impressions on making important statements through art

The sound of 60,000 tags fluttering in the breeze is a sound I shall never forget. photo by Jes Eriksen

I only just now found time to sweep my floor of art installation debris from the sweatshop that my apartment became.  Despite my best efforts, a fine grit of white powder still clings to the floor and every surface, the by-product of needle punching fabric and scissor blades grinding.  It will take several passes of hand cleaning in typical ajumma fashion to restore this place to livable again.

I have also managed to have two showers in my own home this week!  And slept over four hours!  I even managed to wash a load of laundry and hang it to dry on the veranda.  Such a treat after a week and a half of taking the train from CheongPyeong immediately after school to Seoul, working until you can’t see straight, and then getting up at quarter to 5 to catch the first train back to the day job teaching by 8 am.  A four-hour commute every day, except for the two times I slept over night in the National Assembly, which will always bring a smile to my face as Jane slept with the kangaroo suit on to stay warm, while we covered Daehan with a blanket and I wrapped myself up in the reserve white fabric panels of the art installation.  Thank you nice security man for allowing us to do that!

I’m not telling you this to elicit sympathy or admiration — Jane looked at me one time and said, “you really are in your element, aren’t you?”  And it’s true.  Nothing’s better in the whole world than when you’re engrossed by purposeful work.  It’s existential.  I’m telling you because this wasn’t about anything but a burning drive to complete this opportunity.  This thing had to come out, no matter what.  Like a compulsion/obsession.  This has been my privilege, and there will be a void after the smoke clears.

Jane has mentioned several times how this process has changed her.  For me, it was a reminder that imperfection is beautiful.  Back in Architecture school, we had to draw 5 minute sketches and I hated each and every one of them.  But the complete ouvre of those sketches, all assembled together, made such an impact.  And the imperfections disappeared.  Or stood out as wonderfully human.  It enhanced instead of detracted.  Soooo many things were not as I had wanted, and I just had to let it go.  (Hundertwasser could assemble an entire army of devotees among adoptees rallying against the straight line.)  Jane jokingly called me a Diva once, and I had to work even harder to just let things go.   In the end, the installation looked surprisingly almost exactly as I had envisioned it.  Multiply a factor of deviations times ten, but it still managed to hold its integrity.

I did spend quite a bit of time adjusting and re-working things.  Typically not from an aesthetic point of view, but from a basic – this doesn’t work in the physical world kind of view.  Ha ha ha!  The one thing that just blew me away was how un-handy everyone was!  This old broad just couldn’t comprehend how unfamiliar everyone was with basic hardware store items or the most rudimentary fix-it techniques.  These blue-collar working-man things are my whole life, so I can’t fathom a world devoid of them.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, despite my best efforts, I found myself totally failing at explaining this project to people — largely because people didn’t want to know or get into technicalities.  “Just tell me what to do, ”  :(  Jane and others said several times.  Me, I wanted to just work in mindless zen too, but everyone kept making me be boss-man, fire-fighter, traffic director.

bad connectors - photo by Jes Eriksen

Of course we were at near disaster several times:  the connectors we’d ordered from the U.S. were in inches but our Korean pipes, though they told us they were in inches, were actually in metric units.  There was so much slop between the pipe and connector that nothing we did could make the connectors viable, and we were left with a tunnel consisting only of hinges that could barely stand.  And so we had to do a complete re-design on a tenuous shape and then all the work we’d done on the casings became irrelevant. Although nobody was handy we had plenty of arm-chair engineers and two soft trained-as-architects who are more accustomed to hiring engineers than thinking about structures.  Everyone/all of us were only half right half of the time, and so we just kept experimenting until the damn thing stood up!  In addition, the adhesive on the velcro strips didn’t like the polyester and it started separating.  Jane’s brilliant response was to tack the sections together with the tag hanging gun.  I took it one step further and found that by passing the needle through several times we could “stitch” the piece together adequately.

