One of the most perplexing questions for museums—and their audiences—during the pandemic is whether there is a difference between “to see” and “to view.” Historically, we “see” exhibitions; visit museums and galleries; connect with artists in their studios. Today, we’re more likely to view them: virtual tours, livestreamed lectures and events, images and reviews.
If ever there were a show that invites seeing, Jiha Moon: Chasing Spirits, is it. Curated by Tina Ruggieri for UAB’s Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts, this mini-retrospective offers visitors—virtually, for now—the opportunity to delve into Moon’s sublime multimedia practice. Multifaceted, multilayered, and multigenerational, Moon’s works mesh personal with popular culture, the fantastical with the familiar and the forgotten.
Across two spaces in a single gallery, Moon guides visitors through explorations of history, humor, and memory. Through iconography and repetition, Moon constructs interconnections within and between her paintings, ceramics, and works on paper.
Consider, for example, her appropriation of the fortune cookie—that classic American bastardization that reduces Asia’s distinctiveness into a bland homogeneity. Playfully, Moon teases this imagery throughout the show, as in the psychosexual pop of Olijug, which is as much a play on John Pasche’s famous Rolling Stones logo as it is a reference to Southern folk-art face jugs and forgotten places. Its crowning element, the peach, references Moon’s home state of Georgia, and extends into further rhizomatic anchors, from Atlanta’s famous and long-lamented Peaches Records and Tapes to license plates to famous album titles.
Few artists have the ability to riff and reference on art history as does Moon. Woven throughout the exhibition are connections to Warhol, Angry Birds, Picasso, and Disney. But just as intimately interwoven are references to the deeper issues of identity, site, and belonging. In works like Yellowave (Cheshire Cat), and Yellowave (LGBTQIA), for example, we see Moon appropriate Lichtenstein’s blonde hair—think his iconic pop works, M-MAYBE, or, I…I’M SORRY—in the same instant that she skewers longstanding Western fears and preconceptions of imminent perils from Asia. While we don’t know if her titles refer to Kenneth McKay’s 1895 work of the same name, viewers can take pause with the idea that these same stereotypes and preconceptions are, sadly, historically ingrained, repetitive, and predictable. “The Russians!’ he gasped; then, as he looked again, a certain resemblance to another race struck him with irresistible force, and he exclaimed: ‘ No, by heaven! they’re Chinamen of some sort.”
This chronic inability to differentiate, this stereotypical tendency toward sameness, anchors the visual narratives Moon serves and skewers—representations of stereotypes like “banana”—I’m sure you can guess the meaning—in the hope that virtual viewers are culturally primed to explore the multiplicity and diversity of Asian identities. Of course, a longstanding American tendency to group everything—how “electronica” comprises everything from downtempo to disco house to techno—doesn’t give much cause for hope. When cultural familiarity becomes reduced to pop-culture juxtapositions, BTS and Kim Jong Un become its measures, and Moon’s subtle, poetic explorations must work all that much harder.
Recognizing these challenges, Moon persists, constructing multivalent visual narratives. Sure, her Peach Mask II may reverberate with Georges Méliès’ 1902 short-film classic, A Trip to the Moon, but it is Moon’s ability—actually, and rather humorously, self-referentially—to connect these tales. If Méliès’ film is an ironic critique of our aspirations, Moon’s recurrent use of the peach imagery is an ironic critique of her location. This construct of identity, this one thing and another, this indeterminateness, is both an anchor that holds both herself and her work to its location, and a self-analysis—rather than a self-deprecation—of what it means to “be.”
Perhaps the most subtle, the most sophisticated, and the most sublime aspect of Moon’s works is how effortlessly she challenges and questions our understandings and expectations of identity. There is a beautiful passage in Homi K. Bhabha’s essay, Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree outside Delhi, May 1817. Bhabha writes, “[b]ut the institution of the Word in the wilds is also a process of displacement, distortion, dislocation, repetition—the dazzling light of literature sheds only areas of darkness.” I see Moon’s works as these wonders: repeated motifs, the (Korean?) dragon, the tentative and quasi-subliminal assertion of identity, the appropriated Disney imagery as metaphor for intellectual—if not individual—cultural assimilation. Moon’s works are all this, and more—from the Western fortune cookie of ceramic pieces including Chungyi Whisker, Big Bird, and more through to the ever-present peach, the rose, dragon, and banana—we see an artist willing and able to tease our most prevalent tendencies out through humor, heritage, and honesty. While there are moments where viewers might be eased more comfortably through the installation, Moon’s works resonate, nonetheless. Her contemporary reinterpretations of classical Korean arts—ceramics, painting, calligraphy—sophisticated. Her invitation for viewers to explore her identity vis-à-vis our preconception and understandings? Sublime.