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Published 08/12/2016 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Sophie Jung: ‘I don’t trust language’

The performance artist talks about Chinese encyclopaedias, the Austrian feminist playwright Elfriede Jelinek, and her family of actors

Luxembourg-born performance artist Sophie Jung (b1982) combines spoken word and sculpture to draw out the fundamental ambiguity of language. Recent works include the performance Operation Earnest Voice (2015) at Ballroom Marfa in Texas, a recital of a tongue-twisting text that spun together origami fortune tellers, toxic e-waste and Lady Macbeth. At Hester in New York, she cast a spell against patriarchy when she performed I Wuz Born This Way! What’s Your Excuse? (2016), and the work I Fall to Pieces (2016), at Oakville Galleries in Toronto, brought together elements of her grandmother’s self-taught art practice with Kintsugi (golden joinery), the Japanese art of fixing broken pots with gold resin.

I met Jung on a blustery morning at South London Gallery, where, over cups of milky tea, we talked about Chinese encyclopaedias, the Austrian feminist playwright Elfriede Jelinek and Jung’s family of actors. During our conversation, Jung used the mustard pot, sugar cubes and salt dispenser as props to map out her ideas, shuffling them across the table as she talked. Just as in her performances, they became vessels that she used to store many meanings at once.

Izabella Scott: Do you think of your work as a form of theatre?

Sophie Jung: Theatre is the basis of what I do. Not so much the idea of a play, but more the totality of theatre as an environment – what happens behind the scenes, backstage, what the relationship is between props and actors. My parents were both actors, and, as a child, I remember how they would sit opposite one other at the kitchen table and practise their lines. I could never understand these strange dialogues, which seemed as if spoken by people who were halfway between the parents I knew and unfamiliar characters. My mum often took me along to dress rehearsals. I would hang around backstage, or in the green room, or simply watch from the wings. The part I loved the most was watching actors in costume out of mask, just before they went on stage. They would have their makeup on, but they were still chatting normally, until suddenly they were called on to the stage. I would watch them shift into character, step into a role.

IS: So you were seeing the mechanism of theatre at work, the thresholds and doorways, the switches and levers. Is that what excited you?

SJ: Yes, because I use all of these elements in my work. I studied many different things. First, I thought of being a costume designer, then an actor, then a director, but on their own, these things were never enough. And that is where the artist comes in: it is a way to be them all at once.

IS: When did these different elements first come together: performance, sculpture and text?

SJ: I grew up in Basel so I went to Art Basel as a teenager and I remember observing the way galleries spoke about the artworks on display. Depending on who their audience was, the language would change. I would watch them tune the pitch and I found the relation of object to text fascinating. Their texts obscured the object; you stopped seeing it.

IS: Do you want to make the object primary? To give it dominance over language?

SJ: The object always come first in terms of process. I have to find objects that have potential. I have a set of rules that are quite hard to put into words. The objects have to come from different contexts, but the space between them has to be equal. They have to be from different categories, but have the potential for analogy or play.

IS: So you are looking for a hidden logic?

SJ: Yes, but the logic is figured out by the text that I write after the objects have been chosen. When I am selecting the objects, I don’t know precisely what this logic will be, but there has to be potential, or lots of different routes possible, layers and layers of connections. At a very basic level, my work is an attempt to get away from the reductive relationship of object and language, where x is y. Instead, the text tries to change the object or the object to change the text. I keep coming back to the idea of “making it strange”. Meaning is not linear, and I do not believe there can ever be just one message. Rather, I am thinking about how meaning is constructed, and how you can defamiliarise an object over and over again.

IS: Do you always use found objects in your work, or are you a maker?

SJ: I change things, but I do not ever really make anything. I am not interested in authorship because you are never the sole author of something. It is all there before, and I feel that I am collaborating with existing structures. I am putting words or objects into scenes. I do not want to author objects, but to tell stories with them. The things I find in flea markets, which have already had several circulations, have picked up damage from their object life … I find them, and put them into scenes, and then overlay them with language. The way I perform the words is also important: how I pronounce a word, or the speed at which I go, adds texture or density, or allows something to linger; it is just another quality you can modulate.

