Sophie Jung - Profile for Art Monthly Feb.2018
In 1987 Douglas Adams first introduced the character Dirk Gently—a holistic detective who operates on ‘the fundamental interconnectedness of all things’ to solve seemingly disparate crimes. In Gently’s first adventure, this encompassed the ‘interconnectedness’ of a missing cat, Coleridge’s incomplete poem Kubla Khan, the sudden appearance of a horse, the death of a technology CEO and a time machine. Outside of a unique methodology for fictionally solving fictional crimes, holism is a philosophical doctrine which essentially holds that there are no independent units of meaning smaller than the relevant representational system.
Sophie Jung is an artist who depends on the interconnectedness of all things. Her practice of installation and performance revolves around an extensive inventory of found and inherited objects, which range from large-scale items such as airplane doors, bedsprings and sink basins to mini rubber aliens, stickers and cat hair. Using various selections of these objects, she meticulously constructs sculptural installations which subsequently serve as both the stage and props for her performances — which often occur weekly during an exhibition run. Like an unrehearsed, inherently flawed artist-led tour, Jung stands amid her collective debris and delivers partly pre-written, shambolic monologues, which attempt to introduce visitors to the items that surround her. While she selects objects, or ‘precious things’ as she terms them, for their associations, symbolism and long, multiplicitous histories, her soliloquies often deviate and spiral into linguistic foreplay and obfuscation. As Jung traverses the spaces she creates, often clumsily picking up or referring to certain items, she attempts to show us her web of connections, vocalising her stream of consciousness, shamelessly articulating terrible puns and playing simple games of visual and verbal association. Within Jung’s representational system, each object she selects or word she utters can be seen as a unit of meaning, which only accrue significance through interdependency.
Prior to an exhibition, Jung inhabits the gallery space for as long as possible. For her 2016 solo exhibition at Kunstraum in London, she undertook a six-week residency in the gallery, arranging and rearranging her archive of objects into new sculptural clusters, and, in this instance, creating a giant cat litter tray with volcanic sand. Once installed, Jung begins to write the ‘scripts’ for her performances, referring to the constellations of things around her. Each object comes to represent a ‘subject’, such as the writings of Hélène Cixous or the relentless positivity of Mary Poppins, which are bought together through Jung’s fluid, often impenetrable texts. As a native German speaker, Jung cites that she is able to approach the English language as ‘raw material’, revoking its rules and capitalising on its malleability to detail the instability and interconnectedness of things.
For her recent solo exhibition at Blain|Southern, Come Fresh Hell or Fresh High Water, in the week preceding the opening, Jung covered the floor of the basement gallery in whitewashed newspaper copies, producing a space at once reminiscent of a hospital clinic and a bunker (badly) equipped for an apocalypse. She created and titled thirteen works, although it is difficult to separate them, as ropes, poles and twisted steel reach up and outwards towards one another, and symbols and textures reoccur. As ever, Jung’s materials list reads like the collections of an eccentric hoarder: ‘hotel soaps’, ‘mini black wheelie bins’, a ‘Winnie-the-Pooh tea set’, a ‘fox stola’, 'polarising 3-D glasses of various brands’, ‘shoe trees’ and ‘3-D drawn penises’. A vast, oversized pair of black, faded leather lace-up shoes (material: 'large shoes’) sit in the centre of the gallery. They are filled with ice packs and a scaffolding pole protrudes from them adorned with a papier mâché horseshoe. It is this tableaux of objects which become Jung’s conduit for her faltering verbal word play: ‘You Will Not Win. Winning, please Winnie winning Winnie please winning must be abolished’.
Jung is often referred to as a storyteller. Her parents were actors and before completing her BA in Fine Art at the Rietveld Academy, she trained as a theatre designer. Her interest in the conventions of theatre manifest both in her personal ability to perform—to sing operatically and inhabit various characters—and, paradoxically, in her intermittently tentative delivery. Despite reading from her own ‘scripts’ Jung constantly interrupts herself, doubts herself and her own references, awkwardly reinforces her points, asks the audiences questions that are impossible to answer, reads things incorrectly and ad-libs. Sometimes she wants to know whether you understand—whether you have heard of Gottfried Wilheim Leibnitz or Dick Francis, and suddenly seems lost if you haven’t. She wavers between authority and self-doubt, mockery, bravado, seductiveness and gawkishness. At Blain|Southern, as she performs, clad in a pink and peach coloured bodysuit replete with sparkly nipples, and stonewash jeans, she enacts the failures and glitches that expose the constructions and artifice of theatre. Stuttering, at points coming to a complete halt and occupying numerous voices, which she sometimes introduces in case of doubt, Jung exposes the transitions of the theatrical that are supposed to remain invisible.
