Of crossing and owning in Dorothy M Yoon’s recent works

What is all this whiteness about? It might be the whiteness of youth and old age, of purity and death.  The whiteness of the maiden’s alabaster skin, the whiteness of the ghost from the past, of unbaked bread rolled in flour. In some cultures white is the colour of the bridal gown, in others the colour of mourning. White invites to peace and rest, like Robert Musil’s twin lovers in the unfinished last chapters of The Man Without Qualities, lying in the grass under apple trees in bloom, watching the stream of white petals, falling like snow through the silent summer’s day. White is also the colour of blinding, of overexposure, of frost.

The young women in Dorothy M Yoon’s new series of works Rococo No. 33 represent 33 Buddhist goddesses, Bodhisattvas, all embodying existential needs and values of humanity. They have an otherworldly quality, a sense of half absence, half presence in the images. They belong to this world, and to another. Their otherworldliness is presented on one level by symbolic attributes, such as lotus blossoms, a watch, a skull, radiant light and much else. On another level, their half absence is expressed also by ways of gazes, gestures, postures. Rather than making themselves present, they are distancing themselves. If they are not coming to life, are they moving towards death?

There is a certain darkness in these photographs, expressed not the least by the predominantly dark and b/w backgrounds. There is no hiding of the pre-arranged sets and the artificial posing. Beauty is here, but a beauty perceived from a distance; whatever intimacy is expressed or implied, this is also beyond any physical reach. The 33 female Bodhisattvas belong to another worlds, worlds of darkness and light, stages for the eternal, divine battles of Good and Evil.

Set against this otherworldliness is a distinctive ‘thisworldliness’. This presence is similar to the presence of models in fashion shots. There is décolletage, there is bare skin, legs exposed, all wrapped in the luxury of satin and laces, of the exaggerated curls and locks of white wigs.

The reference to European Rococo comes through even without the help of the title of the series. ‘Rococo’ is a word later attributed to a certain style and fashion in the final stages of the Baroque, characterised by ondulating and organic lines in decoration, and a loosening of the formal discipline of the Classicist aesthetics. The word refers to a shell or conch, coquille, certainly present in the ornamentation, and certainly with frivolous associations to female gender. There might be an indirect reference as well to the word Baroque, which has a similar maritime root, as it comes from a descriptive word for an imperfect pearl. Inside the shell, we find the oyster, and deep inside its shimmering treasure.

The Rococo era has been associated with frivolity, with a tongue-in-cheek openness about sexuality, as in Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s playful painting The Swing (1767) with two lovers enacting a voyeuristic game, the young girl pushed in her swing by an all but invisible servant in the background, her body wrapped in a sea of satin, and the lover leaning on the back, enjoying the view of what is revealed when the wind and the movement of the swing sets the girl’s dress into motion. All images in the series by Dorothy M. Yoon refer to various Western paintings, most from the Rococo era, some from the Baroque, and a few from earlier or later periods. The historic accurateness is not the point here: above all, these images are contemporary, and the ideals, longings and fears expressed belong to our time. It would also be wrong to say, that the images are caught in-between East and West, between Buddhism and the Hedonistic ideals nurtured by the revival of the Roman and Greek Antique during the periods from Renaissance and on. These images express a double belonging, and whatever conflicts of human or spiritual nature they embody, they come from being in both worlds.

It is not needless to say, that East Asian art never had a Baroque, or Rococo, or Romantic period. It has its own history, rooted in its own philosophies, traditions and values. These images could be understood as playful explorations of a terrain of cultural ambiguities of today. Korea, Japan, China have all absorbed these Western styles, and there is a history of playing around with these ‘styles’ and elements, particularly in Japan. In Dorothy M. Yoon’s images, you can see a conflict expressed between a world of stable, Buddhist and Confucian values, still dominating the society around her (however ‘modern’ or ‘Western’ or ‘Christian’ South Korea might seem at a quick glance) emphasizing family and moral(ist) values, set against a floating, frivolous modern world where personal fulfilment comes first.

This is not the least a reality for young women. Fashion, movies and popular culture express the priority and right to pleasure for the individual. Society and (mostly) families still expects obedience to strong moral calls: chastity for the unmarried, propriety for the married, subordination to men for all. Modernity has empowered many women in South Korea and East Asia, undermining but not erasing the traditional patterns. Women are attached by strong moral imperatives, and pulled away by the force of distachment.

You can see the subversion of the canonical Western art history in these images, a sabotage of the Western sense of ‘owning’ its history. Colonial history turned that ownership around long ago, and re-interpreting Western art and architecture has been a device to express various local identities for long. We are in fact all caught, not in-between, but within cultures and identities. On a daily basis, I can see elements from Asia popping up in my surrounding ‘Western’ society. These are also expressed in styles, colours, general phenomena, and not only through food and karaoke. And just as important, the West is growing to learn to read Asian culture. We will all in time own each other’s cultures, we will share the ambiguities and possibilities of choice. In a better and bright future, we will be women, we will be men, as we choose; we might be eggs, we might be bananas, we might be any other simile of cultural, gender and racial crossovers. We will own each other.



Director at SKMU Sørlandets Kunstmuseum, Norway.

Former Guest Professor at Ewha Women’s University, Seoul.