On ViewThe Bronx Museum of the Arts
April 6 – May 15, 2022
Bang Geul Han started researching legal texts on abortion access across the US in 2020 with Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation. Her show, If You Grind The Threshold of Three Other Houses, which was the culmination of a residency at the Bronx Museum, used as material not only those laws, but the stuff that is literally or figuratively conceived by them: footage of Brett Kavanaugh’s revolting face, spreadsheets tracking pregnant teenage immigrant women along the Southern border, and reams and reams of legalese. In addition to these materials Han incorporated an AI program she wrote, several weavings, and a personal collection of early-modern contraception recipes to create a tense and timely environment that addressed current events with historical depth and a strange sense of almost … hindsight. What I mean is, she seems to be about two years out, looking back.
If you grind the threshold of three other houses, as the show’s title suggests, and ingest what you’ve collected, you might be able to induce an abortion, goes the wisdom in fifteenth century Korea. Han’s collection of such potions spans Ancient Egypt, Ancient East Asia, and Medieval and Early-Modern Europe, and is culled from academic and historical texts. They are tricky to find: one who had need of them might not write anything down, after all.
if you smear juice of the balsam tree, alone or together with white lead
if you tie a weasel testicle around the neck or thigh…
In recounting some to me, Han laughed lightly; she laughs sometimes when things are funny-not-funny. We stood watching Bamboo Forest (2022), a video which filled a large, nearly square wall from floor to ceiling. A voice, whispering and urgent, recited, “If you circle spots a pregnant wolf pissed on…” In the work, Han reassembles some of her collected potions from the letters that, in another order, spell out Henry J. Hyde’s notorious 1993 remarks to Congress. Hyde’s words blatantly expressed the intersection of reproductive inequality, racism, and poverty. The letters fly off in storms, blow around the screen, then reassemble hypnotically. The most powerful part of the video is the audio: wind clarifies into words, dissolves into wind again: this is language turning into secrets, into breath, and back from silence into sense again. The ominous urgency is actually where Han’s sense of optimism comes in.
Han can recite years of abortion-related law, specific Supreme Court decisions, and clarify how each one chips away or tries to bolster even more basic human rights, such as ones right to not be enslaved. Why had she started reading into this material so long before the leaked Supreme Court opinion? She saw it coming. Since, oh, 2016 or so.
It was during that administration that Han began following the leak of a US Government spreadsheet related to the appointment of E. Scott Lloyd to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The spreadsheet was kept by the agency and details the systematic attempt at denying abortions to minors detained at the Southern border—regardless of age, health, or cause of pregnancy. The text is installed into Han’s Threshold (2022). It’s a discombobulating object, technically a gate, but not any gate you’d want to step through. Designed after a traditional Korean Hanok which demarcates domestic and public spaces (or symbolically, life and death), the gate is constructed with fetishistic perfection. Over threshold, at the height of one’s ankle, a glowing red LED text reader displays text from the spreadsheet, for example, “11/28/2017:SWK Canutillo,TX Age:17. Gest.Age:3months. Raped by unknown assailant in COO. TOP request to date:No…” and goes on and on, coloring red this entrance to nowhere.
Despite the serious subject matter of the show, Han’s work is shot through with moments of humor and levity. To one side, floating on a screen, is TalkMeTender.Life (2022, made in collaboration with Minna Pöllänen), who is a tardigrade-looking piece of space junk floating on a screen with whom you can chat using a keyboard. Building upon a so-called large language AI model, Han programmed and trained the AI using feminist philosophical texts and stadium rock lyrics. I asked the junk what it felt like. It spit out touchingly angst-ridden text that almost seemed to mean something. In early May, Han asked it what thought about the Supreme Court overturning Roe V. Wade. It replied, “I hope they make a wise decision.” Fair enough.
To Han, the funny-not-funny is a vacuum, a vertiginous and politically demagnetized area between two people who experience the same phenomena in radically different ways. You think Han’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022) is funny, your girlfriend does not.
In this space, symbols float, words lose their origin and become estranged. Horror flips to humor then back; words, their use and misuse, are strange agents here, alternately pushed by faceless wind, or originating from someone beloved. In Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Steven) (2022), a man recounts the eponymous film in exquisite detail. It’s funny, but also not.
And through it poke Han’s own fingers, which were, for this viewer, the highpoint of the show. In a move that is simultaneously redolent of horror films and ’60s era feminist performance art, Han superimposes the video of the man with piece of white paper only identifiable as such when it is pierced by her fingernail from behind. Here is something that only video can do—there’s nothing filmic about it: the screen becomes at once a window onto a scene of the man talking and a flat material that can be transgressed. The finger noses its way out, gently circling as if feeling—or even looking—around; a second finger follows the last. Then the whole hand forces through, ripping the paper. The hand caresses the man’s head, feeling over it blindly, while ripping the screen open. I thought of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), except perfectly reversed. Here, in 2022, the artist takes significant agency.
Though her work navigates legal, logic, and language systems, what is at stake for Han is the creation or destruction of worlds. Her work marks a widening gap of personal and political reality. Which reality do you live in?, all of these works seem to ask. And, Do your beloveds live in the same world?