If human personalities are a collection of characters we play in different situations, Korean-American artist Valery Jung Estabrook is done with 'acting the part.' In a video artwork called Thinly Worn, she escapes the roles institutions in her life expect from her by performing exaggerated versions of herself through therapeutic use of Korean tal masks.
Estabrook's nylon update to the tal tradition are familiar archetypes: The sensitive crybaby, the beauty queen, the drama-free "cool girl." At SPRING/BREAK Art Show last week, the New Mexico-based artist gathered all her separate selves into a single room so she could finally just be herself.
Shelf upon shelf of these masks are arranged in a sort of walk-in closet for personalities, presented by curators Til Will and Debbi Kenote. Happy faces, sad faces, cute faces, confident faces, emotional faces, reserved faces: each emoji-like mask represents a part of Estabrook's personality that she has performed for the benefit of someone other than herself.
"Korean tal masks are ceremonial masks used in theater, usually for political satire," Will explains to Creators. Estabrook adds, "Traditionally the tal masks were used for performative critique. You could put on a mask, be in a play, say whatever you wanted, criticize whomever you wanted, and it was ok." Her masks allows her to criticize society's expectations of her as a woman and an Asian-American.
Rather than hiding from her identity, Estabrook uses the masks to express aspects of herself more honestly. She explains that the Chinese character for "tal" doesn't actually mean "mask," but rather, "to free oneself." She says, "In extracting these different characters I've had to embody, I am able to free myself. Once you get them out it's like an exorcism, I can put them away. They're no longer inside me. They're now physical objects."
One of the masks Estabrook keeps coming back to is called Miss Korea. It's the visage of an ideal beauty queen, a honeypot of envy. "I'm not proud that I've had moments of wishing I looked like Miss Korea. I wish I'd never had to feel that way. I wish I never had that pressure." By putting the mask onto her face and performing the role of Miss Korea, she ritually removes it from her own life.
Video screens opposite the sterile, white mask displays demonstrate Estabrook's Thinly Worn performance process. We have an exclusive clip from the video below:
The outward-facing Thinly Worn masks another installation that addresses the roots of Estabrook's identity struggles. It's a single room covered floor to ceiling in textile replicas of Southern americana. Crocheted shotguns and upholstered portraits of a Confederate soldier, a southern gentleman, and a church hang on the walls. The TV, displaying a single-channel video artwork by Estabrook, is encased in fabric, with a trio of upholstered beer cans to match. Tying the whole room together is a cushy recliner emblazoned with the Confederate flag.
She sardonically calls the piece, Hometown Hero (Chink), baring the, "state of psychological exile, of in-between, of longing yet not belonging," she felt as an Asian-American growing up in the rural south.
"I grew up a small town that's really rich in Civil War history. People actually take pilgrimages to my town to visit General Robert E. Lee's grave," Estabrook says. "Growing up in that area, I didn't fit into the dichotomy of being white or black, or even Asian, since I'm mixed race. It's the closest thing I have to a home, but I never felt comfortable there. If people don't know me personally, they assume I'm not from there, which is distressing."
Both Thinly Worn and Hometown Hero (Chink) are an attempt to normalize Estabrook's unique cultural journey. She puts into practice Gloria Steinem's observation that, "Pop culture shapes our ideas of what is normal and what our dreams can be and what our roles are."
Find more of Valery Jung Estabrook's work on her website.