A Fall to a Sea of Art
The South Bend Museum of Art is currently displaying a multimedia project by Brooke Thiele called A Fall to a Sea Called Home. The exhibit opened on Feb. 3 and will close on April 8. In this work, Thiele, a Wisconsin-based animator, performance artist and filmmaker born in Korea, combines traditional art with an audio experience to tell her life story.
Thiele’s exhibit, upon first glance, is simply a handmade hanbok, a traditional Korean dress, with a red border painted near the bottom. Upon entering the room I was prompted to push a button on the wall next to me, which launched the multimedia portion of the exhibit. A recording of Thiele’s voice greeted me and lead me through the defining experiences of her life. She was born in Korea, but a family from Wisconsin adopted her when she was only nine months old. Her parents bought her Korean toys, but she never accepted her ancestry until seventh grade, when she switched to a school in which she was the only Asian student. Thiele retells a story in which a boy at her school started yelling gibberish at her, mocking the Korean language, so she hit him in the face with a basketball as retaliation. She also reveals that she didn’t begin to explore her heritage until she studied in the BFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and while other Korean people sometimes question while she doesn’t speak their native language, she resonates with much more of the culture of her birthplace than she previously had, and is learning how to make various Korean foods.
As Thiele recalled more of her story, I noticed that the border on the skirt of the hanbok was made up of related images—her mother holding her as a baby, Thiele playing basketball, and many other pictures of her childhood and young adult life, all derived from family photos. The dress itself, while taking the shape of a hanbok, was made of acid-washed denim, a reference to her American childhood.
The audio recording continued, and the lights dimmed. An informative sign just inside the small room told me that the next portion would be Thiele’s retelling of her story through pansori, a traditional Korean storytelling genre performed by a singer and a drummer. Thiele sang her madang (or biological folktale) herself, showing yet another product of her dedication to reconnect with Korean culture.
For the final portion of Thiele’s exhibition, the room went completely dark, revealing brush strokes on the dress that were illuminated under black light. The dress then spun on its platform, revealing more painted images that had been hidden under its folds and creating a zoetrope animation with the glowing pattern on the dress and a black strobe light. The dress continued spinning for around thirty seconds, creating an eerie, surreal effect.
Thiele’s use of multimedia to tell her own important story managed to immerse me into more aspects of her story than an isolated visual art piece or auditory retelling would have. She combines the Korean and American aspects of her identity in her art, allowing those who experience her multimedia installation to not only appreciate a beautifully handmade piece, but connect with the artist and by providing a lens into understanding someone else’s experience.