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Kang Seung Lee’s solo exhibition takes as its starting point the life of Goh Choo San (1948–87), a Singaporean-born dancer who was recognized for his professional accomplishments as the artistic director and resident choreographer of The Washington Ballet, but often with his cultural and sexual identities erased. Titled The Heart of A Hand, the exhibition culminates in a collaborative video (by the same name) that features a dance inspired by Goh’s choreography for the 1982 ballet Configurations. According to one review published at the time, Configurations was almost “arithmetic” in its composition of men and women, arranging them in groupings only to see them dissolve a moment later.1 There is a sense of estrangement that underlies Goh’s choreography—a sentiment that is wholly countered by Lee’s translation, which instead celebrates the solitary figure of the dancer. Here, Filipina dancer-choreographer Joshua Serafin transforms the staccato, jagged movements of Goh’s neoclassical ballet into the fluid, flirtatious rhythms of nightlife (including, at one point, a strut down an imaginary catwalk), while transgender composer KIRARA remixes its original score to serve as the beating pulse of the club. The work gathers together threads of Goh’s life to highlight his previously obscured sexual identity and reimagine his legacy, creating a “queer futurity” embodied by queer dancers and composers alike.2
The sense of optimism and futurity inherent in Lee’s tribute, however, feels at odds with the melancholic nature of the rest of the exhibition, which comprises drawings and sculptures that dwell on the details of Goh’s life. The exhibition is effectively divided into two, setting up an implied opposition between future and past—a split between what could be and what could have been. It is in Lee’s exploration of the past that the fullness of Goh’s life and the subsequent impact of his loss are truly conveyed. Rather than simply mourning what has been lost, Lee’s work flourishes in its exploration of melancholia, underscoring the fact that what was lost here was never fully known in the first place.
Lee’s mixed-media drawings are particularly heartbreaking in the depth of affective detail that they capture. Newspaper clippings, snapshots, and other material from Goh’s archive are gathered and rendered as photorealistic pencil drawings, alongside mementos that form speculative relationships, meditating as much on the excavation of history as its interpretation. Some details of the drawings appear in sharp focus while others are blurred out, and each object is placed deliberately—next to one other, but not touching, as if pinned and mounted to form a scientific display of the relationships in Goh’s life. Untitled (Hold Tight Gently, Choo San and Robert) (all works 2023) shows Goh with his rarely acknowledged longtime romantic partner H. Robert Magee at a black tie event and posing in a plant-filled courtyard, hips brushed up against the other. Untitled (Care, Choo San and Janek) displays the affectionate letters (“Thanks for dancing and saving the Washington Ballet again”) from Goh to his friend, ballet master Janek Schergen. And Untitled (Choo San and Soo Khim) maps Goh’s relationship with his sister, fellow dancer Goh Soo Khim, through newspaper clippings following their respective careers. Interwoven throughout the exhibition are traces of other artists, such as artist Martin Wong and poets Xavier Villaurrutia, Donald Woods, and Samuel Rodríguez, whose lives never directly intersected with those of Goh or Lee, but who are nevertheless connected through a shared experience of queer identity.
Through his attempt to represent and reconstruct the archive of Goh’s life, the entirety of which was never fully embraced and therefore never recorded in the first place, Lee illustrates both the failures of such an archive—how it reduces a life to a collection of objects, words, images—and its simultaneous yearning to piece together and make a story whole. By treating poetic speculation and historical artifacts with equal weight and equal tenderness, he reveals memory and history as incomplete halves that, even when pressed together, betray a gap between archive and source, signifier and signified, representation and the thing itself. In doing so, Lee interrogates the notion of what it means to remember, pointing to the impossibility of knowing and with it, the impossibility of mourning and moving on.
Kang Seung Lee: The Heart of A Hand runs from March 25–July 22, 2023 at the Vincent Price Art Museum (1301 Avenida Cesar Chavez, Monterey Park, CA 91754).