• Heezy Yang

Queer Art Exhibition ‘Encore’ Review: Encore, Gay Scene of Seoul!

My original plan was to go see this exhibition on the opening day, and write about it right after, so other people can know about it and go see it as well. But here I am, writing about it after the exhibition ended, because I went to see it only a few days before it ended. In my defence, moving house and dealing with the issues that came with the new house left me with no time for anything else. Better late than never, right? So, it was an exhibition of Jeon Nahwan, who is one of the more active and better known queer artists among the queer creatives and activists in Seoul. He’s been known for his illustrations and paintings, but I heard that he’s been working on some video work lately so I had to go see the exhibition, and also say hi to him ‘cause it’s been a while since I last saw him. Yeah the exhibition ended, but hopefully I can still help people who didn’t or couldn’t go to see the exhibition get some idea on what it was about and how it was, through this post.

On a Sunday afternoon, I arrived at exit 11 of Euljiro 3-ga subway station, where three of my friends were waiting for me. The three didn’t know each other and I was supposed to be the person who introduces them to each other. Well, they sorted it out themselves and became friends while I was still on the subway, being late. I know! These first two paragraphs are already making me look like a lazy mass, but what I can say? My January 2021 was pretty messy. Finally there were all four of us, and we walked to fashion brand AJO BY AJO’s flagship store, which was the exhibition venue.

Korean Gay Queer Artist Jeon Nahwan Solo Exhibition Encore
Outside the exhibition venue

The moment we walked in, a friend and I looked at each other and went like “is this…?” Turns out the two of us have been here before – in the building to be accurate – together. Allow me to get sidetracked just for a bit. During and after the Korean war, Euljiro has become an industrial neighbourhood full of businesses related to architecture, hardware, steel, lighting, and printing, following the government’s post-war recovery plans. In time though, the demand for those businesses naturally decreased, and Euljiro started to get sort of dead and empty. However, artists and new businesses owned by young people started filling in the area, taking advantage of the relatively-cheap rents. So now there are a lot of art studios and cool and hip stores, bars, and cafes hidden in small alleyways of Euljiro. In the same building as AJO BY AJO flagship store (the exhibition venue), there is a bar/cafe called ‘After Jerk Off’ on the third floor. My friend and I had a cuppa tea there last summer, and to get there, we had to go through the first and the second floor, which were part of AJO BY AJO flagship store. We remembered it was that building as soon as walked in, because there was this photograph (or illustration?) of the back view of a man with leather clothing minus pants on the staircase to ‘After Jerk Off’ and it left quite an impression in our heads. We picked up some exhibition guide leaflets and went down to the basement floor as the leaflet suggested that the exhibition starts from there.

Korean Gay Queer Artist Jeon Nahwan Solo Exhibition Encore
Stairway to bar/cafe After Jerk Off (Photo Courtesy of Raphaël Rashid)

There were two pieces in the basement. One was names ‘The Wristbands No. 4’ and it consisted of four wristbands from four different gay clubs. Two of them – Le Queen and Looking – existed mid 2010s, and the other two – King and HIM – still exist but they have been closed indefinitely since the COVID-19 outbreak from last summer. In fact, a lot of gay clubs and bars in Seoul have been closed, or running their businesses extremely cautiously in fear, because the outbreak led to a national gay witch-hunt, outings, and stigmatisation. I will probably talk more about this incident in another post, some other time. Anyway, as far as I know, the four clubs had/have the same owners, and I think that’s why those four wristbands were framed together, as one piece of artwork.

The other piece was a 15-minute-long documentary-type video piece called ‘Anessa’s Room’. Anessa is the name of this drag queen who was a regular performer at club Le Queen, and she now is playing the role of the hostess at club HIM. Well, she was, until that outbreak. I’ve known her for many years now, and first of all, she is a very kind, considerate, and humble soul. Her makeup may be a little intimidating but you can see it very clearly when you see her bare face. Second of all, she does not have the fanciest outfits out there or the caziest performance tricks such as splits and cartwheels. (No, I am not dissing her! I’m a drag queen too and my outfits are pretty mediocre and my legs can’t split no more than 40 degrees, so who am I to diss anyone for those reasons? See where this goes.) However, she does not need them. Anyone who knows Anessa would know that she’ been through some shit – and I’m not talking about some first world problems and those bullshit – and how desperately she’s holding on to her drag persona, and the glorious moments on the stage. You could see it and feel it from the way she talks about how she makes her outfits, how she takes care of her wigs, how she feels on the stage, and what doing drag means to her, in the video. There is desperation, longing, authenticity, and a soul in her, and she performs with it all. I would not ask for any more from a performer like that. Ah, she does have more than that though – her name! It’s a very clever Korean word play - it means ‘cum inside’.

Lastly, she is part of history, and as she lives, she is history. Club Le Queen played a bigger role than just a nightclub in Itaewon’s gay scene. It was one of the venues that organised and hosted Korea’s first proper circuit party ‘I:M’. Club HIM, in a way, is a continuation of Le Queen as the same people own and run it. Anessa was there at Le Queen as a resident performer, she now works at HIM, and she is the face that greets customers there. Also, she is not really a social media queen, so you will have to go out and be there to witness who she is and what she does. The combination of all of these make her special and her presence mean a lot to many. That Anessa sits in her room, talks about herself, and shows us around her room in this video piece.

