RHEE’s ongoing interdisciplinary social sculpture rethinks the “cabinet of curiosities” through transnational feminism and decolonializing approaches to imagine and empower through the practice of collecting and displaying objects, while looking critically at the transnational migration of collecting practices between Europe and Asia dating from the mid-16th century. Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, arose in Europe as repositories for wondrous objects but gradually appeared in 17th-18th century Qing China and Joseon Korea in the form of Chinese Duobaoge (多宝阁) and Korean Munbangdo (문방도).
The Artist and Her Books is a self-portrait that references significant Munbangdo (문방도) works by Joseon painters, notably Yi Ŭngok’s iconic Chaekgeori painting <文房冊架> (1864 – 1866) that was rediscovered by art historians in New York’s Columbia University library in the early 1990s. In her conceptual photo, RHEE draws on the Scholar’s Studio Behind a Leopard Skin Curtain from an unknown artist in the 19th century and the 1822 painting, The Artist and His Museum, by the “father of the American museum”, Charles Wilson Peale.
Functioning as guardians to the photograph, the two Baroque framed works at first glance are realistic renderings of 18th century Meissen ceramic chinoiserie figurines, which the artist encountered in the permanent collection in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met). The clothing and facial features of the Meissen figurines lack any sort of semblance to authentic Chinese of the era, instead depicting an embodiment of Orientalism and Othering. With a closer look at RHEE’s drawings, however, one can see that the faces resemble contemporary actors of European descent, Tom Cruise and Scarlet Johansson, two well-known Hollywood celebrities who have been accused of yellowface and whitewashing, since they both played “Japanese” roles in popular television and films.
“You thought these were books? These are not books…this is a picture,” (어찌 경들이 진짜 책 이라고 생각하겠는가? 책이 아니라 그림일 뿐이다) is attributed to King Jeongjo, who popularized this still-life painting genre Munbangdo (문방도) by replacing the classical landscape painting behind the throne with one portraying books on a shelf. Recorded in classical Chinese in the Joseon scripture, the 18th century quote hangs as a neon sign over the photograph, alluding to the quote in René Magritte’s 1929 painting, The Treachery of Images, “This is not a pipe”. The neon work is a meta statement when viewed with the photograph, becoming self-referential as we notice the artist has taken the position of the King and the founder of the collection, as she is in fact, the one pointing to her books.