“As witnesses of new technologies, it is certain that we will never remain unchanged.”
—a protagonist, Brine Lake (A New Body)
How to map notions of home and land based on shared affinities? How to decipher belonging among the incongruent and fragmented accounts of solidarities that resist uniformity? Shen Xin’s practice in video and performance creates and extends a platform for subjectivities both real and imagined that do not fit neatly into existing taxonomies of nation-states or other mainstream institutional configurations. Their long-term research into sociopolitical affiliations across East Asia amalgamate into emotional landscapes that give voice to the marginalized across time and space. Their recent work Commerce des Esprits (2018), for instance, examines statelessness and its potentialities through the writings of fourth-century-BCE philosopher Zhuangzi and comparative readings of anarchist and Daoist thought.
Their new commission Brine Lake (A New Body) (2020) is a multichannel video and sound installation rooted in research on Korean immigrants in Russia, Central Asia, and Japan in which iodine recycling and processing becomes a metaphor for statelessness. Two female actors representing fictional companies visit an iodine recycling factory at a nondescript location where they converse with two ghosts, factory employees, whose visions are overtaken by the camera. Choreographed conversations in overlapping episodes reveal iodine’s origin in naturally occurring deep sea brine lakes and its relational becoming—its visibility and versatility—through extractive processes, assimilation, and interaction with other elements and hosts. Relationships between ghost and human are foregrounded and notions of origin—motherlands and fatherlands—are called into question. Mechanisms of power and control within stateless belonging are translated into exchanges that shift between the personal and impersonal and are rife with corporate jargon and encryptions. The human actors’ distinct bilingualism alludes to their respective yet unspoken identities as Zainichi and Koryo-saram, descendants of the 150,000 Koreans who were sent to Sakhalin Island in the early 1940s when Japan ruled Korea as a colony. In the mid-1980s, Japan offered to repatriate several generations of ethnic Koreans in Russia, but only a small number returned. In Brine Lake (A New Body), Xin strives to loosen the knots of these repressed memories, silenced histories, and unresolved sentiments attendant to dominant narratives of nationalist ideologies. The installation as such serves as an empathy machine for a score of these encounters and engages viewer’s active participation as well.