I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
On stage and in the studio, Kwak (aka Xina Xurner) summons bodies, objects, and energies that flourish at the “seams of the illusions of fixed identity.”
Young Joon arrives with her posse at 11 PM for her gig at the rooftop lounge of the Ace Hotel, introducing me to them as her sugar daddy. Love this fantasy (wish I could help in that way, dearest!). Minutes later Xina Xurner ignites the firestorm that rips through the night skyline of LA’s glittering corporate skyscrapers. I’m sitting, civilly, in the front row, Clark Kent glasses on, taking notes. Xina focuses a laser on her mark: it wasn’t just me, it was the straight/het/male drag I had not yet given up performing for the world, ugh. As she zeroed in, heading straight for me, I knew the last remnants of this casing were going to be broke open. Now she’s on my lap, howling, screeching, licking my smothered face; Clark Kent glasses bent, held somewhere between our compressed bodies. The transformation of my identity is one of several reasons I have sought her out for this interview. Whether in sculpture, music, video, or the collaborative Mutant Salon that she founded, Young is working with the precision of a ninja and the heart of a shaman to wear away limiting beliefs, so we can imagine new bodies, new selves.
Charles LongI use the female pronoun for you. Is that okay for now?
Young Joon KwakI go by they/them, but you can call me girl and use she/her pronouns if you prefer. Speech and language force these either/or gender categories on us. Resisting the masculine has forced me into the feminine.
CL From your work, I get the sense of a broad in-between identity. My father told me he knew as a four-year old that the wrong gender had been assigned to him, that he was a girl. I don’t know what you felt at that age, but now you seem to be dwelling in this expansive pan-identity.
YJKYes, I feel like I live in an in-between state that’s in flux. For me, the notion of a pan identity implies the undoing of existing gender categories. From a young age I knew I was different. I always identified with the girls and my feminine side, but I tried to pass as a boy all my childhood and into my teens, thinking and hoping that it was just a phase. I grew up in a conservative Korean, evangelical Christian community and I thought that this secret of mine was born of my own sin—that if I repented and prayed enough to God, I would be made normal.
Do I still wish that I could fit the mold sometimes? Just be a regular pretty girl? Sure I do. We’re all inducted into certain identity categories from birth, and undoing that is hard. Despite feminist critiques of the male gaze and the beauty industry, and knowing that being beautiful fails large groups of people, on a base level, many of us still just want to be “pretty.”
CLThat’s samsara right there. That constant desire and failure, humiliation.
YJK And contradiction! Conflicts like these are my starting point for making work that explores different ways of understanding queer and trans bodies—outside oppressive beauty standards or static understandings of identity.
CL There’s heteronormative and there’s homonormative, wanting to assimilate queer culture into mainstream culture. The word queer has become such a slush fund of ideas; anything can fit into the bucket, and that’s why we use it so easily.
YJK Queer as a term has been completely commodified and conflated with politics and legislation around LGBT civil rights. I’m interested in an expanded sense of queerness. As Dale Peck says on queer youth: “We’re all queer, if queer was the desire to live in another time, queer was the dream of traveling to another planet, queer was the need to do something.” In this sense, when I talk about my practice, queerness implies indeterminacy and open-endedness. It gestures toward the otherwise; that which is beyond the horizon of intelligibility, beyond queerness as it is commonly understood. José Esteban Muñoz talks about this otherwise in his book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. Queerness for me is a space of radical imagination.
CL When I first encountered Mutant Salon, the performances struck me as aggressive, monstrously out of control. But now I’m seeing it differently—we’re all in flux. And within the human species, you and I are mutants of one another.
