So-Rim Lee examines how two emerging feminist artists stage and politicise a hair salon and a cosmetics store.
In its magical capacity to reconstrue the processes of life and the material bodies inhabiting it, performance politicises the everyday, turning the mundane radical. Performance, defined by Richard Schechner as a “twice-behaved behaviour,” promises a citationality: that it has been performed in the past, and that it will be reiterated in the future.1 Erving Goffman theorised how life itself can be understood as a “dramaturgical” presentation, in which people live by performing their everyday social selves through “clothing; sex, age, and racial characteristics; size and looks; posture; speech patterns; facial expressions; bodily gestures; and the like.”2 To see gender as performance, then, is to understand it as “a stylised repetitions of acts” that have been sedimented over time, rather than a seamless and monolithic identity.3 Performance reminds us of the radical power of embodiment itself—our state of “being in a body”—animating the feminist credo, “The personal is political.”
Reflecting such inherent politics of life itself, performance art and feminism have been inseparable from the medium’s European and American forms since the mid-1960s. Ever since South Korea’s first-generation feminist performance artists Kang Kuk-jin, Jung Kang-ja, and Jung Chang-seung staged “Transparent Balloon and Nude Happening” in 1968, the past six decades have also witnessed various Korean women artists explore the power of performance to politicise our ways of seeing. From the late 1980s to the 1990s, Lee Bul dressed up in tentacular sculptural costumes and waded through the streets of Seoul and Tokyo; in 1998, she delineated her experience with abortion by suspending her naked body from the ceiling tied to a rope. Reclaiming “the grotesque” and uncontrollable femininity by refusing to be managed by the patriarchal State, Lee Bul’s performances resonate to this day—especially considering this past April saw the Constitutional Court of Korea decide to lift the nation’s sixty-six-year abortion ban.
In this new millennia inundated with neoliberal, “postfeminist” modes of living, the struggles for gender equality have become co-opted by a mode of cultural consumption, and the globalisation of American media by the early 2000s has ordained Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City as the desirable image of the “liberated” white American woman. This new age also saw a proliferation of user-generated internet and social media, correspondingly mobilising new forms of feminist acts among the so-called hashtag generation. Resisting the societal “corset” that pressures women to properly curate and feminise their looks through beauty routines, 2018 saw South Korean beauty YouTubers—Lina Bae, among others—participating in the #EscapeTheCorset movement, destroying their treasured cosmetics products on camera and going makeup free. Since 2018, K-pop idol Sulli has vocally participated in the #FreeTheNipple movement through fashion statements on Instagram and on TV; and in June 2019, Fireworks Femi-Action hosted their fourth annual Matchless Armpit Hair Competition encouraging women to flaunt their armpit hairs in public.
In the white-walled gallery, emerging feminist artists Ga Ram Kim and Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin explore new ways of “setting the stage” for performance art to take place, re-presenting the everyday acts of visiting the hair salon or shopping for skincare products into social commentaries on the nexus of beauty and capitalist consumption. Transforming exhibition sites into the familiar settings of a hair salon and a cosmetics store, respectively, each artist turns these spaces into a performative site that challenges how one sees bodily self-care, reinterpreting what it means to groom oneself a certain way, and how one performs “the notion of self” in so doing.
In re-presenting the processes of getting a haircut or sampling skincare products as performances, the artists draw attention to the mechanical actions of each routine, bringing to vision the gestures and mannerisms in quotidian scenarios otherwise unseen. In so doing, they expand the possibilities of the performance medium to question: How does performance address the interwoven ideologies of beauty and capitalism? What is being performed, to what affective end? How does each artist set the stage to transform the exhibition space into a nonconventional site where the audience becomes synonymous with the performer?
AGENDA Hair Salon
Seoul-based artist Ga Ram Kim’s AGENDA Hair Salon is a performance project that debuted in Incheon, South Korea (2015), followed by four different iterations in Seoul and Düsseldorf in 2015 and 2016. The performance script was simple: an audience-participant walked into the gallery, chose one of six different haircut capes to wear, and received a “free” haircut from the artist herself. The capes were divided into three colours, according to three discussion topics to be casually discussed with the artist for the duration of the haircut. Each cape had a “slogan” written on the front indicating two varying opinions on the given topic. The 2016 performances in Düsseldorf, for instance, took place days after the IS terrorist attack in Brussels Airport, Belgium, which killed thirty-four people and wounded 250; “I am Brussels” and “They have guns, we have flowers” became two slogans. Once the participant decided on a cape, the haircut began.
