Sophie Jung’s sculpture Signature Piece (2015) consists of a white plush toy rabbit, with the artist’s name - or rather her scrawled signature, rendered in black wire - balancing across its nose like a pair of spectacles, or a set of twitching whiskers. Placed on a triangular, greenly translucent plinth – the kind of display furniture you might find in the flagship store of a superior tech brand – this goofy-looking bunny appears to await its part in a product demo, something that Jung provides, after a fashion, in an accompanying performance, available to view on Youtube. Dressed in white, the artist enters the equally white exhibition space, trailing an unwieldy microphone cord, and clutching an IPhone in her hand. Reading from the phone’s screen, and gesturing towards the sculpture, she announces, in a tone that teeters between shyness and swagger, that ‘This is my signature piece’, and then plunges into frantic, fractured soliloquy (or is it a ventriloquist act?), her language borrowed in equal parts from the perennially late rabbit from Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Looney Tunes’ ‘wabbit hunter’ Elmer Fudd, and a Wikipedia disambiguation page. Next, apparently at the sculpture’s request, she sings a karaoke version of Willie Nelson’s Hello Walls, a country music lament for a lost sweetheart, which here sparks thoughts of artworks sulking like spurned lovers in whitewashed galleries. Her song ended, she turns to the sculpture, enquires ‘Happy?’, and then stalks away without waiting a reply, tugging the microphone cord behind her like a long, vestigial, and determinedly un-bunnyish tail.
A ‘signature piece’, in common parlance, is one that communicates a whole artistic practice in a few deft strokes, and Jung’s Signature Piece performs this function – in its own jokey, self-aware way– with aplomb. While it is only 3:49 minutes long, an index of this work’s concerns might include: animism, authorship, the currency of quotation, the found object, the instability of language, pop culture, sentimentality, technology, totems, the uncanny, the un-monumental, the ‘white cube’ as stage, and perhaps above all the voice as a conduit for our planet’s (data) stream of consciousness. If Jung’s work resembles an exercise in Google-enabled bricolage, it also seems to draw on much older traditions – the travelling bard, the Homeric recitation, even the campfire tale. Narrative drift, here, is not set against storytelling, but rather repurposed as its slightly wonky propeller, carrying us to new and stranger shores.
A conventional museum wall label (grave, guarded, impregnably humorless) might describe Jung as ‘operating at the juncture of sculpture, performance and text’, where she ‘employs diverse references drawn from high and low culture’, which she ‘simultaneously draws into fresh networks of meaning’. None of this would be inaccurate, exactly, but neither would it reflect how encountering Jung’s art – a giddy tight rope walk between stray thoughts and stray matter, between expectation and its upending - actually feels. This is a problem, because how it feels is, I think, the single most important thing about this work. Listing her touchstones brings us a little closer. The black and white sculptural grotto-cum-performance piece COS of the Grand Change (2014), for example, created a chain of associations between (among other phenomena) an occult order from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the changing of the guard outside Athens’ beleaguered parliament, Garfield cartoons, minimalist high street fashion, Kasimir Malevich’s monochromes, and Johnny Cash’s protest song, Man in Black. Or we might think of her recent work Operation Earnest Voice (2015), which drew connections between hand-woven Ikea rugs, IPhone-saving life hacks, Lady Macbeth’s ‘out damned Spot’ speech, Internet sock puppetry, toxic ‘e-waste’, and origami fortune telling devices. Such inventories, however, cannot convey how vital Jung’s odd charisma - as much as her idiosyncratic, deceptively skillful way with words and images, objects and gestures - is to making her narratives sing. At once gawky and seductive, half-distracted one moment and half-crazed with focus the next, given by turns to daft gags, salty remarks, and heartfelt pleas for a better world, the self she presents in her work is an extraordinary creation. We’re aware that it’s over-amplified. We might suspect that some of its charming glitches – a forgotten word, an aside that falls flat – are all part of the script. It is, in short, a persona, even a fiction. It’s also feels resonantly true.
The best description of Jung I’ve ever read is, perhaps inevitably, from one of her own works, X-EXAMINATION <3 (2014). In a characteristically practiced slip of the tongue, she claims here that she is: ‘Always acutely aware of my audience / Always a cute and a ware / Wolf girl...’ Reading over these lines - with their staccato rhythm, their stumbling towards grace - they suggest the addictive instability of Jung’s work, in which humour and ferocity walk hand in hand, and in which everything, from a phoneme to a sculptural form, is liable to shift shape. The werewolf, we should remember, is a dual-citizen, and a dual-exile. To its perpetual astonishment, it is always performing, and is always the real deal.
Tom Morton is a writer, independent curator, and Contributing Editor for frieze magazine. His recent exhibitions include Panda Sex at State of Concept, Athens, and Äppärät at The Ballroom Marfa, Texas, both of which featured Sophie Jung.