Jiwon Rhie: Suddenly, Images Explain Everything at La Mama Galleria

Installation view: Jiwon Rhie: Suddenly, Images Explain Everything at La Mama Galleria. Photo by flaneurshan. studio. @flaneurshan.studio

Jiwon Rhie often explores moments of deep personal depression, social misanthropy, and cultural alienation in her work. You would never know it, though, from first viewing. Walking into La Mama Galleria in the East Village, NY, visitors are greeted by the playful whirring sound of over a dozen mechanical toy dogs, each covered in exploding layers of colorful, fake flowers. The dogs walk across a blue moving pad, bumping into walls, each other, or the artificial boundaries Rhie erected. In the center of the moving pad, two quarter candy vending dispensers shake with the motion of encased and enflowered toys, which act, of course, unperturbed by their enclosures. Viewers are invited to borrow quarters from the gallery to dispense pods filled with custom keychains and temporary tattoos from the candy machines. Though only a corner of a room within a larger exhibition, Rhie’s Flower Dogs make it impossible to enter the gallery without stopping to smile, take a photo or video, and procure ones own custom keychain art.

Installation view: Jiwon Rhie, As Ever and adapting, featuring Rhie’s Flower Dogs series. Photo by flaneurshan.studio. @flaneurshan.studio

The bright colors and levity of Rhie’s materials in her Flower Dogs installation belie the personal anguish that inspired this most cheerful of works. At a recent tour of the exhibition, Rhie explained that she came across these toy pets while living at home in her native Korea. She immediately felt a deep sadness, identifying with the dogs’ programming and seeing a parallel to her own role as a Korean woman only allowed to walk a restricted, specific path in life.

This front corner of La Mama Galleria contains two of three featured exhibitions of Rhie’s work within the gallery space, all thoughtfully curated by Sophia Ma: adapting, a rehashing of guerilla pop-up gallery P.A.D. (Project Art Distribution)’s one-day iteration of the toy dog display, and As Ever, a candy dispenser duo that originated at Shortstop Gallery. By including these smaller installs within the larger exhibition, Suddenly, Images Explain Everything, Ma and Rhie experiment with the gallery format, presenting reconfigured past shows alongside new work.

The rest of the gallery shifts away from the bright colors of Rhie’s earlier series to feature recent projects, which while more muted in color palette, are equally disarming in Rhie’s cooption of everyday objects for self and social critique.

Installation view of Combined Consciousness, 2024, See-through mirrored plexiglass, blind components, servo motor, metal frame, 74h” x 125w” x 42d”. Photo by flaneurshan.studio. @flaneurshan.studio

The centerpiece of the main space at La Mama Galleria is Rhie’s Combined Consciousness, a large, aluminum triptych frame with opposing sides of mirrored slat blinds and a mirrored checkerboard. The reflective, motion-activated blinds trip as viewers approach, creating the impression of being interrupted–caught in a moment of self-examination. In fact, Rhie aims to challenge viewers to see themselves within a larger context. She invites moments of exchange between two visitors who, when standing on opposing sides, activate the work, each seeing distorted impressions of their own body and the other’s. This effect works remarkably when two strangers stand across from each other. For individual visitors, this process invites a sense of isolation and loss, leaving the viewer with only their own disrupted reflection. Combined Consciousness acts as an attempt to bridge the gap between individuals and cultures, but when faced alone serves to underscore the isolating experience of immigration and attempted assimilation Rhie draws from.

Jiwon Rhie, A Familiar Sting, 2023, HD Video. Photo by flaneurshan.studio. @flaneurshan.studio

Rhie’s sculpture and video work comprising her A Familiar Sting series originates in a documented performance in which Rhie sat within a fully enclosed desk and allowed herself to be repeatedly slapped by a kinetic constructed hand. Initially humorous, as the performance documentation continues, the scene becomes more and more uncomfortable. The viewer looks on helplessly at either a masochistic or entrapped subject. Rhie, seemingly unable to escape the slapping table, however, is actually able to extricate herself at any point, suggesting that the incessant slapping is self-inflicted. The work proposes that Rhie’s own feelings of isolation, depression, and doubt are the factors trapping her within a system through which she continuously hurts herself, not realizing that she can leave at any point.

Jiwon Rhie, A Familiar Sting # 2 and A Familiar Sting #3, 2024, Hand-sewn cotton glove, metal armature, motor, wood shelf, 15h” x 9.5w” x 16d”. Photo by flaneurshan.studio. @flaneurshan.studio

Sculptural works A Familiar Sting #2 and #3 extend Rhie’s 2023 video performance into the gallery space, allowing viewers to participate in the self-destructive process–an invitation many gallery-goers at Rhie’s recent tour enthusiastically accepted, laughing at the continued back and forth of the soft slap. Here, Rhie’s masochism becomes communal. Each participant is allowed to feel less alone in their own self-doubts. Ironically, some visitors viewed the slowly moving arms as creating a soft embrace rather than a harsh slap–showing that anxieties for one can be seen and accepted as strengths by others.

Jiwon Rhie: Suddenly, Images Explain Everything is on view at La MaMa Galleria through June 30, 2024.

About the Writer: Eliana Blechman is a curator and arts worker based in New York. She is the Director of Curatorial Affairs and Partnerships at Dieu Donné, the leading nonprofit organization dedicated to serving established and emerging artists through the collaborative creation of contemporary art using the process of hand papermaking. Previously, Eliana was the inaugural Archive & Collection Fellow at Dieu Donné. She has also held positions as Associate Curator at Time Equities Inc. Art-in-Buildings; Curatorial Associate at AC Institute; and as Project Coordinator at CITYarts, Inc.. Eliana received her MA in Art History from Hunter College, NY. She also holds an Advanced Certificate in Curatorial Studies from Hunter College, and received her BA as a double major in Art History and History from New York University.