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Tactile: an exploration of intimacy in East Asian Art 

Published in Astrophe Magazine, 2022

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Ren Hang

All we seem to want nowadays is stimulus, in any form. 


I spend days consumed by feelings and sensations, mouth-feels, consonances in words, an entire array of visual and digital experiences and archives I can meld myself around and arrange in my head. I know this is one-part due to the fact that many of us in the Southern Hemisphere are back in a full-swing lockdown, one-part due to my need for experiences to stoke the fire of wanting to continue on. 


Touching has almost become a (proverbial) poisoned chalice — despite being the easiest way to connect, it has been diminished, for the time being — space that gaps and allows for easy access. While we move into our own separate spheres, the city tends to itself quietly. I wouldn’t say I am touch-starved, but there are moments where I feel myself choke on something akin to loss; threading my hands in my dog’s fur is a luxury I have only on a weekly basis. I think of times when I’d kiss my friends, nestle on their laps, and take swigs from the mouth of the same bottle. Provisions are of course available, through tinny Zoom sessions, and the well of Twitter discourse which collects, daily, but does it even begin to encompass the gaping chasm of what we have taken for granted, yet again?

It is in this climate where I found my own desire to peer beyond what I knew as my need for closeness. Yet I could barely parse together what exactly I needed to be close to. My friends? A sense of reconciliation? Touch? In the age of digital ephemera, one can hardly live without the constant reminder of pop culture, bite-sized art, and pieces like this one that attempt to liven up our short-circuiting brains. Connection to any form has become a sort of currency, and the one that currently holds the cards can only be found on the interweb. Meditating on this tether from my own lived experience has been gratuitous, and sometimes void of substance altogether. But it is a reprieve — and one I cannot bear to lose now. 


I want to write about intimacy from an East Asian perspective —  note that this is not a monolithic point-of-view, but rather one that I’ve assembled loosely based on these works and how they’ve made me feel over this period, in short. We gloss over more emotive evocations when it comes to analysis in art and in filmwork, even more so from the literary field of my schooling background. I want to delve into intimacy in its more traditional form with the Handmaiden, particularly with the taboo of touch before posing this response to art: Can we draw out the sensation of intimacy simply from gazing? 

Almost Ripe: The Handmaiden 

Sook-hee, the Handmaiden, slowly slides her fingers inside the mouth of her mistress, Hideko. She is investigating something sharp that has scraped Hideko’s mouth dry after coming into contact with a lollipop she had been nursing on. The camera pans from Sook-hee’s perspective, her eyes dipping downwards to Hideko’s breasts, swathed by half-sunken flowers in the bathwater. The sound of the clink is persistent while Sook-hee works away, until the camera transitions to behind Hideko’s eyes, trained on Sook-hee’s lips and the soft panting she emits while she concentrates.

To me, this scene from Chan-Wook Park’s The Handmaiden is the one that sets the pace for the rest of the film. More importantly, this scene demonstrates that despite its brevity, the significance of the female gaze introduces the potential for intimacy — both real and constructed. Transitioning from both points-of-views establishes equal footing from both women; neither are voyeuristic in their private appraisal of one another. This establishes the foreground for their relationship; which is later confirmed to be more than what originally meets the eye. (I will try to keep this spoiler-free, as I highly encourage seeing the film for yourself!) This is particularly striking when you consider that the class divide that separates the two women from start to finish do little to mitigate the connection that upbraids all of their interactions. Like Sook-hee’s thumb, there is no prying open or resistance to access. The focus on sharpness and smooth edges also hints at the feminine association with softness; disentangling that jagged edge metaphysically is one that is rooted in agency.  ​​​​​

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Still from The Handmaiden, 2016

This extends in the fight for dominance or control — does Hideko control Sook-hee or does Sook-hee control Hideko? Throughout the film, artifice crops up in a number of ways: pickpocketing, language framed in riddles, and the dimensionality of the personas constructed.

Still from The Handmaiden, 2016

One line, “A good handmaid is like a pair of chopsticks,” is repeated over different scenes. Initially, my mind went to pliability, and technical use, with the lived-experience of subservience to centre one’s life fully around the other. Yet Park reworks this idea of a vying authority between the two women, choosing instead to let them eclipse one another in their tussle for truth. In becoming consumed by one another, the likeness of the two also begin to merge. This sense of becoming and unbecoming bares itself in tandem with the plot, and this becomes prominently encoded in the non-linearity of the relationship between the two.  