adjusting - photo by Jes Erikson

My happiest moments were the night I stayed alone over-night.  I just arranged the tags and photos mindlessly, adjusting and thinking and caressing the project.  I finally got a few moments of zen.  Ha ha! You can tell in the photos that everything my height and lower is more ordered…I must have a mild case of OCD.  My mind tries to embrace the variations, but every fiber of my being wants to make order out of chaos…

The zen of repetition had a wonderfully strange effect on everyone else:  it produced a magnanimity of spirit and a sense of higher purpose that felt something like synchronicity.  I guess the word for that is fellowship?  No.  Comradeship.  I missed a lot of that, unfortunately.  It’s lonely being in charge, running around.

I  only got misty eyed twice.  One time was when I was describing to the BBC reporter how I’d refused to read the Holt book, “Seed from the East,”  and how the book would just magically appear in various places along my daily path.  My heart just broke thinking about how very much my mother wanted me to be thrilled with being adopted. We weren’t the only victims, us adoptees.  The other time was when Amanda was showing other adoptees one of the referral photos hanging on the tunnel wall.   “This is my friend,” was all she said.  But for some reason it was the most poignant thing in the world to me, her friend there among the tens of thousands of other adoptees/tags.  That we can have relationships so meaningful.  There is hope among the ashes.

The goal was to bring the lawmakers to their knees, but because of fire safety code we could not block the exit path because our tunnel was too narrow – and so we were forced to not force the legislators to walk through, had to move the installation to the side, and many elected to pass by.  But towards the end and at the final ceremony, it became clear that the project was really for us adoptees, as validation of ourselves as a diaspora, of our humanity, and our loss. We can look to its message – and send its message – for some time now.

One Korean national told me after seeing the installation that she was embarrassed and ashamed by her country.  That she had NO IDEA 3 children were still leaving every day.  That it is wrong Korea can’t take care of its own people.  That all Korea needs to know about this.  I felt good after this.  I felt like a good day’s work had been done.

It was a shame we couldn’t leave it up for another week.  The Yongsan massacre artists were there, waiting to replace our installation with theirs.  At first they wanted to use our structure so we cut the fabric panel casings off instead of sliding them off, which would have required dis-assembly.  A poor decision on my part.  As we cut through the casings, one of the unwed mothers burst into tears.  I think our expression and huge efforts to support this bill supporting them blew her mind.  I think seeing what she almost lost also blew her mind.  Seeing her so moved blew this adoptee’s mind.

I want to take a moment out and thank the Korean who told us we couldn’t do this.   It’s just not wise to tell me there’s something I can’t do, because I spent too much of my life being told:  you can’t make it in architecture school, you can’t make it alone, you can’t have your adoption records, you can’t…I know that’s b.s.  I know everything is possible.   Like the t-shirt Jane wears that says, “Attack to the rotton world!”  I’ve survived this adoption experience and no further constraints are acceptable.

Thank you to all the adoptees, friends of adoptees, and Korean nationals who came out to help, putting themselves on display as part of the art, and toiling for the cause despite thinking I was sadistic, especially those adoptees who showed repeated dedication and went out of their way to make the project a top priority, those adoptees visiting only for a week or two who sacrificed so much of their trip to help with the installation.  Thank you to Rev. Kim and the dancers.  Thank you to Alice and her entire family.  Thank you to everyone who came out to CheongPyeong prior to the installation.   Thank you, installation, for letting me get over my fear of other adoptees a little to meet some new friends.

photo by Jes Eriksen

And last but not least I want to thank Jane, who also knows everything is possible and who also sees art in strange places.  At no time ever in my life has anybody ever just believed in me without reservation and with full support.   I feel loved.  She is my mother and sister (and yours too).   Her compassion is the driving force behind all the work that we do.  TRACK gets things done, and it’s fueled by her love.  (and Paella from Provence – thanks Greg!)

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