The Immigrant Artist Biennial – In Dialogue

Moving Image: Nicholas Oh & Ayoung Justine Yu, Alexander Si, and Masha Vlasova

A sun shining through the trees

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Masha Vlasova. Waterlands, 2022. Experimental film,15 min. 4K. Courtesy of the artist and The Immigrant Artist Biennial.

Surrealists invigorated the film genre in the 1920s and 30s, especially the Spaniards Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí—who at the time were living in Paris—with their non-linear narrative film Un Chien Andalou (1929). Surrealist elements reign in The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone’s exhibition Excavated Selves, Magic Bodies at Alchemy Gallery—where surreal elements allow bodies to thrive, often in hostility. A garment used in the video work Mourning Ritual created by artist duo AYDO (Nicholas Oh & Ayoung Justine Yu) on the border between North and South Korea is included in the show. It uses spirituality, ancestry, and surreal landscape to engage with the separation of families and loss of connection. In Parasites and Vessels at Accent Sisters, Alexander Si employs video matter of fact to document his process of crafting a Birkin bag. Masha Vlasova’s poetic work Waterlands investigates surface and texture in the landscape in Enmeshed, Dreams of Water at NARS Foundation.

The subject matter of the various works could not be more different. However, co-curator Anna Mikaela Ekstrand brings these biennial artists together to speak about their technique, the film/video medium, and what they remember from their early encounters with moving images.

Although multi- and interdisciplinarity bleed into most artistic production, differences still exist between discourses and disciplines, which do not exclude them from overlapping. What is your relationship to film versus video art, or do you prefer wet film and digital?

MV: Waterlands, my film for The Immigrant Biennial, begins as an essay on early film history—staging the relationship between film and death and stillness and re-animation. I was particularly interested in the lack of sound and color in the Lumiere Brothers shorts that unsettled early film critics, evoking for them images of the underworld. Playing with slippages, the film shifts to digital, focusing on watery surfaces. Shaky reflections of trees moving on the water resemble the materiality of celluloid—referencing the film medium itself.

AYDO: We work primarily in film, creating performance-based films centered on Korean ancestral spiritual practices and folk traditions re-imagined through a diasporic lens. However, as our films are experimental and do not adhere to a strictly linear or narrative structure, many elements are borrowed from video art. For example, most recently, we split our film into a looped 3-channel installation as part of a larger immersive environment. We found that this hybridized format has the potential to create new, more participatory engagement with the work. In TIAB’s exhibition Excavated Selves, Becoming Magic Bodies, we will present a large hanging sculpture worn as a ceremonial garment by a performer in our film Mourning Rituals (2022).

AS: With film, as in shooting in analog, the outcome has a vintage quality. I’ve shot stills in 35mm film before, but it was in a discovery phase. Now, I don’t work in analog, only iPhone and, at times, Polaroids.

AYDO (A young Yu & Nicholas Oh). Meditations on Land I, 2022, Korean traditional silk ceremonial garment, ceramics, organic materials, embroidery, glass beads, fiberglass, urethane rubber, resin, wood, 7 x 5 ft. Courtesy of the artist The Immigrant Artist Biennial.

How did you engage with moving images as a child?

AS: I was introduced to eMule when I was in elementary school by my dad. So, I began downloading subtitled movies and shows mainly in English. Then there’s always what was playing on TV and in movie theaters in China and Canada.

Nicholas: I grew up in the 80s and 90s in the Korean historical city of Gyeongju, nicknamed the thousand-year-old city and known for its rich precolonial history and archaeological excavations. Western (especially American) culture was romanticized. Immersed in an environment that celebrated its ancient pagodas, royal burial mounds/tombs, memorials to historical figures, and relatively untouched landscapes, black-and-white cartoons—like Popeye—and popular American blockbusters felt exciting.

A young: Having grown up primarily in the suburbs of the United States (my family immigrated to the U.S. when I was four), my exposure to Korean moving image and cinema was often through imported VHS tapes and CDs that my parents avidly collected, and tinted by a diasporic lens. My family in Seoul, where I traveled most summers, were visual artists or gallerists. So, I was fortunate to grow up immersed in the Korean art world and privy to work with video artists such as Jungju An, Hyunki Park, Chan-kyong Park, and, of course, Nam June Paik from a young age.

MV: My first vivid memory of an encounter with moving images is seeing Mrs. Doubtfire at the local movie theater with my mom, aunt, and cousin—I must have been five. I only vaguely grasped its plot. The theater was called Pioneer and dates back to the USSR era. To me, most of the film was a joyful blur of color and light. Two passages have stayed with me to this day. First, Robin Williams panicked and dunked his face into a cake to hide his face, maintaining his movie-length drag performance. The second is of a bright blue pool glimmering in the sun. These were exotic sights to five-year-old me living within the harsh economic realities of Russia in the 1990s. Waterlands is a film about surfaces—the surface of the water, the surface of the film strip itself, and the beauty and magic of its materiality. Both images from Mrs. Doubtfire that O remembers are surfaces, bearings, and textures—the sticky cake on Williams’ face and the sun rays bouncing off the pool water. With Waterlands and, in general, I have grown more and more curious about the sensitive surface of the film strip itself, holding (not only images and narratives but also) material beauty.

Revisiting this memory now, I wonder why these images stayed with me. Through the lens of psychoanalysis and depth psychology, those surfaces might have revealed something to me about myself, opening a window to another world or fantasy. However, I prefer to see the imagery for what it is—simply alluring.

What cameras do you use to shoot?

MV: For Waterlands, I used a GoPro camera for the underwater sho<s. And, since the other parts were shot while I was on the water in a canoe, I needed a compact camera without compromising image quality: I chose a BlackMagic camera. I also liked that I could switch lenses with it, which was important for this shoot.

AS: Canon EOS Mark III, iPhone, and Polaroid.

AYDO: Our director of photography uses a Sony XDCAM PXW-FS7 and anamorphic lens.

Alexander Si. Birkin, 2023. One-channel video and sculpture. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

About the Writer: Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is a Swedish/Guyanese writer, researcher, and curator interested in feminism, social practice, decolonization, and the founding editor-in-chief of Cultbytes. Anna Mikaela holds dual master’s degrees in art and design history from Stockholm University and Bard Graduate Center. Her latest books are “Assuming Asymmetries. Conversations on Curating Public Art Projects in the 1980s and 1990s” and “Curating Beyond the Mainstream,” published by Sternberg Press in 2022. She is co-curator of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone and the organization’s Associate Director.

Nicholas Oh & Ayoung Justine Yu (AYDO), Masha Vlasova, and Alexander Si are part of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone held across venues in New York and New Jersey from September 2023 to January 2024. Find the full program here

Art Spiel and Cultbytes are, for the second time, proud media sponsors of the biennial, and this interview is part of an interview and review series that will be published throughout its programming.