While the exact duration of the haircut differed in each case, Kim roughly allotted thirty minutes per each cut. As opposed to a conventional hair salon, there were no mirrors; participants were unable to check the progress of their haircut during the performance, nor could they look at the hairdresser as they conversed. Instead, a camera was placed on a tripod in front of the participant to document the project, as if the participant were putting forth a certain opinion for public appeal. If the participant expressed discomfort about being filmed, documentation would be omitted; but the performances always faced an audience, be it through a storefront window or in open outdoors. “The act of cutting hair is a politicised act of expressing oneself,” wrote Kim in her artist’s statement, turning the one-on-one experience outwards to the public, passers-by, and participant-hopefuls waiting for their turn.
The idea was to stage a performance that “takes the form of a campaign and is presented as a hair salon”4; growing up in Seoul, Kim conceived of the performance from witnessing various public protests during which people would cut their hair (sometimes completely shaving their head) as modes of resistance. Performing the act of cutting or shaving as public demonstration seemed directly at odds with the dominant capitalist practice of “buying” such service for money.
To fathom how the politics of performing the haircut could manifest on an individual level, Kim started the AGENDA Hair Salon—a space that offers “free” haircuts in exchange for a political dialogue. “Participants are given varying levels of a haircut relative to the extent to which they agree with the slogan,” said Kim. “For example, those who mildly agree will receive just a trim, however those who strongly agree, are given the option to have their heads completely shaven.”5 A Greek man traveling in Düsseldorf in 2015, for instance, asked her to shave his head clean upon the subject of Grexit. Many would cheerfully ask Kim to “make them look good,” followed by questions on what other participants thought about the slogan of their choice—bespeaking, thus, how beauty and politics are always entangled in mundane conversations.
The complex nature of the project necessitated research and preparation. To play her part, Kim completed a haircut expertise programme at a hairdressing academy in Seoul. Next, she spent months investigating the most controversial and relevant social issues specific to each performance locale, and picked three as discussion topics. When she performed at a storefront exhibition space in Düsseldorf in 2015, Kim decided on the refugee crisis, Grexit (Greece in crisis), and the freedom of the press (treason investigation of two netzpolitik.org journalists) as three topics. A participant that chooses to discuss the refugee crisis, for instance, could choose a cape with either the slogan “Welcome to Düsseldorf” or “Couldn’t help it.” In 2016, Kim returned to Düsseldorf with different topics and slogans, for a solo performance in various public spaces including the city square, a flea market, the Rhine riverside, and the Düsseldorf Central Station. Since Kim does not speak German, conversations mostly took place in English; and each performance also had a curator to double up as onsite interpreter.
Mobilising the idea that a person’s hairstyle could carry within it manifold connotations of one’s identity, including gender, age, class, aesthetic preferences, personalities, and career choices, AGENDA Hair Salon not only reconstrues the act of cutting hair but also the act of sitting to get one’s haircut as a mode of performing one’s social self. In this subliminal duet between the artist and the participant, the hairdresser sets the stage and becomes part of its mise en scène while the participant moves centre-stage. Describing her own role as a “stable objet” that assists the actual variable of each performance (i.e., the participant), Kim ultimately provokes the audience to reconsider the familiar scenario of haircutting into a power play. In other words, even if the participant is free to express any personal opinion truthfully—however controversial or radical it may be—might they still test themselves to “go there,” while the hairdresser wields a sharp object and the power to control the looks of their hair?
Universal Skin Salvation
If Ga Ram Kim’s work politicises the everyday by setting the stage of a hair salon where dialogical exchanges replace the conventional monetary transaction for beauty, New York–based artist Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin’s 2018 installation at the Knockdown Center in Queens, New York, converts the white-walled gallery into a minimalist cosmetics store. Like a materialised performance script, Universal Skin Salvation is a stage set for walking. Its stations call for an active engagement with a complete skincare regimen and education, as the audience sees, smells, and rubs in each product into the skin, and is even encouraged to step into a full-scale wet sauna spacious enough for five people. The store specialty is homebrewed lactic acid—a key ingredient of “K-beauty” (Korean beauty) products as well as megabrands like Glossier. “It’s a bacterial compound found in sour milk, in muscles, and in fermented foods like kimchi,” said Shin. “Recent studies show that lactic acid can fortify the composition of the microbes in the gut, improving the metabolisation of bodily injuries and building immunity to post-traumatic stress disorder. It can also lighten the flesh by exfoliating dead skin and rejuvenating new skin cells.”6
In its pristine, white, minimalist setup—with the same immaculateness that everyday cosmetics products promise its users—Universal Skin Salvation presents its cerebral script unassumingly. On one corner of the exhibit, Shin’s short film “5 Step Skincare” plays on endless loop, commenting on Americans’ unconscious cultural consumption of the multibillion-dollar K-beauty industry through megastores like Sephora. This instructional video demonstrates how to apply a sheet mask through an alluring sequence of images, deliberately fetishising the effects of lactic acid by promoting desirable skin as “glassy,” “transparent,” and “like porcelain.” After watching this “how-to” video, the audience is invited to test each product placed in front of large posters detailing a motley of information, such as the illustrated cross-section of the human skin and the chemical effects of lactic acid that permeate it, along with a more interpretive artist’s statement on how each display product continues the origins of applying lactic acid on skin, a practice Shin traces from vernacular practices of skin rehabilitation during the Korean War.
