Jong Kyu Kim
Artist and Percent for Art Project Manager,
City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy
From April 1st to April 30th, 2011, I subjected myself to participating in My Best Friend Facebook Forever, a month-long performance, co-created & performed with artist James Weissinger. For 30 days I followed all of Facebook’s recommendations. My daily interactions were guided by a set of 16 rules drawn up by James that resulted in my making 710 new Facebook Friends, attending 84 events, fulfilling 14 random birthday wishes, and experiencing 119 new interests that Facebook suggested I “like.” One such recommended interest was the Elsewhere Artist Collaborative, an artist residency in North Carolina.
The Elsewhere Artist Collaborative has a unique history as a thrift/junk store. Artists-in-residence are asked to respond to the warehouse of stuff left by eccentric former owner, Sylvia Gray. The parameters of the My BFFF project required me to interact with the Elsewhere Artist Collaborative in some way, but prevented me from traveling to North Carolina to engage their collection. While it seemed inauthentic to interact with this residency project without this core element, the BFFF project itself was inherently impossible (as many of my performances are), and so instead, my task was to overcome such impossibilities with symbolic and often absurd gestures. For example, when I was unable to join the 1001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei protest in front of New York City’s Chinese Embassy, I instead took my sit-in to a local Chinese take-out restaurant to spread the word about the wrongful imprisonment of the artist by the Chinese government. In this case, I took the suggestion of another Facebook liker of Elsewhere and decided it would be appropriate to write a fan letter. With this letter, I decided I would also include an item that was important to me, with the hope that through it, I could take part in the collection.
After searching through my own potpourri of things, I found the perfect object: an expensive watch that my uncle gave me on his last visit from South Korea. Now most likely, this is just a typical thing given without thought to any ‘ol nephew, but from the moment I received it, I couldn’t see it as anything but a peace offering. See, my uncle always wanted a son. Instead, he was blessed with two beautiful daughters, and so I, his sister’s son, became the recipient of his tutelage– which my mother of course welcomed, as my uncle is a self-made man. But just imagine their distress when, late in high school, I began to express an interest in the fine arts. The battle lines were drawn. In one corner were my mother and uncle, spelling out practical life choices, and in the other was me, explaining across our language barrier why being a doctor/lawyer was just simply not my path. Perhaps it’s only my stubbornness that loaded the watch with this much meaning. In either case, I never wore that watch because it was the physical embodiment of the familial relationships that I have sacrificed in becoming an artist. I wrote a letter detailing this history, wrapped it up with my fan letter, and sent it off to the Elsewhere Artist Collaborative.
As far as My BFFF goes, that’s the end of the story. Yet it remains wholly unsatisfying to me because its ending implies that I knowingly, almost heroically, chose art over family. It’s an unfinished story because I’m only now coming to realize those consequences. I chose to pursue my interest in the arts because somewhere I picked up the value that one should be content with what one “does.” What this value ignores is that when there are expectations placed on you, not living up to them sometimes brings what can be an overbearing shame. When the party that expects is your family, breaking off all ties to define oneself outside of that shame becomes tricky. To say that love should overcome such boundaries I would argue is overly simplistic. My mom is in fact the one who hired an art tutor for me when I declared my intent to apply to art college with no portfolio and three months to the application deadlines. And she was able to do this with money sent by my uncle (albeit intended to purchase a Gibson Gothic electric guitar, but that’s beside the point).
There’s love in our relationship, but there’s also misunderstanding. Although my mother had nothing much to say at my BFA exhibition, when I took her to the Morris Arboretum afterwards, she declared, “God is the best artist, because everything in nature is beautiful.” More recently, as we started to get some press for the My BFFF project, I sent her the Newsworks article that Peter Crimmins wrote about the project. In response, she wrote back to me, “I don’t understand your artwork, but I see that you got five stars, so I assume it must be a good thing.” She went on to say, “Let’s all as a family be happy and healthy. Aren’t we all just human beings that need to love and be loved?”
I have no doubt that my mother does love and support me, and I in turn love and support her. She took a great risk in immigrating to this country of which she only had impressions, because it afforded her children great promise. In attaining our education and following our interests, my sister and I have had a breadth of opportunities that my mom did not have when she was growing up in South Korea. These days, as I’m coming to realize the distance that my life in art creates, I find myself more concerned and curious about her state of mind. I wonder if she still would have made her same choices had she known that immigrating to this country would mean that her children would be able to pursue their dreams, but would become estranged from her in that process.