Snapchat, Meitu, and other selfie apps work by acting as a realtime fun-house mirror. We can swap our faces with friends, celebrities, anything with eyes and a mouth. While these images are undoubtedly shared countless times over, just as often, these images and video files remain private, unsaved and unshared. They are as much interactions with ourselves -- for ourselves -- as they are with the outside world. Beyond vanity, beyond entertainment, is there a deeper human need that these interactions help fulfill? By changing our appearance, how do we change how people perceive us, and (perhaps more importantly) how do we change how we see ourselves? In what ways can the act of temporarily occupying another external form help liberate a person’s internal identity?
Thinly Worn is a collection of hand painted masks and their accompanying video "Beautiful Face" that investigate the desire to change the physical self for the purpose of self-liberation. Each mask is sewn from hosiery in shades of “nude,” “coffee,” and “suntan.” To create each mask, I sit in front of a mirror, wearing a blank mask and draw lines and features specific to a character.
In addition to contemporary mobile apps and digital imagery, I was also inspired by Korean tal (탈) masks: archetypal masks used in folk dances and plays (tal-nori). Although tal literally translates to “mask,” the word is derived from a Chinese character meaning “to rid oneself” or “to free oneself.” In Korean folk traditions, these masks allowed the wearer to be free from social norms. The masks revealed the heart’s true, hidden desire.
In this reimagining of traditional Korean tal, I too seek a kind of freedom. The masks allow other persons and identities to take visible form. The materialization of these identities unpacks and dissects the personal experience of being a mixed-race Korean American woman. Some of these characters emerge from racist encounters. Others shed light on secret, sometimes shameful, desires and wishes-to-be. Externalizing these characters gives freedom to both become and confront them.
Protected and concealed by my mask, I am able to show the deepest and most vulnerable parts of my psyche. It is a wish to be seen and a call for others to share in my experience.