Because of Jung’s hypnotic delivery which, for me, invariably evokes a heady, giddy sensation, it can be easy to overlook the political (dis)content found in her practice—although, it is well documented that Jung provided a vital incentive to instigate the Shut Down LD50 Campaign in early 2017 when she published private Facebook messages from gallery owner Lucia Diego in which Diego, among other things, denounced the art world’s response to Trump’s election and declared that she was not ‘even sure’ if she ‘disagrees with the muslim ban.’ Jung is not a distanced critic—in her performances, she often enacts misogynistic, nationalist or bureaucratic voices in order to counter them with her own. In doing so, she also critiques her own position as bystander, as she draws together diverse references from the environmental damage of bottom trawling in the fishing industry to the use of flammable cladding and cheap materials in British tower blocks. Come to Grief (2017), from Jung’s exhibition at Blain|Southern, centres around a towering stack of black and blue supermarket mushroom trays, each of which contains a copy of Donald Trump’s black-marker drawing of the Empire State building, which recently reached $16,000 at auction. To the left, sits a much smaller tower of novels by the jockey-turned-writer Dick Francis—which have often been rumoured to have been ghost-written by his wife Mary. Come to Grief, with all its various connotations, connects the 2017 tragedy at Grenfell tower, the construction of the Empire State building, the nuclear button ('There isn’t mush / Room for brea / Kingdoms won and kingdoms lost’), the exposure and volatility of the male ego, the suppression of female creativity, and the phallic construction of the skyscraper (‘High stacks and higher. If we put a feeler on it’s even higher’). Jung’s linguistic associations are often crude in their indignation, as ‘council’ is repeated until she reaches ‘Coun coun sil / Count silver’, the horse and the hose become interchangeable both for their semantic similarity and role in the emergency services, the cladding of the building is paralleled with the cladding or armour of the knight and repentance becomes, from the voice of the developer, ’Re pent re pent re penthouse offers?’.
I have more than once heard Jung use the phrase, to a gallery full people who have been seated for some length of time, ‘imagine you have just come into the room…’ before preceding to detail an absurd way of re-encountering her work: ‘imagine you were drunk and you would probably have to lean against a wall to stabilise yourself.’ This self-defeating statement epitomises Jung’s attempts to create a certain scene or environment while accepting her own failure to do so. As she constantly torpedoes herself or verbally backs herself into a corner, she acknowledges the failure of language to translate the hidden, interior to the visible or audible exterior. She oscillates between the urgent desperation to communicate every thought in her head, to detail every connection between things, and the impossibility of this impulse. Jung’s practice exposes the instability of definition and dogma and the slipperiness of the ‘single’, authoritative voice. The dexterity with which she spans multiple voices, may make her seem as untrustworthy as those she criticises, but in all her guises, I think we can trust her.
Kathryn Lloyd is an artist, writer and editor based in London. She has contributed to various arts publications including Art Monthly, Art Review, Aesthetica, MAP and Scottish Art News.
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.