YJK We’re all transitioning in one way or another. And we all experience having our bodies objectified, exploited, and policed in some way. So naturally there are moments of aggression, rage, and pain. Mutant Salon is first and foremost a community, a group of artists who together create a temporary world with and for each other in which the conditions of our everyday lives, including the governing of our bodies, are inverted. It’s also a beauty salon that offers audience members free haircuts or makeovers. But it’s mostly a place for relearning how to see our bodies without shame, and undoing some of the harmful effects of objectification through a sort of reparative objectification—as Gordon Hall described it in his essay “Reading Things”—by mutually objectifying each other while affirming our beauty. Our bodies could be covered in trash; they might look monstrous, but they are still beautiful. We make each other beautiful. The heteronormative images aggressively coming at us every day can feel overwhelming. Mutant Salon helps us to respond together.
CL Mutant Salon asserts that there’s no specific image, form, or identity to assign. There’s only flux. Interestingly, on the last page of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species he slyly tells us that there are no species, no origin, only mutation. Our taxonomies—of class, race, disability, and gender—are inadequate because in fact life generates new forms with the roll of the dice. Survival of the fittest is also misleading because there are only survivors of the now. It’s not like, now, nature has built a better organism and in the new circumstance this one will thrive. That circumstance is already gone!
YJK I’m glad you say that because in Mutant Salon there are so many voices and communities involved that it couldn’t be reduced to a singular political statement or polemic. The flux and mutation you refer to in evolution is very real, on a different scale, in the social space. Mutant Salon can only be what it is at the moment when everyone is envisioning and experiencing it together. People who pass through it can take that experience—and it’s not an aesthetic one—away as a model for a different sort of social being.
CL How did you find your way to drag?
YJK I never felt fully comfortable as either male or female. In my teens, I was fat, femme, and Asian. And that’s not always celebrated in the gay community. I went through waves of hating my body and trying to make it something else. Then I encountered drag performance, which was my introduction to rethinking bodily materiality. Starting to perform in drag at gay bars and queer parties taught me about the organizing function of materials to connote a raced, gendered, sexed, classed body. And that revealed the potential for fracturing the underlying logic and identifications that are pre-inscribed into our bodies. This allowed me to think of how material fragments could be manipulated in different ways, taken off, reapplied, and reconfigured in order to reimagine what a body could be, what it could look like, and how it could exist in this world. This led to rethinking bodies in three-dimensional space through sculpture. Experimenting with the form, functionality, and materiality of objects allowed me to play with different ways of viewing bodies. I see my body as a site of radical contradiction, its presentation belying its true lived, yet unperceived nature. My sculptures provide an alternative mode for viewing my body as I want it to be seen: as continually transforming. I think of sculpture as a kind of molting, the shedding of a bodily layer.
CL Is there a work of yours that particularly exemplifies that?
YJK Maybe the sculptures from HerMy, my 2017 exhibition at the Commonwealth & Council gallery in LA. In this group of work, I deal with the conflict and confusion around describing and “classifying” trans bodies. I created a kind of genealogy to see and make sense of where we are at collectively. I thought a lot about the legislation, such as transgender bathroom bills, that the government was using to further police trans bodies—all based on what our genitals look like and not considering our actual selves. The sculptures in HerMy were meant to shed light on the many subtle nuances of a body that contains multitudes.
CL We assume that our binary system is a really good machine for desire. You get the oxygen and the spark, you move the piston in and out of a shaft, you create through positive and negative form and movement.
YJK A lot of my work is asking, How do we account for the fact that the binary is the world we live in? Non-binary is a term I grapple with too. Even with the idea of gender non-binary, the binary still exists. Everything is in reference to the binary.
CL And this binary is part of our social conditioning. Unfortunately, most of the world believes that a biological form generates the desire of what to be and what to want.
YJK That’s what the Trump administration would continue to have us believe. All this political and social unrest over policing trans bodies shows how ill-equipped we are for interpreting bodies beyond a simplistic, reductive way. The trans military ban introduced by this administration is just another example.
CL In HerMy, there are many things I can’t understand and because of that, the work operates in a way that is—
YJK —ambiguous? What does it evoke?
