Home plays a role in economy to prepare and secure certain production labor force and to provide a place for mass consumption. However, home is maintained to support capitalism, which is destroyed by it at the same time. Typical housewife¡¯s work is included in all monetary values circulated today, but it is also a part of non-measurable underground economy. Ivan Illich points out unpaid labor appeared in line with wage labor of capitalism. This is because capitalism wants to minimize the social reproduction expenses through shadow work. Unlike goods and service production, shadow work takes place within the consumer itself, especially inside a consuming home. Any type of shadow work is done to satisfy their desire using products. This increases the value of wage labor byproducts for free.

Park¡¯s shadow works keep emphasizing the inevitable reality of women through images of castles melting down, a woman nodding her head like a part in a huge machine, and consumption mechanism of investing in her body to increase self-value. Women are tied to chores that did not even exist before the appearance of unequal wage labor. Today¡¯s shadow work is buried under many works that are labeled as self-help. However, is shadow work only for women? Capitalism continues to turn more works into shadow work. It incorporates socially necessary works such as household chores, childbirth, childcare and reeducation into the private realm. This is unpaid labor done for the sake of one¡¯s job. All work that capitalizes oneself is shadow work. Shadow work brings the vulnerable classes into a similar position as women who engage in labor that cannot be converted in isolated realms. Art is just the same. Art today is becoming feminized, for better or worse - although the power within is still concentrated with a small number of men.

In the capitalist society, human desire is satisfied by goods consumption. Market power is at the height of fury in all realms. Today, Women¡¯s beauty and youth is also maintained by product consumption. If women¡¯s beauty ¡© either in public or private realms ¡© is the norm for women¡¯s value, it is inevitable for women to actively take part in this consumption labor. In Sungyeon Park¡¯s works, women are urged to consume products including cosmetics in order to increase their exchange value. However the private and public status these women achieve or become a part of through commercialization and competitive power is scanty and unstable. The shadow labor of women that continues <To Meet Customer Demand> only subjects these women to self inspection in front of a false mirror created by the society and traps them within the net of social control.