Walking Together: Judy Jheung & Trinh T. Minh-ha

Walking Together: Judy Jheung & Trinh T. Minh-ha

By April Thompson

I first met Judy Jheung in Vancouver, in 2016, at the board table for the artist-run center, Access Gallery. I had just graduated from a Master’s degree in Curatorial Studies and this volunteer position was my introduction to working in the field. Judy, however, had been engaged with artist-run culture in Canada since her undergraduate studies at the University of Calgary.

In 1980, Judy joined her family in Calgary to complete her last year of high school, after a stint of studying fashion in Japan. She had been interested in design from a young age, observing her mother tailoring in Hong Kong. After graduating from High School in Calgary, Judy enrolled in Interior Design, but it was during an encounter with the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson at the Glenbow Museum that she realized her true calling. In seeing his humanist study of others, and his singular street-style approach, Judy recognized an affinity and soon redirected her studies to pursue Visual Arts.

In the early 1990s Judy took this further through her Master’s degree at the Pratt Institute in New York City. Here, Judy experimented with film and multimedia as an extension of her photographic instincts, making two notable experimental films at this time, Obsession: Queen of Heaven on 16mm and In the Age of Latex Sex on super 8mm. Obsession: Queen of Heaven was Judy’s first experimentation with tape, using the hand-cutting technique of the time to edit film. The film explores female relationships, emotional perception, and female selfhood through a portrait of two women. Judy’s aesthetic approach, which juxtaposes the intimacy of portraiture with post-modern use of language through non-linear narrative, creates a deeply layered work. Her other film of this time, In the Age of Latex Sex is a playful deconstruction of male and female relationships and maturity, and the tensions arising from this dynamic. Through the symbol of a condom, Judy plays with the connotative slippage in the signification of latex; being a barrier, a fetish, and a simulacra of the breast and nipple. 

In the Pratt Institute Film class, Judy remembers a strong cohort of Asian art students and in particular, experimental Korean artists. It was during this time that she heard about an emerging Vietnamese filmmaker and writer, Trinh T. Minh-ha. Judy recalls first discovering post-colonialism as a term through Trinh T. Minh-ha’s work and noticing how her writing was poetic and accessible, giving the sense of direct communication. Minh-ha’s ability to pinpoint the structures of post-colonialism through the lens of gender and culture studies, resonated with Judy’s own experiences as a member of the Chinese diaspora and an Asian Canadian, global citizen. In particular, Minh-ha’s theory on transcultural interactions was influential to Judy’s belief in hybrid cultural identities, where cultural differences are mutual exchanges.

In the Age of Latex Sex Image

After completing her Master’s degree, Judy returned to Calgary and taught photography at the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD), becoming the first Asian female photography instructor on staff full-time. During this period she transferred her celluloid film, In the Age of Latex Sex to video, as a member of EMMEDIA. The artist-run centre had grown to establish itself as a leading supporter of artists working in film and video in Calgary since its founding in 1979. It offered visual artists like Judy the opportunity to access equipment rentals, post-production resources, and showcase their work. EMMEDIA planned to host Trinh T. Minh-ha in a visit to Calgary for public programs, and Judy was asked as a member whether she would be willing to reach out to the artist with the invitation. Judy was successful in this undertaking and played a key role in the planning and delivery of Minh-ha’s visit; from the seven cross-institutional partnerships to the logistics of car rides up into the mountains of Banff.  

In 1993, Minh-ha’s visit to Calgary culminated in two lectures and three screenings, drawing crowds of academics, artists, and filmmakers. Judy recalls the ACAD screening in particular being well-attended, featuring Minh-ha’s works Reassemblage, Naked Spaces: Living Is Round, and Surname Viet Given Name Nam. How many students in that audience were discovering Minh-ha’s work for the first time? But perhaps, most generative were the encounters between Trinh and the community; artists of color who attended the events had the chance to interact directly with her through questions and exchange. Undoubtedly, her presence in Calgary in 1993 contributed to the local artistic and sociocultural discourse. 

