Valery Jung Estabrook 발러리 정 에스타브룩
INTERVIEW WITH VALERY JUNG ESTABROOK AND SO-RIM LEE
April 26, 2019
Interview was conducted at Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, Project Space
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
So-Rim: Such a pleasure and honor to sit down and talk with you! Ever since I have gotten to know your work I became a big fan of yours. I will start with this question; what three words would you describe you as an artist?
Valery: The way I describe myself is interdisciplinary, interactive and unacceptable (laughter) probably social.
So-Rim: Would you briefly introduce yourself for instance where you are coming from?
Valery: Yes! My name is Valery Jung Estabrook and I am biracial, Korean American, born in United States and grew up in the American South in a rural area. I have been making visual art as long as I can remember.
So-Rim: How was it like growing up in the farming area, Southwest Virginia? What was it like to grow as a Korean American?
Valery: It was an interesting childhood. I grew up not only in non-Asian community but also our family lived in a farm. I didn't have any neighbors. I didn't grow up in a suburb where I can just walk down the street and talk to people, so I have an older brother. Both of us spent a lot ourselves in the farm and growing up in a rural area we found our ways to amuse ourselves. My brother is also an artist and we talk about this sometimes. Maybe our upbringing made us becoming artists and be creative in so many ways. Constraints of not having a lot ended us up to be making up our own stories. Socially growing up as a Korean American person in a rural area, I felt disconnected from the community in which I grew up. I didn’t have any Korean community when I was a younger person. In addition to truly not really feeling completely accepted by the big community in which I grew up with I felt distanced and discounted too from Korean community because I didn’t know what they meant. I never knew any Korean people other than my own family. That was a very abstract thing that I didn’t really have experience what that meant and being part of that.
So-Rim: I can see and am touched how art came to organically from nature. Whenever I encounter your work, it touches me deeper and more human level. It makes me stand and watch it engage it for a while. What was the first time you remember making art and telling yourself as an artist?
Valery: I mentioned as long as I remember, I was always creating visual things. Even when I was a small child, I did a lot of drawings. It’s common for a lot of kids but one thing is I am lucky to be grown up in the family who was extremely supportive of my talents. My brother was the same way. As soon as I picked up the colored pencils drawing, my parents were getting me better colored pencils and sketchbooks. I started getting those as gifts for birthdays and Christmas. Sometime in the way painting set and easel, I always liked working with hands and building things too. That’s the characters and treats I inherited from my father. He was an engineer and was not a visual artist in a traditional sense, but he created things. He designed the buildings built the buildings completely by himself. He designed the systems I have been seeing him building those things when I was growing up. I found that endlessly fascinating. I didn’t have a lot of talents in making things, but I had talents taking apart things which I think it is the first step before building things: deconstructing things. I always liked how things built how to make something not just from drawing and rendering perspective but also building things. That’s what I do a lot in my studio as well.
So-Rim: It was very fascinating that out of all the objects, you wanted to deconstruct clocks and watches. You use time-based media. How did you get to sketching and painting and be really curious about the systems of machines working and taking apart engaging in the time-based media, engaging with videos you use video in your work but you also create an environment. In “Hometown Hero,” you are basically creating a world I am so fascinated with the trajectory. What got you in the time-based media?