'It's Not What It Looks Like'
Lemme tell you a thing or two about camouflage; while this is the title of one of the works in Sophie Jung’s exhibition It’s Not What It Looks Like, please allow me a few lines on attire. Although it is often said that “the clothes make the man”, it’s not without merit to note that this glib adage is a bastardization of Shakespeare’s “for the apparel oft proclaims the man”. More than mere sales pitch, the playwright’s line is just but one contained within a longer piece of advice wherein the character Polonius tells his son to live honestly and within his means—the lecture follows with the more frequently quoted “to thine ownself be true”. As platitudinous as this domestic scene from Hamlet may seem on first blush, it also portrays the hypocrisy of the speaker, an ostensible apparahick spy for the play’s murderous usurper king. Balanced against the work as a whole, Shakespeare’s irony hints that public displays may hide private interests. In political theater the rub between what is broadcast, and what is withheld for those with “in the know” privilege should be resolved through a form of disclosure known metaphorically as ‘transparency’. While this standard attempts to hold corporations, governments, or even museums accountable, it wouldn’t be ideal for you to show up to the gallery naked—amongst other things, you just might catch a cold. Eschewing concerns of production here, communist designers such as Alexander Rodchenko, turned to the uniform as a way to universalize fashion so that everyone, more or less, would come as they are. Whatever good such outfitting could bring, it also presents a rather drab, let alone dehumanizing, existence. Conversely, the total freedom to wear whatever one’s heart desires might allow for one form of self-expression; however, it too can misrepresent other characteristics—the clearest cut of these is a parvenu who dons a bespoke blazer bought on credit, that is until that credit catches up with them. As a way to both dialectically, and emotionally resolve these representational paradoxes, Adolf Loos turned to the image of a formal dinner jacket, one which presents a standardized outward style to the world, while the interior lining could be decorated with whatever materials or embellishments the wearer wished to lavish on and for themselves. To Loos, this moral duality could be extended to urbanism as rows of homogenized planar white facades would likewise lend anonymity, and more importantly a freedom from others expression, in public space, while domestic interiors could be as individualized as each resident wished, respectively. Egalitarian (or kinky) as this may seem, Loos’ worldview presupposes that the psyche itself can be objectified so that here ‘white’ always signifies neutrality—an idea that today would be rightly decried as utterly Eurocentric. Whatever his house might have looked like, Einstein allegedly went out of it one-day wearing two different colored socks. When queried why he did as such, he replied ‘I go by thickness, not color’. Hidden within this parable though is not a question of whose view is correct, instead it begs the question: whose window are you looking through? Procedurally, the works on view before you follow a straightforward methodology, give or take. It begins as the artist scours the streets of a given city, or digs through various repositories to unearth detritus, fragments, or other scrapped things. Many of these objects were mass-produced (read standardized), be they the door of an airplane, a clothes hanger, a stuffed animal or the like. Regardless of their original intention, they were estranged from it. In lieu of forensics, Jung intuitively recombines said objects, and likewise collages them into the totems now before you. At their feet lay diagrams that beguilingly tease you as they parody architectural plans. Just as a general may movie little figures around on a map, each is a speculation, generating another set of moves, which here ultimately lead to a set of associative poems spurred by the forms and logics of each set-piece. Another way to look at this however is to say that they are provocations. Do you ride a bike? If you do, I’m sure you just jump on it and go, and put little thought into the manner of riding itself. In fact, the process is so habituated that the expression ‘like riding a bike’ means a skill that once learned is never forgotten. Instead of thinking about how you don’t really think about how to ride a bike when you ride one, try to remember what it was like to first learn; were you wobbly, did you fall, were you more aware of balance, etc, than you are generally, what did you learn? As with all things, once we master them, or see them everyday, they become banal, taken for granted, and even cliché. Socially this phenomenon of acceptance is known as the status quo. Though the maintaining of relations does have countless merits, when social structures ossify around inequity, for just one many examples, new and lateral forms of thinking are required to creatively break through these formations, and articulate new patterns and ways of being. When I look at Jung’s practice, what I see is not what something looks like in the end, but instead I try to find the ways in which the images are spliced. In so doing, I learn how to look again.
Adam Kleinman is a writer, curator, educator, and sometime performer. He is editor-in-chief and adjunct curator at Witte de With, Rotterdam, and a frequent contributor to multiple books and magazines including Agenda, Artforum, e-flux journal, frieze, Mousse, and Texte zur Kunst.
