Visitors watching Youngeun’s performance through the window, while simultaneously looking at themselves on TV, 2020.

‘The candles on the tables are on, but who lights them?’ – in conversation with Youngeun Sohn 

Issue no5
okt-nov 2020
Wat is Nederland

​Many will know her from last Jan van Eyck Open Studios, where she was cleaning the windows of the building while filming the viewers. In all her work Youngeun Sohn explores a daily practice that remains largely unnoticed. Her latest collaborative work with artist Niina Tervo called Dinner in the Forest Garden will be presented at Salon de Normandy in Paris later this week.

Ma 17 feb.10:21

Dear participant,

Everybody is hard at work for Open Studios. It is nice to see that things are getting shape.

This week we slowly start with the set up of the Van Eyck.

The window cleaner starts with the cleaning of all windows.

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday he will clean the windows inside.

If you want the windows cleaned of your studio, please let me know.

Make sure the window sills are clear and the windows are accessible.

If you are not around, but you still want the windows cleaned, Please let me know.

I will open the door.

All the best, [1]

The same two window cleaners, a tall one (Henk) and a short one (Henry), had been cleaning the windows of the Jan van Eyck building for seven years in a row now. They let Youngeun Sohn, resident at the Jan van Eyck, film them while cleaning the windows in preparation of the latest edition of the Open Studios. She specifically asked them when they would be cleaning the windows at the spiral staircase in the cantina. Drawing a map of the building she points me to that part of the building, calling it ‘the tower’. The Jan van Eyck building is built in a kind of U-form, with the tower situated in the middle, the bent of the U. From the spiral staircase you can look through the windows into some of the offices, a part of the library and the printshop. The building thus functions a bit like a panopticon. Peeping into these spaces from the staircase you can observe people going about their daily activities. Youngeun recalls a moment in which someone informed about the whereabouts of someone else and peeped through the tower window to point out where the person was.

I met Youngeun during my stay at the Jan van Eyck academy. She occupied the studio from a dear friend of mine who left during the summer. It was in a bit of a weird spot, on the ground floor, near the kitchen in a corner. It was the only studio in that part of the building and it had a large window at street level that reached all the way up to the ceiling. Youngeun explains that when she first came to the Netherlands she thought the way Dutch people use their windows is weird. Having no curtains and leaving it completely open for everyone to see what’s happening in their private life, for example. Or arranging objects in the window sill for those passing by outside to observe, rather than the one living in that space. Someone she talked to about it, referred to it as ‘showcase mentality’; showing that you have nothing to hide or creating a setting specifically for the onlooker. The window in Youngeun’s studio was at street level, next to the sidewalk, so people walking or biking by could easily peek in, and almost automatically did. Often, they would catch eyes with each other.

Passers-by gaze through Youngeun’s studio window, 2019.

Biking to the Jan van Eyck I’d also always pass by her studio. I’d check if the light was on and could see her sitting at her desk. Next up was the large kitchen window and after that the cantina. Looking into Youngeun’s studio and secondly into the kitchen, presented people at work. The back-end of art, the back-end of the cantina.

In her work Youngeun explores labour, especially the often invisible day-to-day labour. Everything at the Jan van Eyck is clean, she says, and it’s something which I’ve heard from others too. The candles on the tables in the Jan van Eyck cantina are almost always on, but who lights them? Such acts of labour take place on a daily basis, but often remain invisible. Both for the onlooker, who only regards them fleetingly, and for the practitioner, who is used to almost automatically performing them, without thinking too much about it. Bodily gestures, Youngeun mentions, seem to be performed faster than thoughts.

Youngeun explores labour, especially the day-to-day labour that often remains invisible. Both for the onlooker, who only regards them fleetingly, and for the practitioner, who is used to almost automatically performing it, without thinking too much about it

Running up to the Open Studios in March she decided to film Karin, who works in the cantina, while she was working behind the bar, cleaning, taking orders and serving drinks. During the exhibition, Youngeun showed the recording on a screen in the same cantina. Positioned next to the door, above the cooler with fruit juices you could now see someone’s daily work in the cantina while someone else was simultaneously working behind the bar. A similar work involves her live-streaming her own cooking in the kitchen at the Jan van Eyck and showing it on the same screen in the cantina. The camera was placed on her forehead, functioning as a double set of eyes, and allowing the onlooker to see the back-end of the kitchen through the eyes of the worker.

Karin Rijpkema folding napkins in preparation of the lunch. Screenshot from the video ‘Karin at the café’, 2020.

A café guest watching the lived-streamed performance ‘Wednesday Cooking’ on TV while waiting for his drink, 2020.