Valery: When I was a young adult, teenager/ college years, I really wanted to be a film maker. I was very interested in telling stories. I had theater and had too much of stage fright to be a performer on a stage in the theater, but I really like the idea of being able to tell human stories. To be able to truly cathartic emotions through visual narratives and that is what I liked about film in particular. Film in cinema is huge collaborated effort. When I started making independent films and experimental films, technically they were videos. That’s how I started working with videos. Just to see how the camera work, and more and more I worked with a camera, I fell in love with videos. There are some similarities in films and videos and they are both time-based and moving images. But they have different histories. And we have different relationships with them too. I want to create cinemas at one point in my life. To describe the difference, films is where you sit in the dark theatre and there is certain etiquette in reference we give to whenever you go watch the film. Video is much more instantaneous people want something immediate. When they are watching videos. Much like the relationship with television. When I was growing up I watched a lot of television. Partially it was our generation or partially it was the cultural. It is very American part of me, every Saturday morning, I sit and watch TV. cartoons
So-Rim: It seems like it was portal to the world readily accessible
Valery: I have closer relationship to tv then I do with cinema because it lives in my home and I use it in my artforms. When I start to think of that video, it has interesting relationship to I don’t want to say exploit but to explore people respond better with videos and then they do films. Because of the early experience with tv and smaller screens. Traditionally video was believed to be my dad always called it idiot box. Not necessarily something good for us but as a visual artist and using it as a medium, it has a lot of potential to express human emotions. What I am trying to get at as an artist is what connects us and what are the threads that we all shared, and I always tried to begin with something specific for myself and as a starting point. Even when I’m trying to find threads that are connecting larger group of people outside of myself, I always use my personal experience and because I can speak most confidently and most specifically about I have lived and known and most honestly. We can never truly know another person’s experience, so I don’t want to speak for anybody else, but I try to speak for myself. Most fulfilling conversations I had is when people tell me they connect to my work. I can feel I am connected to other artists too. Connecting with the rest of the world through objects or image s is what makes us human.
So-Rim: I’m intrigued by your work. Video is art and is very approachable and assuming medium in a way but when I watch your work, it has a lot of portability to it too. I can carry it in my hands and at the same time there is something very immersive about it too. What you tell me about this specific piece, 522 (EFA Project space)?
Valery: This piece is called “522”. Right now, it’s installed with 25 tablets with my ongoing series. Each tablet is numbered individually, and each video is it started with daily meditations. Where I will sit in front of the camera my father had recently passed away. I wanted to make a work about that because it was very effecting moments for me. My dad passed away from cancer and I spent last three weeks with him and documented that entire experience on video. I don’t know if I will ever make artwork from that specific footage and it is extremely challenging footage to watch. After he passed away and I had those footage. I wasn’t sure if I could use that footage and it was after that event and I still had those events in my head. In particular, some of the things I was thinking about was the relationship I had with my father when he was dying it was very unique experience. I didn’t grow up with a huggy family and touchy feeling since we didn't have much physical. When he got really sick, there is very different dynamic. He was always a parent who was looking after me, when he started dying that dynamic shifted where he was the person who was ailing and my brother, my mother and I were his caregiver. That was extremely physical relationship. I’m still to this date, surprised how quickly I assumed that role. It only tells how much you love a person and when you realize the person you love needs your help you just don’t ask questions, but you just act. Those difficult moments, taking a shower, helping him take a shower as a daughter I wasn't’ sure if I could do until I have to do it. But no questions asked you are going to help this person you will just do it. I think about how vulnerable in both of our ends. How father and as a daughter to be in those roles. Physical touch, healing, caring. When the person is dying and when they are terminal, they are doing palette of care. They are not therapeutic in the sense of wanting to cure a person. It’s an end of life comfort. I thought a lot about how actually biggest conform of notion of comfort is coming from wordless acts. What can you say in the situation like that I thought so much about touch and how after he died that was something I couldn't have. I had video and footages of him and records of him talking, photographs from years passed. When someone dies, they are physically gone. One day you had physically centered relationship and next day never having that ever again. It’s very disruptive. My thoughts were coming from touch and comfort. Also, from this grieving, similar things physical care and touch became so important for me just to being able to hug. Intrical part of human aspect is touch. When I was little, as I was gotten older, whenever I was sick headache or stomachache, my mom would always put her hands in my belly and tell me “my hands are medicine!” “내 손이 약손이다 (ne-sohn-e-yak-sohn-e-da)” I was thinking a lot about that phrase. It’s just calming phrase growing up and it became more important to me. Human touch is the medicine that we need. Take away all the pain killer and medicine that can’t save you what you really want in life is true love from another human being.
So-Rim: There is some kind of magic and there is some kind of transference. Just by looking at your work, there is something transferring back to me. I feel touched literally. Touched in the heart too. Every single video is different mode of touching. There is touch of humanness. There is meditative touch and there is transferring as well and you are in pain.