As if an interactive science museum, one corner of the exhibit sits multiple industrial containers brewing lactic acid on the spot. Opening the lid, the audience can peer into the ecosystem of live microbes deep in the fermentation process. Such microscopic labour aside, the installation itself functions as a performance manual for the audience to re-enact by following the suggested skincare routine, complete with explanatory images detailing the biological processes of lactic acid on human skin—most prominently as a whitening agent.
Shin transforms this into a material metaphor for “lactification” (Frantz Fanon’s term for how Euro-American colonial racial hierarchy has generated an aspiration to whiteness through skin bleaching), inviting the audience to actively participate in a whitening of the skin to reconstrue our obsession with fair skin as imperialist residue.7 These references reflect Shin’s sinister interpretation of the recent American obsession with K-beauty products, as possibly a conflation of what she sees as the “Western” beauty ideal permeating the global beauty industry’s fixation with lack of pigment, and “putting on” a culturally specific product commodified into an exoticised cultural possession with no knowledge of its origins.
“This modernist and vitreous surface becomes an integral iconography for the Korean woman in K-beauty,” argues Shin, delineating lactic acid products as physical metaphors for the fetishisation of Korean femininity, most prominently heralded by the image-based South Korean beauty advertisements that propel its multi-billion dollar export industry.8 Critically, then, Shin’s exhibit stages a deliberate cultural essentialism that could perhaps only “work” outside of Korea proper—where the signifier “Korean beauty” has an exotic selling force associated with K-pop, smack dab in the global capitalist marketplace of New York. In staging her nostalgia towards an “authentic” Korean origin of K-beauty, Shin underscores the elusiveness of Korea itself as a signifier; lactic acid proves as slippery and sticky as attempts to “un-otherise” Korea, as it is bottled into products for material consumption inviting people to rub into their (American) skin.
In effect, Shin’s intervention into the K-beauty craze becomes a way of staging the labelling, promoting, and “selling” of her homebrewed lactic acid as a Korean beauty product. And, just as porous as the labelling of the lactic acid as “Korean” may be, nothing material is technically “sold” here; everything is free and open to the public, and none of the bottles, vials, and containers are branded in any which way. It is none other than the everyday performance of beauty routines always already familiar to the audience that allows them to distinguish the particular uses of each product, only identifiable by the shapes of their glass containers—presumably lip balm, toner, serum, lotion, sheet mask, and so forth. Where conventional capitalist consumption is absent, deliberate cultural consumption takes over.
So-Rim Lee is the 2019–20 Moon Family Postdoctoral Fellow in Korean Studies in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania. So-Rim’s research investigates the intersections of embodiment, everyday performance, and visual culture in contemporary Korea. Her doctoral dissertation, Performing the Self: Cosmetic Surgery and the Political Economy of Beauty in Korea, explores how cosmetic surgery became a mode of performing the self and subjectivity in South Korea post-1997 Asian Financial Crisis.
1. Richard Schechner, Between Theater and Anthropology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), 36.
2. Erving Goffman, “Performances: Belief in the Part One is Playing,” in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 17–24.
3. Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988), 519–31.
6. “Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin: Universal Skin Salvation,” The Knockdown Center, https://knockdown.center/event/tiffany-jaeyeon-shin-universal-skin-salvation/.
7. While acknowledging scholarship that construes the frequent transcultural preference for light skin to have derived from Euro-American racism, evolutionary anthropologists Rotem Kowner and Walter Demel argue that the preference for light skin per se may actually have ancient roots with little contact with the West. In so doing, they suggest many theorisations on premodern East Asian racial constructions might, to a considerable extent, have been overdetermined by the development of twentieth-century racial sciences. Lighter skin preference in premodern societies, they point out, may stem from evolutionary roots that merge genetics of the phenotype and cultural preference, shaped by sexual selection, and gradually forming a pattern of preferential mating between lighter-skinned women and high-status men. See Rotem Kowner and Walter Demel, eds., Race and Racism in Modern East Asia: Western and Eastern Constructions (Leiden: Brill, 2013).
8. Mimi Wong, “Universal Skin Salvation: Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin,” Art Asia Pacific, http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/WebExclusives/UniversalSkinSalvation.