Aside from a shared interest in exploring gender and cultural politics through film, Judy Jheung and Trinh T. Minh-ha also share an interest in movement. Minh-ha’s collection of essays, Elsewhere, Within Here: Immigration Refugeeism and the Boundary Event (Routledge, 2010), was an ambitious deconstruction of travel across national borders, and what this entails for tourists, immigrants, refugees, and foreigners. Over the past three decades,  Judy has honed a multimedia practice exploring urban and global movement. Embracing the changes in lens-based technology, Judy has layered her practice to include game theory, software and coding, immersive installations, and sound components, using these hybrid forms to comment on human interaction across urban space. Using her iphone to capture images allows her to return to her street-photography roots, in the observation of everyday urban life through a handheld device - which she admits to having a love-hate relationship with.

Trinh Works

During a visit to China in 2019, Judy took a series of photographs observing tourism and Chinatown heritage within China itself.  “Preservation of ancient villages in China are somewhat parallel to Chinatown in North America.” she told me, showing me photographs from this visit on her laptop as we sat in a cafe on the border of Vancouver’s own Chinatown. Across this series, Judy was interested in the modern Chinese family as tourists within China, searching for Chinese cultural artifacts across the build-up environment. Judy recalls encountering Fan Tan Alley in Victoria, B.C., during the 1980s and being surprised by the feeling of heritage and ancient presence there.

Navigation is a recurring theme across Judy’s practice, though she often refers to this in a broader sense of movement. Having lived in Hong Kong, Japan, Calgary, New York, Toronto and Vancouver, Judy knows what it means to move - across oceans, lands, cultures, and cities. During an artist residency in Thailand with ComPeung in 2009, Judy created an interactive installation titled, Mind of the City_The 9th Step, where she invited monks living in Doi Saket to participate in the artwork through mindfulness and spiritual navigation. Judy placed red and green plants in a gridded pattern across a field, and encouraged the monks to explore walking routes around them, placing LED lights as they went through their own paths. The resulting constellation of lights created a sense of bodies moving across space and time, and the interconnectedness of all living beings no matter which paths are chosen or explored.

Trinh T. Minh-ha has also meditated on walking and in particular, the female walker. “Walking is an experience of infinity.” she proclaimed, during her keynote address at the 20th anniversary conference of the department of Gender and Women’s Studies at UC Berkeley, in 2011. In Minh-ha’s exploration of the female walker, she considers the spirit of the walk in ancient Asia. “This is in direct opposition to the colonial idea of walking, as a way of discovering land to claim. Rather than discovering the world as a colonial conquest, with each step forward, the world comes to us.” she said.

With this in mind, and given Judy’s appreciation for the intuitive, I decided to restructure the form that our “interview” took. Typically, an interview is a unidirectional form, with a dichotomy that splits between the “interviewer” and the “interviewee.” But, the walk is a collaborative and spontaneous dynamic, placing bodies side by side, an exchange of breath, the sharing of air, and a sense of the unknown direction it will take.  Judy and I decided to take a walk with words on the page. Our conversations and ideas about art, identity, and memory, are indexed here, in our collaborative writing associations for different rhythms of walking. Much like walking with a friend who says they will lead the way -- we were not shown one another's responses but wrote them as free associations after our numerous conversations with each other in person.

Chinese Tourism Cropped

Treading

Since I have a strong peripheral sense of my surroundings, treading may not apply in terms of my usual approach to navigation. The thoughts of treading emerge only when encountering situations that are difficult, complex or unfavorable - situations where I feel the need to tread tactfully and strategically. I may also tread a little when I document the ever evolving, transforming scenes at construction sites, or when stepping on some rugged terrains at ancient monuments or the Sahara Desert. 

I think of the softness moving heel to toe, lifting sole from ground. Treading so closely spelled to dreading. To tread around a sharp idea, a person, a thing. What does it feel like to tread with each other, softer than the way we have been walking? Treading softly, aware of both your body and the ground that receives it - the pressure that your footprint places on the earth, the pavement, the sand.

Wandering Poster

Marching

There is a determined pace to a march. Placing one foot in front of the other, it is a symbolic gesture. The visibility of bodies marching is part of what makes the march political. It is a literal view of a critical mass. How will we march when the streets are broken? Flooded over or on fire - flames licking across the highways. If we march for the earth, we need an earth to march on. Can you  march in a digital space, on the streets of the internet and technology?

