- Eternal Return of the Saline Body:Michael Joo's Salt Transfer Cycle
He is naked. He swims. But not in water. He swims in a glass case of monosodium glutamate. MSG. He breathes heavily. Rhythmically. His toned arms sweep repeatedly through the white substance, making butterfly wings in the dust. His long black hair drapes his moist back. The MSG chafes his skin; he bleeds from thousands of tiny cuts. He sweats, and the sweat mixes with the blood mixing with the salt. He swims faster, but he does not go anywhere. He swims in place. The faster he swims, the more he sweats and bleeds, sweats and bleeds.1
He is naked. He is now lying face down on a desert floor. The floor is not a sandy yellow, but an alabaster white. He lies on a white plain made out of salt. He licks the ground. Tastes the salt. The crystals prick his tongue. Blood. He crawls, arms and legs wriggling, chest and pelvis gyrating against the salty ground. The salt clings to his body, cuts his body. He slowly rises up and walks, back hunched over, then jogs. Runs. Sweat, blood, and salt trickle off hair, tongue, and flesh, sprinkling his dark shadow and the white ground. His body is now covered in salt. As he runs, the salt penetrates the cuts in the soles of his bare feet. He runs toward low mountains in the fading horizon.
He is naked. He is now in the mountains. But these are not desert mountains. There are tall pine trees, thick with green. The air is cool. He hears birds chirping. He sits on the ground, leaning against a large rock. Thick flakes of salt plaster his face and body. He looks like a ghost, quiet and still. In the distance, there is movement. He is not alone. He is cautiously approached by a group of wild elk. He does not move. They stop. One elk comes forward. It gingerly sniffs him. Then licks. Slowly. Then hungrily. Licks the salt, sweat, and blood from his body. He feels its warm, wet, rubbery tongue lather his body. Eventually the salt is gone. The elk leaves. He is alone again. He breathes heavily. Anxiously. His chest heaves. Suddenly he stands up, leaps into the air, and lands in a vat of MSG. He has (eternally) returned.
So begins, again and again, Korean American artist Michael Joo's Salt Transfer Cycle (1994). The eight-minute video premiered in 1994 as a solo exhibition at the Thomas Nordanstad Gallery, in collaboration with the Petzel/Borgmann Gallery, in New York City. The entire installation [End Page 13] featured several TV monitors playing the looped video; slaughterhouse meat trays inscribed with the words potency, longevity, vigor, and desire; a row of elk antlers lining a wall; and a scale model of the Blue Flame, the experimental vehicle that broke world land-speed records in the Utah desert. Joo shot the video in three locations—his studio apartment in New York City's Chinatown, the Bonneville Salt Flats in western Utah, and the northern mountains of South Korea, near the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ). While these spaces are listed in Joo's artist statement, the viewer in the installation space feels dislocated among a cycling of unmarked landscapes, left to focus on the naked Asian man perpetually moving through these landscapes. Such dislocation forces us to ask: what is the relationship between this racialized body and these deracinated spaces?
Rather than a continued erasure of the obscured contexts of New York City, Utah, and the Korean DMZ and their connection to a gendered Korean and Asian American identity, Salt Transfer Cycle dramatizes the contradictory and enabling ways the historical specificity of these spaces remains elusive and performs as elusive remains. As Joo notes in his artist statement, the thematic concern of the video is "[t]he schizophrenic and elusive nature of 'modern' socio-cultural identities . . . as well as specific Asian American stereotypes" (14). As a conceptual and performance artist whose career spans three decades, Joo demonstrates a sustained interest in the fluid materiality of identity, particularly Asian American identity. What makes Joo's...