kate hers RHEE
April 30–May 26, 2014
Upon entering the IBB-Videolounge at the Berlinische Galerie, I was greeted by a close-up of a woman’s mouth, barking German racial slurs. One sees only the performer’s lips and subtitles accompanying her utterances. The speech is clear, deliberate, and detached from its content. After being the victim of numerous racially oriented verbal attacks in Berlin, artist kate hers RHEE began researching derogatory German expressions. The eventual result was Ach du heilige Scheiβe!(Oh holy shit!) (2012), a poem composed entirely of German insults. The video recalls Bruce Nauman’s Lip Sync from 1969, in which Nauman recorded himself saying “lip sync” repeatedly in front of an upside-down video camera while listening to the live playback. RHEE and Nauman employ the same medium and format but, where Nauman’s work is predicated on the belief that language is abstract and has finite capacity to signify, Ach du heilige Scheiβe! conceives of language as endlessly generative and mourns the ways in which it has been reduced in order to serve malevolence. What at first drew chuckles from viewers quickly made them uncomfortable when it became apparent that every expression in the poem was going to be equally racialized and pungent. One line from the montage inquires, “Fidschi—Wo verkaufst du Zigaretten?” (“Gook—where do you sell cigarettes?”). The remark was used by Germans to denigrate Vietnamese guest workers in the postwar decades, following the stereotype that Vietnamese immigrants sold black-market cigarettes at subway stations in East Berlin. The artist and her Korean-German partner have been called “Fidschi” several times in Berlin, once by someone who actually wanted to buy cigarettes from them, but generally as a racial epithet.
Since moving to Berlin in 2009, RHEE’s encounters with xenophobia have served as jumping-off points for several long-term projects. She is constantly reminded of her Asian appearance and her foreign accent, bearers of otherness that have brought forth unwitting racial assumptions from Berliners. When she speaks German, nearly all signs of her American-ness disappear and she becomes ethnically ambiguous—which has, on more than one occasion, prompted strangers to hound her in public about her ancestry. She lays her cards on the table with the moniker “kate hers RHEE,” which combines the humility of bell hooks with the nonexistence of capitalization in Korean orthography, a willful disregard of the German capitalization of all nouns, and the all-capped hubris of a pop star. RHEE was born in Korea and raised in Detroit; in Germany, her appearance and speech fuse East and West in a way that makes both seem equally “foreign.”
Knowing the local language affords insights into the disconcerting ways in which one can be profiled, but it also grants access to entirely new modes of thinking. Das deutschsprachliche Projekt (2008), the artist’s intentional misspelling of “The German Speaking Project,” is a selection of video diary entries documenting RHEE’s deepening depression as she forced herself to speak, write, and read exclusively in German for three months, with only a beginner’s knowledge at the outset. She responded to emails and phone calls in German and secluded herself from Americans unless a translator was present. In part, the project comments on the impossibility of language immersion in Berlin, a city swarming with tourists and expatriates. Throughout the video it becomes clear that the point of the exercise was not to learn German but to follow a strict regimen while tracking changes in attitude and behavior. In this sense, the work nods to happenings and Fluxus performances but also diverges from them; few of the seminal happenings in the late 1960s represented a transnational perspective, and critics paid little attention when women staged them.
In 7 Drawings, 28 Kisses (2013), RHEE explores the cultural connotations of the Negerkuss (“Nigger’s Kiss”), a popular German confection filled with marshmallow and coated in chocolate. In the 1980s the name was changed to Schokokuss (“Chocolate Kiss”) but the unfortunate epithets Negerkuss and Mohrenkopf (“Moor’s Head”) are still commonly used. For this performance, RHEE makes live action-drawings by lodging the confections into the mouth opening of an S&M mask and, without chewing or swallowing, pressing her face against a sheet of paper on the wall until the sweets adhere. She repeats this gesture twenty-eight times on seven sheets of paper before a hushed audience.
In the Videolounge I was lucky enough to observe three generations experience 7 Drawings, 28 Kisses. A middle-aged woman let out a pensive “hmmm” and soon walked out; a group of twenty-somethings laughed each time RHEE inserted a kiss into the bondage mask; and a young girl squealed “Ew!” as marshmallow oozed out of the corners of the artist’s lips. Eventually the mask’s small metal rods pulling at the flesh of RHEE’s cheeks puncture her skin, causing blood and marshmallow to mix in her throat. Through slow and deliberate repetition, the gesture becomes an analogy for the ways in which using an expression like Negerkuss on a regular basis informs one’s attitudes toward race and contributes to its very presence.
In (no)regrets (2014), the artist slides ten of the chocolate kisses onto wooden skewers and sets them over an improvised barbeque grill. The film lingers on a shot of flames licking the confections, framed by a border of asphalt. A female voiceover in African American Vernacular English recites excerpts from Mark Twain’s 1880 essay “The Awful German Language” and his novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The ten Negerküsse analogize the ten victims in the popular nineteenth-century song “Ten Little Indians” and its variant, “Ten Little Niggers.” The connection between the German chocolates, the transatlantic slave trade, and barbecuing is more obscure. Barbecuing is legal in many of Berlin’s parks and is enjoyed by all social groups, yet nevertheless remains particularly associated with Berlin’s Turkish population. In 2012 barbecuing was outlawed in Berlin’s posh Tiergarten. Like so many ethnic minority groups that have been expunged from public view, the marshmallows in the video are left to smolder in a quiet parking lot, away from Berlin’s luscious gardens and, more importantly, its tourists.
One of the obvious references in (no)regrets is to Hollis Frampton’s 1971 film nostalgia, in which photographs from Frampton’s early career combust on top of a hotplate with a voiceover explaining the images’ contents. Like nostalgia, (no)regrets asks more questions than it answers. The video honors Twain’s extensive research into African American vernacular, but questions the author’s assumption that an outsider can ever truly know a foreign language or dialect. This is an assumption RHEE seems keen to avoid. Instead, she confers the power of narration on a voice that has historically been silenced, by inviting an African American woman to narrate both of Twain’s texts. There are many connections to trace between the work and the artist’s biography, but here, as with the other three works in the exhibition, there is something larger at stake: the desire to speak oneself rather than to be spoken.
Samuel Adams is a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Southern California, where he is writing a dissertation on theatricality in postwar German art.