The past few years has seen Germany heralded as the contemporary economic, social, and cultural master of Europe. With a healthy economy, free higher education, and increased resources going towards the arts, Germany became a very desirable place for work or study. On the outside of its borders, its influence spread as well, including a number of collaborations between prominent foreign and German institutions. It had finally seen a successful way to export its soft culture globally, that is until recently when a series of controversial policies made their presence known internationally; the refugee crisis and the Volkswagen fraud indictment.
Throughout human history, mass migration has enriched human history and culture, being voluntary or for the sake of self-preservation. Chan Sook Choi is an artist who has spent a number of years living abroad in the self-proclaimed cultural capital of the west, Germany. In her exhibition “The Promised Land” she utilizes her experience as a metaphor for human migration, and she explores the ways in which humans relocate and transcend externally and internally. Taking into account the current refugee crisis in Europe, and German authorities’ lack of willingness to respond to the situation in a way that would seem to suit such an economically successful nation, the title of this exhibition seems ironic. Germany seems to be a country well-suited to deal with such an influx, and surely there must be a reason why so many people choose to risk everything to land in exactly that place, yet it is only the grassroots policy of human compassion ignited by the people of Germany that has allowed for any sense of a welcoming to refugees fleeing from war, expulsion, violence, and death. Despite the seeming ease with which the artist was able to migrate to Germany with relative peace, there are thousands upon thousands who are denied that very same (potentially life-saving) opportunity. Chan Sook Choi was clearly speaking of voluntary migration in her own experience, while simultaneously ignoring the stark present reality.
Despite Europe’s decidedly less controversial war-stance than that of America, Europe’s history of colonialism and how it intersects with ideas of class and race remain enormous stains on the collective human experience. The idea that an artist hailing from a presumably middle-class background and lacking no funds for which to travel, would have easy passage to foreign nations should not be especially surprising. Escapism is a cultural genre that perpetuates romanticized ideas about self-fulfillment purely through collecting passport stamps, yet that idea is only sold to those facing redundant mundane lives, not those whose lives are actually in danger.
Now I must also acknowledge my own privilege; being a white American has afforded me an incredible amount of leeway in my passage to and continued experience in Korea. That privilege it so bloated and absurd and speaks of a huge disparity in the power relationship between American and Korea, one that is forcibly legislated by the American government. I have to admit that I am just as guilty of having enjoyed an easy passage into a foreign nation as Chan Sook Choi (and possibly an easier one at that.)
The idea that her experience defines the metaphor as a social norm seems inappropriate since history has shown many mass migrations are much less a factor of choice than are individual migrations. However, her idea of finding a promise land at the end of the journey is timeless and universal, and the idea that Germany could serve as such a place is clearly widespread.
One cannot talk about migration and human location without discussing the tremendous technological advances that have made that movement easier (amongst a certain class of people.) It is not a coincidence then that Volkswagen, the largest automobile manufacturer in Germany, comprises part of her concept. As a facsimile speaking of the means of physical relocation, modern transportation (especially the automobile) has redefined how we understand our relationship to distance and each other. Volkswagen is a particularly interesting example given the recent allegations of fraud facing the company (whereby the company knowingly failed emissions standards and continued to sell their product as a lie.) The history of Volkswagen, from its less than humble roots in Nazi Germany, to its reappearance as a hippy cultural icon addressing the same ideas of physical transience as the artist, is something left unmentioned.
What remains is the current cultural staple of Volkswagen as an affordable car to transport the middle class and how it affects the image of Germany to the world. The artist even has video of footage taken from the theme park at Volkswagen headquarters, which would seem to address the cultural emphasis on the journey and not the destination to such a point where a car production company becomes paradise itself.
The artist also discusses the idea that physical displacement (whether voluntary or otherwise) is not the only form of spatial transcendence, but there can also be a mental or spiritual migration. This internal migration is a voluntary choice whereby a person changes their attitudes and outlook to occupy a different emotional and philosophical space. This is an idea adopted by many people that are jaded by socially enforced cultural-norms or those that wish to mentally escape their socio-political or socio-economic oppression. As the automobile epitomized physical movement, a cutting edge technology called “optogenetics” represents intellectual movement. The artist explains that this technology can be used to alter and manipulate memories and ideas by use of a transplant triggered by light.
The idea that technology can aid humanity in a greater sense of movement from location or self is a recurring theme in this exhibition. By seeing how these two types of human movements might overlap, the artist explores ideas about assimilation, belonging, nationalism, culture, globalism and consumerism while simultaneously expressing the emotional consequences of the aforementioned. The timing of the exhibition also addresses ideas of private versus public migration and how those effects (physically or mentally) can be hampered based on race, belief, or socio-economic realities.
Using a series of video, sculpture, and new media installations with a guiding audio track, the journey through the exhibition represents physical and psychological migration and how those ideas and experiences can contrast or complement the human experience.
Unfortunately the exhibition has already ended but be sure to stay updated with Alternative Space LOOP’s future exhibitions on their website or facebook. To find out more about Chan Sook Choi you can visit her website here.