Seung-Min Lee’s “Light White”

Peter Brock

March 26, 2021
International Waters, New York
February 13–April 4, 2021

Seung-Min Lee’s satirical video installation challenges all claims to virtue, especially those that depend on reductive notions of identity. With four looping videos and their intermingling soundtracks, Lee transforms this subterranean gallery into a bunker where the air is thick with bad vibes. In these works, the artist—who was born in Seoul and grew up in Queens—performs as a suite of characters in a way that simultaneously debases and dignifies them. At the center of this effort is Lee’s impersonation of Kim Jong-un, who plays a role in all but one of the videos. Instead of the righteous condemnation and mockery common in western media, we find oddly intimate glimpses of the Supreme Leader and even the occasional moment of glee.

Frantic slurping sounds interspersed with a metallic clanking quickly drew my attention to a flatscreen television lying askew on the floor. Supreme Leader Feed 2 (Kim Jong Un Mukbang) (all works 2021) consists of looping footage of the artist scarfing ramen while dressed as Kim Jong-un. Filmed from the perspective of the bowl, this work is mostly chin, nostrils, chopsticks, and yellow noodles. The ramen occasionally covers the lens completely, resulting in lovely moments of glowing beige abstraction. Aside from offering a too-close-for-comfort view of North Korea’s mercurial leader, the piece also reflects the slippery politics of online culture.

Mukbang—videos of people noisily eating large quantities of food—is an internet genre that originated in South Korea and spread around the world more recently. The popularity of this seemingly light-hearted trend illuminates the significant role played by food in anti-Asian stereotyping. Even as she invokes this critique, Lee’s anarchic humor keeps the work from ever being didactic. Across the room, Supreme Leader Feed 3 (The Bunker Loop) shows the dictator frolicking in his Mao suit on the boardwalk of the Brooklyn Bridge. These scenes are silly, strange, slightly haunting, and ultimately resistant to simplistic judgement.

The funniest and most thematically complex work in the show is Supreme Leader Feed 1 (Kristen the Karen At Work and the iChicken). Playing on a modestly sized screen that fits into a brick archway at the far end gallery, this work overlays several of Lee’s performances and characters into a single-channel video. Dressed as “Kristen the Karen,” Lee addresses the camera in a curly blonde wig and red lipstick. A dusting of flour on her face results in an awkward, powdery whitening of her skin. This aggrieved “white lady” begins her listicle-like series of declarations by acknowledging the indigenous heritage of the land, but struggles with the word Lenape and ends up in a slow-motion guttural scream that distorts her face and mangles her attempt at wokeness. Behind this cringy monologue is footage of an outdoor performance in downtown Manhattan. With a chicken carcass strapped around her waist, the artist rants pointedly, aggressively engaging members of the audience and sometimes shouting into the air. “This is an heirloom chicken! […] Who here even has ancestry?” Standing in front of a tall and fashionably dressed woman, Lee screams, “I hate you, you fucking pretty Asian bitch!” Lee’s confrontational behavior obliterates the demeaning stereotype of East Asian women as quiet and obedient, but also points to the essentializing tendency at the heart of identity politics. Lee yells out, “I went shopping today… We’re safe, we’re very safe here… we’re outside… I’m in my native habitat… I love Chinatown! I’m safe here, I’m safe here.”

Her facetious conflation of Chinese and Korean identities points to a common racist assumption, and casts doubt on flattened notions of solidarity. The fixation with safety is also multi-dimensional: Lee pivots from Covid paranoia around social distance to the safety of Asian bodies (some mistakenly presumed to be Chinese) amidst the rise in hate crimes over the past year. Despite the gravity of these concerns, her irreverence continually skews the narrative away from what could be deemed sincere or activist. After claiming to feel at home in Chinatown, Lee approaches a Black member of the audience and asks: “Do you feel safe here? Is that because you’re a man with color on your face?” Lee’s work harnesses the revelatory power of dissonance and combines it with enough whimsy to generate laughter within moments of deep discomfort.

In Supreme Leader Feed 4 (Open Up the Barber video), the artist cuts a white man’s hair in front of footage of a Trump rally. The recipient of this freewheeling haircut spends most of his time hiding behind a blank piece of paper while Lee rants in a faux-southern accent about how the “China virus” is preventing her from paying her bills. Behind this verbose barber, white men in military gear wave American flags and mill about in front of some important-looking buildings. The scenario is absurd, but it points to an important dilemma: the use of a racist slur does not negate working-class concern about the lockdowns. Despite the liberal temptation to dismiss anyone in proximity to a MAGA hat, this attitude confines racism to the sentiments of individual bigots—conveniently exempting the high-minded reformers from their role in the systemic racism and vicious classism that define this country.

Two large paintings hang on the walls in the entryway to the gallery. These “Protest Paintings” show a field of white rectangles in various sizes on a matte-white ground. They are protests without the people or politics, all signal and no virtue. The squares are free to put all their energy into their elegant choreography, a frictionless solidarity because there are no demands. These minimal canvases undercut the very notion of “progress,” but it does look fantastic when the blacklight catches the special reflective paint and makes these pale rectangles glow iridescent purple and green.

Identity Politics, Video Art, Protests & Demonstrations

Peter Brock is an artist based in Brooklyn, NY.

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International Waters
March 26, 2021

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