Detourist, Jiha Moon’s latest exhibition at Saltworks Gallery, asks the viewer to pick through a potent jumble of symbols, colors, mark-making styles, and mediums, as if they might find some sort of treasure amongst the ruins of an ancient civilization. Of course, the civilization is ours, but the suggestion is that some of it may already be ruined. Many of her works show birds, suspiciously reminiscent of the Twitter symbol, appearing to have dropped a fly-by shit across the painting. Or they display comically oversized mock-ups of fortune cookie sheets, whose messages are repeated until they have lost the minute bit of meaning they may have once held.
Moon inquires in her artist statement, “Is the feeling of authenticity only experienced by the tourist?” What seems more likely is that the members of a culture condense their deeply layered history and semiotics into a neat package for the tourist. Tchotchkes in gift shops become easier to sell without those tricky nuances inherent within an otherwise diverse population muddling up the idealized image. Tourists desire a finite amount of information about the visited place, so that they can leave after the allotted ten days with a sense of understanding what they saw. Meanwhile, some locals are happy to perpetuate that myth by exaggerating the importance of the place they live, or by selling souvenirs so that they might be able to afford their own visit to a foreign land.
Moon plays within the intricacies of this relationship, revealing the falseness of such touristic voyeurism while celebrating the hidden meanings that the tourist may not see. This is the advantage of looking at her works—she rewards you by guiding you past cultural assumptions, letting you chuckle knowingly at them and appreciate the earnest gumption with which a non-native might take her symbols at face value. The viewer’s amusement isn’t at anyone’s expense, though, because the accumulation of differing cultural references prevents an insider perspective.
The strongest symbolism lies within Migration and Storyteller, both multimedia pieces done on hanji, a traditional Korean paper. The vaguely apple-shaped Migration immediately drove my consumerist, American mind to the Mac logo and Apple Bottom Jeans. Swirling amongst the floating rainbowed cliffs and wisps of clouds are sun-shiney glitter-bursts that flash across sea and sky. These peppy cartoon versions of nature are balanced by more grim imagery, as if conjuring all the evil of a Disney movie. Absurdly heavy clouds hang in the sky—a single shade of black but for the deep-sea blue outlines that give them shape—looking more like a ne’er-do-well genie than a cumulonimbus. Lurking in the sea, too, is a creature, perhaps some sort of inbred offspring between Poseidon and Medusa. Its tentacles reach up through the splattered chaos of the sea, echoing the harmless entropy of this cheerful world.
Scrolls grace the sides of Migration and Storyteller, primly announcing a mysterious codification to the many symbols in each. Only in a few paintings do these scrolls actually announce the title of the work, or discernibly unpack the theme. The old joke “ancient Chinese secret” comes to mind— a phrase often used when the speaker doesn’t want to reveal something. Rather than explain her paintings, Moon fills her scrolls with nautical stars, peach-shaped hearts (cheekily reminiscent of dick tips), and unfolding tubes that resemble anatomical drawings of ovaries.
Where Migration seems like the more American version of Moon’s cultural landscape, Storyteller emphasizes the Asian influence that often shows up in her artworks. Moon toys with the usual gravity associated with Asian myths, playing up the silliness of some—such as a crane bending over and squawking, or sparkly, tramp-stamp-style roses blooming on blue bamboo stalks. The Buddha balances this playfulness by reminding the viewer that some things are sacred. The Buddha balances this playfulness by reminding the viewer that some things are sacred. The outline of his fluorescent yellow body is mirrored by the shape of a similarly-colored bird, emphasizing his transcendent nature, as birds often represent beings that are free from an earthly body.
Moon builds upon the stylizations in Storyteller with a series of works that fill a full, three-walled section of Saltworks. Streamers hang from the ceiling: jumbo fortunes of encouraging familiarity. Aesthetically akin to a Chinese New Year’s parade, this corner of the gallery gives the viewer a true tourist’s view of Asian culture; that is, until you step into the visual space of the works and see the slight variations in repetition that compare fairy tales of both American and Asian descent. Moving from left to right, the Asian women in traditional dress are initially the heroes of the story that Moon is telling. But as you proceed along the storyline, these women become smaller and fewer; Snow White’s taking over. She is stamped across the brown paper pictures, and escapes into plural prints directly on the wall. Her stark, white face is similar, visually, to the other women, but her presence as a symbol is so much more recognizable that she seems to invade the viewer’s mental space as much as much as she takes over the walls of the gallery.
Moon touches on the Americanization of cultural space in the Luck of the Irish series as well. The fortunes reappear, with inanely pleasant messages such as, “Yes! You deserve it!” and, “Listen attentively. You will come out ahead in the next few days.” Advice like this can come from Oprah or a horoscope with equal sincerity. This series’s landscape mimics the ebullient, unanchored quality of Migration. Neither have a distinctive background, but the sublayer of stormy seas provides a second canvas for the profusion of logos and patterns. Yellow Dust scatters not-quite-smiley faces (more like a dopey smirk) amid the rage of the threatening, inky ocean, right next to a caricature of Lady Liberty as a harp. In the work titled Luck of Irish (complete with a fortune cookie title), pieces of kelly-green bandana are collaged amongst Moon’s signature, sinuous line work as miniature mountains, obscenely out of place.
Saltworks displayed Moon’s work in 2008 as well, and a couple of those pieces are placed alongside Detourist. Seeing them altogether, they share a similar story. Moon’s works become their own mythology. Like a myth, there are many versions, but each extols the same virtues and warnings. One can appreciate the variations within them when familiar with the myth and its intent. A tourist could understand the image, but they wouldn’t see it all.