Some words…

Samin Son enters the performance space from the right in a blue military uniform with black leather boots and marches out a square shouting shouts. He stops, facing the audience, and salutes. Formalities over, we can begin.

Facing away from the audience, Samin, now ‘at ease’, opens a tube of toothpaste. He squeezes three white lines on a glass panel, one of two propped against the gallery wall. With water from a bucket, he spreads the three lines into a murky white layer over the whole of the panel. He repeats this to the other panel and then uses his finger to deftly finger-paint a few portraits before settling on one to leave. He does the same to the windows of the gallery that face out to a car park below, instead writing words, presumably Korean. By this stage there is water on the floor that causes his shoes to squeak with each movement. There is lots of squeaking. I wonder whether these sounds and the smell of the toothpaste are conjuring up memories for Samin. Smell is meant to evoke strong memories.

My pondering is interrupted by a loud volley of military-like shouts from Samin. He’s remembered something. The shouting becomes rhythmical but it’s harsh, grating and sawing his vocal cords. He turns so the audience is able to witness the anguish on his face. It goes on for far too long. Please stop. Into another torturous ritual which requires Samin to put the top of his head on the floor and assume the position of a handicapped downward dog. Sweat means his head slips out of his hat, and with hands ordered behind his back, he falls heavily to the ground. Quickly back up to downward handicap dog, continue shouting. This happens more than once, and each time it smears sweat and snot over the floor.

This art work is about freedom; about freedom of the individual; about freedom in a world that thinks it knows what it is, but has, in fact, got it disastrously wrong. In not just this work, Samin draws directly from his time in the South Korean military, during which he risked the wrath of his superiors by drawing portraits in the toothpaste the army used to clean windows with. Devaluing of the individual is a key tool in any military – toothpaste portraits compromise the effectiveness of this tool. Toothpaste Portraits can remind us to be wary of the incessant creep of this military tactic into our civilian life. Post-9/11, the creep is particularly strong. Tim Flannery, in his talk at the Wellington Town Hall during the 2012 Writers and Readers Festival, aptly used the metaphor of an ant or bee colony to describe the emerging reality of the human super-organism, in which the individual holds a smaller and smaller role in humanity’s existence. A super-organism and the military system are both supremely efficient. Samin’s personal experience, portrayed in this performance, shows us that this is probably not really the sort of existence we want to strive for. In fact, it is really quite horrendous.

The performance ends with a ‘thank you’. This makes me smirk and I feel sadistic. Afterwards, I hear others asking Samin if he is OK. It is a valid question.

Oliver Connew, April 2012