Framing the female gaze as non-intrusive is critical when reading the rest of the film’s imagery and dialogue. The line ‘almost ripe’ is relegated as a code word for handling Hideko, and speaks to the exhaustive tropisms of women as fruit. However, Park imbues the motif with new life — signifying that when involving her mistress, change can be triggered only through the Sook-hee. The power play and conflict that arises doesn’t cast off Hideko or Sook-hee as immobile, but rather casts the two of them in action as they grapple with the universalizing reality that they are stronger as one.


 The Handmaiden establishes intimacy as a double edged sword: power flows in its exchange; yet also becomes the conduit for sabotage and collateral destruction. Through the lens of the female gaze, intimacy becomes sharpened through the state of equilibrium reached by Sook-Hee and Hideko. 

Kim: pinpointing the self 

With its contorted reinventions some beyond recognition, the effect of Miki Kim’s work is initially uncomfortable; but beckons you to observe at a closer distance. The Illustrator and tattoo artist sources her inspiration from a legion of other East Asian greats like Sorayama, Nagai Hiroshi, and more (Angelos 2021).  Distortion and surrealism are common pinpoints identifiable in all of Kim’s pieces: a unique blend of day-to-day imagery in objects and physical parts that are weaved in warped, dizzyingly beautiful ways. Evidently, a lot of her works fixate on proximity — to our bodies, devices, the way we situate ourselves against the composition of the modern world. 


Inspiration can be interpreted from her own lived experience as an East Asian woman — in the structures of beauty and race that come into play, some even hint at an autobiographical perspective as they feature her trademark blunted black bob, red lips, and sensationalised digital persona — something Kim is no stranger to ever since her artworks have sprung into the mainstream. 


Hyperpigmentation of Kim’s technique bleeds into her tattooing, with finely threaded lines and vibrant primary colours vying for your eye — all of which is pulled from her pool of experiences. Her work swims to the forefront of my mind when considering intimacy in the female gaze.  She says, “When I look at an object, I find another image of it. I think about it by zooming in and twisting it, and then the object can be something else,” (Angelos, 2021). Scope is important to Miki, and the proximity to seeing through her eyes is inherently intimate. She beckons you into her world, proffering a looking glass of sorts to come closer and see the different shapes. 


One of my favourite pieces features the gnarled limbs of an anthropomorphic tree, positioned precariously on a wooden stool. The veins on the limbs are distended, outlined in jagged, interlocking lines that run through the artifice of the body. Awash against a background of ombre primary colours, you can make out the distinctive shapes of each body part: forearms, hands, and feet coiled together. Spindly trees jut out at certain interfaces, the smallest reminiscent of pubic hair in one’s nether region. The overarching effect here is one that perplexes; Kim’s unique blend of naturalism and surrealist elements melds seamlessly together, but does little to resolve the intrigue it piques. 

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Miki Kim (Copyright © Miki Kim, 2021)

The roots connecting the green bushels to the thin, elegant fingers and toes that are twined together are indiscernible. There is no clear beginning and end where the physical and natural starts and separates from one another. Rather, the effect that this has achieved is harmonious — perhaps within Kim’s own embodied being, she has found how to flourish in tandem with the environment around her. 

Another untitled great, this piece is another uncanny depiction: a woman in distress as smaller, indiscernible figures cling on for dear life where they can. At first glance, it may not be a wholly accurate reflection of intimacy, but to me, the telltale signs are there. Again, Kim draws on her unique blend of naturalist illustration with imaginative fixtures. The detailing in the hairline and flyaway tendrils become the springboard for the miniature bodies as they move freely from her hair to her face. Though pained, her face brooks no resistance to access. The sense of vulnerability achieved is one that breaches through her emotional state, gaining entry and movement on the canvas of her features. Some of the figurines are half-submerged, a large majority diving headlong into her hair, some crawling up her nostril or hanging on the curve of her lower lip.

Miki Kim (Copyright © Miki Kim, 2021)

This piece can be dissected ten ways to Sunday. For me, I am transfixed by the elements of pain and pleasure that coexist. The figures are largely irrepresentative, multiplied in number with no distinguishable features; yet they are mobile entities - prying open crevices without opposition. Even the crook of the woman’s fingers indicate some form of consensuality, curved with no real strength behind it and no intention to disrupt the scene at work. I read this artwork as relentment, as tender resignation to outside intrusions that are disturbingly intimate. Lacanian jouissance comes to mind in the blurring of extreme pleasure and pain that struggles for subconscious control in one’s psyche, and I see this in the physical and mental embroilment of the subject. 