CL For me, the work becomes a model onto which I can project questions I’m trying to work out myself. Abstraction and representation seem to be colliding, material is failing or changing from a manufactured platonic geometry to something that is amorphous, such as with your sculpture Herma Herculine.
YJK Herma Herculine is named after Herculine Barbin, a French intersex person whose memoirs I read. I was looking at Herm or Herma statues from Ancient Greece—these square columns topped with busts of male gods like Zeus or Dionysus. They usually have square stumps for arms, and a penis on one side. People in positions of power would place these statues in the front of their properties—a masculine claim of authority and territory. The Herm statues also joined figuration and minimalist abstraction in a way that I was interested in exploring through my own sculpture. I wanted to twist their function and claim the gallery spaces as queer, trans, and intersex.
CL The hand coming out of the sculpture has gunk on its middle finger—sticky, translucent red resin. Like out of the birth canal.
YJK It’s wet from a dark, sensual baptism. Some of the other works in HerMy refer to Hermaphroditus statues that I’ve seen at the Louvre. In Greek tradition they were meant to synthesize the ideals of the masculine and feminine, but they were mostly reduced to a female form with a penis, often with a salacious reveal via lifting of fabric. The gesture reoccured throughout Western art history and that led to the conflation of hermaphroditism and intersex with transgender, transsexual, and cross-dresser representations in the present day.
I was thinking about the statues’ aged materiality. They were originally painted, but the colors have faded away over time so that the carved fabric, skin, and genitalia are all the same stone body, which served as inspiration for the “fabric and body” works in my Hermaphroditus’s Reveal series.
CL What’s going on with all the vaginas?
YJK It’s my vagina-penis—or vaginis, as I like to refer to it. In Herma Herculine, I’ve replaced the traditional penis on the side of a herma statue with one configuration of my vaginis, which includes my gonads and vulva.
CL I was thinking of birth too. The first trauma we know of, or imagine (or can regress to by using psychedelics) is birth. We all experience the raw trauma of separating from the host and we all pretend we can’t remember. Trauma is us; we are trauma. The word is used so much these days and most people assume you want to tell your victim story again, but no, trauma is like a cold or hunger. It just means it’s an event that’s catching you by surprise and you may survive and learn from it. Maybe the trick is to make trauma into culture, reminding ourselves that it’s not our enemy.
YJK I think of my work as setting up an encounter with a traumatic event but without traumatizing the viewer. Being in the same space with the trauma allows us to contemplate it—the mess, the spillage, the darkness, all things not beautiful. And it allows us to dance among others in the face of it, which can result in a collective recuperation.
CL Xina Xurner, your noise-dance band with musician Marvin Astorga, seems to offer catharsis in that sense.
YJK Xina Xurner performances manifest real rage, sexuality, desire, pain, joy, and laughter. It all speaks to that core trauma of having to embrace an “other” identity you didn’t choose, one that was forced on you. The music has lots of imagery of death, decay, and despair; one way I term our music and performances is sadical, like radically sad. But I’m singing and dancing my ass off to anthems of transformation and survival. As Xina Xurner, I use a vocal transformer to shift my pitch from little girl to deep-voiced man, monster, and cyborg, singing over layers of unintelligible noise combined with beats by Marvin that get people dancing. I want to bring together people from different backgrounds, so they can collectively experience and process the messy swirl of feelings through dancing and establish connections between different bodies and know that we can see and affect each other. The impact is more immediate in Xina Xurner shows than in my sculptures or installations.
CL Yeah, you’re up there on stage, so outrageous and beyond humiliation; your dress is coming up and you’re prancing and going up to people, being all over them.
YJK I want them to feel me. I address the audience in a lot of the songs—that we may be “the pus of despair, but still heroines”; or “your desire is your disorder circling around the object, sex.” It’s amazing to see the progression of a performance from start to end. It’s a communal, sweaty, cathartic experience. Though the lyrics may be obscured by the vocal transformers, I want the audience to feel how my body feels when I sing the lyrics.
