Intimacy as Art Practice

As I think about how the ongoing pandemic has drawn a thick boundary between bodies, I recall a bus ride that I took from Toronto to Montreal last winter. Everyone on the bus inhaled and exhaled  the same air that night; it seemed as if the linguistic barriers between us were concealed through silence, and racial distinction was veiled by the darkness. I even imagined that my identity was escaping the dualistic question, am I Korean or Korean Canadian? The dreamlike atmosphere of the bus evoked one particular childhood memory of mine when I played a children’s game called “Make Electricity on Hands” with my old friends. This recollection became the inspiration for my piece Proposition 1: Hands, which I created in February 2020. This game-like exercise is still commonly played in South Korea, so if I mention it to anyone with cultural roots in South Korea, they know it and recall their own memories related to the exercise. In Proposition 1: Hands, which is a participatory installation consisting of a video and a print work separately entitled “Warming Hand Exercise,” the game is transformed into a therapeutic exercise that anyone can perform, even without any knowledge about Korean culture. The work’s invitation to touch hands and exchange body temperature from one hand to another leads its recipients to the transference of cultural knowledge and affection. The localized, ethnocultural memory related to the Korean game becomes generalized by simplified movements of the in-video performance. The gestures involved in this participatory installation transform viewers into active performers, regardless of their nationality, race, or ethnicity, and enable them to feel connected in the shared moment.


Figure 1. Ivetta Sunyoung Kang, Proposition 1: Hands, 2020. Single-channel video, 04:33 min. Performed by Ivetta Sunyoung Kang and Eric Dong Ho You. Courtesy of the artist.


However, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this piece cannot be performed in public places. The global tragedy has turned physical contact and potential invisible contact through airborne transmission into a source of anxiety, which directly contradicts the way Proposition 1: Hands attempts to alleviate anxiety. This work has had to find new ways of understanding connection and redefining the notion of mutual warmth while depending on intangible interactions.

In Proposition 1: Hands, three conceptual narratives are layered on top of one another: the original performance of hands touching, the visual combination of the text and the filmed performance that is captured as digital material, and, lastly, the physicality created by public individuals who may try the performance with their bodies on-site. Because the in-person, participatory aspect of the installation has been put on pause, the piece has instead asked participants to visualize the joy of physical interactions. The afterimage that is evoked by the instructive movements in the piece prompts viewers to recollect when they last held other hands and exchanged saliva on other bodies without concerns about the risk of infection. The collective reminiscence of affectionate touch, for now, only exists as memory and within the virtual frame of the video work. Viewing this artwork in the wake of COVID-19 therefore suggests other layers of intimacy; touch emerges through our longing, in the mental image of togetherness, and in revived sentiments based on our memories of such physical communication. This intimacy depicted in the work remains invisible and future-oriented as its physical realization has not yet come to pass. However, this intimacy exists as the invisible air hugs every passenger on the bus and moves across culture and language.

My more recent ongoing project, Tenderhands, aims to inscribe four hundred instructions on memo pads. Each of the instructions asks participants/performers to move slowly and stretch out time by re-grounding themselves in their own body and interacting with conventional household items such as a water tap, a bed, or an avocado. I started this project right after the completion of Proposition 1: Hands in April 2020. I had only thought of writing lots of instructions that could function both as poems and as therapeutic instructions for our anxious hands. In July 2020, this work was presented in an online group show, By Proxy, organized by the Arlington Arts Center, and I live-performed selected instructions of Tenderhands on the centre’s Instagram account each day, at the exact same time, for two weeks. This experience was bizarre because its liveness somehow erased the digital boundary between my cellphone and the viewers’ cellphones. During the Instagram Live performances, we were not together in the same space or time zone, yet we were still in a virtual range drawn by a togetherness engendered by the social media app. Since it was shared on social media platforms, this project has autonomously interacted with more people beyond those who tuned in for the Instagram Live sessions, while generating modes of intimacy that I had not anticipated. Even people I did not know started messaging me, sharing their experiences after trying some of the instructions in Tenderhands. The personal intimacy within one’s body, which the work at first sought to generate, evolved into a collective virtual intimacy—one in which I have cultivated a wider range of connection with spectators who are dispersed across continents yet connected through the same network of Tenderhands.

Since the production of these two works, Proposition 1: Hands and Tenderhands, I have learned to look at the notion of intimacy in different ways. Indeed, intimacy can be fostered through openness to imagination and alternative modes of communion with others. In Proposition 1: Hands, the universalized instructions of the hand exercise stimulate imagined and recalled feelings that emanate from touching others, while the means of disseminating Tenderhands on virtual platforms germinates a different angle of intimacy that is revived through virtual communications and sharing. These changes in my two works, impacted by the current strange times with COVID-19, have somehow assured me that we can still feel intimacy despite physical restrictions. This creative process brings me hope that a time of reimagined togetherness—a time in which we learn differently about each other’s minds and bodies—is undoubtedly ahead.


Figure 2. Ivetta Sunyoung Kang, Tenderhands, 2020-present. Semi-bleached memo pad
of four hundred pages, handwritten instructions, 3.93” X 3.93.” Courtesy of the artist.


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