IS: Where did you find the ceramic sculptures that line the walls of the gallery in I Fall to Pieces (2016)? They look like totems or magical clay animals.

SJ: They are actually Canadian bathroom fittings. I found them in a flea market and they reminded me of the Barbapapa figurines, those blobby pink characters from children’s TV in France. I was also thinking about the Japanese art of gluing broken pottery back together with gold resin. This is to highlight the fact that a broken thing is not as good as it once was, but is instead a more beautiful other thing. So it changes status: it is not broken or less, but better. The bathroom fittings already had cracks, and I accentuated the cracks, painting them in with Pearl-Ex pigment, and mounting them on newsprint.

My grandmother is a self-taught artist: she has no visibility as an artist, except on my Instagram account, but all across her life she has made collages. Since the late 70s, she has been ripping images from newspapers. Her husband was a professor and read three papers a day, and so she collected them up and made her own palette by ripping out different images. Now she is 86 years old and she is passing them on to me. What I noticed was that she made the same gestural rip each time. The way she ripped the page, it looked like an animal shape, a giraffe or lama. The same rip each time. It was like a signature. I loved the ripped edges, so I put them into this work. The piece is about falling apart and reassembling oneself, and the ripped-out images are like shards, but many shards that look exactly the same. In the performance, I repeatedly say: “I fall to pieces”, but every time it is a little bit different.

IS: There is a parallel to your performance at Wysing Arts Centre, OMG Un_fucking_canny (2015), where you repeat the phrase “(2015), “un fucking canny” over and over, changing the tone and intonation, until it begins to lose meaning …

SJ: There is often an element of repetition in my work. My grandmother’s ripping was a kind of repetition that built up to become a weird alphabet of animals or ciphers. I enjoy leading minds astray, or showing that things are not as they seem. So when I am repeating a phrase, I might leave out a word, or use a different backtrack, and it changes the condition, flipping it into another context.

IS: Your performance Eh, co–? Nah, cis. Us? (2015) was based on the myth of Narcissus and Echo, which Ovid wrote of in Metamorphoses (8AD). In your version, there is a sense of language being broken down, and you find hidden meanings everywhere; the echo effect of “eh, co”, or Narcissus broken down into txt language (nah) or queer politics (cis). My brain was darting around …

SJ: That is exactly what I want. To keep you questioning, especially things that you thought were stable. I thought deeply about all the things I could do with those words. And there are not infinite things, but several things. As I zoom in on these words, it is about stretching out their meaning. But I think of my performance as a fail. I did not connect with the audience. That is something I do: make people feel uncomfortable, or excited, or elicit some kind of connection. And I know when it happens.

IS: Perhaps that performance was a better image than an event? Visually and textually it is so rich: a surreal swimming pool scene where you are dressed in the same squared pattern as the tiling.

SJ: It was more of a concept than a performance, whereas Operation Earnest Voice was pure performance. For that piece, I had a mind map of the elements of the text, which I had memorised, and then improvised. I never knew how exactly I would get from one point to the next, but somehow I moved through all the connections, which were linked by rhymes and affinities. I would make sure to cover 70% of the map before I stopped.

IS: It seems that you enjoy pushing into points of vulnerability. In your performance at Hester in New York, I Wuz Born This Way! What’s Your Excuse?, you played a stuttering, nervous office worker, Miss Spell. Is the character autobiographical?

SJ: It is more about language itself. I stutter before easing into a tongue twister because I want to level it out and then destabilise it over and over again. When I was 19, I studied linguistics. Learning the codes of phonetics helped me to move beyond understanding words as written things, but instead to hear them, to find other connections or other sets of relations. I was interested in Russian formalism, and the work of Viktor Shklovsky, who came up with the idea of “defamiliarisation” in an essay called Art as Technique (1917). Part of his practice was to deconstruct language to the point where you do not know what it is any more, where you have taken it out of its environment, and decontextualised it entirely. He says that to make the stone stony again, you must make it more than a thing: you must make it a concept.

