‘Frequencies of Tradition’ honors East Asian history, promotes progress

photo from Tradition
KADIST/Courtesy

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In an era marked by globalization, NFTs and nearly sending Pete Davidson to space, many argue that humanity’s relationship with tradition has reached peak fragility. On the contrary, several activists assert that abandoning tradition’s white supremacist, patriarchal and homophobic hegemonic structures is paramount in the battle for an equitable future. The Kadist Gallery in San Francisco grapples with this duality in its latest exhibit titled “Frequencies of Tradition,” curated by Hyunjin Kim. The multimedia exhibit explores East Asian cultures’ intricate ties to tradition, forwarding the notion of doubly embracing heritage and fighting for social change.

With three galleries and a window display, the exhibit takes a diverse approach. Artist Seulgi Lee’s window exhibit “U” features two silk rugs that represent classic Korean proverbs with minimalist shapes and colors to invoke an aura of modernity. The first rug, “Repair the Cowshed After Losing the Cow,” fuses the five colors of obangsaek to visually represent this maxim with wit and humor. As Lee notes in the exhibit’s pamphlet, the five colors of obangsaek are a “traditional Korean color spectrum, based on the yin and yang as well as the five elements.” 

Similarly, the second rug — titled “My Three-Foot Nose = I’m Too Ground Down to Help Anyone Else” — incorporates elements of arcane humor into the adage it parodies. Clever and campy, these rugs gracefully blur the lines between art, protest, tradition and modernity. 

In the first gallery, siren eun young jung’s multimedia work “Deferral Archive” unites decades-old digital prints with pops of painted colors. Meanwhile, a pair of single-channel videos plays alongside these collages, in which an older woman sits inside of a picture frame while reciting the line: “I will not sing because I am not a showgirl.” She sits next to a reel of herself, dressed as a man, singing proudly. 

Complicating Korea’s traditional form of theater “Yeoseong Gukgeuk,” the artist notes that these videos build a “non-chronic archive of the queer body that includes processes of superposition, division, glamorization and modification.” 

Entering the hallway between the first gallery and the second, Young Min Moon’s series of oil paintings on linen explores Catholicism as it mixes with Korean culture in traditional Jesa rituals. The detailed series blends seemingly Western displays of food with Eastern architectural styles, refuting the West’s reductive understanding of the East as culturally monolithic.

In the second gallery, artist Chia-Wei Hsu’s two-part video installation “Spirit-Writing” examines the folklore surrounding a Chinese frog deity. The first half of this installation records a greenroom of men who explain the history of the aforementioned figure while constructing its physical replica. 

The artist remarks that a group of villagers typically carries this replica throughout various city streets; as the villagers walk, the figure’s vertical and horizontal movements answer onlookers’ questions. Representing this myth in the contemporary technological realm, the second half of the video series depicts an incredibly precise 3D-gridded model of the figure. 

In the culminating gallery’s single-channel video “Hotel Aporia” by Ho Tzu Nyen, several diverse voices simultaneously orate poetry, proverbs and painful Pacific War stories that accompany a slideshow of black-and-white photographs. Photoshopped-out faces complement these vivid historical photos to merge past with present through evolving media technologies. 

Elsewhere in the movie, narrators relate the tale of a Pacific War soldier who accidentally walked into a plane propeller and inadvertently caused his own death. Like several other underrecognized war accounts, this anecdote provides a difficult yet necessary historical lesson to unaware audiences regarding the emotional gravity of quotidian life in wartime. 

The video also references an anonymous French poet, who criticized Asian poetry for supposedly “diving too deeply into the world.” With tasteful yet powerful combinations of photography, poetry and prose, the installation effectively refutes the French poet’s prejudice with dignity and finesse. Through film, paint, photography and silk, “Frequencies of Tradition” encourages audiences of all ages to strive for a harmonic balance of cultural preservation and equitable progression through politics, discourse and art.

Piper Samuels covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].