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.
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.