IS: In I Wuz Born This Way!, Miss Spell casts a spell against her boss, A Miss Spell to Free Yourself From the Bonds of Patriarchal Undermining in the Workplace. Do you find a connection between magic and wordplay?

SJ: For that group show at Hester, the artists were invited to be witches. Of course, it is political to be a witch and there are a lot of feminists who look to witchcraft for potential, and also those who seek to uncover the suppression of women in the name of witchcraft. But I do not need magic. I think it feeds in to this discourse about women as illogical, women as sirens, women who must be kept in check with the power of logic. There is a kind of radicality in exacerbating this difference, but I also feel that I am allowed to be a rational, intelligent, smart woman, too.

IS: How do you prepare for a performance?

SJ: I never rehearse, but I go through the connections in my mind. There is always an element of risk, because it can go right or it can go wrong. I might play out different scenarios in my mind, or practise making a certain gesture. I have to be on my own and have hours to myself to get into the right zone, and in this place I slowly let go of established categories and, to a certain extent, allow myself to see things differently.

IS: Are you out to prove that association and affinity are as powerful as logic?

SJ: To me there is no such thing as logic: there are just inherited systems of knowledge. There are many, many other orders of knowledge, but we have to hold on to this one because we all agreed on it, and making sense is important; but tipping the scales is important, too.

IS: Onomatopoeic or associative words, which you so often use, are moments where language gets a little closer to objecthood. Are you trying to make language material, to turn in into a sculpture?

SJ: Language is an approximation, an abstract system, but there are different planes of meaning. The Chinese encyclopaedia that Jorge Luis Borges dreams up, and which Michel Foucault then cites in the preface to Order of Things (1966), sets up this idea of things existing on different planes, but all being valid. Borges talks of animals being divided into 14 categories. Those: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies. All the categories make sense, and it explodes my brain. There are infinite taxonomies possible. We pretend we have settled on one, but nobody really knows what it is, or what plane we are on.

IS: Do you have a strong affinity with poetry? That is a discipline where language has pressure on it, where meaning is mined.

SJ: I read slowly and poetry is so intense. I keep reading the same things over and over again: Anne Carson and Elfriede Jelinek. In fact, I find Jelinek completely fascinating. I do not know how she can be translated, because she plays with the form of language so much, and her work is embedded in the German. She is interested in the accidents of words: just because it looks like that in German, she will base a whole process around the word.

IS: Performing is about capturing the attention of the audience, making them listen. I notice you have a particular way of holding your space, even when you are stuttering, or breaking down, or seeming to fall apart. Is it about sheer nerve?

SJ: I think that is my one power, the skill I have inherited, to hold a space. I did not realise it until recently, when I was on a public residency, where people can come and watch you work. I performed everything I did. Without people realising it, I practised secretly. Before this moment, I did not think of myself as an actor because of my family. There is so much at stake because almost everyone is an actor, and bad acting is just a terrible thing: you simply cannot be a bad actor. So, as a kind of self-protection, I avoided the label. I was an artist. But holding that space, and doing awkward things while forcing people to watch you makes me cringe so much and I also love it. When I first performed in this manner in my foundation year at Goldsmiths, University of London, I remember two girls cringing. They simply couldn’t deal with it; they thought that I was nervous, that I did not know what I was doing. I was evoking this very bodily embarrassment in them, and cringing, like blushing, is a physical reaction that you cannot control.

IS: Are there some moments when the audience accepts that you are on stage and therefore performing? Moments when they do not react, but just absorb?

SJ: I have been thinking about that recently – some years ago, my father had a heart attack on stage. He was acting in a comedy and when he called for a doctor, the audience laughed. It took for ever for them to realise he was actually sick. It really makes you question what is real; the line between acting, playing, re-enacting and doing is thin. It strikes me that this ambiguity between acting and doing, that I saw so often with my parents, is why I don’t trust language, why I am always critiquing it and pulling it apart.


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