As soon as we arrived at the second floor, we were greeted by a framed art piece called ‘The Wristband No. 1’ with eight different wristbands from eight different gay nightclubs of Itaewon – some from the ones that are gone, and some from the ones that still exist. I forgot to take a photo of it, but luckily the piece is on the leaflet, and I attached it here, so you can take a look. Oh boy, I remember Pulse from early to late-2010s, and it was so nice to see that name again, yet it was weird to think it’s been gone for a while now. It’s definitely the gay dance club that was around in Itaewon gay scene for the longest time, since I’ve stepped into the scene in my early 20s. I’d be happy to disclose some interesting facts and stories to please those who are intrigued, but sadly, I really don’t know much about what happened with this one – maybe it just got less popular over time – and I need to stop getting sidetracked and carry on with the core of the exhibition and finish writing this post at some point.

Right next to ‘The Wristband No. 1’ was a gender-neutral bathroom, which is extremely rare in Korea, and it put a smile on our faces. Well, I actually did smile with my face, but I think my friends did that in their minds or with their hearts.

We walked into a room with dimmed lights. There were another video being played, and a painting on a huge canvas. ‘For A Flash’ was the title of the 25-minute-long single-channel video piece. This one was longer than the one downstairs, but with less words, in fact, with almost no word at all. In the video, Anessa puts her makeup and wig on in the backstage, gets out there, and finally gets the moment she’s been longing for, for so long – the moment she performs on the stage again. It was filmed at HIM, the club she works at but has been closed since last May. It must have been a really long wait for her as she does not really do freelance gigs outside of the club, and she’s not very active on social media, either. There is no audience in the video as it was filmed at an empty, currently and hopefully-temporarily closed club, yet there is an audience as there are people who are watching the video in this room at this exhibition. You cannot hear the song she’s lipsyncing to, but it must be Jessie J’s Flashlight, ‘cause she mentioned what its lyrics meant to her and how the song connects with her, in the other video. And also because of the title of this video – ‘For A Flash’. As Anessa’s performance in the video ended with shiny silver confetti coming down, I only then noticed all the confetti that was covering the floor of the room I was in. When I found out the confetti I was stepping on was actually the same confetti used for the filmed performance, I couldn’t help but think of these phrases I must have heard at some point from somewhere – time is an illusion, and time can be distorted. I might have made them up. I don’t know. I did watch a lot of Science Channel lately and that might have gotten to my head. I typed these last few sentences with a shrug and a weird face.

The painting was a portrait of Anessa and it was placed in one corner of that room. It was painted with acrylic and spray paint, with touches of coloured pencils. I just have this admiration for artists who can play with (especially acrylic) paint, as I never got to learn or try acrylic paint myself, and I think I was pretty decent with watercolour when I was young but I stopped, and I went full on digital. Yeah, tell me I’m not a real artist. I can live with that. I’ve heard worse. It was painted in the same style Jeon Nahwan painted some of his previous and relatively-recent paintings, but what was new was the big and very visible heart, painted inside of the subject. A heart – that’s definitely something Anessa has.

Like the title ‘Encore’ suggested, the exhibition and its artworks were holding the feeling of missing and longing. With Anessa’s personality, stories, and sincerity soaked into the exhibition, contributing to creating an atmosphere, I was able to realise what we – especially gay people but LGBTQ+ people in Seoul in general – were missing were more than just nightclubs and fun. It was the chances to be and show who we really are, without getting hurt, and the spaces we need for that. Jeon Nahwan really nailed it with selecting a muse for this exhibition and the artworks. Or perhaps, it was the existence of the muse that inspired Jeon to create these pieces and plan the exhibition, in the first place. And now here is a cute group selfie we took with Jeon Nahwan at the exhibition. He’s the second person from the left.

Korean Gay Queer Artist Jeon Nahwan Solo Exhibition Encore
Cute group selfie

I believe this was only the third exhibition of his that I went to, but we run into each other basically at almost every queer art and culture event. As if seeing him constantly doing things and simply existing don’t already encourage and empower me, he greets me sweetly, and shares information and advice that I can benefit from, as a fellow (especially queer) artist living in Seoul, every time he sees me. Did I tell you? I love kind people. I don’t hate unkind people, as I believe they have their reasons that got them to where they are, but I really am always thrilled to see and be around kind people in this world where there are seemingly less and less of kindness day by day. That said, I think Jeon Nahwan and his art deserve more recognition and love, so I will leave a link to his Instagram below. I’m also going to leave links to Anessa’s Instagram, and AJO BY AJO’s Instagram and website.

Jeon Nahwan’s Instagram: www.instagram.com/nahwan_jeon

Anessa’s Instagram: www.instagram.com/the_anessa

AJO BY AJO’s Instagram: www.instagram.com/ajo_ajobyajo_official

AJO BY AJO’s Website: www.ajo-studio.com

P. S. After visiting AJO BY AJO’s flagship store for the exhibition, I got curious about the brand and the store, so I spoke to the CEO/designer of the brand. Here is some information I got after speaking to him; AJO BY AJO is a streetwear fashion brand that can be represented by words ‘outsider’ and ‘Asian subculture’. Its flagship store is located in Euljiro-3ga. The main purpose of running the store is to showcase their clothes to their customers and potential customers, as their clothes have different and unique fits than typical streetwear brands. You may see and purchase their clothes on the first floor of the store, and the other floors are used for selling queer books, displaying fashion books that inspired the brand, and occasionally hosting special events.