MAI Migrant Instability David Wong

Photo by David Wong

Migrant Instability explores how migration has changed these two Montreal artists

An interview with Montreal-based filmmaker and visual artist Kevin Park Jung-Hoo and interdisciplinary artist Jin Heewoong, whose joint exhibition is on till April 1 at the MAI.

At its most fundamental, art is about taking a personal experience and expressing it in a way that communicates the universal human condition. For first and second-generation immigrant artists, who aim to explore their own personal concepts of loss and home and what belonging means to them, art is a way of communicating their so-called ‘migrant instability.’

A new duo exhibition by that very name, exploring all the complex and often-heavy emotions of grief that accompany the transformative process of uprooting your entire life, is currently at the MAI until April 1. Through a collection of sculptures, installations and video works, Montreal-based filmmaker and visual artist Kevin Park Jung-Hoo and interdisciplinary artist Jin Heewoong explore how migration has changed who they are and how they see the world. 

The duo, who’ve been collaborating since 2017, explore what one carries and what one leaves behind when they move. Migration is ultimately about navigating a new reality while still mourning the one left behind. 

When you’re no longer part of the majority

From Migrant Instability at the MAI

“Living in Korea as a Korean, I was part of the majority, and experienced the majority privilege that comes with that,” says Jin, originally based in Seoul. Jin, who graduated from Cheongju University with a graduate degree in painting, moved to Montreal in 2017 and is currently pursuing his MFA at Concordia University in the sculpture department.

“As a first-generation immigrant, having only been here for the past five years, I’m still integrating,” he says. “Everything must be built from zero. As an artist, when I needed tools or materials or studio space to create something I didn’t know where anything was. I didn’t have the information. The biggest impact for me has been the lack of accessibility.”

As a second-generation immigrant, Kevin was born in Toronto, spent his early childhood in Quebec City and later moved to Korea with his family. The Canadian Korean dual citizen filmmaker and visual artist moved back to Canada as an adult and received his BFA degree in Film Production at Concordia University. He’s currently pursuing his MFA.

As first and second-generation immigrants, they come to migration from different vantage points, navigating the “violently transformative experiences” of that first-generation life and the “constant state of displacement” a second-generation immigrant goes through. 

Migration transforms

“Migration is a process of leaving things behind,” says Kevin. “Usually, the concept revolves around the notion or hope of ‘ensuring a better future,’ even though that’s such an ambiguous and never-ensured thing. In the process, you’re leaving something behind: your connections, your culture, your history. But by leaving those behind, you’ll somehow never be the same, even when you go back. So, the question becomes, ‘Can you ever go back?’ since we’re constantly moving through time and space through our own trajectories in life.”

“By focusing on your day-to-day survival, you start to lose some of the connection you have back home,” says Jin. “Because I speak more French and English now, when I’m speaking to my parents or my friends back home, I realize that sometimes I don’t remember the words or expressions I used to use. While I’m gaining something, I’m also losing something connected to my own culture. I don’t feel like I belong here yet, but I no longer belong there either. I’m stuck. I’m constantly negotiating between here and there and between my previous memories, habits and my current reality. A realignment of sorts is always required.”

The loss of any kind of grounding is what Kevin also associates with migration. “That instability and precariousness inevitably transform you.”

Being an Asian immigrant during the pandemic

For Jin and Kevin, the heightened hostility against Asian bodies during the pandemic also amplified their physical and spiritual disconnection from diasporic homelands.

“The exhibition itself was conceptualized during the pandemic,” says Kevin. “Not only was there this heightened sense of fear when we realized how deadly COVID would turn out to be, but at the same time it was kind of a deadly situation for us and people who looked like us. I was in Korea doing my military service when the pandemic hit and COVID started spreading to North America. I knew exactly what would happen. I remember there was a time when there were a lot of attacks against mosques and I felt sad, but I knew that if something gave people an excuse, like SARS a few years back, we would become the next target.”

COVID would be responsible for a dramatic uptick in anti-Asian racism across North America, and Asian Canadians were certainly not spared. 

“Canada has always identified as an innocent bystander (when it comes to racism),” says Kevin, “and maybe we don’t have the same kind of gun violence that the U.S. has. The Atlanta shootings of eight Americans of Asian descent comes to mind, but the reality is we deal with racism here, too.” 

In 2021, as reports of anti-Asian hate crimes multiplied, Kevin found out that Vancouver topped a list of North American cities where the highest rates of anti-Asian hate crimes could be found. 

“Montreal came in second, and New York City rounded out the top 3,” he says. “This really bothered me because Vancouver and New York City have a high Asian population, but Montreal does not, yet the city still somehow managed to come in second in all of North America.”

Using art politically 

From Migrant Instability at the MAI

“None of the works themselves are political,” says Kevin, “but I think, because of the pandemic reality, we did think about the curatorial direction in the mildly political sense. Just to quote an Asian artist I appreciate, Lee Kit, ‘I don’t believe in political art, I believe in using art politically.’”

Both artists believe art is an important medium that teaches us to think differently about the world. “When we think of the Atlanta shooting,” says Kevin, “we think of a single incident where eight people died, but thought about differently, it’s, in fact, eight incidents of a single person’s death. That phrasing immediately makes us care about these people a bit more. I think art is kind of a nice pausing moment for that.” 

Navigating migration while politicians and pundits routinely scapegoat and ‘other’ migrants, or are oblivious or indifferent to minority perspectives, isn’t lost on them. “I think deeper conversations need to happen in Quebec about immigration,” Kevin says, “but, unfortunately, it’s not happening. It feels like populist government rhetoric is dominating right now.” 

“As a ‘fresh’ immigrant, I really wanted to learn French,” Jin says. “Close to 90% of my classmates were Syrian refugees because I arrived in 2017. I remember we were all happy learning a new language and a new culture, but the government at the time wasn’t as aggressive about language acquisition. I feel like it’s escalated since then.”  

“This escalation often makes you feel like we’re not welcome,” adds Kevin.

No sense of footing

Despite the obstacles, the support of the gallery and of friends and collaborators who helped them put the show together gives them hope. “Our names are attached to the show, but the result is also the collective work of those who supported us,” says Kevin.  

“It’s okay that people may not understand everything about migration,” he continues. “All our show really is — in as much that all art forms and exhibitions are — is an invitation to come and glimpse this reality, and if you don’t know about it, it’s okay. Come and ask and we’ll be very glad to have a conversation with you.”

Ultimately, it’s about communicating that absence of stability and security that’s so integral to migration. “Those who haven’t experienced it don’t know the migrant instability that comes with moving,” says Kevin. 

“It’s not the whole experience but it’s an important chunk of it. You just don’t have a sense of footing. For almost a decade, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to find a sense of home, and now I think I’m trying to figure out how to let go.” ■

Migrant Instability runs at the MAI (3680 Jeanne-Mance), Tuesdays to Saturdays 12–6 p.m. through April 1. Admission is free.

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.