CL I wanted to talk about the tension between Minimalism and what could be called your works’ formlessness or biomorphism, which I relate to your desire for “pretty.” You do a lot of work that could be seen as kind of gross. Minimalism was damn pretty but maybe a little boring too. Judd’s rectangular boxes with a transparent blue coat over anodized metal-flake tin—that’s sweet and orderly and tells us that things are okay. But at the same time, there was Paul Thek‘s pink-neon plastic box with a gladiator leg or arm ripped at the joint. You see the fat, tendons, and blood.
YJK Ugh, so good!
CL As we know, it was not easy to be Paul Thek. The Minimalists had announced that the content is the form. Easy for them to say! It was like saying, “White male heteros are king.” But by collapsing the form and content, Minimalism led us to works like your Herma Herculine. It made us understand: Okay, this is the height of Modernist conceit—the universal, if reproduced, represents a power structure of a specific biology, class, and race. But that’s not universal! It’s just making rules. So Minimalism inspired important works in response, like Lynda Benglis pouring resin and demolishing the boxes. Thek being gay, immediately went to the body, to the aberrant, and to death. But he’s also bringing sacredness into the mix, and so did Benglis. I wouldn’t say the men of Minimalism weren’t, but they produced forms that were consciously authoritative and delineating. They said, “We will objectify, quantify, serialize, and therefore no one can question us, because we’re working in the scientific method of objectivity.” But after Minimalism, artists could recoup, redeem, and reappropriate the forms. Making boxes like Sterling Ruby or Violet Banks is like men doing queer/female drag. It’s got goo on it.
YJK I quite like some of Ruby’s work, particularly his early videos. I do feel though that the radical messiness and formlessness of earlier queer and feminist work has been co-opted by the art market. I’m trying to be more aware of how I use these forms, even though I am that messy girl. But yeah, straight-cis-white males can do drag too. I’d like to see more of an awareness or acknowledgement of criticality in those moves. I think of my switching between forms, working in different disciplines, and my collaborations as a kind of critical drag. One moment I’m in sculptor’s drag, the next in painter’s drag. There’s a lot of freedom in that. I like Muñoz’s term “terrorist drag” when he wrote about performers like Vaginal Davis—drag that reveals the seams of the illusions of fixed identity and bursts through these seams. It’s a form of resistance.
CL Tell me about your ongoing performance collaboration with Kim Ye.
YJK It started in 2016 at the Hammer Museum with a performance that “traveled” through the museum galleries onto the street at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Westwood Street. Kim (as Mommy) takes me (as Baby Girl) through the different harrowing stages of becoming a “real woman,” such as learning to apply makeup, walk and talk like a lady, serve food, work the pole, and endure humiliation and abuse. We created a film combining documentation of the live performance with new, dreamlike footage that plays with color, materiality, and temporality. The studio shots allow the film to shift between the private and the public, and they slow down significant moments. The work wants to fuck with traditional and fixed narratives that are so prevalent in popular media. My transitioning into womanhood and forming a female identity is a traumatic experience. But so is motherhood and, in the work, that complicates the distinction between the two. The intergenerational relationship is a struggle, and Baby is reliving all of Mommy’s prior traumas, which are transferred to her. We are a dysfunctional queer family working through all of these anxieties.
CL Do you ever feel like you’re crossing into territory that could be stereotyping?
YJK Ourselves? Kim and I are both aware that we occupy, contradict, and shit on stereotypes.
CL Does any of your work get into the “problematics” of race?
YJK Whether or not we intend the work to be about race, it can never not be about race because of how society treats all bodies as raced, sexed, gendered, etcetera. Kim and I are both children of Asian American immigrants who moved to another country in order to assimilate to another culture.
