Maybe it's the approach of Halloween, but things seem to have taken on a distinctly uncanny character this week. Take Korean choreographer and artist Geumhyung Jeong's 7ways, presented in the Tate Modern Tanks Thursday night. A spellbinding performance that used puppetry to explore fetishism, control, and the relationship between humans and machines, it employed such props as ghost masks and an industrial vacuum cleaner. Even entering the Tanks, the Tate Modern's striking venue for performance, is rather like descending into another, darker world; these vast concrete cylinders are distinguished by seven-meter walls stained from a century of oil storage during the building's tenure as a power station.
Jeong trained in acting and choreography, launching her career as a performer in 2004. Tall and willowy, she moves with a determination that can feel ponderous—until she gets into character. Her performances are inspired by puppet theater and animation— she studied the latter at the Korean Academy of Film Arts in Seoul. Watching her move feels like entering into a kind of live-action cartoon, as she appears to morph into a range of life forms, shifting from a beautiful young woman into the stuff of nightmares. As a solitary performer, she often resembles a lonely child, kept company only by her playthings. "I want to make them alive from my body," she tells me, "and to make a duet." This process of transference can produce scenes of a strikingly sexual cast, although the artist maintains that her male-female interactions are not conceived of as erotic.
As the audience at the Tanks filed into the space, Jeong sat at the edge of a square of white flooring with costumes and props that included a mannequin veiled in a pink pashmina, and a vacuum cleaner sprayed with silver paint. Removing her street clothes and donning a black hooded puppeteer's costume, she stuck her foot into a mask of a male head and launched into a compelling 75-minute action. The audience was rapt.
Beginning in a corpselike pose, she allowed the impaled head to come to life, her leg snaking upwards, the folds of her trouser leg hanging loose. Suddenly, a creature was born, a 'he' with empty eye sockets and an impassive expression. Crawling on three legs, it resembled nothing more than a cephalopod from Bosch's The Last Judgement. 'He' made his way towards the mannequin and pulled off the scarf to reveal a separation between upper and lower halves. 'He' eventually dragged the two parts of the mannequin off the plastic crate and abruptly reunited them, culminating in a violent shudder and a post-orgasmic collapse. In this first of the work's seven "ways," Jeong used her body as both puppeteer and puppet. Stark under theatrical lighting, her appearance became hard to pinpoint as she shifted ceaselessly from performer to performed.
Across town at the Delfina Foundation, where Jeong completed a residency earlier this year as part of a thematic season titled "Collecting as Practice," a more in-depth exhibition includes videos of past performances and a range of Jeong's "unperformed objects." She's shown her collection before, at the Atelier Hermès in Seoul in 2016, when she was the recipient of the Hermès Foundation Missulsang Award, but she adds to it with every new project. Items included may already have been used in performances, or may have as-yet unreleased performative potential. But everything is infused with sex.
The objects at Delfina are organized into loose taxonomies and displayed, clinically, on white pedestals. On one are a selection of anatomical models, a head, eye, and brain, plus a range of dildos and fake vaginas and mouths. Another presents tracheotomy tubes, foot pump pipes, and catheter tubes. "The objects produce the idea for the performance," Jeong tells me. Another, low, pedestal supports a range of flying objects, from frisbee-sized drones to delicate remote-controlled helicopters with blades like apple stems. On a high shelf, models of human heads are lined up like guillotine trophies, from the rudimentary top of a CPR doll to a gory cranium of a generic angry man (it bears an uncanny resemblance to musician Dave Grohl). Some of the heads have had eyes gouged out, others are coated in tar-like substances—all were, or will be, performance props. It's hard not to think of the iconic work of 'doll art' here, Hans Bellmer's profoundly unsettling La Poupée (The Doll) (c. 1936).
Jeong's genius lies in the way she complicates gender imbalance in archetypal dynamics between puppeteer and puppet. In some instances, she controls a male character who assaults an inert female form, effectively performing the attack herself. But things get really interesting when she controls the male puppet while also performing the female submissive. Later in 7ways, Jeong removed her jumpsuit and pulled on a bright pink halter-neck dress. She tied her long black hair into a ponytail and slid her left arm into a black cloth tube. The sturdy vacuum cleaner now came into its own; Jeong lay back over it like a sacrificial virgin, her spine arched dramatically.
At the end of the hoover pipe was a grizzled head topped with a shock of grey hair, whose mouth formed a gaping 'O.' Rising up from behind Jeong's prostrate body, this began to nuzzle at her, then shoved her off the machine, helped her up again, and repeated the action. Finally it was turned on, sucking hungrily at her chest, stomach, and crotch before flopping to one side. By maintaining control over her props and movements, Jeong overturns the overwhelming tendency in the history of art to represent women as passive objects. Yet paradoxically, the situations she engineers also involve her playing a victim. And in the context of our current anxieties over the potential threats posed by A.I., such scenes act to remind us that fantasies about living machines are nothing new. Jeong's erotic power-play demonstrates that the post-human has always been with us, but that we remain in control. For now.
Geumhyung Jeong's 7ways, was performed at Tate Modern, London, on October 5.
Geumhyung Jeong: Private Collection: Unperformed Objects is on view at Delfina Foundation, London, until November 11.