Valery: This piece in particular is very different mode from my other works. My other works had clear idea in my head what I want and execute. I hermit in my studio a couple of months and finish what I had in my head. And present it. This was free form mode of creation I have even done. I wasn’t sure which footage I was going to have and which image I was going to use. Part of the things that I learned about was that I created first having intention and my dad in my head acting towards camera. And then I realized I watched the footage back as if speaking to myself in many ways. There were multi layers of transferring that you described earlier I didn’t even anticipate when I first began this project.
So-Rim: I think it’s the hardest thing to be a human being and to face with life and mortality. It gets me to encounter that and transfer the feelings to me. I am also intrigued by your use of material in every single piece of your work. From your early work you use eggs, you use pantyhose to build dress with it and last year you used and played upon the cosmetic. Something portable you can carry in your hand. Here you are using kindles and objects that are ubiquitous and it can be found in everyday life. Found objects and turning them into something with different function here I can envision myself watching kindles this way and be touched by something that I am not reading a book in it. What kind of motivates do you use different materials? when you use the objects, are you giving them another life to or do you think this is building blocks to something that you are building in an architectural way.
Valery: I love using playing off of objects that we have relationships with so my choice of material changes as you know from project to project. Material is very important and also speaking. It’s not building purely physical thing that you are going to see and photograph. It is going to be interactive too. Hand-held object you describe. Their form is material is absolutely referencing cosmetic jars and boxes and package, but the material is soft silicon. It has most skin like texture and I wanted to feel like alive. They also interact in a way that it can be hand held but they also don’t play until they are held so I really wanted to have this one on one experience with the person. There are a lot of video art works and I have some of the works like that as well. It is single channel art where almost is like cinema. It is projected in a large wall and the only difference is projected and shown in the gallery vs sit down theatre. I like mode of work as well. After I created formal installation, I wanted to scale it back. Instead of having an experience where you have 10 people come into the room and you can have it all at the same time maybe it’s like a secret. As an artist, you will always have to ask yourse How much can I ask the audience to do until it’s too much and push that further and further. While I like showing everyone at once but sometimes I like this having little award at the end. If you actually pick up the object than walking by you get a little surprise. And there is something magical in those surprising things in art. That’s something I would like to explore more almost like Easter Eggs.
So-Rim: In panty hose masks, that’s something also I didn’t expect to wear. Something I cannot imaging wearing the panty hose. It’s very playful way of using the material and the audience can really interact with it as well.
Valery: Actually, pantyhose is the material I used multiple times in the past and partially because it is a feminine material. Female form and skin as if leg skin is different and skin on skin and very flexible. It carries a lot of meaning part of me is always saying that it is great material. It already has loaded background and I like twisting and banding the meaning in my work. From the masks, pantyhose is actually first iteration for that I was really thinking about cosmetics and make up in particular. First iteration was thrown away but was faces were painted on my face with make-up. I wanted to have something that I can take off and throw away and still exist. Someway extracting not in a schizophrenic way like that person is part of me and cannot part of me whatever that was I wanted to extract those characters on those experiences of my life. I wanted them to exist outside of myself I didn’t want to be painted on my face and perform in front of the camera, but I wanted it to be actually and physically separated from myself. So that’s why I was able to put it on one notion and take it off the next notion.
So-Rim: It is almost deconstructing yourself. There is sister in me and daughter in me and these are your identities.
Valery: Another interesting thing about identity is that partially fulfilling each role but not really as a Korean community and American community never quite encompassing both of those worlds but not fully at the same time. When I talk about identity there is racial identity, gender identity there is many expectations from many other perspectives that have formed. I can call narrative myself. The idea myself is just the story we tell ourselves who we are. And other people have told us who we are informed us who we are whether we like it or push back. How much we can inform a child of who she is by telling her who she will grow to be. No matter what every interaction we have with other human being will inform us who we are with our own sense of self. It is not just the critique of that. It is something to pull apart into and self awareness is important.
