Mary-Dailey Desmarais, Chief Curator of the MMFA, sat down for a conversation with the artist Anne Duk Hee Jordan, who invites us to observe life on Earth from previously unexplored angles and to envision a future with new possibilities for peaceful coexistence.
As part of the 17th edition of MOMENTA Biennale de l’image, titled Sensing Nature, the MMFA is welcoming Berlin-based Korean artist Anne Duk Hee Jordan in what will be her first visit to Canada. In her installation Intimacy of Strangers, the artist presents a hybrid future, where terrestrial and aquatic worlds interlace and scenes of complex interspecies cohabitation unfurl.
Combining the speculative lens of science fiction with the factual approach of a nature documentary, the exhibit evokes the diversity and fluidity of existences from a perspective of community and equality among species. The work revolves around the two-channel video Staying with the Trouble, whose title comes from the eponymous work by feminist scholar Donna Haraway, a promoter of the notion that human and non-human lives are inextricably linked. Duk Hee Jordan portrays some of the planetary connections that unite diverse life forms, including monarch butterflies, amphibians, bacteria, fungi and crabs. The robotic creatures – rather, cyborgs – that the artist created for the installation offer a critique of the tech solutions hastily developed to resolve the world’s ecological and social crises.
Anne Duk Hee Jordan, exhibition view of Intimacy of Strangers at MMFA as part of MOMENTA 2021. Photo Annie Fafard
I was fascinated to read that before you became an artist, you were a professional free diver and rescue diver. I’m curious to know how those early experiences inflected your artistic practice.
At an early age I was really fascinated by the sea and by exploring other worlds, or seeing other worlds with my eyes but in a different environment. That’s how I got into diving… I think I was 12 or 13 when I had my first diving lesson and got my first diving license, and it’s been a part of me ever since. I don’t do much diving these days, because I don’t have the time. But when I do, I really love to free dive.
Why do you think you were so interested in the sea from an early age?
It’s a completely different ecosystem. We don’t belong in it but we’re part of it, which is fascinating to me. And what it does to your body and your senses is really unique, because all of a sudden you’re no longer two-dimensional but three-dimensional when you dive. You feel the pressure on your whole body and your lungs. It alters your hearing and sight. Everything changes. Colours are different underwater too.
What made you eventually decide to become an artist?
My dad had a construction company and I used to hang out there, playing with cement and plaster, bricks and tools, and the big crane. I used to love to ride all the big machines, so I started building little houses and sculptures. And this, I guess, influenced me. Then I found out here in Berlin that if I studied sculpture I could do basically anything. I could draw, paint, make videos, I could cook, I could dive, I could do anything I wanted. It was my ticket to freedom, and it has become my way of life.
Anne Duk Hee Jordan (born in 1978), still image from Staying with the Trouble, 2019, two-channel HD video, running time: 10 min 54 s. Video editor: Simone Serlenga, sound engineer: Neda Sanai. Courtesy of the artist
The exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Intimacy of Strangers, has at the centre of it a film, Staying with the Trouble, which proposes a kind of hybrid future involving the cohabitation between different species. Can you talk to us about the genesis of that film?
If we want to understand ecology and our world, we have to understand that ecology basically operates in cycles. And we’re part of this. We can’t just interrupt it or act like we’re a bigger part of it. No, we are equal to the worm, and the worm is equal to us. That’s why I wanted to make this video. We’re becoming more and more aware of our planet. About the interconnections between fungi and trees and networks, and how ants connect and talk to the roots of the trees. But we can’t see these things. I’m fascinated about showing through the microscope the parts of our world that are invisible to the naked eye.
Anne Duk Hee Jordan, exhibition view of Intimacy of Strangers at MMFA as part of MOMENTA 2021. Photo Jean-Michael Seminaro
Another important aspect of the installation here in Montreal are these sculptures that combine the natural and the technological. I’m thinking of the clams that clap together… It’s a kind of nature robotized, if you will. Can you tell us more about the meaning of these sculptures for you?
I can’t really remember where my initial idea for making the clapping clams came from, but when you see these creatures running in the water, it’s so funny. They filter the water, actually, and the rings you see on the shell are like tree rings, so you can see a whole map of time on these molluscs. The teapot in the installation basically symbolizes climate change. In Asia especially, there is this analogy that uses a steamer, where the water starts to heat up, and then it goes really wild, which is like the storm. And then everything calms down. The teapot does exactly that: it starts to move around slowly and then gets faster and faster and, next, the floor lights up when the lights turn on. Then, all of a sudden, the teapot lid starts to flap, and then the storm ends, only to start all over again.
There’s something kind of charmingly comical about them, but there is also an element of social critique in the sculpture, a kind of gentle mocking of human behaviour, would that be right to say?
Yes, all of these robots have this kind of hidden message or statement. I call them “artificial stupidity,” in part because of our stupidity, because they just mirror our behaviour. You know, we create all this garbage and we try to clean it up. But then we generate more, and we try to clean it up again, and it’s kind of like Sisyphus.
Do you feel that art can change the way that we think about the world or act in the world?
The nice thing about art is that you can point out issues with it. It’s very important to have a statement, to have an opinion, but you don’t necessarily have to be aggressive about it. I think it’s important to have a statement and to work with it and try to influence a certain thought or a certain topic.
What do you hope that visitors will take away from your exhibition in Montreal, Intimacy of Strangers?
I hope they are touched by the sensory aspects of this video, that they get immersed in it, and try to reflect on their thoughts about what they see and feel.
MOMENTA x MMFA
Anne Duk Hee Jordan: Intimacy of Strangers
Until January 2, 2022
Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion – Level S2
Credits and curatorial team The exhibition is presented by MOMENTA Biennale de l’image and produced in partnership with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Stefanie Hessler is curator of the 17th edition of MOMENTA, in collaboration with Camille Georgeson-Usher, Maude Johnson and Himali Singh Soin. Mary-Dailey Desmarais, Chief Curator, MMFA, is in charge of the presentation at the MMFA.