MISSING MEROPE, by Rachel Jans

Essay published in a brochure on the occasion of the artist’s KAFA award solo exhibition at the Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles, 2023

Mirae kh RHEE is an interdisciplinary artist who uses a wide range of media, including sculpture, video, performance, new technologies, photography, painting, and drawing to explore the notion of belonging and her own place in the world. This approach frequently opens onto the complex roles of nation, community, culture, and gender in the formation of identity. RHEE often draws from deeply personal experiences relating to her transnational adoption, placing them within the broader context of global migration, trade, and the transmission of culture. Born in Seoul, South Korea, she was transracially adopted by white US-American parents and grew up near Detroit, Michigan. She earned an MFA at University of California-Irvine and a BFA from the Art institute of Chicago. RHEE lives and works in Berlin, where she has resided for the past fourteen years, while also actively practicing in South Korea and the United States.

In the immersive installation Seven Sisters (Missing Merope Version) fourteen oblong forms crafted from bamboo are suspended from the gallery’s ceiling. These hollow sculptures, each capped with a visor, cast a colorful glow on the walls and floor, creating a space at once evocative of a commercial district pulsating at night, and a celestial, otherworldly place. Referencing ancient mythology, traditional Korean objects, and heavenly constellations—points in the night-sky that serve as markers of orientation—RHEE invokes her personal journey of seeking her place in a vast universe. With this cosmic perspective she weaves her own story as one of many threads intertwined with women across geography, time and culture.

RHEE’s selection of traditional Korean objects, including the hanging cylindrical bamboo forms, represent a form of cultural recovery, initially motivated by a desire to understand, connect with, and participate in a culture into which she was born but not raised. RHEE refers to this installation as part of her Transcultural Artifact series: works of art made from traditional Korean objects typically found in folk art or ethnographic displays, often related to shamanistic rituals and ancestral memorials, as well as modern products associated with Korean culture. The bamboo Jukbuin—a sturdy yet hollow traditional Korean body pillow that dates to the Goryeo dynasty (918 – 1392)—has a more ordinary use. It is an ingeniously designed cooling device that allows air to circulate on hot, humid nights while also providing physical support; it is typical to embrace the object and wrap a leg around the form while sleeping. The pillow’s name is a combination of “juk,” meaning bamboo, and “buin,” meaning wife, reinforcing the idea that the essential role of women is to passively serve men. Its quotidian nature exemplifies the way insidious beliefs can be transmitted through culture in the most unremarkable manner.

While Jukbuin pillows have been a part of daily life throughout Korea’s history, bamboo pillows with similar designs, functions, and in some cases, gendered nomenclature, have been used across Asia for centuries. Working from the assumption that the widespread dispersal of these objects is linked to transnational trade routes, RHEE makes a connection between the Jukbuin pillows and the objectification, commodification, and trafficking of bodies, particularly those of women and the most vulnerable. With this constellation of glowing forms, RHEE honors women bound by circumstance and history, including the so-called Comfort Women, who were forced into sexual slavery in the period of Japanese Occupation in Korea and throughout Asia. There is unfathomable pain in these atrocities and the vast number of women harmed through this violence is staggering. RHEE’s sculpture attends both to this terrible scope, as well as to the power of a collective demand for recognition and justice.

The installation also invokes a group to which RHEE herself belongs, as one of the over 200,000 Koreans, mainly female, who were removed from their homeland in what the artist calls “the silent forced migration of ethnic Koreans overseas.” Adopted in 1976, RHEE is part of the largest generation of Koreans sent abroad, an outflow that drastically grew in the early 1970s and reached its peak in 1986. RHEE, and many of the Koreans sent abroad during this time, was a documented orphan. It has recently been reported that adoption agencies at the time falsified birth registries and other information to facilitate and hasten adoption abroad. Like many other adoptees from Korea, RHEE suspects the facts around her own origins remain unknown for the same reason.

Poignantly invoking a longing for home, a pair of Gomusin is transformed into sparkling ruby slippers. These rubber slippers, styled in the fashion of traditional Korean Danghye shoes, sit upon a mirror beneath the suspended bamboo forms. Any other pair of shoes would suggest groundedness and a firmly rooted connection to place, contrasting with the forms hovering above. Yet this pair of shimmering Transcultural Artifacts parallels RHEE’s own experience of existing between continents, cultures, and identities. Merope, one of the seven sisters that forms the Pleiades constellation in ancient Greek mythology, likewise existed in a state of in-betweenness. In the installation, the Missing Merope floats back in the gallery’s spiral stairwell. Merope and her sisters were transformed into stars by Zeus to protect them from Orion (indeed, one version of the tale claims Orion raped Merope and was blinded by her father). The star of Merope shines less brightly, as the story goes, because of her shame for marrying a mortal.

The visors atop each bamboo cylinder suggests one of the many ways women are conditioned to preserve their beauty, and by extension, their value, by keeping their skin fair and protecting it from the sun. In this installation the visors appear both comical and somewhat sinister, like a blinder, serving as a reminder of the way patriarchal structures keep people, including women and other groups not a part of the dominant culture, feeling separate, outside, alone, and even ashamed. In Seven Sisters (Missing Merope Version), RHEE takes a clear-eyed examination of the painful conditions that have defined women’s lives throughout time and across worlds, and illuminates the range of bonds, communities, and collectives forged through shared experience. In doing so, she reveals the power in recognizing that kinship can take many forms.

Korean translation
by Joy S. Kim