Most recently, Mommy and Baby Girl went on vacation to Banff, a popular international tourist destination and Canada’s first national park site. We created a three-channel film installation documenting our trip for The Cave, my show at the Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff. The film was called Maternal River of No Return, and the three channels show the different activities, places, and personas that Mommy and Baby occupy in order to learn about the site and its history. They try to fit into the local culture while dealing with the melodrama of their relationship. The center film channel shows Mommy and Baby taking a stroll through the busy streets of downtown Banff, with the camera focusing on passersby turning their heads, their expressions changing in reaction to an unfamiliar/foreign body, and showing how they strain to classify our bodies as a type they would recognize. These scenes were inspired by other artists’ projects responding to the site, particularly indigenous artist Adrian Stimson’s procession around downtown Banff as Buffalo Boy in his video Buffalo Boy’s Why Not? (2009), and Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan’s Lesbian Park Rangers project, with their video Lesbian National Parks and Services: A Force of Nature (2002). Both works were included in my exhibition in tribute to their paving the way for Mommy and Baby Girl to come to Banff.
CL Your new piece at Cloaca Projects, San Francisco, consists of layered personal pronouns.
YJK I-you-she-he-they-we-it. Each pronoun is spelled out by bending and twisting neon rope and is attached to a sheet of plexiglass. The pronouns form one long continuous line that is suspended like a chandelier from a security dome mirror on the ceiling. The neon sculpture imbues the space with a purple glow. The piece changes visually and linguistically depending on the angle from which it is viewed. Words and letters appear and disappear. Their power to signify is in flux, and they become an abstraction. The work is titled Shining Palimpsest, referencing the interrelated layers of meaning and obfuscation in language and subjectivity. The surveillance mirror has to do with how trans and marginalized bodies are surveilled and policed, but in this case, the function has been twisted to reflect and shine light all over the space, shifting our perception of a wall that I painted limegreen to appear orange under the purple light. I was interested in using sculpture and installation as a means to imagine physical spaces that are inclusively femme, trans, and non-binary in an open-ended way. I also included some works from my show in Banff featuring the Banff Springs snail.
CL Tell me about that snail.
YJK Its only habitat is Banff’s hot springs. The Banff Springs snail is an extremely endangered species—merely swishing your hand in a thermal pool can destroy its food source and habitat. Like other snails, it has both male and female sex organs and can self-reproduce. Its shell is very unique in that it spirals to the left instead of the right. Around the size of a small fingernail, it often goes unseen. It’s the most at-risk species in Banff.
CL Are there efforts to save this snail?
YJK Yeah, people are prohibited from entering the natural springs now. For me, the snail became a starting point for thinking about the protection of other marginalized bodies and for imagining the radical potential of the slow movement toward collective resistance and survival.
CL To care about the tiny snail is to care about your great-grandchildren and a functioning ecosystem. I think we need to get away from these arguments over one victimization or marginalization being more important than another. We have to cultivate benevolence and an understanding of the interrelatedness of all beings.
Tell me about the fragmented disco balls you’ve been making.
YJK There was one in the HerMy exhibition, called Brown Rainbow Eclipse Explosion, which refers to the brown shadow and radiating rainbow that result from colored lights shining onto the piece. The disco ball has special historical and personal significance. In gay bars and clubs they were essential in creating an atmosphere for escape, release, freedom of expression, celebration, hope, and a safe space for queer community.
CL On a metaphoric level, the disco ball signals that we’ve entered the field or universe of a different realm of perception.
YJK Creating our own world, we need our own sun and moon. The piece is made of cast aluminum pieces that have been welded together in a way that suggests that the disco ball exploded from inside. It’s a sculpture on its own but also provides the primary light source for the exhibition and serves a phenomenological function in shifting viewers’ habitual patterns for viewing art. Slowly moving fragments of reflected light draw attention to smaller sculptures installed in various locations in the space—on ceilings, in corners, all at different heights. There’s a delay in lighting which causes disorientation. I wanted to encourage viewers to look slower, more actively, all around the space—to look closer and deeper. My hope was for these moments of discovery to reveal how attached we each are to our particular way of looking at bodies from our subjective personal vantage points. This piece was accompanied by an ambient musical composition by Marvin Astorga, with additional sounds created by performers Elliot Reed and Sister Mantos.