I also keep in mind Kim’s own nonchalance towards attaching any sort of message with her art. She says, “Originally, there is a message I want to convey, but it is also fun for people to interpret.” That Kim wants you to take from her pieces whatever you can is perhaps the clearest indicator of intimated knowledge. In the process of experiencing her world, your perceptions are as expansive and far-reaching as you want them to be.

Hang, Mother, and Motherland 

Perhaps the most personal and elusive of the three, the late Ren Hang has long been synonymous with China’s burgeoning photography scene — with elicit explorations that toe the often perilous line between nation and body.  His work is widely recognised by its stark compositional arrangement, overt nudity, and the lush backdrops of rural China, incorporated alongside animals or plants as props.

“I don’t really view my work as taboo, because I don’t think so much in cultural context or political context. I don’t intentionally push boundaries. I just do what I do,” Hang says.   Not only do these ideals inform the basis of non-regime aligned artistic agency, but it also becomes the cultural springboard upon which Chinese creatives can evolve, both in tandem with their work and their relationship with the governing parties that determine their movement. 


Hang in particular draws a poignant symmetry between the relationship between intimate others and the motherland in his work. A titular set of photos, titled ‘My Mother’  translates the plurality of these themes in ways that are starkly confronting, yet comforting in its retelling. The photograph below pictures Hang’s mother kissing a severed pig’s head, with her hands clamped tightly around the snout. Another pair of hands holds up the ears while her own glint with red nail-polish, beaming off the flash of the camera. 


 On the making of this shoot, Hang says, “When I wanted to shoot with my mother back home, she naturally accepted and asked me directly if she needed to be naked. On the day of the shoot, she was very cooperative and exhausted herself out. “If it is not for you, I would never do this”, she said. It was a very comfortable and natural shoot, but we still never talk about my work,” (Salvadó 2016). 

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My Mother, 2016 © Courtesy of Estate of Ren Hang 

The weight to Hang’s photographs, particularly when engaging the subject in-frame is no coincidental feat. He famously never works with reputed models, preferring to shoot amongst his friends and family. This in itself wields deeper significance from the photographed — the expressiveness and sometimes outlandish thematicisms that run through all of his work never come off as forced, or intrusive. While we may cast off that context of familiarity as a presumption, it is key to note here that the pictured are posed in bursts of spontaneity, the props, technical angling, and use of lighting dimmed by the story in motion. The pig and Hang’s mother don parallel expressions: zen, close-lipped smiles, their noses and lips directly mirrored in angle and contact. The kiss reminds me of Magritte’s The Lovers — the veneer of fabric and in this case, social stigma and hygiene does little to diminish the raw quality of the image.

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Untitled, 2016 © Courtesy of Estate of Ren Hang

The sense of self-suredness that proliferates Hang’s pieces is uniquely his, enmeshing mundanities of the living — sometimes the expressions the models wear are glazed, stout in their impassiveness — with vulnerability that one could only glean from a vastly unrestrictive mind. We see this in the ‘My Mother’ collection, the desire to go above and beyond to achieve her son’s vision seems to contradict with the fact that Hang’s mother had little to say on the subject once the shooting had wrapped. We can observe Hang’s artistic approach in the same manner — intimacy that doesn’t rely on tacit explanation, but rather, is guided by the childlike desire to put things together that look like they go well, with no inhibitions.  


This ethos also extends to the greater transnational landscape of Chinese creatives, as they grapple with what it means to create intimately outside of national and individualised expectations. Another creative up-and-comer, Luo Yang says, “We are in a time of information explosion, singularity and uniformed patterns no longer reflect the current situation in China, and it no longer suits the need as well,” (Salvadó 2016) In art, the culmination of sex and nation that has erupted since Hang’s passing is nothing short of spectacular: resistance of homogeneity has led to more breakthroughs, with each creative venture that tussles with gender and form pushing the envelope a little more every time. In Hang’s art, I see a gateway to the future of Chinese talent, the freedom to explore in form and convention without resistance from those who sit above. 


In these cases, the model of intimacy is presented in the following manners: as a barometer of power as evidenced in The Handmaiden, and strengthened in Kim and Hang’s artistic depictions as fruitful forays into their own world. Each finding has been carefully stored away in my mind, to be returned to whenever I feel particularly shaky. With each passing day I hold them in the uppermost notches of my head. If I peer from perspectives I haven’t before, looking inwards to carve meaning in my own work and others, I will be touched. 

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