At a time when the dialogue surrounding mental health is changing and expanding, common understandings of how to address it are developing as well. Tiohtià:ke/Montreal and Tkaronto/Toronto-based interdisciplinary artist Ivetta Sunyoung Kang (she/her) has centered her work on redefining mental health and therapy. Through participatory and performative work, text, and video installations, as well as research, she invites us to reflect on notions of mental health from diasporic cultures, and offers new ways of stepping outside of ourselves to ease our own anxiety. I sat down virtually with Kang to discuss her practice and background, and to learn more about what motivates her work.
Especially as an immigrant from South Korea, Kang’s work is influenced by her own culture and personal trials. When she moved to Canada as a university student, she experienced isolation, systemic racism, and behavioral and perceptual discrimination, which exacerbated her anxiety and depression. Later in her career during a 2019 residency at SomoS Art House in Berlin, mental health became the focus of her art and research. After traveling to different cities for art residencies and galleries, experiences through which she met many emotionally and physically displaced people, she recognized the importance of advocating for the mental health of marginalized people in her practice.
“I guess that's how I sort of got engaged with this research direction which is anxiety, depression, and “otherness” as an identity. Those kinds of interests naturally came to me because of this experience as a foreigner, leaving, and as an immigrant living in a liminal state of identity.”
This led Kang’s art and research to become focused on engaging with different cultural understandings of mental disorder and therapy. Many of her projects reference South Korean culture.
“I think what I have been trying to do is find another means or other layers of therapies, and other layers of definitions of each mental illness by mixing the Western and the Eastern or multi directional, multicultural references,” Kang said.
In Kang’s 2020 project, titled Proposition 1: Hands, a booklet guides the audience through hand positions from a popular South Korean children’s game called Make Electricity on Hands. Participants are invited to pair up, sit across from one another, and follow the booklet’s instructions and/or the instructions of the in-video performance. Through a variety of hand massage activities, participants receive a poetic therapy to relieve their anxiety. For Annotated Memoir, a 2019 project, Kang wrote six memoirs in English which she annotated in Korean. The memoirs were written during a visit to Mae Hwa Island on the West Sea in South Korea where her grandmother and father were born, and were inspired by the intersections of both languages.
“Linguistically, I have always been fascinated and very inspired by how Korean and English are so different, or sometimes alike. [...] This kind of linguistic gap has been [a] big interest, because sometimes it feels the gap represents my fluid identity as both and neither Korean and Canadian,” Kang said.
Tenderhands, a project Kang developed during quarantine, explores ways to ease the anxiety caused by uncertainty during social distancing and COVID-19, and considers the changing notion of hands from vessels for empathy to vessels for disease. Tenderhands offers a series of brief, numbered “instructions for anxious hands” written on memo pads, which she has followed herself as a daily exercise during quarantine. Like her other projects, the poetic writing of Tenderhands pushes participants to slow down and reflect on how anxiety manifests in the body as it endures turbulence and uncertainty, and meditates on the realms of public and private.
Through her art and research, Kang aims to create more imaginative conceptions of mental health and to decolonize common notions of ableism and disability. She believes academic and scientific definitions of disability are limiting.
“When I first studied English, I was just mumbling, because my English was very soft. Which means, I was disabled linguistically, you know, so this definition of being disabled could be very broad in that sense,” Kang said. “It's not only like indicating physical, disabled or mental disabled, it could be emotionally disabled, too.”
Kang felt aphasic, as if her tongue wasn’t functioning due to its inability to speak English fluently. The experience served as inspiration for her 2020 project When The Others Lick Underneath Your Tongue, a mixed-media work that reflects on the anxiety produced from learning an imperial language as a non-native speaker, and the possibilities of decolonizing the hierarchy of languages.
In many ways, the pandemic served as a positive experience for Kang; most importantly, it afforded her the time to make her art. Especially as a self-described homebody, Kang found the pandemic reduced her social anxiety. Since mental disorder was a focus of her work prior to the pandemic, Kang saw her art gain more attention as the world, coincidentally, witnessed a collective and more open dialogue surrounding mental health. The pandemic proved to her that the work she was doing was important.
“Because of this pandemic, I was like, sort of socially confirmed […] that, okay, my research direction is going well, it's resonating with the contemporary situation, which means a lot to me.”
Though she isn’t sure which specific direction her art and research will take her, she is eager to continue exploring postcolonial conceptions of mental disorder, without rejecting Western culture surrounding these issues but rather by seeking to embrace it along with other less dominant understandings.
Though a focus on mental health has the potential to be draining, Kang’s motivation comes from within.
“I want my work to be helpful for other people, or the society. But, you know, always it comes first that I want to do it for myself. Because otherwise, I'll just get bored,” Kang explained.
“I think anxiety is my motivation. At the same time it degrades me. Sometimes, it hurts me. But also it helps me. My initial idea in the motivation to make some art in regards to this matter was I wanted myself to be okay with anxiety.”