I want to speak about your work for a minute. A lot of straight men don’t see a place for themselves within queer or feminist discourse. I feel your work accounts for a shift in current male subjectivity—in the midst of all the critical discourse and widespread awareness of the global harm caused by patriarchy. I know that formalism hasn’t been part of the social-justice discourse, but I appreciate how your work is formally rigorous while saying something quite specific about masculine subjectivity. Whereas I think the work of many queer, trans, POC, womxn artists isn’t allowed to enter into the formal discourse within their disciplines; it is seen as solely about their identity.
CL I tend to go to my studio with the begging bowl, hoping for guidance—to a problem I can’t easily answer. At some point, I asked myself what I could get rid of in terms of assumptions I carry around and eventually that brought me to the physical, and to wondering what we could remove from our bodies. Through some weird process with material and iconography, I then played with my own unconscious and the social unconscious. I created a post-apocalyptic patriarchy that removed the phalluses, laid them down as rotting stumps and, in a way, cleared the space.
YJK Post-apocalyptic, really?
CL I think that’s where we’re headed. In patriarchy, with its divide-and-conquer mentality of every man for himself, everything becomes property and is expendable. Without the network associated with matriarchy, which supports continuity and cooperation, we’re going to extinguish most of the diversity on the planet. I don’t think we can stop it. Recycling and all those things are just feel-good measures.
YJK Where does the we come into this collective phallocentric nightmare?
CL We know that progress in capitalism is a disaster and a life sentence to most living creatures, but it’s also a liberal fantasy to think we can make it better by voting for this or that Democratic person. I mean, of course we have to because of policy and things, but the truth is we’re extending capitalism and patriarchy. We need a wholesale destruction of those systems. We have to clear the space of the phalluses. I don’t think that can be achieved, but in the meantime, we can stop pretending the world will improve through democracy. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.” It’s aptly put. The very act of civility is undoing our true nature, which is that we’re animals fortunately blessed with awareness and consciousness, but we’re unfortunately not paying equal attention to both sides. That’s why I appreciate work that suggests civil resistance. I think your exploded disco ball is a version of what I’m talking about. You’re exploring something that could be related to identity but also connects to a larger theme of fragmentation and holes happening at the same time—like there’s a hole that is fragmented.
YJK Gateways toward queerness…
CL Your videos Where I Am My Own Other and Maternal River of No Return both have anarchistic and anti-authoritarian aspects. There are many beautiful, tender things happening, but those things are also being mocked.
YJK Totally, there’s joy, frivolity, and flippancy. Unraveling patriarchy is scary for most people; they are afraid of that unknown place or state that’s potentially emancipatory.
CL Ritually destroying assumptions and celebrating that with humor, color, and viscous materials is almost like an orgy. And that is emancipatory, I think. You take the person away from being civil all the time, which is so painful.
YJK Yeah, it’s painful for me! In this world of fundamentalism, of left versus right, and our inability to accept different opinions and backgrounds, it’s important to create spaces in which difference can exist, be in proximity and be contemplated. People can take away whatever they like, perhaps a new way of thinking about difference that then bleeds into their everyday.
CL Maybe this is an opportunity for works like Hélio Oiticica’s arte concrete, which in the end was an affront to the fascist powers in Brazil but without creating signifiers of queerness or liberalness. It was a celebration—you pick up this colorful cape and dance with it.
YJK I’m similarly interested in how singular objects can exist in and be reconfigured for various different contexts. I think of them as trans performance objects. At the same time, I’m a broke-ass queen and want to make things for a performance that can then also exist as sculptures and vice versa. Continually repurposing and transforming. Objects with multitudes. Not taking a piece of art so seriously, as if it couldn’t be adapted or dismantled.
CL E.H. Gombrich said, “There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.”
Charles Long is an artist working in Mt Baldy, California. His most recent solo exhibition was paradigm lost at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (2019).
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee