With Miwon Kwon, Sowon Kwon & Alexander Provan
The following discussion was recorded at I Am Sam on May 21, 2016. The event marked the publication of Sowon Kwon’s book-length essay S as in Samsam. Kwon, an artist, and her sister, art historian Miwon Kwon, spoke about the standardization of language and social interaction; how to teach in a way that tweaks rather than corrects mistakes, engages in locking but also popping; and about learning from John Berger, among other venerable sams.
Sowon Kwon begins her essay “S as in Samsam,” published as part of Triple Canopy’s Standard Evaluation Materials issue, by recounting her twentysomething cousin visiting New York City from South Korea. Having not seen the cousin since she was a girl with ribbons in her hair, Kwon wonders about the degree of formality with which to address her. She notes the importance, in Korean, of “establishing the correct amount of distance between you and another.” She goes on to ponder the coincidence of the homophony of the Korean slang term of respect and affection for teacher, Romanized as sam, and the diminutive of the name Samuel. Sam seems to crystallize the traffic between formality and intimacy, and even the touching of disparate language families.
In pursuit of such interplay, prompted by viewings of operas and sitcoms, aided by search algorithms, Kwon creates a constellation of sams: Samuel L. Jackson merges with Uncle Sam, Sam Cooke mingles with Samson, Saruman spars with Toni Morrison. As she assembles images, Kwon reveals how authority and nationality are personified. At the same time, she remembers how authority was exercised by her own teachers, how they struck a balance between knowing and not knowing, how they illuminated “a way from information to meaning.”
To launch the book S as in Samsam, a paperback adaptation co-published by Secretary Press and Triple Canopy, Kwon will present an animation and illustration of the essay. Then she’ll speak with her sister, the art historian Miwon Kwon, about the standardization of language and social interaction; how to teach in a way that tweaks rather than corrects mistakes, engages in locking but also popping; and about learning from John Berger, among other venerable sams.
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- Sowon Kwon is an artist based in New York City. She has had solo exhibitions at The Kitchen, Matrix/Berkeley Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art (Altria), and Gallery Simon in Seoul, Korea. Her work has also been featured in group exhibitions at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, MOCA Los Angeles, ICA Boston, the Queens Museum, Artists Space, the Drawing Center; and internationally at Museo de Bellas Artes in Caracas, Venezuela, the Gwangju Biennale, the Yokohama Triennale, and San Art in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, among others. She currently teaches in the MFA programs at Parsons New School and Vermont College of Fine Arts.
- Miwon Kwon is Professor and Chair of the Department of Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles. She received her Ph.D. in architectural history and theory from Princeton University. Kwon’s research and writings have engaged several disciplines including contemporary art, architecture, public art and urban studies. She was a founding coeditor and publisher of Documents, a journal of art, culture, and criticism (1992–2004), and serves on the advisory board of October. She is the author of One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (MIT Press, 2002), as well as lengthy essays on the work of many contemporary artists, including Francis Alÿs, Michael Asher, Cai Guo-Qiang, Jimmie Durham, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Barbara Kruger, Christian Marclay, Ana Mendieta, Josiah McElheny, Christian Philipp Müller, Gabriel Orozco, Jorge Pardo, Richard Serra, James Turrell, and Do Ho Suh. In 2012, she coorganized a major historical exhibition entitled “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974,” which was on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and traveled to Haus der Kunst in Münich, Germany.