Identity is a complicated beast. For Valery Jung Estabrook, identity might speak with a Southern drawl, or a Korean accent, or a mock-Korean accent with a mock-Southern drawl. Because while a person's identity can be a powerful tool for self-empowerment, it can also make you an easy target for ridicule. Growing up Korean-American in rural southwestern Virginia, Estabrook confronted her identity—her feeling of otherness—in layers, and the three series of multimedia works she's showing at Austin Peay State University examine each layer with a specificity that can only be the result of personal experience.
“I identify as a Southerner as much as I identify as a Korean-American,” Estabrook explains. “With one foot in and one foot out, always.”
Estabrook currently resides in New Mexico, and she has degrees from Brown University and Brooklyn College. But it's her childhood in the rural South that continues to define much of her work—most explicitly in Hometown Hero (Chink). For this multimedia installation, Estabrook has created a surreal, almost Lynchian interior environment that is brimming with conflict. It is both lush and tacky, hateful and comfortable.
“The installation is a physical representation of my hometown,” she explains.
An overstuffed reclining chair upholstered with a polyester-chenille Confederate Flag motif is at once inviting and repellant. Crushed beer cans made from the same stuffed polyester-chenille cover the side table next to the recliner, as if its owner has just left. The walls are covered with flaccid knit rifles and framed knit portraits of Stonewall Jackson and General Lee. A television—one of the old kinds that's constructed to sit on the floor like a piece of furniture—is similarly upholstered, and plays a video on repeat. It's an expansive, opulent, and disturbing scene.
“If you close your eyes, it can be comfortable,” Estabrook explains. “And that's awful.”
The work reveals hidden personal histories, allowing others to peer into a space that many like me occupy: a state of psychological exile, of in-between, of longing yet not belonging. By challenging the notions of heritage, Southern nationalism and “traditional” American culture, I hope to facilitate honest conversations regarding race, alienation, and assimilation.
If the installation hints at the conflicting comfort and discomfort of Southern existence, the single-channel video playing on the TV brings that dichotomy into sharp focus. “Twinkies, Wasps, and Avatars” is divided into three chapters. At first, the three chapters seems distinctive and separate, but they bleed into each other like a dream you remember parts of throughout the day. Chapter One is devoted to commercials for Twinkies that are campy in the way all earnest midcentury commercials are, but there's a sinister subtext. “Twinkie” is a slur for an Asian-American—yellow on the outside, white on the inside—and in that context, seeing the presentation of the snack cake in commercials feels like fetish porn. In Chapter Two, Estabrook's close-ups of a bee pollenating a flower is hypnotic, and the call-back to a Twinkie being split in half and opened up seems overtly sexual, bringing to mind the cross-pollination of Asian and American cultures. The fact that Estabrook allows her audience to come to that conclusion with little structural aid makes it feel that much more insidious.
Similarly, the third chapter, Avatars, moves from a montage of commercials for country music record collections to racist tropes so abruptly that it's like inhabiting the mind of someone who makes those connections internally. “So many unforgettable songs,” is a recurring sales pitch for the records, but when country music promotes stereotypical ideas of women as blondes who say “the only thing I do is go to work and watch TV,” as Barbara Mandrell sings in “Midnight Oil,” the fact that Estabrook may have been unable to forget these songs is far from appealing. When Estabrook herself appears with a mic at the end of the video, clad in a blond wig and sequined top, she is presented as both sympathetic and emotionless.
Installed to play in front of the big, empty reclining chair, the video takes on even more weight. It stands in for the absent artist, as well as playing on television's capacity to shape—and alienate—its audience.
“Twinkies, Wasps, and Avatars” is both challenging and immensely engrossing, a combination that continues through Estabrook's next series--How To Videos. In this series, instructional videos take on tropes from YouTube to subvert audience expectation. In “How to Make an Egg Roll,” Estabrook deadpans her way through the introduction, promising her viewers a quick and easy recipe. By the time she suggests beginning with a Kiehl's moisturizer and slicks black eyeliner across her lids, the video has changed to Terrence Malick-esque meditation on ocean water and the reflection in a woman's eye. It's deeply upsetting, but so lovingly crafted—Estabrook is a phenomenal filmmaker, and considers video her primary medium—that you're never really sure what exactly you're watching. But just because there's humor, it doesn't mean that the artist is treating her subject lightly.
With Thinly Worn, Estabrook takes the YouTube phenomenon even further. “Beautiful Face” is an instructional video that accompanies a collection of hand-painted pantyhose masks. “Each mask is sewn from hosiery in shades of 'nude,' 'coffee,' and 'suntan,' ” Estabrook explains. “To create each mask, I sit in front of a mirror, wearing a blank mask and draw lines and features specific to a character.”
From her artist's statement:
In addition to contemporary media, I was also inspired by Korean tal (탈) masks: archetypal masks used in folk dances and plays. Although tal literally translates to “mask,” the word is derived from a Chinese character meaning “to rid oneself” or “to free oneself.” In Korean folk traditions, these masks allowed the wearer to be free from social norms. The masks reveal the heart’s true, hidden desire.
Protected and concealed by my mask, I am able to show the deepest and most vulnerable parts of my psyche. It is a wish to be seen and a call for others to share in my experience.
The masks are installed alongside Estabrook's video, which begins with the artist in a full body stocking, without makeup or Photoshop, standing against a girly hot pink background like a doll ready to play dress-up. She pulls her hair back, smiles at the camera, and holds a circular box marked “Miss Korea” against her cheek. By the time Estabrook has opened the package and pulled the pantyhose mask onto her face, “Raising Arizona” style, the emotional weight of the white male gaze seems palpable. Stars sparkle around her face, which is part blow-up doll, part Korean Barbie. Interspersed throughout the video are clips from Korean gameshows and reality television, which remind the audience that the absurdity of Estabrook's conceit is based in real life—people do incredible things in order to be more beautiful. And people are also incredibly destructive—directly following the first mask-reveal are a few clips from real-life racist YouTube videos, including a young white man listing reasons why he'd hate to be Asian. “Reason No. 1 that I would hate to be Asian,” he says, “Most Asians look alike.” That blonde student who was forced to leave UCLA after impersonating Asians in a “ching-chong” vocal pattern is also there. The whole video is chock-full of demeaning and stereotypical representations of Asians, presented before and after images of blonde Miss America contestants from the 1980s, capped with traditional non-sexualized Asian figures.
It's a stew of representational conflict, which recalls the artist's recurring theme of cultural dissonance. Because she is both Asian and Southern, she can never be truly Asian nor truly Southern. It's this Pygmalion existence that the artist is able to tap into, and by personalizing her experience she reminds each of her viewers—whether Asian or white, Southern or Korean—that they're all straddling some form of identity.
Laura Hutson Hunter is a freelance writer, editor, curator and art advisor, and host of Artists Talk, a weekly art talk show on WXNA.
You can find her writing in the Nashville Scene, where she worked as the arts editor for the better half of a decade. She also writes for VICE and Art in America. Her style is categorized as non-academic intellectual writing — She loves bringing big ideas down to earth.
As an independent curator and art advisor, She's interested in exhibiting contemporary art from emerging and under-the-radar artists. She's curated a three-person art show about sex magick called Triple Fantasy at Third Man Records, and co-curated Selvage, an exhibit about textile-based art, with her friend Jodi Hays at Tennessee State University.
Hunter graduated from New York University with the individualized major of Art History and Cultural Anthropology. She's lived in East Tennessee and East Africa. She has a deep familiarity with Nashville-based artists combined with an expertise in contemporary art — and no shortage of opinions.