Youngeun describes these daily activities as acts that are ingrained in routines, and inscribed in people’s memories, bodies and muscles. As such they become a practice, our ‘daily practice’. The work of Youngeun exposes these daily practices and as such she creates awareness about those daily hassles and unconscious forms of labour that often remain invisible. This approach recalls that of artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who in ‘The Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969’addresses her wish to expose domestic work or maintenance. ‘Now’, she says, ‘I will simply do these maintenance everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art.(…). MY WORKING WILL BE THE WORK’.[2]

'Now I will simply do these maintenance everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art' artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles once proclaimed

During the Open Studios I regularly roamed the building for a change of scenery. It was interesting to see how the building and activities go through a big transformation during these days. The site changes from a place to work in, into a place to show and share. Of course, the second is also a place of work, but of a kind of work that is well coordinated and smoothed out. Everyone prepares for it a long time in advance, the cleaning and practical preparations being part of it. If done in the right way, the visitor doesn’t notice any of the actual activities necessary to bring the building in the right state. The cleaning of windows included.

While walking from the cantina through the hallway I passed the temporary bookshop. Looking through the door I could see Youngeun standing on a ladder in the garden, washing the windows of what usually functions as the office. The work mirrored her experience of meeting the eyes of passer-by’s while being at work in her studio; visitors could see her working and she could see them looking at her being at work through the same window. A camera on her forehead filmed the gaze of the visitors inside. I can remember being very aware of the camera and trying not to be in the frame.

The window, very transparent and clean, is in a way ‘non-existing', she tells me. The act of window-cleaning seems to involve no window-object: only bodies, tools and gestures. The transparent, almost none-existent window functions as a screen through which the workers and their gestures can be observed from a distance. Yet at the same time, Youngeun’s allows the workers to look back at you, resulting in a layered system of eyes and screens. Becoming part of the work, you become part of those daily acts Youngeun portrays and you start to realize you perform them too.

Cleaning, as part of our daily life, is nothing unusual, yet in the context of the Open Studios it was. Youngeun’s ‘behind the scenes’-approach is refreshing as even though the Jan van Eyck-building, with its large windows, generates an idea of transparency, most spaces remain closed off for visitors. The closed-off hallways offer little opportunity to see the daily acts of labour that facilitate the making of art. The work of Youngeun exposes the fact that all people at the institute are co-producers of this site and situation. And it’s in the small hassles of lighting candles, folding napkins or cleaning windows that Youngeun experiences care and warmth. Focussing on all these momentary acts of labour that are ingrained in our routines and muscles, daily life appears as one big happening.

Visitors watching Youngeun’s performance through the window, while simultaneously looking at themselves on TV, 2020.

Visitors watching Youngeun’s performance through the window, while simultaneously looking at themselves on TV, 2020.

Dinner guests live-streaming the edible sculpture through Zoom with their mobile phones. Screenshot from the video ‘Dinner in the Forest Garden’. In collaboration with Niina Tervo, 2020.

Her most recent work Dinner in the Forest Garden, a video made in collaboration with Niina Tervo, can be seen in line with this exploration of daily practices and screen-mediated perspectives. For this video Niina and Youngeun organised a real-life dinner event with edibles sculptures made by Niina Tervo and an online meeting through Zoom. They asked the real-life dinner guests to login into the Zoom meeting on their phones and film the event in whatever way they wanted. As Zoom allows for the participant who is making the most sound – because he or she is talking for example– to appear in the main frame, the editing of the of the video took place according to the dominant sound. In this case showing the perspective of someone laughing, chewing, grunting or putting down a glass on the table. The result is a staccato mix of shots: of the table, the edible sculptures, other guests filming other guests and phones (and thus other screens) lying around. This is where the line between the ‘worker’ or ‘performer’ and ‘onlooker’ becomes even more blurred, and where shifting between different screens and perspectives exposes itself as one of our most common daily practices.

Dinner in the Forest Garden is a collaboration between Niina Tervo and Youngeun Sohn as part of the SIC artist group and the Environmental Identities series at the Jan van Eyck. It will be shown from 22nd till the 25th of October at the second edition of Salon de Normandy by The Community at the Normandy Hôtel in Paris. For info click HERE

[1]An email from the Jan van Eyck Academy to all participants in preparation of the Open Studios.

[2]Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ “Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!, Proposal for an exhibition ‘Care'” (1969) from: Steinhauer, J. (2017) How Mierle Laderman Ukeles Turned Maintenance Work into Art. Hyperallergic. [Online] 10/02/2017. Available from: https://hyperallergic.com/355255/how-mierle-laderman-ukeles-turned-maintenance-work-into-art/[Accessed 23/09/2020]

Femke de Vries
is mode-onderzoeker

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