Soojin Chang’s smorgasbord of ideas inspired by the alienated female body: Jerwood/FVU Award 2022

Soojin Chang’s ambitious Jerwood Award winning film, BXBY(2022), is a heady brew of sometimes disturbing images from myth and technology referencing the gap between atavistic reproductive instincts and the alienating medical interventions sometimes needed to achieve conception. The artist interviews and text surrounding the work mention a wide range of themes including ritual, colonialism, queer politics and science raising the question of how they might be visually integrated. I was hoping that the film might tackle this by examining the conflicting biological and social definitions of parenthood but instead it offers a dense, multi-layered experience conflating IVF issues with mystical ideas of animal/human hybridisation.

The psychological trauma of infertility and IVF is a complex issue that demands a focussed artistic treatment so the fragmented nature of the film’s narrative and the digression into the myths and speculation of creating cross species animal hybrids may leave some viewers feeling short-changed. Like many young artists overflowing with a smorgasbord of ideas that are fighting for attention, Chang seemed determined to incorporate them all into a single work. This is a risky strategy that can lead to an incoherent experience for the audience. Nevertheless there are number of arresting sequences enhanced by an immersive sound design including a visceral scene filmed underwater following a cliff top jump into the sea.

It appears that the inspiration for the work is the artist’s first hand encounter with the culling and dissection of a pregnant female deer which she presents in graphic documentary style including the removal of the amniotic sac in which the foetus can be seen. Not for the faint hearted, these sequences are shot on location in the Scottish Highlands rather than a laboratory which gives them a novel slant. A narrative is constructed around this footage which toys with the idea of a mythical creature played by Chang, in an extravagant disguise worthy of Rachael Maclean, using IVF to create a cross-species hybrid.

A speculum is used to aid self-administered artificial insemination in one particularly intimate scene with a voiceover that hints at the the horror of the invasion of personal space this technique otherwise entails. The artist has been candid that her performance work is therapy to help her cope with past experiences and as a result BXBY has a confusing and claustrophobic atmosphere which some may also recognise and gain comfort from. The downside of such a personal approach is that a more universal applicability is harder to discern.

In this sequence of old-school, DIY insemination Chang is however following in the tradition of feminist performance artists like Marina Abramovic whose works have been covered extensively in earlier posts. They both bravely deploy self exposure to critique the oppressive nature of patriarchal control over the female body; a timely reminder in the light of the present crackdown on abortion rights as a result of the US Supreme Court decision.

In what feels like an extended coda to the main narrative the final sections of the film feature two additional elaborately costumed characters, a Mother Earth figure and a masked moped rider whose significance might have been clearer if they had been more organically integrated into the rest of the film. In broad terms they reinforce the importance of myth and ritual in shoring up gender stereotypes.

Overall this film is perhaps best seen as a deliberately disjointed work designed to unsettle the viewer while reflecting the current atmosphere of uncertain gender identities and the dystopian fears for the future of reproductive technology. Chang’s empathic interest in mythical figures and folklore suggests she will be making interesting films exploiting the poetic power of these sources in the future.

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