The word marching immediately resonates to an early childhood memory of hearing conversations at my family dinner table about Mao’s 90 days marching. The imagery of a large group of people, comrades so to speak, uniformly kitted out in Mao’s buttoned down, austere greyish clothing, walking steadily for days and nights, possessed with the ideology of strength and hope. I remember my young mind, questioning why and how would this kind of action have an impact or significant effect of any kind.

I was part of a march in 1994. I was invited to document the Women’s Day March event on March 8. While this epic march may be far from Mao’s military long march, yet, it was a memorable lived experience. On this day, we started out at Calgary’s city plaza, we then walked through streets of the downtown grid, and lastly arrived at the destination, the Glenbow Museum. During the march, I scrutinized closely the body language of the crowd, the design of their banners, and experienced our collective enthusiasm, affirmation and sense of sisterhood.

One noteworthy incident was when a young woman in a big white dress, which I believed was a wedding dress, ran speedily by me. I raced after her for several streets and tried to capture some interesting photographs of this run-away bride who stood out in the crowd. Later, I learned that she was a fourth-year art student, Dayna Macleod, who is now an active practicing artist in Montreal with a focus on feminism and queer art.

Marching Image

Roaming

When we travel, we hear the ping of a phone alerting you of roaming fees. These devices, aware that our bodies have crossed borders, aware that we can be charged an extra rate for wanting to communicate from afar. This is the opposite of what it means to roam. Our devices, little trackers, keeping us tethered to a digital space, recording the movements of our bodies. To roam, you have to be untethered. To roam, you have to lose your sense of direction.

Since early 2000, roaming has been a key part of my world traveling. Whether the trips are for work or personal, after some intensive work efforts, such as photographic assignments, artist presentations or residencies, I roam and explore cities, spaces and places. These are ephemeral, free-spirited moments where I encounter unexpected scenes, many of which are mundane and ordinary. Through subtle gestures and interaction, these representations attempt to capture a view into the psyche and reveal how individuals relate to the embodiment of technological urban life.

My notions of roaming may unpeel several layers, it is partly a personal response to the emerging globalization at the millennium era, as the world has become homogeneous. This global phenomenon has led to concerns regarding cultural erasure via homogenization, and I am interested in bringing awareness to cultural development and preservation.

Roaming Image

Wandering

Birds must wander, whales do too. It is the slight deviation from routine, from familiarity. In animals, we sometimes see behaviour that science cannot explain. A kind of animal wandering. Perhaps the beached whale is a dark outcome of a wandering. “Don’t wander off” we are told as children. But when does it become safe to do so? At twenty? Thirty? Sixty?

Wandering, in context of my navigation, is fueled by curiosity and the desire to explore and express the mindscape of our current socio-cultural climate, I liken walking through my neighbourhood during Covid lockdown as wandering.

At the early days of lockdown, at 7pm, with the echoes of hand clapping and pot banging, I set out to capture images and wander around my neighborhood construction sites, where plastic sheets/wrap, chain-link fences and wooden boards are used to conceal work in progress from view. My goal was to capture the dusk light that sweeps across the figural mask, producing a sense of mysteriousness from the hidden structure. At this time, the structural mask seemingly mirrors the facial mask, producing some psychological effects in both the person wearing it and the person viewing it.

In about six months of obsession with plastic masking, wandering through the streets of my neighborhood grid leads me to look down, instead of the typical looking up. Down is where shadows and street marks suggest activities from the past, happenings that form abstract rhythmic compositions as a result of intangible interactions or data taking place over time.

Chinatown 1

About the Artist

Judy Jheung‘s artistic practice focuses on the experiential, engaging global issues in the context of social urban movements. She holds an MFA from Pratt Institute, New York and a BFA from University of Calgary. Between 2012 -14, she conducted PhD studies at Simon Fraser University (SIAT) on interactive art games. A recipient of numerous grant awards for her experimental projects, she has exhibited across Canada and abroad, including the 9th Havana Biennial, Para/Site Art space (Hong Kong), Gothenburg Art Museum, Projection Mapping at ISEA Durban2018, Photography exhibition at Muzej grada Rijeke, Croatia and Hefei Cultural Center, Art Museum, China.

Check out some of Judy's work:

In the Age of Latex Sex

Enlighten Therapy : The Astral Walk

Isomorphism

sight, sound, touch : Composing You

JudyJheungProfilePic