"Train, train and then maybe riot” - an interview with Samin Son

Samin Son's performance works are marked by intimations of power, violence and control.

Born in Korea in 1988, Samin Son moved to New Zealand in 2001. In 2007 he interrupted his education at Massey University's School of Fine Arts to undertake compulsory military training in Korea. Since returning to New Zealand (and his studies) Samin has been making a name for himself for the intensity of his live performance works, which he has performed throughout the country, documented on video and shared with the world via YouTube.

We asked Samin about the roots of his work and the role of video in documenting it.

Mark Williams (MW): A lot of your work seems to reference a violent political and social context. What does it mean to perform to these works in New Zealand?

Samin Son (SS): What I'm looking for in things like The Hammer Piece and The Toothpaste Action is a sense of accumulation and frustration. Korean society, New Zealand society, we all have our hard times and our frustrations and I want people to relate to those feelings.

MW: Are there specific experiences that you had in the Army that inform the work?

SS: The Toothpaste Action series is basically me painting on sheets of glass with toothpaste wearing my military uniform. Toothpaste is a crucial thing in the army. You use toothpaste to brush your teeth, you use toothpaste to scrub the floors, you use toothpaste to shine the mirrors in the bathroom. Cleaning the mirror is always at the start of the cleaning session and that's the time when the senior officer isn't there for a few minutes. So I'm like, 'they can't fucking find out about this - i'm going to be scribbling as many portraits as possible! How many portraits can I draw and then wipe down by the time they come back?' When I do those stress positions, they are the positions we had to do when we were being punished for that kind of stuff, or asking for a cigarette, or fucking up something in the training session. It can come from snoring when you're asleep. It's a very scary atmosphere in there, it's very violent.

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MW: You have many videos on YouTube. Why are you are so keen to document your performances?

SS: When I first came back from the army that's when I just started using a cheap digital camera. I really liked that aspect of it because lots of riots get documented with those cameras by civilians. We'd always have our (Army) camera person documenting the riot situation. We used to document training situations as well.

MW: And you're using Youtube as a platform for disseminating critical points of view?

SS: Yeah and just to get it out there. I'm not this artist that's been through this hardship and is making art about it. I'm just one of the many Korean males that have to go into the army. Other countries come into it (also). Naturally you're looking at North Korea but also China, Russia, Japan and America. I think the riot police force need to be a bit harsh on you because you get into contact with civilians a lot more often than the army, navy or airforce. The senior officers would try to toughen us up more to teach us endurance. In 2010 I created this work where I hammered in nearly 2000 nails on wooden boards all standing very straight. It's like a soldiers formation or something. And that took the position of a senior officer hammering in junior officers. Toughening them up. The hammer became used in my later work from the position of the junior officer.

MW: So the endurance aspect of your work comes out of that as well?

SS: Yeah. To get through these punishments, like the repetition of a slap in the face, you just have to shut off.

MW: When you perform something like The Hammer Piece for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th time, is it a recreation of the first piece or is every performance a new one?

SS: Every piece is a new one. I still don't feel like I've 'done' The Hammer Piece or I've finished it or its been put away or anything. With every performance I find out different things and I collaborate with different musicians as well. The Toothpaste Action series has got aspects of painting now. Is it me painting live or is it a re-enaction of that? I think I'm still learning.

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MW: So what do you think the role of the spectator is when you do these performances?

SS: With The Hammer Piece there were some moments where it got participatory. I'd give the hammer to a member of the audience and they would come up and either do it with me or have a turn.

MW: So other people could perform your work?

SS: Yeah, everybody could perform my work.

MW: How would they know how to do it? Would they just watch video documentation or would you write out instructions?

SS: With the Hammer Piece I've always had this image of the doors lined up and everybody behind a door just going for it. I want to construct some music for it like real heavy experimental music in the background.

MW: Do you give any instructions to the people videoing your performance? And do you think the videos are artworks in themselves?

SS: Do I give people instructions? No. Do I see them as artworks? Yes. Depending on the instructions they can be my artworks or they can be a collaboration between me and the documenter. But since I don't really care whether I own this work, it has the potential for so many things. Even if it were just a straight documentation and you went and chopped it up and edited it then it becomes a different work. I gave instructions (for) my naked military exercise series. The camera had to be on a tripod facing me. I didn't want any personality in the video's voice. Like in Abu Ghraib prison and also that Korean man who got his head chopped off. With The Hammer Piece and the Toothpaste Action I want it to be known that there is a crowd of people.

MW: Are you getting any response from people in Korea?

SS: A lot of the people I was in the army with are becoming my Facebook friends and some of them don't know how to take it. One of them thinks I am stupid. Some of them are like “why?” and some of them seem to understand it.

MW: Would it be dangerous for you to go back to Korea?

SS: Not at this point. It would have been a lot more dangerous if I hadn't gone into the army.