Minji Sohn’s work is based on endurance — that of the artist and the viewer. Monotonous and difficult to watch, her latest performance piece, Again, and Again, and Again at Aggregate Space Gallery (801 West Grand Ave., Oakland), draws viewers into the artist’s childhood imagination, in which she combats fears and anxieties through obsessive rituals.
At the show’s opening last week, Sohn sat inside of a sprawling installation that resembled a playground sandbox. Over and over again, she shoveled 25 scoops of sand into a plastic pail — counting each scoop as she went — before proceeding to dump its contents back into the pile and starting over. After repeating this action for two hours, she moved to the other side of the room, where there was an installation that featured two bookshelves and a pile of books with blank covers. Sohn counted the pages of each book, one by one, before throwing the book back into the pile and grabbing a new one from the stack.
Watching the performance component of Again, and Again, and Again (the footage of which Aggregate Space plans to project on the walls for the exhibition’s duration) can be taxing. But the exhibition resists our desire for spectacle, and the notion that art should be entertaining.
Despite the show’s tediousness, one of its strengths is its ability to trap viewers inside Sohn’s fictionalized, nostalgic world, not through narrative or even visuals, but through a sort of meditation. As Sohn counts each scoop of sand or each page of a book, her amplified voice makes it impossible for her audience to carry on conversations or even get lost in thought. Viewers have no choice but to be acutely aware of Sohn’s interactions with the objects in the space, which were each carefully curated, like props in a play. Her stylized depiction of the past speaks to the ways our life experiences crystallize into redacted memories that shape our personal stories of who we are.
In moments of panic and anxiety, the calming act of counting often helps people to find their breath and re-ground themselves in reality, dominating negative emotions. That therapeutic effect seems to be what Sohn is attempting to emulate. Two drawings at the gallery’s entrance feature Sohn shoveling, turning pages, and, presumably, counting. But in contrast to the sparse installations, one drawing shows monsters encircling her in the library. In the other, children jeer on the playground as she plugs away at her task.
But the reference to childhood anxieties in the contextualizing drawings feels empty when the rest of the work doesn’t do much to develop this idea either aesthetically or conceptually. Though Sohn’s repetitive performance is boldly demanding, she ultimately doesn’t take full advantage of this process’ potential. Without invoking broader concepts or a more poignant depiction of memory and perception, Sohn leaves an emotional or intellectual takeaway wanting.