All Tension, No Release
Sophie Jung doesn’t know what she’s talking about. In performing her monologues she hesitates, prevaricates, anxiously and comically meanders until she stumbles upon an idea that will get her out of whatever impasse she’s created for herself. A half-remembered bit of trivia provides a convenient but unsure bridge to the next thought, however unrelated, as she pushes on in search of her point. She repeatedly shuffles her observations in the same way she arranges and rearranges the objects that she discusses and displays: they could always be assembled another way, to different effect, and their form is always contingent and provisional. Her verbal strategies avoid the mastery of drawing conclusions (Flaubert said ‘stupidity is wanting to conclude’). Instead, she offers an ethics of discussing objects and politics in which the speaker does not assume a position of authority ‘about’ or ‘on’ anything. Jung’s work can be a bit literal. I’m not being unduly harsh; literalness is a position that she has openly affirmed. Her jokes are often so obvious as to be embarrassing. Take, for example, a step-like fragment of Carrara marble which, in her performance Leader Abend (2016) she names Carrara Ladder (career ladder, you see), soliciting groans from her audience. Finding herself stuck for a linking thought that will relate one sculpture to another, she uses the least imaginative methods to generate ideas: the rhyming of Donald and Ronald allows her to shift from Reagan’s self-clasping squeeze to the early years of McDonald’s. Deliberately following an obvious set of associations thrown up by objects and sticking to superficial connections is one way to avoid assuming the authority of the interpreter slathering an object in opinion, like too much ketchup masking the flavour of a Big Mac. (It is important to note that the literal is only one of her strategies: she throws everything into the mixer, refusing the idea any one thing solicits any one mode of address or tells any one story at any one time). But I don’t think she imagines that this gives her sculptures agency to determine how they are discussed. Perhaps she’s just suggesting that it affords her role as speaker a little bit less power. The thing is, even when she’s stripping metaphor of nuance, making it more straightforward, things fall apart: a brief game of charades in which she smooches the air stalls when nobody guesses the name Henry Kissinger. You literally can’t be literal, Jung signals in her performances, someone will always take something the wrong way, the joke doesn’t always land. Jung isn’t a grand theoretician. Instead her practice is attuned to a more anecdotal or occasional thinking. As Jane Gallop has argued, whilst overarching theories can be useful, the ideas within them can be too fixed, their set concepts simply applied to, rather than modified by, a dynamic and changing world. When Jung performs, what she talks about is apparently occasioned by the occasion, each idea shaped by and alive to the moment and location of its utterance. A chain of reflections sparked by something in the room, might lead Jung to recall Kissinger’s concept of ‘constructive ambiguity’ – the tactical political use of obfuscation and waffling. It’s an idea that could have been made to describe Donald Trump’s current rhetorical style, but also seems like a fitting name for the artist’s own loosely associative and unauthoritative monologues. She is both responsive to contemporary politics and critical of them and, in this brief instance, mirrors the thing she criticises, although her waffle isn’t double-speak, and shows how it can be oriented to less authoritative or authoritarian ends. This is criticism without the distant superiority of the critic. In one performance she plays with the ambiguity of the word ‘there’ drawing attention to the problem of attuning text to time and place: is it the ‘there’ of the speaker, character or audience? What she says in located in the now, then, but decentered so that multiple versions of the now, multiple approaches to a subject are allowed to coexist. And no sooner has she alighted upon a timely idea than she moves on to the next one, aware that whilst each thought is useful in the moment, the moment changes. Jung talks too much. This verbal flooding reminds me of a semiotic strategy described by Umberto Eco. He argued that there could be no art – no technique – of forgetting analogous to an aide-memoire, because any system of signs is referential and so would refer back to whatever it was you would rather forget. An anti-mnemonic would become a reminder, ‘I must not remember X’. The only possible art of forgetting would be one in which an overabundance of signs distracts the mind. Similarly, any art work seeking to uncover (‘aha, let me show you the truth!’) the gap between literary representation and the world of things, ironically anchors a certain meaning and pathos in that very chasm. Instead Jung goes with the flow of signs and symbols unmoored from their referents, offering various ways of making things mean and doing so drowns her audience in words. If I’ve set about attempting to organise some thoughts on Jung’s practice, proceeding by negation in order not to totally pin it down, I keep thinking I could and should have done it differently.
Paul Clinton is a writer based in London, UK. He is associate editor of frieze and Frieze Masters Magazine. In 2015 he co-curated the exhibition 'duh? Art & Stupidity' at Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea, UK.