So-Rim: It is part of realizing multiple roles you are playing. It makes me realize I have a lot of roles too. You also have Impeachment project coins. How did you start about this project?
Valery: The Impeachment project is aesthetically different mode of work. It started out with a little different mode and style. Trump became a president in 2016, it shattered my world a little bit. I tried to make work that is political and expresses how I feel this current administration in a non-obvious ways. I wanted to go beyond that, so it is commemorative coins. They were first inspired by the commemorative coins that the white house released, commemorating the first peace talk meeting with Kim Jung Eun that actually didn’t happen and the first meeting didn't happen. But they went ahead and released the coins even though it never happened. They are releasing hypothetical things. The most upsetting about the political atmosphere is for me separation from reality and truth and fact. Instead of making works that reflect my own opinions, I made coins based on true events that really happened, and I only used bare facts, dates, places, if there are writings on the coins they are from direct quotes from people who were in the coin. That is what needs to be really commemorated. There are so many things that are happening. We live in the age of cable news and 24-hour news cycle that something happens and the next day another thing happens and replaces by next. I am making work that make a record of what is happening but also reiterating what is truly going on. The fact of all and the breaking from it. Those are the things are lost and very unfortunate time period and also in media. This coin series is a protest against the current administration’s lack of respect for reality and truth and in that we are living in the time where some of the media is financially benefit from it as well. I find it very upsetting as well.
So-Rim: This work is made for people and engage it by buying it on line as well. Was there a case?
Valery: I got the funding from kick-starter. That was the first engagement.
So-Rim: It became art object.
Valery: They are all signed and numbered, dated so they are art objects
So-Rim: They are art object and it resonates in your hearts. In that sense it destabilized the meaning of money. Coin as an object. Also, it’s ubiquitous.
Valery: That is another thing that I wanted to explore. How do we value things when the white house is still producing these commemorative coins? Our current president is almost like cartoon money bag man. For me to create coins while he is creating coins I am playing the value of that and I wanted to tap into that issue as well.
So-Rim: I think that was the most wittiest project it also emulates and takes the audience through that shopping as a fun thing to do. I am interested in you using your body as a way through your work. You are using your body to go around for instance, in the work “Hometown Hero” going around and putting things in place. Also, the current work you are present and earlier work as well. You will be with the video and be present within the video. As an audience I observe different modes of you using your body which aids me to engage with your work and bring in human connotations. What kinds of decisions do you put in using your body?
Valery: In part it’s born out of needs to express something more personal. Parts of the video I am a performer and I am in them and share those personal moments, thought about working with other performer or actor and for me It gives the nuance to movement and expression in the performance. I am not sure how to communicate with the audience and other people. Even if they could become perfect puppet literally do what I want them to do when I am talking about so personal and specific and I want the audience member to know it’s personal and specific subject and content. The best way to do that is to allow them to be aware that the artist is in the work and so they realize that I am talking about the specific personal story and background.
So-Rim: That is the actually the feeling and the sense I get from engaging your work and brutally honest and it’s part of you that you are showing and not through another performer and how the performer would show. What made you create the immersive works that the audience can move, walk around and engage the work.
Valery: The presentation of the work is extremely important just as important as the work itself because that is how the audience member will experience it. Every solo show I had I made sure the space is treated in some way that isn’t just white walls. I had a solo show at Auxiliary Gallery where I had hand held videos as object as well as in this work at EFA project space. I wanted to treat the space as a retail cosmetic space so it’s not just gallery. The walls are shades of pink, cool blues. I was able to find repurposed old previously used cosmetic displays from Barneys or Saks Fifth. I took those apart and repurposed them
So-Rim: They look like Korean cosmetics.
Valery: I love getting people off guard and what I really wanted was a couple of people walk into the gallery and not realizing it was a gallery inside. I love giving people art experience when they are not expecting it. That is when you get the most honest reaction. When you talk about the relationships we have, with TV and objects. When it comes to art, there is over intellectualization of it. It’s so valuable and people can’t touch it. It’s so revered and precious that you can’t have relationship with it. I want to break down that as much as possible.
