|'Touch Paste Contact' by Samin Son at Blue Oyster Art Project Space, 25 March 2014. Photo from the Blue Oyster Facebook.|
Immediately I didn't want to be in that room. I thought about my own bedroom, the privileged comfort of a warm light and my carefully curated possessions. As Samin confronted individual members of the audience (resulting in a mixture of uncomfortable feet shuffling, awkward eye contact, and defensive body language) I wanted to be home. I did not want to be subject to or connect with the relentless trauma Samin had obviously experience and was now performing. I also hated the way I was thinking about how others would view my reactions (fear, anxiety) to the performance and judge me. My entire body broke out into a sweat. And yet, I didn't leave. Attempting to do so would have involved inserting myself within the performance even further and, more importantly, it would have involved caving into a weakness that reveals itself to most humans in a situation of emotional confrontation. This was something Samin had to experience and, now, I did too.
After facing each audience member, Samin placed his bucket onto the floor, and proceeded to weave a blue cleaning cloth round the audience, tying one end to a ladder set up beside the gallery's window and the other end around a man's leg. By physically connecting with individuals (and making the physical connection a permanent fixture of the performance) Samin disrupted any notion of a passive audience. We were "there" with him, but - as even Samin asked us - where was "there"? Was it the space of the gallery? Was it a nightmare? Or were we all lost somewhere within Samin's own trauma associated with the past (and his experience of two years as a South Korean soldier)?
At another point during his performance, Samin pulled toothpaste from packages labelled with the word "AIM" (my friend pointed out that this word rearranged also could be "I AM" - a subtle question of identity, creating another question, another layer within the mesmerising performance). Each time the toothpaste was extracted from its package, Samin emptied the contents into a bucket of water. Once all of the toothpaste tubes were emptied into the water, Samin used the concoction in two different, but equally striking ways. First, he dunked his entire head into it, in a shocking infliction of self-harm. Almost temporary blinded by this action, he then poured the concoction over the gallery's front window. From the ladder, he demanded audience members to participate - to aid him in further blurring the window - an act not about the end result, but simply focused on process, like training for indeterminable combat. The atmosphere was tense as people either worried about being singled out or questioned their own involvement in the performance and what it meant to step forward.
During these actions, Samin (despite the physicality of his work) maintained a running monologue - or narration. He described what he was doing, lingering on words and repeating questions. He sometimes chanted, and sporadically challenged the audience. His purposeful breaks of character sent awkward, tittering laughter throughout the audience, his sudden swings back to a cold soldier panicked us, then his sad, forlorn songs filled us with pain. Was he testing us? Was he showing us his own issues of association and identity? Did we fulfill his expectations? Were we failures? Nothing was certain, nothing was clarified.
When Samin ended the performance - with a voice made so raw by the toothpaste that it was almost inaudible - there was a unshakable feeling of awe and shock permeating throughout the room. I felt it so strongly that when passers by laughed at the strange, messy display inside the gallery, I felt a sense of distance and disconnect with the outside world. I wondered if this was how Samin felt and how he wanted us to feel too.
Although I am inexperienced with performance art, Samin filled me with a strange sense of grief evoked by a past that I had not experienced, but knew other humans had endured. Almost a week later, I am still both troubled by his performance and filled with admiration for his art.
Be sure to attend his next performance Orira (to be performed at Blue Oyster Gallery, 6 pm Thursday 3 April). Also, for another reaction piece to 'Touch Paste Contact', you can read Zane's experience of it here.