So-Rim: That is what I get from your work! It is not didactic or tries to teach me something. Trying to give knowledge. It’s more like you have a sense of what you feel and that is all. I feel like there is over intellectualization in a lot of artworlds these days. They are trying to teach me something and I kind of want to run away from in a lot of ways.
Valery: If your goal is to connect with other people outwardly then from people to each other, that is my ultimate goal as an artist. How can you begin to do that if people don't feel comfortable so that’s why I used the hand held objects. I wanted people to pick them up and I wanted people to touch it.
So-Rim: When you pick it up and touch it, it starts playing. I don’t think my work is especially experimental in any way. But, the modes of interaction choosing to explore. I also do think that you are shifting the paradigm you are changing ordinary mundane objects, what they do and it’s enjoyable and soothing in a way. I think the community is very important that everything you do. You are also a curator. Can you tell me more about your curatorial practice?
Valery: As a curator, it was born out of just awareness that aren’t people are seeing in a gallery and should be shown more. That is first desire as a curator to say these are the artists that are amazing they are kind of talking about the same thing there is conversation that is going on that are artists don't realize or don’t know each other’s work. In some ways, the works that I am attracted to are the ones that are not looking down on anybody or condescending. I like the sense of humor that are not too elite at the same time intelligent. Most recently, I curated the two person show at Spring Break art fair. That was 2 sculptors show, Corey Escoto and Rose Nestler. They work on paper. Rose makes soft sculptures. She’s inspired by feminine clothing and forms. They reinstill power in a soft form with daintiness. She will also like myself make video that pair with her objects. Corey makes artworks based off of texts in particular this body of works and it was his first time showing it. They are Kleenex boxes and many of them have words and texts in them that are recharged and subversive. They are working with reinterpreting objects that have relationships with at home. When he was bridging design and sculpture or find object for functional object. With Rose’s work, she is creating things off that are clothing form, but they are sculpture and so again we all wear clothing and because of that we have relationship with fabric, clothing, textile so it draws people in and make people feel more comfortable. This is almost first-time seeing people just touch the work. You shouldn’t touch the work, but it showed that it broke the barriers and that is when people connect. For your work is invitational and welcoming. It’s meant to have relationship with.
So-Rim: It is engaging, and it is meant for touching. You are encouraged to have a relationship with. It is really reengaging way with artwork. What future plan do you have?
Valery: This particular piece, I am planning to expand it. Instead of only myself be in the videos, I would like to work with people who have lost people. Right now, I am connecting organizations with people with terminal illness and in care and hospice organizations. Working with people and invite them to make their own videos so the next iteration will be a different person on every screen and then to have that experience and expand outwards as far as physically so there are actually formal space tablets on each side. A hundred or more comfort gestures from people and to have it be a space where people can meditate or especially giving the space to people who have lost loved ones so that they can be comforted as well.
So-Rim: You are not only having a relationship with work but also people behind it. I didn’t realize that I was using my eyes to be touched and that was the way of seeing. It is very haptic and tactile persuasive communication of the work.
Valery: The huge inspiration for me these days is A. Smore. Aesthetic and just phenomenon Touch without being touched. Idea of care. I have been fascinated by different brain functions. I love reading books written by scientists for none-scientists. And my favorite topic is neuro scientific Oliver Sacks hugely influential in my visual process. partially that is why I wanted to become an artist. He talked about brain disorder. People see images that aren’t there, and they are not real. The mechanics of visual system is that we see things what we want to see, and brain creates that. It’s not just lens that the light coming in and hitting the surface and the back of the eyeball. It’s not like that at all. There is information coming into your eyes and then interpret it. As a visual artist, I work off that system. There is possibility that people see things what I am not seeing when they are looking at my work. This is something that I keep in back of my head when I work, and that visual art is very subjective just as itself. This idea that you could get physical and haptic response from what is purely visual. This is something that I want to explore triggering other senses.
So-Rim: Going back to the first question, three words to describe you as an artist: experiential relational and humorous!